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!

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