Monday, April 27, 2015

Little Pisgah - Part 3: Peak Experience

This is part 3 in my series of stories about rambling on Little Pisgah Mountain.
Part 1 is at:
Part 2 is at: 

 Rime ice on the lower slope of Little Pisgah.  You can see the top of the mountain, with its hated tower, peeking out from behind the ridge.

I think it was 1975.  My parents had driven their camper to Mexico for the Winter, and I was staying in their house on Garren Creek.  I had a a second dog named Pearl to keep Fonzie company, and we had spent many days together exploring and enjoying Little Pisgah.  It still hadn't been developed much, and there was no tower on top.  It was a hiker's Paradise!

On this Saturday morning it was cold and damp, with clouds hanging down over the mountain, and I was staying inside.  Later in the day I went outside and realized that things had changed!  The wind had come up, the sky was bright blue, and the top of the ridge was covered in rime ice.  It took me about two seconds to get motivated.  I had to get up on the mountain to see that rime ice, and I knew that as bright as the sun was shining it would melt soon.  Time to get moving!  I ran inside and threw on my cold weather hiking clothes & boots.

When I came back out the dogs were excited and frisking around, they knew we were going somewhere.  We were soon down the driveway and hit that ridge hard.  I took every shortcut I knew, (not the near disastrous ones from my last story!) and made the best speed I could.  I wasn't going to miss this chance if I could help it!  When I topped the 1000 foot ridge the ice I had seen from the house was already gone.  Now I really had to pour it on.  I had one more good shortcut left, a steep ridge-line that cut off a big loop of the logging road.  It was too overgrown to use in Summer but was clear enough in Winter.  Where it came out into the open I could look across at Craggy and Mitchel, and they had ice on them.  That encouraged me, and I made a push for the top.  To my relief as I got closer I came into the rime ice - I was going to make it in time!  When I got to the top I glanced at my watch.  I had made the 1800 foot climb in exactly one hour, a personal record.  Later when I told my Mother this story she believed it all except the time.  She had hiked that mountain, and didn't think I could do it that fast!

I didn't waste much time looking at my watch, there was too much else to see.  There was several inches of snow on the ground.  Every twig of every tree and shrub was thickly coated in rime ice, which to me is one of the most beautiful things in the world.  The sky was deep cobalt blue and the intense sunlight made all the snow and ice sparkle like diamonds,  It looked magical!

And then there was the wind...  Coming up the mountain I had been sheltered from it, but no more.  It was blowing out of the Southeast, which is unusual to start with.  And this was the strongest steady wind I have experienced to this day.  A monster cold front must have been coming through, and the wind was roaring!.  I was standing on the highest point around and was exposed to the full blast.  I couldn't stand straight up, but had to lean forward and brace myself to keep from being knocked over!  I was being shaken and buffeted, and looking around in amazement at the sparkling wonderland and the gorgeous view.

Then I took a good look at the horizon.  Always, even on the clearest days, when you look towards the horizon the view fades into the haze at some point, however far away.  Not this time!  The wind had blown all the haze away, and the line of the horizon was razor sharp.  For the only time in my life I was looking at the true horizon, and I could clearly see the curve.  I can testify - the earth is round, and I saw it!

I stood there entranced for a long time, but the wind was cutting through my clothes, and it was cold!  I had to get back into the relative shelter of the North side of the mountain.  I was too pumped up to go home yet, and ended up exploring over to Blue Rock Knob, where I hadn't been before.  I had to slip past a couple of houses once I got there, but found a rock outcrop with a view back down the Garren Creek valley from its head.  I could see where it cut between Little Pisgah and Garren Mountain, and it looked more like a canyon than a valley.  One more beautiful vista to cap the day!  From there I went back over to Little Pisgah and down to the house.  I think I was floating all the way home!

For your sake I wish I'd had a camera to capture images of what I saw, I know my words can't do it justice.  But I don't think pictures could even come close to capturing the experience.  As for myself, I treasure the memory of the most memorable day I ever spent in the mountains.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Little Pisgah - Part 2: Shortcuts

This is the second part of my stories about rambling on Little Pisgah Mountain.  If you haven't read the first part it is at:
(Disclaimer:  these memories, and some of the photos, are over 40 years old and may be a little fuzzy.  I've done my best to be accurate with locations and measurements, but I may not be reliable.)

The lower 1000 feet or so of Little Pisgah seen from Sugar Hollow Rd.

I started out my exploring by driving to Little Pisgah Road on Hickory Nut Gap and going up from there.  But I couldn't escape the fact that I lived at the base of the mountain.  Every time I looked out the living room window or from the front deck there it was!  Or at least I was looking at the first 1000 feet of it, and knew there was 800 feet more behind that.  It was beautiful ridge, so steep it looked like a wall.  I loved watching it in the Spring when the green would climb a little higher each day, and in the Fall when the colors would descend.

Our house and the Wall

 From the yard and the deck

 Panorama stitched from the above pics.

It was taunting me to climb it, and it had to be done.  So one Saturday my trusty trail dog Fonzie and I walked down the driveway and across the road.  On the other side we went up a driveway past a couple of houses, stopping to introduce myself and get permission.  Soon after the second house we came across an old logging road, just what I'd been hoping to find. It zig-zagged around  to where the terrain wasn't so severe and then started winding up the mountain, probably following the same route used now by some of the roads that have been built from the Fairview Point housing development.  It was a pretty path, and wasn't as hard as I'd feared.
I finally topped out that first ridge, and came out on a small level area.  I was exploring around it and discovered a rock outcrop that had a gorgeous view looking down the Garren Creek Valley and out to the mountains beyond Asheville to the North-west.  It was beautiful and secluded, and I claimed it for my own.  I'll call it my sittin' spot, and I never passed by without stopping to enjoy the view and peace.  (There's a house sitting there now, which makes me want to cry and curse.)

From there the logging road ran fairly level around the side of the mountain through a beautiful grove of hemlocks and came out into the pastures I was already familiar with.  I went farther up, and noticed a logging road heading back down the mountain.  Being in full explorer mode I followed it down to see where it came out.  I ended up coming back down to Garren Creek Road again, about a half mile up from my house.  I could have gone home then, but I wasn't ready to quit so I turned around and went back up the mountain, explored some more, and finally came back down the way I'd gone up to start with.  A long day, with a combined elevation gain of over 2500 feet.  I was so tired when I got home I just collapsed, but was very satisfied with what I'd accomplished.

After that I hiked up that ridge often exploring the mountain all the way to the top.  I was always on the lookout for shortcuts, and found a few places I could bushwhack, usually following ridge-lines.  But I wasn't satisfied, I wanted a more direct route from the house to my sittin' spot that bypassed the long and winding logging road.

The maze of ravines and ridges going up Little Pisgah.
My parent's property outlined in red with a red dot where the house was.
A little blue X at my sittin' spot.

So one day as I was headed home I thought I'd give it a try.  Near my spot was a large ravine that headed down the mountain in the right direction.  I figured I couldn't get lost, all I had to do was follow it.  Easier said than done!  It wasn't too bad at first, but got really steep and rugged.  I should have turned around then, but never claimed to have good sense.  I hated to back away from a challenge!

That sucker was steep!  Scaling it out on the map it looks like an 800 foot descent in about 0.3 mile.  That's quick!  The sides were nearly vertical, too steep to climb out, so I had to stay in the bottom, which was covered with rocks.  All kinds of rocks that had fallen down the sides and collected there.  All shapes and sizes, and loosely piled so that when you stepped on one it would roll or slide or a combination of both.  And just to keep it interesting the rocks were covered with a foot of dry leaves, so I couldn't see where I was putting my feet!  Every step was an ordeal.  Stick my foot down in the leaves, trying not to think about snakes.  Put my weight down on the rocks and try to stay balanced as they rolled and shifted.  Try not to break an ankle, and try not to think what would happen if I did. Then repeat.  And again.  This was the least fun and most dangerous place I'd ever got myself into, and I was making the usual promises: "God, if you'll get me out of here I'll never try this again, and I'll be more careful, and..."  I don't know how long I was in Hell's ravine, but I finally stumbled out the bottom and could walk back home, exhausted and my nerves shattered. 

I spent more time studying the ridge from our deck, especially one ridge that looked like the most direct route.  (No more shortcut ravines for me!)  It was narrow and steep, but looked doable.

 Red arrows pointing to the ridge,
Purple arrows pointing down towards the ravine.

I studied where the bottom of the ridge would intersect my logging road, and the next Saturday morning Fonzie and I set out.   It was pretty easy to find, and we headed up.  It started out steep and overgrown, and it got worse.   Underbrush and briars gave way to laurel thickets and briars. Soon the only way to continue was to get down and crawl.  Those who have spent any time in a laurel hell will know what I mean!  This was becoming less fun than I'd hoped, but I was too stubborn to turn around.  Before too long the monotony was broken by a 10 foot rock-face blocking the way.  It wasn't too hard to scramble up, and I was back on my hands and knees crawling again.  Then I came to a 15 foot rock.  It was a little harder to climb, and I didn't think I'd like to try going back down it.  So I continued my crawl until I met a 20 foot cliff.  I was beginning to see a pattern here!  I managed to climb it - barely.  The footholds were small and far between, and I was trying to steady myself holding onto laurel branches the size of my little finger.  I knew there was no way I was going back down this one, I was committed to going ahead.  

The ridge was a true knife-edge.  Very narrow on top, and the sides too steep to climb down.  Not that I wanted to; on my left was the ravine from Hell, I wasn't going back in there!  When I looked off on the right there was a ravine that looked even worse, with jagged boulders that looked like teeth.  My path was set, so I crawled on up to see what was next.  I didn't have to go far.  A 35 foot cliff that looked unclimbable!  I wasn't happy about it, but knew I had to try.  I should probably explain my situation a little clearer.  I was hiking from my parents house, but they were out of town for the Winter.  No one knew I was hiking, or where.  This was years before the first cellphone, and I carried no gear besides a canteen.  I was on a rugged and remote part of the mountain where no sane person would ever go.  If I got hurt and couldn't get out I could die there, and the body never be found.  I was very aware of all that as I looked at that cliff!

I finally picked a spot at the left hand end and started climbing.  The farther up I went the harder it got.  I wasn't sure about this at all.  With my head just coming up to the top I got stuck.  I was teetering on the verge of falling and couldn't find the next step.  I couldn't get down, and was afraid to move up.  The tiny laurel branch I was hanging on to was about to pull out of the two inches of dirt it was growing in.  Meanwhile Fonzie, who of course had run to the top like a mountain goat, came over and started sniffing the top of my head and trying to lick my face!  I told him that wasn't helpful, but maybe it was so ridiculous it gave me one last bit of strength to grab another handhold and pull myself over the top.  That was too close, and I knew that if I came to a worse spot I'd be trapped.

But in the meantime I stood on top of the cliff to catch my breath.  It was high enough to see out from, and the view was breathtaking!  I wish I'd had a camera, I can't find words to describe it.  And the next thing I saw was almost beyond believing.  In the center of the cliff, right at the edge, was an old-growth Hemlock tree, about 40 inch diameter.  I don't know what freak accident had shaped it, but from the edge of the cliff it stuck out horizontally for about 4 feet, then turned and grew straight up for maybe 60 feet.  It was a perfectly shaped tree, one of the most beautiful I ever saw, and was suspended in mid air.  I didn't care how much trouble I was in, I had to investigate this!  I could easily step out on the horizontal section of the trunk and get hold of the vertical part.  I looked up and saw that the limbs were sturdy and evenly spaced - perfect for climbing.  Did I mention how much I enjoyed climbing trees?  I know how crazy it was, but I had to.  I knew I'd never be back there again, and couldn't pass up the chance.  It was easy to climb, just like going up a ladder.  I could have gone to the top, but about 25 feet up I made the mistake of looking down and realized I was 60 feet above the jagged rocks at the bottom of the cliff.  My stupidity does have some limits, and I regretfully climbed down.

I hated to leave that spot, one of the most awesome I've ever seen, but I didn't know what I might face next and needed to get on with it.  So it was back to crawling again.  All the way up that ridge (about 800 feet elevation gain) was either crawling through laurel or rock climbing!  The rest of the way was steep and rugged, but there were no more major obstacles.  Finally it started rounding off and opening up, and I could walk upright again.  I came out into the open next to my sittin' spot, right where I meant to.  I was tired, scratched and dirty, but still buzzing from the adrenaline I'd been burning.

40 years later I have to say that was the most difficult, dangerous, and rewarding hike I ever took.  I wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience, but never had any desire to try it again!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Little Pisgah - Part 1: Beginnings

I fell in love with Little Pisgah Mountain in 1971 when I was 20 years old.  It was love at first sight, but that day was years in the making.

 Lower slopes of Little Pisgah seen from Fairview
Almost half of the mountain is hidden behind the ridge you can see.

Some time around 1960 my parents began a search for land out in the country with plenty of woods and a spot to build a house.  After several years they found a place they liked, 11 acres of wooded land on Garren Creek Rd in Fairview, and as I later learned, just across the road from the base of Little Pisgah Mountain.  Steep as a horse's face, and beautiful.  It fronted on Garren Creek, which at that point is cascades, pools, and a 10 foot waterfall.  The land went up the side of the mountain from there, with a couple of good sized ravines cutting into the mountainside.  These contained babbling branches flowing with sweet tasting ice cold water.  

After they bought the property we continued to live in Asheville for a several more years.  They looked at house plans, and when they couldn't find what they wanted my Dad sat down and drew a set himself.  That was my Dad, if something needed to be done he just did it.  He was a radar technician in WWII, and after the war he did radio and TV repair.  He was a master carpenter and woodworker.  He was foreman of the finishing department for a local furniture factory, and did furniture refinishing in his basement workshop, specializing in rebuilding antique pianos and pump organs.  If the plumbing leaked he replaced it. He did electrical wiring.  If the car broke down he took it apart and fixed it. The list goes on, and every job he tackled was done as a craftsman.  He was an amazing man!

During those years we'd go out to Garren Creek on weekends to explore the woods and picnic by the creek. My Mother hunted out the wildflowers and my Dad spotted birds.  (They both loved nature, and I grew up hiking and exploring with them and my sister.)  On hot summer evenings we'd go out there and eat watermelon with our feet in the creek to cool off.  It was already starting to feel like home!

In 1970 Dad started building the new house.It was located on a ridge in the center of their property where it would always remain private, and with a spectacular sunset view back down the Garren Creek valley.  He did almost all the work, with my inexpert help doing framing and some of the other two-person jobs.  It was my first attempt at real carpentry, and the quality of work my Dad taught me became my guide for a 30+ year career as a carpenter.

As soon as the house was finished we moved in.  I was just finishing high school and living with my parents.  (When I was 17 I had run away to California to join the hippies and missed a year of school.  But that's a whole 'nuther story!)

We hadn't lived there long when my parents decided it was time we went up on Little Pisgah Mountain.  The base of it was just across the road from us, and we had a beautiful view of the lower half from our deck.  We were looking at a 1000 foot wall of beautiful woods, and it was another 1000 feet from there to the top. (4450 feet)  But so far we hadn't been on it at all.  

My parents picked a Saturday morning for the hike. (I have to confess that I had been out too late the night before, had a headache, and tried to weasel out on hiking.  My Mother finally shamed me into going.)  We drove highway 74  to the top of Hickory Nut Gap and parked at the turnoff of Little Pisgah Road.  Now a decent gravel road, it was then just a rutted, rocky, and narrow 4 wheel drive track up the mountain. 

It was a beautiful hike!  The road is steady uphill, but not steep.  The terrain and woods were gorgeous.  At that time it was undeveloped, with no houses, no ugly towers on top, no recent logging.  Just some cows grazing in the pastures, with maybe a couple of grouchy bulls.   The whole mountain was like a giant park!  

As we went up we passed a couple of smaller logging roads turning off to either side.  But eventually there was a well worn road turning left, and the main road going on in in a more Eastern direction.  I don't remember the discussion, but we continued for a while on the right fork.  I do remember finding an old grave off the side of the road.  It had an obvious headstone, but we couldn't find any markings on the rough rock.  An interesting story there I'll bet!

About that point we turned back to investigate that other fork in the road.  Maybe because it went more towards the Fairview side of the mountain, nearer where we lived.  For whatever reason, it was a good choice.  It didn't take us to the top of the mountain, but lead to a huge area of pastures on the North-west side.  The lower part was fairly level, with a small stream flowing out of one side.  (That later became a favorite campsite.)   From there the fields swept up the side of the mountain, with ever-widening views. There were sweeping vistas to the South and West, and it was an altogether beautiful place.  We thoroughly enjoyed our hike, and I was hooked.  (I forgot all about that headache!)

Bearwallow Mt and beyond from the Little Pisgah pastures

Before long I went back on my own to explore.  I discovered if I very carefully took ridiculous chances, I could navigate my little Fiat sports car up Little Pisgah Road.  Straddling ditches and squeezing around rocks, it's a wonder I didn't tear the bottom out from under that car.  But it was fun!  I was still hanging around those lower pastures, and hadn't yet been to the top of the mountain.  It was soon time for that to change!

One Saturday night I camped with a couple of friends at that pretty spot beside the stream.  The next morning after breakfast Jerry said he knew the way from there to the top, and we should go.  Good idea!    We walked up through the meadows, and continued up around the North side of the mountain.  From there we had a magnificent view of Mt Mitchel and the ranges of mountains around it.  From there we followed more old Jeep roads til at last we came out at the top.  At 4450 feet it's the highest point East of Asheville.  Bald at the top, it is a spectacular viewpoint.  Or at least Jerry said it was.  That morning it was socked-in with low hanging clouds, and we couldn't see a thing!  We sat on a rock for an hour or so, but it never cleared up and we finally had to leave.  You can be sure that it wasn't long before I went back, and I wasn't disappointed.  Looking down into Hickory Nut Gorge, across beautiful Shumont Mountain, and as far to the East as the atmosphere will allow.  I spent some wonderful days up there!

Here's a map showing the area I've been talking about:

 The blue line is the hike I took with my parents,
the purple is the route from the lower pastures to the top.
The white areas are the pastures.

Disclaimer: I'm showing a map for informational purposes only.  The whole area is private property, and I can't recommend trespassing.

(Here's where I wish I had some good photos taken from the top.  Maybe I can get some later and add them.  In the meantime here's one more on the way up.)

If you've made it this far with me, thank you!  Stay tuned for part 2 where the death defying adventures begin!