Monday, August 25, 2014

Most of the photos in this blog entry are from my friend John Forbes, he was the only one crazy enough to let go long enough to take a picture that day. This is our story...

Tired, sore, and still bleeding from a few wounds, I limped into Twin Dragons Chinese Buffet near Brevard bringing with me two more beat down hikers looking for a hot meal. As I worked my way around the bar, the nicely dressed Sunday afternoon customers raised a few eyebrows, but I didn't care, I was just happy to be alive and to see the won ton soup bowl was nearly full. I settled in on my second plate talking to Shane when a soft elderly woman's voice said, "what have you done?" I looked up from my plate long enough to see her shocked look as she stared down at my legs which were covered in bloody gashes, but in order to fully understand those wounds I have to take you back to the beginning of our weekend camping trip.
We were so excited! Photo by Thomas Mabry.
The drop into the gorge of Flat Creek Falls.
Approaching the upper falls. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas "on the trail" photo by John Forbes.
You really had to hold onto your hats on this well as other body parts. Photo by John Forbes.

Shane Estep has hiked with me several times in the past and when he mentioned a hiking/camping trip, I felt the pressure of picking the perfect spot and making sure it lives up to our recent run of epic journeys. John Forbes has become one of my "go to" hiking partners and recruited him for the trip as well. Settling on a location for a camping trip came surprisingly easy to me. I hiked in the Panthertown Valley last fall and loved the trails and many camp sites would put us in prime territory to see a lot of waterfalls in one day. The Valley lies just outside of Lake Toxaway, North Carolina and, in my opinion, is overlooked as one of the premier hiking destinations in the mountains. While doing the prep work for our trip, I became a member of Friends of Panthertown Valley to scope out some possible sites we wanted to see and as I perused their page I kept seeing posts from a member named Thomas Mabry. As fate would have it, Thomas sent me a friend request on Facebook and I poured through his pictures, impressed with some of the more difficult hikes he had completed. Thomas and I exchanged several messages and I told him we would be coming into the area for some hiking and I asked if he would join us as a guide in the rugged Flat Creek Falls gorge.
Shane and I coming down the cliffs. Photo by John Forbes.
This wasn't a photo op, I was actually hiking here. Notice the thorns on the right. I had over 100 cuts when we reached the base of the waterfall. Photo by John Forbes.
Down and down and down. Photo by John Forbes.
Shane and I had to laugh so we wouldn't cry. Photo by John Forbes.

Not more than a week earlier, Thomas had joined author Todd Ransom in an epic bushwhack down the cliffs next to the 200ft waterfall to it's base. When I saw that it could be done, I had to go myself. So I told Shane and John we were in for adventure on the grandest of scales, but we ended up getting far more than we bargained for.
The tree obstacle course on another section of cliff. Photo by John Forbes.
The helicopter entering the gorge. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas the Honey Badger blazing the trail. Photo by John Forbes.
and we're right behind him. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

We left the Tri Cities early Saturday morning and the two hour drive down into the North Carolina Mountains went quickly with Shane driving his powerful Chevy pickup truck (sarcasm) The road to Flat Creek Falls trail head dead ends at a large camp site and when we arrived, albeit a few minutes late, Thomas was standing next to his car ready to hit the trail. We all took a few minutes getting acquainted and were soon across the creek and winding down the old rail bed that serves as the first part of the trail. For me hiking through the thick low lying Laurel was a pain, I had to stay bent over for most of the hike and when we met the jeep road intersection I finally could rest my back. Thomas was quite the hiker, keeping pace and telling stories of his recent surge in hiking activity. Shane stayed quiet for long stretches seemingly absorbing all he could from the surrounding forests, while John was almost jogging he was so excited to see the falls in person. In less than an hour we had blazed through the woods to the top of the waterfall. I cautioned John and Shane that the trail drops steeply off and down to the creek on some exposed bed rock and that a slip into the creek would mean a ride over the waterfall and eventually the morgue. Thomas took the lead and showed us a steep but manageable grade down to a small falls that empties into a deep pool. I opted to use my butt to slide down the ledge and was the last to reach the base. I noticed the moss on the opposite side of the pool was so thick it was hanging down like curtains, a sign that not many, if any, other people get down to this vantage point. From the pool the waterfall really begins in earnest, cascading wildly as it roars toward a vertical drop of over 100ft in the vast gorge below. We all took pictures looking downstream and I could feel my heart beating a little faster as I knew things were going to get even more difficult. Thomas seemed to have trouble finding the route that he used on his previous trip with Todd but settled on swinging downstream on the sloped rock face heading toward the main drop. We followed each other single file as there were several places along the route that was foot in front of foot walking. Adding to the difficulty was the loose pine needles, dry flaky moss, and small pebbles and sticks that had rolled down onto the rock face over time. IT WAS INTENSE HIKING! Soon we were grouped on a narrow ledge with seemingly no way to continue, Thomas decided that he had took a half butt slide/control fall here to a lower ledge that was frighteningly narrow and about 10ft or so from a sheer cliff that lines the gorge. John was quick to follow and turned to coax me down. I could see the soft ground beneath his feet rock and I was afraid if I jumped with all my weight I would slide on to my death. Shane stayed close behind me and I suggested we should find another way but Thomas and John insisted I could do it and so I slid down onto the ledge using the remnants of a dead tree to steady my landing. I found it easier to turn away from looking off the cliff and I scooted over as far as I could to let Shane make his way down with us. The narrow ledge led us further along the cliff rim but thick shrubs cut us off. Thomas lived up to his social media description as a honey badger and vanished into the mess with John close on his heels. I had to get down on my hands and knees to continue and soon I was tangled in thick briers digging into both legs. It really hurt but I wasn't going to let go and risk sliding down the grade and each crawl became more painful. Shane had claimed to be afraid of heights but he seemed to be calmer than anyone and helped me by showing me foot holds and cautioning me of approaching brier scrambles. When I caught up to Thomas and John I found them trying to find a way down a even steeper ledge. A large tree was turned over our heads and we were able to wrap our arms around it's trunk working down the ledge to a point where two trees grow closely to the drop. John's height worked against him for the first time in the little man's paradise but he was able to ride the tree down only having to make a semi dangerous jump. I got down the cliff rather easily and temporarily regained a little bit of my dignity. Thomas continued to lead us down into the gorge but I could see that we were still extremely high and warned John not to stray too far down that he might not be able to come back up the grade. As we crawled and thrashed along the cliffs, I still remained confident that we would soon find a gap in the rock walls to give us access to lower trails and a way to the base. I didn't expect it to be easy but I certainly had counted on being further along than we were. We reached an exposed section of the cliffs and I heard a thundering noise coming from over the ridge. A helicopter came over the tree line and into the gorge below the falls. It was literally hovering right beside of us! The first thought I had was that someone had went missing and they were looking for them but as the copter turned I could tell they were photographing the waterfall! It was a real manly feeling that someone paid a pilot to take them there and here we were hanging on for dear life on the cliffs hiking down to it's base. Soon the helicopter lifted out of the canyon and was gone, a part of me wanted to be on it and heading to safety but I pushed on. Thomas checked his GPS and noticed that we were about 20 yards off course. Above me was a solid rock wall and below me was a drop that we couldn't get down, it was at this point that I started thinking we might be in serious trouble. I couldn't imagine climbing back up the route we had descended but now that seemed like a real possibility. John is one of the most positive people I've ever met and I could see the doubt in his face as well. Thomas soon came scrambling back up to join us saying he had been cut off by yet another drop. I could tell he was upset he couldn't find the way he had took before but I knew we would get to the base one way or the other and I was just happy no one was seriously hurt yet. For the next thirty minutes or so, John, Shane, and Thomas took turns wading down the gorge in different directions using trees to steady their legs on the extremely steep terrain. I found a spot to rest and serve as a coordinator to tell the others of each person's location. Eventually all of the group reconvened with me and shared the grim news, we couldn't get down and were now going to have to try to climb out to find another way. For a moment, my heart sunk, I wasn't sure how or if it was even possible for me to get back up some of the ledges I had to jump down, but I certainly didn't want to stay there either. I took the lead and made it up to the tree that gave John problems but I was able to once again scramble up it with ease. I had to twist my body a little funny to get under the fallen tree but it was one less obstacle to overcome. I entered the low lying brush with the plan of staying as high as I could on the ridge above the main cliff face. I knew the general direction I needed to take and so I slithered on my belly through the briers for more cuts and pain therapy. I could see Shane, John, and Thomas about twenty yards below me also fighting through the tangles. I reached a large rounded rock with no way to climb over and was forced to go downhill to join them. We found ourselves at the narrow soft ledge and the vertical climb up the rock face. Thomas and John could used the dead tree to climb over it and were soon on their way back to the main splash pool. Shane was ahead of me and struggled slightly climbing up and warned me not to use the dead tree which was now dangerously loose. My first attempt up the rock ended in failure with me sliding down it's face on my left forearm leaving some skin behind. The second try the grip I had on Shane's hiking stick failed and I once again stumbled back down to the ledge. Shane called for John to help us but he couldn't hear us because he was already at the waterfall washing off from the climb out! After I rested a moment, Shane braced himself and again lowered his hiking stick down for me to have something to grip until I could find any kind of traction, I used the dead tree just enough to pull up and land on my knees on the narrow landing above. I was so relieved but still had a treacherous scoot over a rock face down to the upper falls and the deep pool to be with everyone else. When I arrived at the pool, I almost made another fatal mistake, I walked dangerously close to the slick stream bed and John called me back to use a small side pool to wash off instead. My body was beat up but I was alive and happy that we would still find a way to the base. Thomas was down on himself but once I had my breath I told him, that what we had experienced would make for a great story for the blog and not to worry about it!
Ginseng near Flat Creek Falls.
FINALLY! Flat Creek Falls. Look at John and Shane to the left of the picture, they are tiny compared to this giant waterfall.
The lower drop of the falls is nearly 100ft high. Photo by John Forbes.
John Forbes making the leap of faith. A fall here would have been fatal. Photo by Shane Estep.
Shane sliding down the rock below the falls. Photo by John Forbes.
This picture really illustrates the massive size of Flat Creek Falls. I'm tiny compared to the lower portion of the cascade. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas Mabry is inducted into the Shameless Selfie Crew.
A little out of sequence but this is when we finally made the top of the falls and found a new route to the base. I was beyond exhausted and only halfway through. the hike. Photo by John Forbes.

We rested there by the stream and soon we all were recovered enough to make another assault on finding the base of the mighty waterfall. Thomas took off through the forest finding renewed strength and we took a more gently sloping approach through the forest eventually finding a slight trail from that led us down into the gorge and downstream from the waterfall. The trail hugged the creek and as I was watching the ground for snakes I found one of the nicest ginseng plants I've ever seen. I didn't dig it since it wasn't in season and the berries weren't ripe, it was obvious other people had passed by without noticing it. We arrived at the base of the waterfall a few minutes later and I found a rock to rest on while John and Shane made the insanely slick climb around the left side of the falls and eventually vanished out of sight. Thomas joined me on the rock and seemed to be in better spirits since we had made our goal of being at the base. I was happy everyone was safe and to have a new trail contact in one of my favorite hiking areas. As we hiked out of the gorge everyone relived the challenges of the day and I'll have to admit seeing Shane's truck at the trail head was one of the greatest sights I'll ever seen, even with the University of Kentucky sticker. Thomas bid us farewell and we were on the road in search of a campsite near Panthertown Valley for day two of our trip....


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