Sunday, November 23, 2014

A few weeks ago I hiked in the Rocky Fork area for the first time just outside of Erwin, Tennessee. I was alone that afternoon and had read up on the area through a blog by Randy Tarpley. Randy, or as he is better known on the trail, Rat has opened the world of hiking up to a lot of locals including myself. My goal that day was to reach the cliffs on Whitehouse Mountain. I found all the twists and turns in the trail and was soon on top of the world, seeing far back toward Erwin and deep into North Carolina from the summit of the mountain. To reach the cliffs I had to take a trip down through loose rock and seeing the area in person, I agreed with Rat's advice that I shouldn't try the trip alone. I took my pictures, rested on some nearby boulders, and vowed to return for further exploration.
Summit of Whitehouse Mountain.
John front and center on his 100th trail day!

When John Forbes announced on Facebook that he was leaving the planning of his 100th day on the trail in the hands of Randy, I knew the trip they would choose would be a little of everything, and I selfishly hoped I would secure an invite. When Randy finally told us we would be returning to Whitehouse Mountain and descending the cliffs I HAD to go!  As fate would have it, my off day fell in perfect alignment with John and Randy's 100th trail day extravaganza and sure enough Rat asked that I tag along for the trip. The days leading up to the hike were filled with constant banter between the three of us and my excitement grew more with every conversation. The night before the hike, our friend Thomas Mabry joined our back and forth hype fest and declared he would come and join us as well! I have only hiked with Thomas once but it was one of the more intense and downright terrifying days on the trail I've ever had at Flat Creek Falls. After all was said and done from the trip, I felt bad for being so uptight and nervous on the cliffs and felt I needed to redeem myself for Thomas, he has also earned a trail name this year, the Honey Badger was born on the cliffs of Flat Creek Falls and has quickly made a reputation for himself as one of the finest off trail hikers in North Carolina.
John, Randy, and Thomas at the summit.
Thomas at the large piece of Quartz.
The steep terrain heading down to the cliffs.

Assembling the all star cast of hikers was complete and on Thursday we met just before 10am at the Rocky Fork trail head to begin our assault on Whitehouse Mountain. John and I arrived to find Thomas and Randy already standing beside their cars eager to get going. We all took a moment to reacquaint and took off up the trail that follows the creek. I was thrilled to be hiking with Randy again since we had also only had one previous trip together on the reverse waterfall tour in Clark's Creek. He's easy to talk to and is willing to share his knowledge, pending you dont' pass it along to the wrong folks. John and Thomas shared some laughter as the Badger had stuck a pencil behind his ear imitating John's trademark look. All of us were just happy to be out and honored to join John on his special day. The weather was a little cold and snow lined the old logging road that led us up the creek. Soon we arrived at Triple Falls and found it to be flowing nicely and lined with ice. A short distance up the trail we found the side path for Whitehouse Mountain. Randy led the way and we kept a nice pace taking in all the scenery and his many tales of years gone by hiking the area. The snow deepened enough that we found some cat tracks near the saddle in the ridge. The climbing gets fierce from here and Randy's stories slowed somewhat as he concentrated on breathing. John and Thomas took over story telling duties as the two big block engines (Randy and I) labored up the ridge. When we found the survey marker after the first climb we rested and prepared for the rocky ascent to the top. The trail kind of vanishes here and becomes a scramble of choosing the path of least resistance. Reaching the summit we all took photos of the distant views and posed for a few group shots before settling in for our real mission, the cliff edge.

Randy sharing some trail secrets with John.

John soaking in day 100.

Thomas and John just before arriving at Shrine Rock.
The Shrine Rock.

I was first to take off down the boulder field for the cliff edge. I had on my new boots and this was the first new test and they were exceeding my expectations to say the least. My feet felt great and having the ankle support was a nice change as my feet never hit the rocky terrain in the same position twice. I found a large chunk of white quartz buried in the ridge and stopped to take some pictures being joined by Thomas. Randy and John had found a gnarly tree just above a sharp ledge still a short distance away from the rock known as The Shrine. John climbed the tree and we all took pictures of him dangling from the branches like a monkey. Thomas and John hiked down to the ledge for yet another photo op but I had spotted the shrine rock and was on determined to reach it. When I got to the rock, I immediately noticed that it wasn't a sharp drop off behind it but more of a step down to a flat rock where the main drop was located. I seized the opportunity for redemption and ignored the goal of The Shrine and instead stepped around it and down to a 200ft drop just beyond the edge of the rock. I sat down and dangled my feet from the ledge, I could see the road we hiked in on below and most of the creek we followed. The trees were tiny and the stiff breeze kept me from completely forgetting my location, but I had done it, my fear of heights had left me.

Across from me was a set of rocks separated by a large crack that had a several 100 foot drop to what would be your death if you were to miss the jump. John was quick to go over and inspect the prospects of making it onto the rocks. Randy followed close behind and documented the sequence with his pocket camera. John was slow and steady, which to me, really emphasized how dangerous just getting down to the crack was. When he approached the edge he steadied his nerves and hopped across succeeding in making it onto the large boulder. He scrambled up to the top and was cut off by a narrow spine but instead of giving up he inched up on the rock and straddled it! It was one of the most impressive feats I've seen him tackle and I was just happy to be there to see it in person. John eventually climbed down and made the even more difficult return jump uphill to rejoin us. Randy was esctatic and proposed a toast to celebrate John's accomplishment on some flatter ground. We gathered around as Randy grabbed a bottle from his pack and we took turns passing some of the finest Aquafiina around that I've ever tasted! The celebration was a perfect halfway point in our hike as we now had to find a way down the cliffs!
Thomas resting on Shrine Rock.
Flint Mountain Cliffs seen in bottom left of picture.
The drop I sat on. You can see Rocky Fork below and Cardinal Head rock.

Randy looked at me and said, "How do you feel about crawling under that rock over there?" I turned to see a rock jutting out over the main drop of the cliffs and felt my new found bravery to be fleeting. I wasn't going to give up though and walked over for a closer look. My height paid off as I didn't have to crawl but was able to hug the upper portion of the rock as I slid my feet around to the other side. I was greeted by a wider path and a great catwalk along the cliff. I let Randy take the lead and he scampered ahead to take pictures of the three of us as we approached him at another sharp rock over the cliffs edge. I really liked this section and we caught Randy and settled in for a little break fully soaking in all of the photo ops and scenery. Randy pointed out what he called Cardinal Head Rock about half way down the cliff and perfectly balanced. It's hard to believe that it has withstood years of weather without being torn from the side of the cliff. Without giving away specific directions, the next part of the hike found us entering the woods and finding a large gorge filled with boulders. We picked our way down through the rocks and found the tree that Randy had remembered as being the spot we needed to turn back under the upper portion of the cliffs. I had promised myself I wouldn't put myself in any briars after the 100+ cuts I received at Flat Creek Falls with Thomas but soon I was crawling along a narrow ledge in briars following the Badger trying to keep up with Randy. We were a little higher than we needed to be so Randy had dropped off a little ledge and was now below us. A tree broke off in my grip and I now had the perfect hiking stick so I used it the remainder of the trip. Soon we were below the Cardinal Head rock and all the air beneath it was a little unnerving as we hiked against the rock wall. A charred tree serves as a reminder of the fire that has the cliffs relatively bare and is also the location of the base of The Crack. This area is really cool because you can hike up into the large chasm and even wedge your way up the towering wall it's so tight. John was first up and climbed up further than any of the rest of us would dream! He found a hole to rest in about 20ft off the ground and remained there while we took a group shot to commemorate the moment. Randy heard some rustling from below us and went to find two hikers coming out of the shrubs below us! They were rock climbers from North Carolina and were scouting a route up the rock face. The older gentleman of the group noticed a carbinger about halfway up and pointed it out, I would have never seen it and was impressed with his keen eyes. He also had apparently been reading up on the history of the area and had located an old family graveyard long forgotten. Randy told them some of the roads and their destinations and we all parted ways as we started looking for a route back to the Rocky Fork road.
Leaving Shrine Rock.
You can't really tell here but this is the rock with the crack that John had to jump to access. He is probably one of the only people to ever stand on it!
Randy choosing our route.
The catwalk along the cliff edge.
Randy and John at the end of the catwalk.
Into the woods...
Randy pointing out the way down to the crack. This was steep!
Thomas looking for the drop off point in the trail.
Thomas, Randy, and John below Cardinal Head rock!

Out of The Crack, we hugged the rock wall and went to the far side of the cliffs. It was here that Randy pointed out another dangerously balanced boulder with some pink rock directly underneath. With the help of our new found hikers, we determined it to be Feldspar. It was also in this area we encountered another talus field (boulder field) and we used it to work our way down toward the growing sound of water. Thomas took a vicious looking fall in this part of the hike but in true Badger fashion was back to his feet laughing it off in no time! Randy was talking about seeing a bear in a tree here as well on a previous hike and we saw one of the largest piles of scat I've seen, so this bear is a monster. In a few more feet we arrived at another hidden cliff and had to crawl through laurel until Rat found an exit point although it was a steep 30ft slide to safety. I was thinking how my boots had kept me from slipping or tripping all day long and as I prepared for the butt slide I couldn't wait to gloat about how great they were on the blog. However my slide didn't go as planned, I picked up way too much speed and when my feet hit the road at the bottom my right foot got stuck! To keep from breaking my leg I did an awkward jump into a run and then a flip flat of my back onto my camera bag. I wasn't hurt but apparently it was hilarious looking and Rat said he had his camera out to take pictures but was in such awe that he couldnt' even hit the shutter! John and Thomas made the slide down with grace that made me envious but I was happy we all had made it back to safety.
Group picture in The Crack. Look at John high above us!
Indian Face Rock.
Getting further away from the cliffs. It's hard to believe we stood on top of them earlier!
Still steep rocky terrain.
Thomas sliding to safety.

Hiking together for the majority of the 100 trail days in a year, it was nice to join John on his celebration hike and a chance to hike with Thomas and Randy again was simply icing on my cake. We accomplished a difficult off trail day in a mere five hours. When we arrived at the trail head it was hard to call it a day, but work called Thomas back to Asheville and John, Randy and I were off to eat at our favorite post hike restaurant. I feel confident in saying that we haven't hiked together for the last time. Until then, happy trails!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Last month was a bitter disappointment for me. I was sick my entire vacation and when I wasn't feeling bad, it was raining and kept me pinned inside the house. Usually I dread this time of year, the holidays are a stressful and busy time at work and my hiking time is thinned considerably. However, since I've felt better recently and my energy is back, things don't seem so bad, even while I'm at work.
Coming and going. In the bend, heading to the Channels.
Fall hanging around.

This past Sunday presented an opportunity for some hiking redemption when my friend Halley brought a rowdy crew of adventurers from North Carolina to my home state of Virginia for a trip up to the Channels. I can't put into words how wonderful the Channels are, Amber doesn't even like hiking and she agreed to go...for the fifth time!
Cabin and Fire Tower near the Channels.
Evening view from the Channels.
Channels surfing.

Sunday morning Amber and I left Gray and stopped by Bristol to pick up our hiking buddy, John Forbes. John was eager to get out on the trails again and I was glad to have him since we haven't hiked together since tackling Dick Creek Falls in Erwin, Tennessee just before I fell ill. Halley agreed to meet us at the Virginia welcome center off of Interstate 81 and showed up with some familiar faces as well as a few new recruits to our ranks. She bounced out of her car happily greeting and introducing everyone, soon her attention was focused on the giant 'LOVE' sign in the parking lot and we had to pose for a series of pictures before departing for the 30 minute drive to the trail head.
Rest Stop Love. Photo Courtesy of Halley's Gopro.
Inside the Channels with our group. Pictured, front Halley, Lincoln seated behind her, Samantha in purple, Amber with blue head band, Candi in pink, Hugo navy blue, and John in the back. I'm the tall guy.

I wasn't sure how my legs would handle the three mile uphill climb to the top of the mountain but soon after we exited the truck I was in the front of the pack with John and things were right back to normal. Halley had assembled quite the crew to join our hike. Candi has quickly became a regular on the trails with us, her energy and enthusiasm are always welcome and she can hold her own with any trail she tackles. Hugo joined us for only the second trip but between his hilarious impressions and non stop jokes the first time, I was hoping I had enough breath in my body to climb the mountain while laughing the whole way. Samantha was new to hiking with us, but kept pace with everyone and seemed to take up with Amber talking about various foods and of course, all things dogs. And then there was Lincoln, who is a body builder but had found himself talked into becoming a hiker that day, I assume by some of Halley's charming tactics. 
Entering the Channels.
Deeper in the maze of boulders.

Great light.

Everyone mixed and mingled as we churned up the mountain. Conversation filled the air and Hugo had everyone laughing despite having to carry half the girls packs.  At one point, Halley and Candi decided they didn't need the weight of their boots and hiked bare foot!  I was amazed at how much the trail has evolved since I first started hiking there a few years ago. There are numerous signs and mile markers as you make your way up the mountain. The Channels are featured on Virginia's tourism website as one of the top 25 hikes in the state and the worn logging road really showed the increase in foot traffic. I was a little bummed the majority of the leaves were gone for the season, only occasional swatches of orange and yellows could be seen in the low lying valleys as we continued up the mountain. After passing the mile 2 marker just off the left of the trail, the real leg burning climbing begins. I feel safe in saying everyone suffered through this section as soon we were all sprawled in the middle of the trail taking a break. The short break really helped me and it wasn't long until we were back on our feet and starting to see some of the large flat rocks that start appearing in the logging road just short of the top of the mountain. John, Hugo, and I were first to spot the old fire tower and as reached the spur trail to the Channels I was surprised to see the trail was lined in snow!
Lincoln is around 6'4" so this gives you an idea of the size of these rocks.
John isn't very tall but he looks like an ant in here!
Amber and Cash surrounded by light.
Candi passing through.

When we reached the abandoned cabin everyone scattered exploring and taking pictures. A large rock behind the cabin is a perfect spot to view distant ridges and the rock John and I call the Pinnacle. Our plan was to find a way out to the rock and see if we could climb it as we had never seen any pictures from there but we had a lot of play time in the Channels ahead of us. The fire tower nearby has the bottom rung of steps removed but our troop wasn't deterred by this. Candi was the first up and soon John and Hugo were in the tower as well. Amber even joined in on the climbing and had me boost her up onto the platform around the height of my head. Halley was right behind her and Lincoln too, Samantha and I stayed behind. I was on dog sitting duty with Cash and she was enjoying some lunch under the tower. As everyone came down to hike over to the top of the Channels, I chose to hike alone into the maze to play with camera settings and redeem myself for years of crappy photography there. I shot in manual which helped control the amount of light entering the lens and helping light the narrow passages that rarely see the sun. It was nice to have the entire place to myself and I took time to climb into some precariously stacked boulders and pose for some shots using my Gopro. I was thrilled with what I was seeing on my LCD screen on the camera and it wasn't long before the others joined me in the labyrinth. I only captured glimpses of everyone as they zipped between the boulders and I could tell they were all having a great time. It's always interesting to me see people's reactions to the Channels and seeing four newbies take it in was a real treat. For over an hour we played in the boulder field and I hardly noticed how cold it was as I continued to take photos like crazy. Amber however noticed the cold and was bundling up both her and poor scrawny Cash. I knew it would take us a while to hike out so I reluctantly packed my gear for the three mile trip down the mountain.
Hugo and Halley.
Laurel in the Channels.

The cold of the Channels driving us out.
A shameless selfie with the Trio. It's been a great year!
Hiking out we stopped by the hidden set of Channels and lured an old hiking friend out of the shrubs for a short visit. It was good to see John Lane and pose for a quick picture Captain Morgan style!
This thing was huge. I may have to take up rock climbing.
I'm gonna call this the Guardian. It stands guard over the forest below.

On the way out, everyone remained in good spirits and hiking plans for future outings were discussed making the time pass even more quickly. About a mile back down the mountain a large monolith looms over the forest a short but steep hike off the trail. Every time I've passed it I've wanted to get a closer look but always chose to keep hiking, but being with John I knew he would be game to hike up the steep grade. He and I started off up through the fallen leaves and were joined by Halley and Candi in hot pursuit. The length between the rock and the trail was deceptively long and the fallen leaves made footing a challenge. When we got to the base of the rock it towered some 70ft above us and after examining the perimeter we found there to be no way up without a rope. It was still a cool experience to be one of the few people to stand in the shadow of the monster and we posed for a few pictures before rejoining the rest of our group for the hike out.

Another successful trip to the Channels was just what the doctor ordered and still having energy after arriving back at the trail head was the ultimate sign that I was better. It was a great day with old and new hiking friends. In a year that keeps getting better, its tough to top a good day on Brumley Mountain. As I write this I've just received my new hiking boots and waterproof socks, so more trail days are calling. Until then, happy trails!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Undeterred by Willie's intimidation tactics at Grassy Creek Falls, Halley, John, and I were off to look for more waterfall adventure while waiting for some clouds to lift off of Mt. Mitchell. She suggested we carpool and I left my truck at a parking area just off the Blue Ridge Parkway for the drive down NC80 to Roaring Fork Falls. I was filled with adrenaline from our encounter with Willie and the fact I was going to see a new waterfall. We soon arrived at the trail head and a short half mile hike later, we were at the base of the falls. Roaring Fork comes tumbling from high off the mountain some 80ft later as it rushes past and continues....well, roaring, downstream. The sun was starting to peek out from behind the cloud cover making my photography a challenge but I still was able to snag a few decent shots. John climbed high up the right side of the waterfall and the further he got away, the more I could tell just how massive this place was! Here's a look at the falls without John.

Roaring Fork Falls.
Our next stop was just outside of Black Mountain Campground at Set Rock Falls. I had visited Set Rock Falls before but still was eager to return since the hike is short and beautiful and the payoff is a nice 55ft high waterfall. The wildflowers were in bloom as we followed the creek through the campground and some even had identification signs next to them which caught both mine and John's attention. As we closed in on the falls I was disappointed to see the sun squarely on the uppermost drop. Halley was unsure the last time she had been to the falls and John loved the way it stair stepped down the mountain, so seeing their excitement made me forget about the bad light. I stalked around the base trying to salvage some shots from the tripod and enjoyed the cool mist from the water. Satisfied with a few pictures and needing to take advantage of all we wanted to see that day, we were soon hiking out and to the highest peak east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell.
Set Rock Falls.
The water below the falls is really clear.
The gravel road from Black Mountain Campground is a beautiful ride from what I remember now. It follows a nice stream and is scenic all the way to where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway just shy of Mt. Mitchell. The speed limit on the parkway is 45 miles per hour, or if you are Halley Burleson, whatever your heart desires. I'm still digging pieces of her car seat from between my butt cheeks from our flight up the curvy road to the summit of Mt. Mitchell. As much as I hike and love the outdoors, I'm almost ashamed to admit it was my first time to the top of that mountain. Clouds hung on distant peaks and I could see below deep into the valleys while also being able to see the tops of the clouds and blue skies above, it's a surreal place to say the least. There is a large parking lot with a small snack bar and souvenir shack before the paved trail that leads to the observation deck a short distance higher. Halley told us the story of the old tower and how it was destroyed to make the handicapped accessible platform that exists today. I was really torn by the story, while the old tower was higher and more photogenic, the new platform opens up views for those confined to wheelchairs. I find it to be a healthy compromise as no one should be denied a magnificent view of God's creation, even if it is a slightly lower elevation. Several people were on the platform but there really wasn't a bad view to be had. John and I ran wildly around the platform clicking away at the ever changing scenery. Halley kind of hung back laughing at our size difference and our reactions to her personal playground. We posed for some pictures and even got the ultra touristy shot beside the 'Mt Mitchell Highest Peak East of the Mississippi' sign before retreating back to the parking area from the chilly temperatures. Halley suggested we eat at the restaurant on the mountain and I agreed, trail mix and beef jerky can only take me so far and my stomach was growling. The restaurant was wonderful and our view off the deck was even better. Halley gave us the grand tour and took us onto the back porch for some rocking chairs and hot chocolate. It's been several months as I write this, but that moment still sticks vividly with me.
Mt. Craig from Mt. Mitchell parking area.
Clouds burning off of Mt. Mitchell.
View from the restaurant.
The clouds moving in to drown out sunset at Mt. Mitchell.

It was growing increasingly cold and the clouds were moving in heavier by the minute, she decided to find another location to attempt some views of sunset. We left the mountain and rejoined the parkway heading toward Asheville. I had never traveled this area and was impressed with the killer views and we stopped at several overlooks. One overlook was across a gorge to a huge waterfall in the distance. Glassmine Falls is over 200ft high but begs to be explored more closely. We all agreed we had to find a route to it's base, if for nothing more than to say we had been there! From there we passed the Asheville watershed and one of the most beautiful views I think exists on the parkway. The evening sun lit the surrounding mountains perfectly and the large lake below looked like a mirror, I was truly in heaven. The sun was sinking quickly and I was unsure were we were heading as we pulled into the parking lot for Craggy Gardens. She pointed out a trail that led us through thick Rhododendron before opening up on a rocky peak with stunning views in every direction. There were a few people on the rock with us but they headed out as we arrived and we had the entire mountain to ourselves for sunset. The cold was fierce now but we all had blankets and staked our claims to separate rocks to watch the sun fall from the sky.
Asheville Watershed.
Sunset from Craggy.

The sunset was a perfect end to the day, purple and pinks dominated the horizon and as the last light faded we hiked out satisfied with one of our more adventurous days. Looking back on it now, it still stands as one of my favorite days in a year that's featured nearly 500 miles of hiking. Stay tuned as I have several big hikes planned to close the year, and hopefully some to get 2015 off to a great start. Until next time, happy trails!