Thursday, February 16, 2012

Art Loeb Trail, part two

After my video documentary Marcus and I hiked together for a while talking about technology on trail. It seems like smart phones are becoming the norm for hikers to carry, and in a way it makes complete sense. You can have one tool that performs multiple actions – pictures, videos, audio memos, journaling, books for reading and reference, plus tools that make them really advanced – phone, email, and GPS. These latter tools can run in conflict to “getting away from it all” or creating a false sense of security in a wilderness environment.

We were having such a good time talking that when we reached a trail junction that we completely missed a turn. Oops! Almost three miles into the hike and we were suffering from disorientation for a second time. In fact, during this hike off our course, we probably added another half mile or so to our hike. This was my error. We turned right at the junction, as the sign indicated, but overlooked a subtle turn of the trail left up the slope on the opposite side of the road. Instead we looked straight ahead gabbing until we reached a second junction. This gave us pause, but Marcus couldn’t convince me that I’d led us astray. I thought we should continue further to see if evidence was presented to reinforce my hunch that we were on the right track. We walked further off course. During that time we walked through a whole heap of silver grass.
Silver Grass on our side trip. 

Under his constant nudging for me to pay attention to the facts he presented, I conceded that we must have missed a turn, somehow. What a rookie mistake. I didn’t want that to be true, but it was. We retraced our steps and found the trail leading up the ridge, just as it’s described in the guidebook. Rather than immediately jump on the trail, we ate lunch in the sun around the corner. After lunch I refilled my water bottle in a cold creek and we continued north.

Doh! This was the turn we missed. We went right (where my pole is pointing.) The trail goes up to the left.
Steadily we climbed the narrow trail through rhododendron to a saddle and another seeming intersection of unmarked trails. This time someone before us laid out big sticks in the shape of an arrow, pointing our way. I remarked aloud that we sure could have used such a clear symbol at the last intersection. We continued up to Stoney Knob, down to cross a forest service road, then up again to Chestnut Knob (the first of two mountains named after the tree that we’d cross today).

During our hike the weather showed its fickle nature. We would walk under bright, blue sunny skies, then a short while later clouds would force their way back and light flakes of snow would coast diagonally in the wind. The constant with both the sun and the clouds was the wind that increased with intensity as the day wore on.

As we descended toward Catpen Gap Marcus wanted to stop for a snack, but I was cold so I suggested that he eat something on the move. He only had food that he could sit and eat, like cheese, crackers, beef jerky, and almonds. I was carrying a lot of energy bars that make eating on the go much easier. I acquiesced for a break but insisted that we’d better stop where the foliage was thick to try and block as much wind from reaching us as possible. We hunkered there, on the trail. He sat atop a step, worn deep from water flowing fast down the trail, and I hunched in the trench that was the trail itself.

Refueled and energized we figuratively skipped down the trail, reaching Sandy Gap and the base of the impressive Cedar Rock Mountain just before 2 p.m. The trail stays close to the large slab of sloping rock as it traverses through the dry gap, and I wondered how many of the dry creek beds run wet in the summer because they were empty now despite the frequent winter rains we’ve had. There are several nice little campsites in this area that would be great to stay at if water more readily available.

Up and over a little rise, we dropped again in the shadow of Cedar Rock and encountered a creek. I was nearly out of water, so I filled up 1.5 liters of my 2.5-liter capacity. Marcus had just finished drinking a liter of water so he replaced it. Beyond our water stop there was a heavily used campsite that we hurried past on our way north. Over the next mile we passed over a number of sweet creeks before reaching Butter Gap Shelter.

At the shelter a group of four hikers and a dog from Asheville and two other guys in camo were there. They had a fire going and it looked super inviting. I could tell by Marcus’s body language that he had no interest in staying to visit; he didn’t take off his pack. As the extravert in our party, I’d jettisoned my pack upon arrival and immediately invited myself to warm up around the fire. I gathered information. The Ashevillians were just out for the night, hiking out tomorrow the way they arrived. It looked like they were there to have a good time and party in the woods. The two guys in camo were decidedly the quiet type. We learned they had been dropped off at the top of 215 near the parkway and planned to walk out to 276 the following day. We asked them about water ahead since they had come from where we’re going; they had nothing to report.

At this point in my hiking day, I wanted know what my goal was for reaching a place to set up camp. I grabbed the map and identified a relatively flat area just north of Chestnut Knob before Rich Mountain. I pointed it out to Marcus and we decided that we could make the 2 or 2.5 miles there before sunset. Before we left I drank another half liter of water, refilled it, and collected another liter of water, so that I carried my full capacity toward what I expected to be a dry camp.

Looking toward Cedar Rock on the climb over Chestnut Mountain.
Hiking Chestnut Mountain was challenging. It would have been challenging even at the start of the day, but it was the end of the day. Along the ridge there are awesome views east of Looking Glass Rock and south of Cedar Rock. I stopped to look around a lot. I stopped Marcus for this picture. Our hand symbols indicate we’re going over the second (2) Chestnut (C) of the day.

As we start descending Chestnut Mountain the wind picked up with increased severity. I hadn’t taken my rain jacket off since mid-morning and I was wearing gloves under my mitts. We knew that the wind would pick up as the sun set. We also knew that the temperatures would drop significantly once the sun disappeared behind the mountains. We were on high alert for a level place to camp, with enough surrounding trees to buffer the wind, and some place lower than other slopes. I idealistically hoped to find something out of the wind completely. We passed several descent places. None of them felt right to Marcus.

We descended further toward a gap just before Rich Mountain. There was a road there, and we knew we needed to camp before the road. As the terrain started to undulate, as if climbing, we stalled. The brush was fairly heavy in this area and the prospects for finding a place to pitch two tents looked bleak. We continued. The sun crept closer to escaping from the day. I point out a place that might work, near an identifiable downed tree, where the brush is lighter. We made a mental note of it and advance north on the trail a few hundred feet, but finding nothing ahead we returned to investigate the tiny enclave of slender deciduous trees and a few rhododendron. We decide to make it work. Marcus literally set up his tent in the narrowest spot between two trees. I set my tent up beside a tree, and conveniently my door faced Marcus’ tent because we would be here for a little while.

Marcus wedged between trees cooking breakfast on his porch.
As I set up my tent, I noted the prevailing wind coming from the north hitting my tent where my feet will be positioned. I fluffed up some of the leaves surrounding my tent to span the distance from the bottom of my rain fly to the ground; any extra buffer from the wind would benefit my night’s rest. The thick layer of leaves and duff of our campsite added extra insulation between us and hard topsoil. We actually chose a campsite that met most all of our requirements.

By nightfall, I was inside my two sleeping bags. I nested my synthetic bag inside my down bag so that the down wouldn’t be compressed and less effective. I had brought dry sleeping clothes, but my hiking clothes were relatively dry, too. I couldn’t fathom facing the cold to change out of my hiking clothes into my sleeping clothes; plus, a change tonight would mean a mandatory change in the morning and there was no telling what my tolerance for cold would be in the morning. I added my sleeping clothes on top of my hiking clothes. I wore two shirts, one fleece, my down jacket, long john bottoms, fleece pants, two pair of socks, something to cover my ears and a touché. I was still cold with the wind and my door open to begin cooking dinner off to the side of my tent, but it was manageable.

Marcus and I each had compressed gas cooking systems. The cold made it difficult for them to work, so it took longer to prepare dinner. Before I even started on food, I heated water for a cup of hot ginger tea. Then I started to cook dinner. Unfortunately, in all my shifting around, I lost one of my packets of macaroni and cheese packets. It slipped off the slippery surface of my sleeping bag and completely disappeared. When my water was ready I could only find one packet and my tuna. Panic set it and I freaked out a little bit because I knew I had brought two, but also because I knew that the more I could fuel my body the more calories I would have to burn through the night. Marcus witnessed my freak out but didn’t offer much encouragement toward finding my lost packet or offering me any of the gigantic box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese he had for dinner. I essentially ate 1/5 of the serving he had for dinner. I stowed a snack bar in my jacket pocket so it would be easy to find in the night if I needed it. Eventually as I layed down to sleep I found the missing packet of mac &; cheese that I had lost, but it was too late to cook it. I decided I could eat it the next day. I was beginning to feel I didn’t pack enough food for the weather and my appetite.

The up side of not finding my second packet of mac and cheese is that I drank the hot water unused for food in several more cups of hot tea.

By 6:30 p.m. we were finished eating and zipped in our respective sleeping bags. My toes were cold for just a little while. The situation seemed tense because of the cold and so I had trouble relaxing into sleep. I mulled my worry over having enough food, freezing to death, and how long I could wait before getting up to pee. My active mind jumped around with concern, and finally I gave in to entertain the fear the only way I know how – I said to myself “well, if I die out here, freeze to death or whatever, at least I’ve died doing something I love.” I topped it off with “plus, I’ve had a great life.” And with that, fear recessed and calm reigned as my body finished warming up the two sleeping bags and the double-wall tent. Soon, I slept.

I slept solidly through the night though the winds howled, the trees swayed, and branches fell. I was aware of all these things, as you are when you sleep anywhere new, and I was trying to stay aware enough not to instinctually burrow my head in my sleeping bags. I tried to keep my face pointed out the cinched hole of the sleeping bag since burrowing would put a lot of excess moisture in them making them wet and less effective. I was also sensitive to the fact that I had two water bottles and my stove fuel in my sleeping bags with me. One water bottle had a solid plastic construction. The other was a soft-shelled plastic platypus and I was afraid if I inadvertently rolled on it, I could puncture it.

At a certain point near dawn the winds calmed.

When Marcus got up at 6:30 I lobbied for us to rise and start packing to go. He was too cold after his bathroom break and wanted to get back in his sleeping bag. I understood that. When I fell asleep again I was so heavily consumed in dreams that I got too hot in my bags. I had monitored this situation throughout the night, modifying my system by unzipping or replacing layers as needed. This time, obliviously, I sweated into my clothes. Luckily, it wasn’t too much.

At 7 with the first light of the day conversation started between our tents. Marcus really wanted a hot breakfast before embarking on our hike for the day, and since he brought oatmeal for that purpose it made perfect sense. On the other hand, I only had cold food – bars – so there wasn’t really a reason for me to cook. I ate my energy bar and decided to open my door so we could at least talk face-to-face.

I opened the rain fly and door to my ice palace. The vapor from my exhalations throughout the night had come to rest on the mesh and the interior of the rain fly in fine, shimmering crystals. It was pretty in there.

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