Friday, November 22, 2013

Some two weeks ago when I was making my schedule, I knew that I would only have one day off to do as I please, so of course, I would spend it hiking. I called up Strickler and we settled on Thursday and hiking back to one of our most difficult but favorite hikes, Dismal Falls. In the 10 days leading up to the hike I watched the weather for Cashiers, North Carolina every day and it looked like we would be hiking on an overcast but unusually comfortable day temperature wise considering it's late November. Somewhere during those 10 days, our friend Forrester AKA Old Man Winter asked if he could tag along with us as well. Jeff had never hiked with us in North Carolina so I went from excited to ecstatic. The threesome threw off the normal driving arrangements slightly and Jeff volunteered to drive his wife's minivan as long as we weren't doing any off-roading.
In the pines.

This morning I awoke to beautifully clear and sunny skies in Gray, TN and took one final glance at my weather channel app for Cashiers. The forecast had changed slightly calling for a 10% chance of a morning shower and clearing skies in the afternoon. Steve and Jeff arrived at the house before 8am and we loaded up the van and hit the road. Jeff's van was a nice change, with plenty of leg room and a smooth ride the miles clicked off quickly. As we barreled down the North Carolina side of Interstate 26, Jeff got the opportunity to meet one of the many state troopers that lie in wait of inattentive motorists.  A nice $218 welcome present (speeding ticket) was exchanged and we were on the road once more, although at a much slower pace. On the west side of Asheville the skies began to cloud up and I once again found myself daydreaming of how awesome my pictures would turn out with my tripod set up at the base of Dismal Falls.
Large hornets nest downed along the trail.

Somewhere around Brevard, the skies clouded a little too much and a light rain began to fall. Both Jeff and Steve showed some concern hoping the weather would break before we had to hike. I reassured them that the skies would clear but we should be thankful for the cloud cover because it would help taking photos in the gorge much easier. As the rain continued for 45 minutes and all the way to the parking for the trail head, I too began to feel the dread and the already difficult hike would now be downright dangerous.
Tree growing out a rock nearing the unnmamed falls on West Fork.

I only brought a t-shirt and a long sleeve pullover so when I exited the van the rain and the colder than normal temperatures caused me to shiver. Jeff and Steve loaded their packs and we hit the trail. Only a short distance in, I was cold, but Jeff had an extra sweatshirt he let me borrow and although it didn't fit the best it was enough to keep me warm and heading toward the waterfalls. The leaves were thick and slick, as we hiked along I didn't see signs of anyone being on the trail in recent weeks. The rain was constant but light and the forest canopy shielded us from the majority of it. We arrived at the spur trail to Aunt Sally's Falls and a short uphill hike takes you to the base of the 40ft waterfall. I was somewhat stunned at the low flow of the waterfall and honestly disappointed. I didn't bother to take my camera out of the pack and waited as Jeff snapped off a few shots before we continued back to the main trail. When the trail crosses the West Fork of the Pigeon River the climbing begins, and as we would find out, so would the falling. I had a terrible time with footing and relied heavily on using tree limbs and roots to climb and pull myself forward. My first layer of clothing was soaked and I was already cold again as we arrived at the 30ft unnamed waterfall on the fork. It's a nice cascading waterfall that has a large dead tree across it. The flow of water was a little better so I took a few pictures but didn't waste too much time standing in the open with my camera out. Steve and I make good timing hiking and Jeff was falling off the pace somewhat so we would stop and wait, after a few minutes when he didn't join us, Steve went back looking for him. He had got turned around at the waterfall and was hiking back toward the van and along the way had took his first fall of the day. Eventually I could see them both hiking back up the steep slope to join me. It was slow going and we all alternated falling and pulling ourselves back up as the trail became more gnarly approaching Rhapsodie Falls.
This waterfall isn't on any topo maps and doesn't have a name.

When we got to the base of Rhapsodie it was also at much lower levels than I had seen it last time but the pictures still were turning out fantastic.Steve sought refuge under some thick laurel and Jeff joined me taking pictures. Although it would be the perfect spot to stop, snack, and rest before the climb around the Dismal Gorge wall, the rain pushed us on. The trail begins a steady climb out of Rhapsodie Falls and meets the main trail at an intersection that will either take you into the lower Dismal Gorge or begin the climb to the top of the ridge and then into the gorge at the base of the main falls. Shortly after passing the lower Dismal trail the footing was spent. I couldn't get any traction to continue on using the trail. I instead left the trail and climbed the ridge where the leaves were much deeper and used whatever bush or tree I could get my hands on to continue upward. Although there was many reasons to turn back and be discouraged we all pushed on, most of the time we were actually laughing at each other as we took turns falling and sliding back down the trail only to have to get up and do it again. A 300 yard climb took us almost 45 minutes!
Rhapsodie Falls.
Seeking shelter at Rhapsodie Falls.

As we crested the ridge, the trail begins a steep, nearly vertical descent into the gorge below. As fate would have it, the rain had turned from a drizzle to a downpour. As I waited on Steve and Jeff to join me, I swear I could see wet snow mixed in with the downpour. I was in the lead so I could make the decision to turn back or go forward, and I really hesitated here because it was cold, we were soaked, and if we were hurt here, we most likely wouldn't survive the night. I decided to push on and I will admit, it was a stupid decision. The best way we found to get down was to sit down and slide from tree to tree. It was hard to control our speeds and I ended up slamming my knee against a tree and was in pain the remainder of the hike. It still took us another 30 minutes to make the 190 yards to the base of the falls. I was the first to step out into the creek at the base and the falls were fantastic. The flow was good and there wasn't any downed trees to ruin photos (this happens a lot here) I had packed a surprise for Steve and Jeff and grabbed three beers from my backpack. When we opened them, they spewed wildly and we all toasted our accomplishment in the pouring rain. There was some skeletal remains of a large animal at the base and we surmised that it probably fell to it's death from the main drop some 100ft upstream. I didn't even bother unloading my tripod and had to almost crotch down shielding my camera lens from the rain as I took pictures. We had some snacks and each posed for pictures before packing up and heading out of the gorge. The climb out was much easier but required much more strain on our arms as we used anything we could hold onto to pull out. The backside of the ridge was less kind causing us once again to slide from point to point trying to control ourselves as best as we could. At one point, Jeff had the misfortune of sliding right through a spot where Steve had earlier relieved himself, thankfully, he brought a change of clothes! I thought Steve would need rescued from laughing himself to death, both he and I laughed the entire way back about it. Jeff didn't find it as funny. When we finally passed the forest gate at the trail head and saw his van parked there, I don't think I've ever felt a greater sense of relief, we had somehow beat the odds and made it back safely.
Climbing the ridge toward the Dismal Gorge.
Forrester with his celebratory beer.
Only picture I got of the falls without water drops on my lens. The 150ft Dismal Falls.

Dismal Falls will always be one of my favorite hikes. It requires as great an effort as any hike you will do, but the satisfaction you feel from doing it can not be explained. Although my pictures will not be the best, they will serve as some of my all time favorite memories from our rainy day in the wilderness. The conditions of the hike in the rain made it the most difficult I've done and the most dangerous. If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it would be that even the most seasoned hikers can find themselves in dangerous situations with something as simple as rain. Always put safety ahead of adventure and as always, happy trails!

1 comment:

  1. Another great day in the mountains and on the trail!

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