Tuesday, August 23, 2016


View from the top of Little Pisgah Mountain, looking at Chimney Rock cliffs at far left.
Photo by Spencer Clary

I spent many days hiking on Little Pisgah Mountain, and had some great experiences, but one particular day has stayed in my memory for 40 years as an especially amazing time.  It was a beautiful clear summer day in about 1975.   I was with my good friend and hiking buddy Michael.  (I recently got in touch with him to fact-check this story, and of all the adventures we shared it still stands out to him too!)

We parked on the lower part of the mountain and spent most of the day exploring and just soaking in the beauty.  We rambled the pastures, visited my favorite cliff overlooking the Garren Creek valley, and explored some new areas and routes where we hadn't been before.  Found a tree or two that needed climbing.  Just enjoying the time!  By early afternoon we made our way to the top of the mountain.

At that time it was still unspoiled.  If you go now there are houses scattered around, a road to the top, and an ugly steel tower right on top of the mountain.  It makes me sick.  But this was before all that, and it was just a grass bald on top of a mountain 4450 feet tall.  Beautiful views of Shumont Mountain and Hickory Nut Gorge.  I loved that place!

 The top of Little Pisgah Mountain.
Photo by Spencer Clary

While we were enjoying the view we heard a jeep grinding its way up the mountain.  It pulled up to where we were and a couple of rednecks climbed out.  One of them said: "Look what we killed on the way up here!"  He reached into the back of the jeep and pulled out the longest rattlesnake I ever saw.  He was holding the head about even with the top of his head, and the tail touched the ground.  Close to six feet long!  Michael says he remembers looking at the tail and seeing 10 or 11 buttons.  The guys were obviously impressed with what they'd done, while Michael and I were just wishing they had let it live.  But we didn't say anything.  They were after all rednecks, and armed, and maybe a little drunk.  They didn't stay long, and we were glad to see them go.

That kind of messed with our peaceful mood, so we walked a little way back down the mountain and found a few more trees to climb.  That was fun!  There was this one tree...  We climbed up 25 or 30 feet and found a couple of comfortable branches to sit on.  After 10 minutes we were ready to climb down.  But when we looked the next branch below us was a loooong way down, and neither of us could remember how we got up the spot where we were!  We kept being polite and saying: "Go ahead, you first".  Finally one of us got up the nerve to try a sketchy move, and we both made it down.

It was getting later in the afternoon, but we decided to go back up to the top for a while before we left.  I'm glad we did because we got to see something amazing. There was a thunderstorm coming up the Gorge at Chimney Rock.  (At the far left end of the top photo.)  What made it unique was that the whole storm was trapped down inside the gorge.  The top of the thunderheads were even with the top of the cliffs.  Above and all around was sunshine and clear blue sky.  But down in that gorge was a monster!  It was jet black, and lightning was zapping through it from one side to the other.  The most concentrated storm I ever saw.  We could hear thunder echoing off the cliffs, and we knew the people in that gorge were getting bombed!

We sat there watching, and we had a ringside seat.  We were in sunshine with a perfect view.  There was a breeze coming off the storm with a fine mist in it, just right to be refreshing.  But there was one nagging worry.  That monster was moving up the gorge towards us.  And we were on the very top of a bald mountain, with our heads the highest point east of Asheville.  I remember some discussion like: "How close are we going to let that thing get, and how fast can you run?"  I admit I was getting edgy.  We knew it was crazy to be where we were, but this was a once in a lifetime experience, and we didn't want to miss it.  I just didn't want it to be a last in a lifetime experience!  We were lucky though, just when I was ready to bolt (Like lightning!) the storm got to where highway 64 splits off and heads up towards Edneyville. It turned away, and went up that valley.  (You can see the valley angling from left to right in the center of the top photo.) 

It faded out of sight and the show was over.  But what a show it had been!  In our recent discussion Michael and I agreed it was one of the most spectacular things we ever experienced.  Exhilarated and exhausted we made our way back down the mountain.  It was a good day to be alive!   


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Cold front

One beautiful afternoon back in the mid '70s a good friend and I went hiking on Shumont Mountain.  It was winter, but the temperature was in the low 50s, and the sunshine felt warm to us in our lightweight jackets.  We made our first stop at Eagle Rock (You have to!) but then continued up the mountain.  Going up the old jeep road we took the right hand fork that goes around the Northwest side of the mountain to the Western end.  There is a little rabbit trail there that goes down to the top of a big sloping cliff.  (It's the one you can catch a glimpse of as you're driving up Shumont Rd.)

 That is a beautiful spot!  You have views of Little Pisgah & Bearwallow Mountains and all the upper Hickory Nut Gorge.  It was always quiet and peaceful, I don't think I ever met another hiker there.  
We spent a long time just hanging out, and of course exploring a little bit.  Then in the late afternoon it was time to head back down.  The sun was getting low and it was starting to feel colder.

When we got back to the Eagle Rock area the sun was setting, so we had to go back up on the rock to watch, even though it was getting cold really fast and we were dressed for warmer temperatures.  Eagle Rock faces the wrong way for a great sunset view, but we could see it through the trees, and the sky was lit up beautifully.  But as the sun went down so did the temperature.  Probably the fastest drop I ever experienced!  A major cold front was moving in, and wasn't wasting any time.  From where it had been around 50 degrees it went down through the 40s, the 30s, and on down into the 20s.  And of course the wind started blowing across that exposed rock.  Some other hikers came up to watch the sunset, and they were wearing parkas with the hoods up, gloves, the whole bit, and they looked cold!  They were looking at us like we were crazy for being there dressed the way we were, and we were trying to pretend we weren't freezing.  Of course we were, but we were in the midst of a spectacular event and couldn't leave.

I wish I'd had a thermometer with me, I guarantee you could have seen it dropping.  But what we did see was even more amazing.  There were potholes in the rock that had water in them from the last rain.  And that water started to freeze.  I've never seen anything like it!  You could see the white ice crystals form around the outside rim of the water and then start creeping in towards the center.  We could actually see it moving as we watched in amazement.  "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"  It looked like time-lapse photography.  

Finally as the sunset was fading we surrendered to the cold and did a fast hike back down to my van.  It sure felt good when it warmed up enough for the heater to kick in!  When we got back down the mountain and to my parents house in Fairview, a thousand feet lower, the thermometer was on 15 degrees.  That was one serious cold front!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Little Snowball Mountain - an unintended adventure

I don't remember the date of this hike, but I think it was back in the late '70s before I got very smart about being prepared for hiking, and before I learned some of my limitations.  

I didn't have a camera for the trip, but two blogger friends have graciously allowed me to use their photos.  Jeff Clark of Meanderthals and Dana Koogler the Cumberland Gal Thank you!  Plus I've used a couple of my pics taken at other times.

I had been exploring the Craggy Gardens area for some time, and had found the trail that starts on the road to the Craggy Picnic Area (Now also an access point for the MST), climbs across Snowball Mountain, and goes on to Hawkbill Rock. I could see on my topo map that the trail continued to Little Snowball Mountain, where a fire tower was located, so I was interested in that.

  Trail to Little Snowball

I had been to Hawkbill Rock a couple of times, and that's all I had in mind for this particular day.  It was already mid afternoon on a cold winter day, and I didn't have much time.  But Hawkbill is a beautiful spot with a fine view, and was worth the trip.  The trail is moderately steep as it goes over Snowball, down the back side, and up the ridge to Hawkbill.  It's a clear trail, but lots of roots & rocks, so you have to watch your step.  
There's a good description of the whole trail on Meanderthals Hiking Blog here: 
Snowball Trail at Craggy Gardens

 View from Hawkbill Rock.  Photo by Jeff Clark

 Another view from Hawkbill Rock.  Photo by Jeff Clark

 But this particular day I wasn't satisfied.  I wanted to explore more of the trail beyond Hawkbill "just to see what it's like".  I wouldn't go far, it was too late in the day.  But once I got started I couldn't stop!  "Just a little farther to see what's over the next hill"  "I've got time, that next part looks interesting."  The whole trail out to the fire tower is 4 miles, and Hawkbill Rock, where I meant to turn around, was less than half the way there.  But I somehow reached a point where "just a little farther" turned into "it would be a shame to come this far and not go on to the tower".  Never mind that the sun was going down and it was getting colder.  Never mind that I wasn't carrying any gear at all besides the canteen on my belt.  "I must be nearly there, get moving and I'll get there soon."  Except it was farther than I thought, and there were more hills to go over.  The trail turned into a four wheel drive road with confusing intersections.  I kept telling myself how stupid I was being but I only walked faster.  Sometimes I just won't listen to common sense!  Finally I made it up to the tower.

The fire tower that used to be on Little Snowball Mountain,
now refurbished and situated at the Big Ivy Historical Park.
Photo by Dana Koogler

When I got there the sun was already down.  I climbed the tower, and since it was unlocked I went in.  The view was great, and the sky was covered by a gorgeous sunset.

The kind of sunset I saw from the fire tower

I spent about 5 minutes catching my breath, looking around inside the tower, and admiring the sunset.  But my enjoyment was marred by the growing feeling that I could be in some real trouble here.  I was 4 strenuous miles from my van, and I had maybe 20 minutes of twilight to get there.  The math just wasn't working, and I decided it was time to get moving!  I went back down the steps and hit the trail at my best speed.  I had gotten myself into some fine messes before, but this one was serious!  I was hiking alone, and no one knew where I was.   Of course this was years before the days of cell phones or GPS.  I wasn't carrying a pack, and had no flashlight, headlamp, food, extra clothing, fire starting materials, or any of the whole list of things I was starting to wish I had.  I was wearing jeans & a flannel shirt with cotton long johns.  My coat was pretty warm but had a nylon shell which was not breathable.  I had on a knit "toboggan" hat and had a pair of gloves in my back pocket.  I had a half full quart canteen on my belt, and that was the extent of my resources.  The temperature, which had been around 40 degrees, started dropping through the 30s and the wind came up.  I won't say I was worried, but was getting concerned, and definitely motivated to get out of there!

One thing I should emphasize is that the trail is never flat, but goes up and down hill relentlessly.  Meanderthals calls it a roller coaster, and that's a good description.  He cites the total elevation gain for the round trip as 2300 feet, so I had my work cut out for me. 

I was pushing myself as hard as I could go, but daylight was fading faster than the miles.  When I finally got back to Hawkbill Rock it was pretty dark to be scrambling down those rocks, but I had no choice, so I did.  It was encouraging to be back in familiar territory, but I knew how far there was ahead of me, and didn't know how I was going to make it.

 Looking from Hawkbill Rock at the ridge going up the backside of Snowball Mountain.
The trail follows the ridge-top and turns left across the top of Snowball. 
Photo by Jeff Clark

 As I was climbing the ridge up Snowball Mountain I was getting tired from how hard I'd been pushing.  I tried stopping to rest for a minute, but realized I couldn't.  In spite of the decreasing temperature and increasing wind I was sweating from exertion.  If I stopped moving that cold wind cut me like a knife, and I had to keep moving to keep from freezing.  There is a reason they call cotton "dead men's clothes"!  Finally near the top of Snowball I found a spot to rest.  There was a big log lying next to the trail.  I lay on the ground behind it so that it sheltered me from the wind.  I knew I couldn't spare the time, but was I exhausted, and it felt so good to be out of that wind.  After about 5 minutes I remember feeling like "this isn't so bad, I could stay here and..."  That gave me a cold chill that had nothing to do with the weather.  I recognized that as the kind of thoughts a person has just before the final mistake that leads to their death in the mountains.  That got me back on my feet and stumbling up the trail!

Stumbling was the operative word.  It was almost completely dark, and it was hard to follow the trail.  By the time I started down Snowball I couldn't see all those roots & rocks, and was having trouble walking.  In spite of my desire to hurry I had to slow down and feel my way along.  I was very aware that at this point a broken ankle could prove fatal!  About that time I reached for the gloves in my back pocket, and they were gone.  Probably fell out when I was lying behind that log.   Of course by then I was cussing myself out for ever getting in such a situation. It felt like it would never end.  "I hope you enjoyed that sunset, it may be the last one you ever see!"   

But as you may have guessed I did survive.  I came staggering out of the woods to where my van was parked in pitch black darkness.  I was so glad to get in it out of the wind, and when the heater kicked in it felt like heaven!

As a postscript to this story, the next morning when I was driving to work I came to a place where I could see that whole range of mountains where I had been.  They all were covered with ice!

 Rime ice on the Craggys

And it wasn't fluffy rime ice like in this picture.  The sun was shining, and that ice had a cold hard glitter.  There had been a real ice storm up there during the night.  There is no question in my mind that if I hadn't made it off those mountains I would have died.

I think that marked a turning point in my style of hiking.  I can't say I never did anything stupid again, but I was more careful.  I started carrying a pack with emergency supplies.  I recognized my mortality, and let it guide my decisions a little better.  Altogether it was an experience I'm glad I had, and very thankful to never have had again!