Sunday, May 22, 2016

Highpoint #6: Mt. Mitchell, NC (6684')

I got a late start out from Burnsville on the 6th after spending most of the morning writing blog posts. What with that and a few embarrassing navigational errors—particularly so since I’d already been to this place!—I didn’t make it to my base camp at Black Mountain Campground until noon. That campground, located a few miles east-of and 3000 feet below North Carolina’s Black Mountains in the Pisgah National Forest, is the logical entry point for those seeking their summits.  Rather than pay for an improved campsite with shower access (since I’d had that at the hotel last night), I drove a little further up the road to one of the free backcountry sites and staked my claim. Had I arrived any later (in the afternoon or in the season), I’d have been hard-pressed to find a site, but the few folks who spend their May weekends in these hills aren’t too prompt about showing up. In retrospect, this ought to have warned me of something… but I’d discover that surprise soon enough.

Spring had arrived here, a hundred miles south and several hundred feet below my camp at Mt. Rogers, but only just. The cold breeze chilled me as I emerged from my car, but the exertion of setting up camp and assembling my gear soon warmed me up.

It almost looks like it's May down here.
By the time I’d packed up my high mountain gear (the same stuff I brought up Mt. Rogers), pitched my tent, and backtracked to the trailhead just inside the campsite, it was 12:30. This left me with a little over seven hours until sunset: exactly the time in which I’d hiked this trail last summer. If I could replicate that pace, I’d make it back before dark; if not, I’d need to break out the headlamp. I set my phone’s alarm for 4:30—summit or no, I’d turn around when it rang—and headed up.

And up, and up, and up. Mount Mitchell is not only the high point of North Carolina, you see, but of the entire eastern United States—and, along with our old friend Mt. Washington, one of only two ultraprominent peaks in eastern North America. It’s a tough hike by any standards: six miles and 3600 vertical feet up a steep, rocky trail. Some folks split the trip into two days, camping at one of several sites hidden along the trail; some skip the hike entirely and take the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit. Yet it’s one of my all-time favorite trails, both for the physical challenge and for the ecological transition it showcases: from the sheltered valley floor to the windswept spruce-fir forests of the summit.

The trail was fairly homogenous for the first few miles. I followed its switchbacks up and around the foothills through a deciduous hardwood forest much like you’d find elsewhere in the southern Appalachians—the “woods next door,” so to speak. Every so often it passed through a rhododendron thicket. The thick shrubs closed in around the trail, cutting off visibility on either side. I wondered, as I passed, what hid behind their waxy leaves… songbirds, certainly, and squirrels, chipmunks, perhaps even a bear? These mountains are home to a healthy population of black bears, but though they loom large in my imagination each time I visit, I have yet to see one. Nonetheless, I took to clapping as I neared each grove to announce my presence so they could bumble off and leave me be.

The air was warm and the climbing tough; I soon stripped down to my T-shirt to keep from sweating. I knew it would be cold up top, if the loud winds rushing overhead were any indication. But, of course, I had soaked through my shirt anyway by the time I reached the junction with the trail to Higgins Bald two and a half miles up. I chugged half my water, took some pics:

and, sloshing slightly, continued on.

Past this point the trail took on a different character. The broadleafed trees, battered by the downhill winds, shrunk close to the mountain, then gave way to pines. The trail passed through several wide glades carpeted with needles. Last June I’d heard a pair of Veerys here (the first time I’d heard their echoing, metallic trill), but it seemed they hadn’t yet moved in for the summer.

The trail also crossed a phone-line clearing several times, home to the line that served the summit. Turning back, I took a look at the mountains behind me:

and, increasingly, below me. The wind picked up; I put my down jacket back on.

A fellow with a dog passed me on his way down. I asked him how the winds were up top. Strong, he replied, but dying down—though it’d been an hour and a half since he was there.

Not long after passing him, I spotted something quite unexpected to the side of the trail:

I laughed at the sight. There was still snow up here! Would I pass cute little snow patches all the way to the summit?

Why, yes, had the mountain ended right there. But I still had a thousand feet to climb.

As I continued upwards, the patches grew. Their meltwater flooded the trail, forcing me to hop from one rock-island to the next. My boots were waterproof, in theory, but I had no wish to test them. Before long it was the dirt that was patchy:

and then the snow overtook the trail.

I scrambled carefully up the slushy, slick rocks. Nothing was frozen hard, but had it been ten degrees colder I would have sorely missed my Micro-Spikes. After several tense minutes, I reached the nature trail encircling the summit.

The way leveled out from here, but the weather more than made up for it. As promised, the winds were sharp and strong, blowing snow-chunks off the trees and into my face. Inch-thick snow coated the ground, and a thin mist of sleet was falling. I passed an older couple (Parkway drivers, I presumed) as they picked their way carefully over the trail—they hadn’t expected this winter wonderland up top either.

At last I made it to the summit area. The paved trail from the parking lot was clear, though who knows if that was the rangers’ work or that of the winds. Ultraprominence makes a peak quite unfriendly in the winter.

The gusts were so painful I didn’t linger past the requisite picture-taking:

Here again. Not so many tourists this time.
Nice view, eh? Three times I’ve been up here, and I’ve never had a clear day.
If I’d had to stay up there for any reason, I would have absolutely needed the Gore-Tex windshell tucked away in my pack.

In comparison, I’d taken a leisurely lunch up here last June.
At least I wasn’t getting mobbed by swarms of balsam woody adelgids, I thought as I dashed back under tree cover. Those tiny black beetles had been everywhere on my last visit to the peak. An invasive, tree-killing species from Europe, they were introduced to the Americas in the late 1900s and, helped along by acid rain, had completely denuded the spruce-fir forests of the Black Mountains by the end of the century. Young trees have grown back, but this biome, unique to the high peaks of the southern Appalachians, is still very much under attack. Researchers are working to solve the adelgid problem, but in the meantime, all we can do is gather firewood locally (bugs love to hitch a ride from one forest to another inside firewood) and minimize our impact on the affected ecosystem by keeping to established trails and campsites.

I was a bit nervous to descend over all those wet rocks, but needlessly so; the way down was uneventful. I squeezed out a few texts in the upper reaches of the mountain, but by the time I returned to the lower Higgins Bald junction, I was out of range once more. That bald, by the way, is almost completely overgrown these days, with only a particularly large patch of rhododendrons to mark where the treeless expanse once was.

The trail still goes by a nice little creek, though.
No one knows quite how the balds of the southern Appalachians were formed. By rights they shouldn’t exist, since none of their summits reach above treeline, yet several of them are covered only by grasses or low thickets of shrubs. Their baldness was maintained in the past by grazing deer and elk, then by European-imported livestock, but now that most of the balds lie within protected forestland, they need to be kept up through other means—by park workers, or by introduced species like the ponies of Grayson Highlands—or else the forest reclaims them.

After a break at the former bald, my descent was quick. I hopped from rock to root to patch of dirt, surprised at how much energy I had left. Unlike my last trip up the mountain, I’d stopped for regular water- and snack-breaks this time, both on the way up and the way down. It’s amazing how much of a difference that can make.

And amazed was I when I checked my phone after reaching the trailhead: it was only 6:30. I’d made it up that mountain in about three hours, then down again in another three, with energy to spare. Twelve miles round-trip, 3000 feet up and down… and three months back in time, from May in the valley to February up top. Not bad for half a day’s hike.

I walked back to my camp, enjoyed a luxurious (by car-camping standards) dinner in the ample sunlight that remained, and settled down to sleep on my new-and-improved setup. From the ground up: a folded blanket as an under-pad, the air/foam pad (fully inflated this time), my sleeping bag and liner, and an extra sleeping bag (a kludgy blue thing I used to take on sleepovers) as backup. No shivering tonight!

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