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!

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