Sunday, January 13, 2013

Winter Adventure; Smoky Mountain Climb

I wanted to close the final chapter from last year's story.  Several weekend's ago, I had the opportunity to embark on an impromptu adventure I had been dreaming about for sometime.  Since time waits for no one, I decided to just go for it ... and as is often the case in my life, I am very glad I did.

My friend, Mike Saad of Bristol, Wisconsin, flew into Pittsburgh on a Friday morning to visit me.  Prior to his arrival, Mike told me to dream up a quick weekend trip we could do with some bite.  I replied to him to bring along an array of outdoor clothes for winter conditions.  When I picked him up at the airport, I announced that we would be driving down to western North Carolina and we would climb Mt. Mitchell at the break of dawn the next morning.      

At 6,684', Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak of the Appalachian Mountains and the highest peak in the eastern United States.  Due to this notoriety, I had always longed to climb it and to make it more challenging by doing it in the winter.  2012 had not been the easiest of years for either Mike and myself so I figured this would be a perfect way to end the year on our terms.  

Right from the onset, we were faced with driving through a widespread winter storm.  By the time we hit U.S. Route 19 in southern West Virginia, there was about 3" of snow on the road.  Several times as I crept along at 30-40 mph, I mulled turning around and heading back to Morgantown but decided to press on ahead anyway.  We did not get to Marion, NC until well into the evening.  After dinner, I called the National Park Service to get the current road conditions given the storm and discovered the Blue Ridge Parkway had been closed!  My heart sank and Mike and I were very disappointed. 

Undeterred, Mike started fooling around with maps on his iPad and discovered what appeared to be another road that would lead us to the state park called The Devil's Whip, aka NC Route 80.  Just the name did little to imbibe me with any sense of confidence that we would actually be able to get to the park in the storm.  I called the county sheriff's office and the gentleman told me that while the road was in fact open, he wasn't enthusiastic about our plans to climb Mt. Mitchell and to be very careful.  We hit the bed after deciding to go for it.

The next morning, I checked the state park web site to get the current weather conditions at the summit.  There were 60-70 mph winds, 5" of snow, and the the temperature was 10 F.  Fortunately, we were prepared clothing-wise so again we decided to proceed ahead cautiously.  The Devil's Whip was a treacherous, sinuous two-lane road with tight hairpin turns galore (my friend Daniel Hanks later informed me that this stretch of road is actually part of a bike ride called The Assault on Mount Mitchell).  Once past the Blue Ridge Parkway, we stopped the car going downhill a few times, and got out to check for ice and traction on the road, and were able to safely make it down to the trailhead located at Black Mountain Campground.                  

The hike on the Mt. Mitchell Trail is about 6 miles one-way from the trailhead to the summit.  You start climbing almost immediately from the trailhead all the way to the summit, a non-trivial 4,000' elevation gain.  If you are fit and take little to no breaks, you could probably get to the top in about 3 hours but if not or if you are doing a winter hike, then plan on more time.  This is a strenuous hike in the winter so be forewarned.  

The first couple of miles were essentially bare and dry with rocks and roots on much of it before becoming covered in snow.  If I were out on a trail run in the summer, I'd probably power hike most of the way to the top and run back down.  There aren't many scenic vistas except for at a power-line cut midway up the mountain.  That said, it was a beautiful day to be out for a hike with my friend ... it was a winter wonderland of evergreens draped in snow, the sun shining, and the melody of a mixture of heartfelt conversation and silence.

After Mike and I crossed the cut, the snow depth increased and became more of a factor.  One important warning: as you get closer to the top, you will encounter lots of springs that have frozen over the trail.  The ice presents a real possibility of a nasty fall if you aren't prepared (unfortunately, Mike and I were not).  If you had a pair of Kahtoola Microspikes, say, then you would be in great shape.  Lesson learned.  There are also several other intersecting trails so it pays to have a map and to pay attention to where you're going.                  

When we got to the top, the wind was howling and it was ripping cold.  As a result, we snapped a few pictures and did not loiter long.  While we were the only hardy souls up there on this fine day, I could see the place crawling with tourists in the summer as you can drive to the summit then.  This kinda' reminds me of a similar situation in Mt. Washington, NH -- you can make getting to the top as tough on yourself as you want.

So, by methodically chipping away at the hike, we made it back to the car with minutes of daylight to spare.  If you do this hike in the winter, get an early start and bring a headlamp just in case because daylight in the winter will be a factor.  Also, bring more food than you normally would in the summer.  Take care to tell someone where you are going and when you plan on being back.  Ok, enough of my being a parent :-)  If you have further questions related to the hike, then feel free to post a comment below.    

The next phase of our hike might have been the most crucial.  Heading down to Little Siena Restaurant in Marion, we grabbed a glass of red wine, and made a toast on several fronts.  I was grateful for being able to do this mini-adventure after those instances where it seemed like it wouldn't happen.  I was grateful for having the health to be able to do trips like this.  Most importantly, while I have always enjoyed doing trips like this on my own, I was grateful for having the opportunity to do it with a friend. The synergy created makes it a better experience and the investment of emotions and shared history in the "friendship trust account" is priceless ...


  1. Great stuff Phil. I'm glad you could "squeeze-in" a great adventure.

    All the best to you in 2013!

    1. Thank you, Adam. Hope you and your family are doing well heading into 2013!

  2. Great post! I have Ice Bugs spikes, so that means I can go next time? Rock on!

    1. Absolutely, Susan! The pleasure would be mine :)