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!