I took off for the Black Mountains on the morning of November 10, 2004. As usual, I got away about an hour later than I had planned. So I arrived at the trailhead at 10:30am instead of 9:30am. This would prove to be a bit of a problem.
For months I had been reading up on the Black Mountain Crest Trail. It was routinely called “the toughest trail in eastern America”. Having climbed Katahdin, in Maine, I doubted this chorus. Indeed, now having hiked the Cathedral Trail, the Knife’s Edge, and Helon Taylor Trail on Katahdin, this one is not quite as tough.
I take pride in the care I take when I go hiking. Although I hike almost always alone, I make sure I have everything to keep me alive if the worst happens. Waterproof matches. Emergency raingear. Warm clothing. Whistle. Compass. Water. Food. Candle. Headlamp. Etc. Even on a day hike, my pack generally weighs about twenty pounds.
However, I’m such a strong hiker that I have tended to get a little cocky of late when taking my trips. It didn’t do any harm to my ego when, a few weeks ago, I climbed almost 5,000 vertical feet and hiked almost sixteen miles and did that all in just a few hours, getting back to my vehicle with time to spare.
The main part of the Black Mountain Crest Trail is about 4.7 miles from just below the summit of Mount Mitchell to Deep Gap. Plus, I wanted to add another mile and one half to the summit of Winter Star. I was bound and determined to bag six of the highest peaks in eastern America in one day. I figured I could do it, no problem. It would only be a round trip of about fourteen and a half miles. I had budgeted the hours from nine am until five pm to get it done. Because of my late start, and pausing to talk to a guy from the mid-West who was asking me some questions at the summit of Mitchell, I didn’t actually start hiking until almost 11 am.
In short order, though, I had hit Mount Craig, and Big Tom.
But as I continued to hike, I realized that the reason for the Crest Trail’s reputation was because of the great losses and regains of elevation between the peaks. You climb to the top of one mountain only to drop down into a deep gap before climbing up to the next peak. This went on: Mount Craig, Big Tom, Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak, and Potato Hill.
Then the tremendous drop down into Deep Gap. So named because it’s REALLY DEEP. From Potato Hill to Deep Gap, you drop about 1000 feet. And then I wanted to nab the next, and last, 6,000 footer, and that was Winter Star. So I had to climb 600 feet to that summit. By this time it was 2:30 pm.
I went back down to Deep Gap. Then reclimbed Potato Hill (the 1000 feet I lost going down to Deep Gap). Then I had to drop down into another gap and climb back to Cattail Peak. And so on until I had to climb back up to Big Tom, the worst climb so far. The route up Big Tom is pretty much just straight up. You just keep climbing and it seems it will never end.
The daylight was fading. I think when I finally reached the summit of Big Tom, it was about 4:30 pm. The reason I was moving so slowly was not because of the tough climbing, but because of two things:
I feel certain the altitude got to me. For most of the hike I was above 6,000 feet. While this is not high by Rocky Mountain standards, it’s still high enough so that the air is a bit thinner. And that was getting to me. Also, it was very dry. I had taken three quarts of water along, and it was beginning to look as if that wasn’t going to be enough. There is no water source on the Black Mountain Crest Trail. The three quarts would have to do, and likely would have, except for one thing:
I started getting severe cramps, first in my left thigh, and then in my right thigh. Not just sore muscles, but hideous pains that stopped me in my tracks and made it impossible for me to lift my legs. Soon enough, I found that if I drank water, the pain subsided. So I think it had something to do with minor dehydration. I also suspect this had something to do with the altitude. And, of course, the very, very, very rough terrain I was hiking. This trail is just so straight forward, no slabbing, no switchbacking; right up the mountain, no matter how steep.
Moving through the cold forests of balsam trees, I was starting to think I would not get off of the trail before 6:00 pm. It was starting to get dark, and I had quite a ways to travel. This was a must, since Mount Mitchell State Park closes at that time. They block the road with a barrier. In my truck, I had a winter sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a tent, a blanket, a down jacket, gloves, water, a sandwich, and some soft drinks. So worst case I would have just had to go to the campground in the park and set up my tent and go to sleep. But I wanted to get home to Carole, so I really needed to get off the trail before 6:00pm. Plus, it was getting dark. My legs hurt. I was tired. I was thirsty.
I pushed on.
At 5:00 pm I finally reachieved the summit of Mount Craig. That summit is rocky and exposed (6,648 feet above sea level), and the wind was blowing fiercely and the temperature was beginning to plummet. My fingers were going numb. I could see the summit of Mitchell, and the parking lot, about one mile away. A very long mile away. I could even make out the tiny white dot in the parking lot that was my truck!
As I climbed, the tendons on the insides of each of my thighs were trying to bend in half. Looking up, I realized I had to drop down into yet another gap and then climb up to the parking lot just under the lip of Mount Mitchell. At 5:30 pm, I emerged from the forest onto the parking lot. It was very gloomy, with only the barest of sunlight tinting the edges of the horizon.
I was very happy to see my truck. In quick order, I shed my pack, drank the quart of water I’d left in the truck, guzzled a coke from my cooler (which I was very careful to open pointed away from me since I was 6,000 feet higher that where I’d brought it—yes, it exploded in the direction I was aiming it—never open a carbonated beverage toward you if you brought it 6,000 feet up from where you purchased it). Then I started the truck, got the heater going, and drove home.
What a blast! Can’t wait to go again!