Some History Here...
Every once in a while, you get second chance and this is the story of a second chance that was several thousand miles in the making.
I first tried to summit Mt. Mitchell, Brasstown Bald and Sassafras Mountain back in December of 2004 as a 'Highpointer Trifecta' (wanted Clingman's Dome also, but let's be realistic...it was December!). Okay, you East Coast folks can start laughing now, but I am no stranger to the snow and cold weather even though I have lived in Southern California for almost 4 years. I remember one day in High School back in Wyoming when the mercury dipped to -41 degrees and they didn't close the school. So I can handle the winter conditions.
My ambitious adventure was to start in Norfolk, Virginia on a Saturday morning as I had a weekend to kill during a school I was attending. My itinerary was Mitchell by 2:00, Sassafras before sunset on Saturday. Spend the night somewhere in Western NC, tag Brasstown Bald Sunday morning and drive back to Norfolk. Sounds doable right? Everything was peachy until I got to Asheville and the mercury was around 40 degrees meaning that Mitchell (4000 feet higher) was easily below freezing. No problem though, my rental was a SUV. So I took the exit for the Blue Ridge Highway (road out of Marion was closed forcing me to start in Asheville) and starting driving north. I got about a half-mile up the road and there was a sign saying Mt. Mitchell State Park - CLOSED. Crap! Now what?! Well, I grabbed my map and decided I would head towards Sassafras and Brasstown Bald and then try Mitchell again tomorrow. I made it to Sassafras in SC by 3:30 with only one wrong turn and I had about an hour and a half until sunset with 90 miles to Brasstown Bald - no problem! I had my trusty mapquest directions and Atlas. Off I went...
Well, anyone who has done this combo pack of HPs knows how windy Hwy 64 is through Highlands, NC (my route to Brasstown Bald) and it didn't help that I was also driving through freezing rain. Needless to say, I didn't make good time and it was nearly pitch black when I crossed into Georgia. My wonderful Mapquest directions were leading me up some roads named "Plottown Road" and "Upper Plottown Road". Didn't seem odd until I made my turn off the highway onto a narrow asphalt road. After about a mile, it turned to a dirt/mud road. Two turns later I found the woods closing in on me and was starting to get nervous. Dark, raining and hearing the tune of Foggy Mountain Breakdown
in the distance, I decided that this wasn't happening. In my research I saw a nice big parking lot and visitor center. Heck, the Tour of Georgia cycle race ends there!! But, how in the !@#$% do people get up to the summit driving on THESE roads?! I figured I'd have to find out later. Frustrated to death, I headed towards Asheville to regroup and pray that Mt. Mitchell State Park would open up for me on Sunday.
Had I simply opened up the Georgia state page in the atlas and not relied on the North Carolina page, I would have clearly seen Highway 180 & 180 Spur leading to the top of Brasstown Bald. Oh, brother!!
I woke up Sunday morning with renewed energy, warmer temps and the sun peaking through the clouds. Mt. Mitchell State Park HAS to be open, right? Off I headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Good! I didn't see that terrible 'Park Closed' sign so these were good indications that I might have some success. Three miles up the road - big steel gate locked across the Parkway. Reality slapping me in the face again. Mitchell wasn't happening this trip. Looked at my watch and considered my options. Who drives over 1000 miles to bag ONLY Sassafras Mountain. Nothing against it, but Mitchell has a State Park and Brasstown Bald has a Visitor's Center. Not willing to give up yet, I decided to make a run for Brasstown. Off to the races!
Made good time through the scenic countryside and this time went through Hiawassee, Georgia towards Hwy 180 and the 180 Spur arriving at around 11:00. I was dumbfounded to find another locked gate blocking the road! It was Sunday and I reckon no one bothered to get out of bed and unlock the gate. It would take me at least 2 hours to hike up the road or trail and back and with 520 miles to drive back to Norfolk I realized that Brasstown wasn't going to happen either. Utterly defeated, I started the long drive back having only tagged 1 of 3 state HPs.
Fast Forward to 2006 and Success!
In March, I was in Petersburg, Virginia attending another school on Fort Lee Army base with another weekend to burn. I decided to make the trek towards Asheville again to try and nab the elusive Brasstown Bald and Mount Mitchell. This time I had gobs of phone numbers for roads and parks, GPS routes of trails and trip reports. You name the beta, I probably had it in an effort to not be denied again! I Made several phone calls on the long drive and everything was open. Yippee!
Friday afternoon I made the trip to Asheville and bedded down for the ambitious itinerary on Saturday. Brasstown Bald in the AM, Mount Mitchell and as many Southern Sixers along the Black Mountain Crest Trail as I could nail and still make it back to Fort Lee by 10:00pm. Needed to exact a little revenge due to my failure 16 months prior.
Brasstown Bald was a sinch. No closed roads, nobody to collect money, nobody to open the Visitor's Center, nobody else on the mountain. Just me and the blustery 25 mph winds at the summit. I felt no guilt for not paying the $3 based on how much time and gas I burned! I even scampered up the Jack's Knob Trail a bit to tag marked summit 4561'. Hah! Take that. By 9:50am, I was headed towards Mount Mitchell.
I made my way to the State Park with no issues. Though the clouds were thick overhead, there was no threat of rain. I had read about the closure of the Mount Mitchell trail, but by the looks of the map, I could still make my way to the summit. Much to my dismay, there was an abundance of "No Trespassing" signs and yellow caution tape warning about the construction zone. Realizing that construction doesn't happen on weekends in government installations (that is my arena!) chances were good that I could sneak up to the summit undetected. I did quick visual sweep, ignored the warnings and made my way up the short trail (more like a road) to the summit. Shot my pictures and sneaked back to the parking lot undetected. YES! Two-4-two today, my 9th and 10th State HPs were in the bag. With only a 5 hour drive back to Fort Lee, I had time to tag at least 3 6-ers along the "Crest" trail and 5 if I made it all the way to Potato Hill so off I went.
The Revenge & Rest of the Six-Pack
I dropped off the north end of the parking lot and easily found the Deep Gap Trail. I passed through the picnic area and into the trees when I found something that would make my trek a little spicier...ice and plenty of it in the shadier areas. I found that was the only thing that slowed me down as I enjoyed my journey along the Black Mountain Crest.
Now I had read in some of the trip reports that the summits of Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak and Potato Hill required some bushwhacking so I was ready to get a little bloody if necessary. Anyone who has wrestled with manzanita, chapparel and scrub oak in southern California mountains knows what "bloody bushwhacking" is all about.
After about 20 minutes, I was atop the summit of Mount Craig, 2nd highest apex on the east coast. I decided to take a short break and soak in some views. The clouds were getting pretty thick so it wasn't good for photography, but they were the best summit views I would have all day (construction debris, barriers and "No Trespassing" signs kind of spoiled the views from Mitchell).
I found the short scamper over to Big Tom also enjoyable and it was also blessed with a nice plaque to grace its summit. So I snapped a picture, realized I was on the summit and took off towards Balsam Cone. Any Westerner who hasn't trampled down an eastern trail doesn't realize how rugged and undulating they are and this part of my trip was no exception. The trail loses about 400 feet in 0.3 miles and the ice covering the downsteps really didn't help. The climb up to the summit of Balsam Cone was just as steep bouncing up near 6600 feet again. I had no trouble finding the summit and figured the bushwhack on Cattail and "Tater" Hill must be what the reports were talking about.
The trail only loses about 200 feet between Balsam and Cattail Peak, but of course, I had to deal with some more ice patches and icy steps. I am sure I would have ended up on my derrier without my trekking poles.
Cattail Peak didn't have a plaque, but instead it had a sign marking the summit area. I looked around and found what looked like the highest point and stepped to it. Still no bushwhack. I did find the mileage posted on the sign to be off a bit as well. Noticing the clouds were getting thicker, I made haste over towards Potato Hill which would be my last summit of the day.
After a gently sloping section of trail I found myself on steep icy steps again, but managed to keep myself vertical. About an hour and 30 minutes into my trek I found myself at the top of Potato Hill which affords a nice view through Deep Gap and along the eastern side of the Black Mountain Crest. I surveyed the landscape looking for the highest point to make sure I touched and it and to my surprise the trail essentially goes right over it. So much for the bushwhack.
Noticing the weather was deteriorating and daylight was starting to disappear I beat feet south. Thankfully, the icy steps are easier to go up than down and I made it back to the car in about an hour and 15 minutes.
Just as I left the trail and traversed the parking lot, the rain started. God was granting me some of his grace. I quickly hopped into the car and headed back to Fort Lee. Lots of success to hang my hat on - 8 summits & 2 state highpoints - and any feeling of defeat from 2004 was washed away.