Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bored on my lunch hour one day at work, I grabbed a scrap of paper and made a list of 20 hiking goals for the year. All of them seemed easy enough to accomplish and it gave me something measurable to track my progress. First on the list was a place known as Flint Mountain Cliffs. My introduction to them came through Randy Tarpley's blog and when I got to stare across the Rocky Fork at them from the summit of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs, I knew I wanted to hike there as well.
The jump across Rocky Fork.
Flint Mountain Cliffs in the distance.

On the coldest day of 2015, I awoke to pictures all over social media of people's temperature gauges in their cars. The highest temperature I saw anyone post that morning was 4 degrees. The bitter cold day was also my off day that week so knowing I wouldn't fight a crowd anywhere I went I chose to bundle up and head to the Rocky Fork...alone.
One of the slabs of rocks that has fell from the cliffs many years ago.
Around the boulders and climbing higher toward the rock walls of Flint Mountain.

I didn't do a lot of solo hiking last year and I wanted to squeeze in at least a few solo days this year to make up for it. On my solo hikes it's seems I'm more careful, take more time working with my camera settings, and just the peacefulness of the whole trip can't be undervalued. I told Amber of my plans and where to find me if I wasn't home at a certain time and was off for the trail head. As I turned up Rocky Fork road the creek had a shell of ice over the majority of it and the frozen scenes caused me to drive extra slow to take it all in. When I arrived at the parking area, it wasn't a surprise to see I was the only one out that morning. As I got out of the truck it was slightly cold but my with all my layers and the fact I was going to be climbing I knew I would warm up. It was the only time I had actually worn long pants on a hike, or in this case, overalls. I've never been on the cutting edge of fashion so I'm sure I looked goofy in my outfit but I was comfortable and started the march up Rocky Fork.
The sun rising over the cliffs.
At last! The base of the cliffs.
First view of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.

The main trail takes you directly between Flint Mountain Cliffs and Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs. My first challenge of the day would be finding a way across Rocky Fork while keeping my feet dry. The ice I found so beautiful earlier was now my enemy as it covered rocks I could have easily hopped across. I followed the creek up to a small fan tail shaped waterfall and found about a 5ft gap I thought I could jump. I stared at the sloped rock on the other side for what felt like an eternity, if I missed the jump I was soaked, and I almost decided not to do it. I took my camera bag off to lighten my weight and tossed it to the opposite bank, now I HAD to jump! A short run and leap later I was dry and on the other side of Rocky Fork. From here, there isn't a trail of any kind.
In about an hour I would be peeking over this wall looking straight back down to where I'm standing!
Large tree balanced on the cliff edge.

My first mission was hiking back downstream to where the base of Flint Mountain Cliffs meet the creek. A sea of laurel make this a rather slow affair and I was sure of my footing since I had no one to help me if something went wrong.  I arrived at a rock wall that wasn't the base of the cliffs but large boulders that had broke free from the cliffs in years past. As the rocks arrived at their final resting place they brought with them any tree that stood in their way so just getting to the base of the cliffs was hard! Climbing around, over, and even under the debris field had me sweating in my layers. While resting on a rock I noticed my overalls weren't fitting right and checked to find both shoulder straps were broken! I tied them around my waist just to keep my pants up and I could keep climbing!
Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs and a tree growing from the side of the Flint Mountain Cliffs.
The narrow rock spine of the top of the cliffs.
Looking back toward Interstate 26 and the distant mountain ranges.

I made it to the base of the cliffs and the shadow they cast had the ground hard and frozen. I was on the right (if you are looking straight ahead from rocky fork trail) side and started working my way along the wall and upward. I was so focused on climbing I didn't notice that it was very steep behind me and when I finally stooped I turned to see the face of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs staring back at me. Although that was my goal in the first place, I knew the route I was on was far too dangerous to keep going alone. I instead climbed back down to the creek swinging to the left side of the rock wall. The cliffs are less vertical on this side and climbing them was much easier. Ledge by ledge I kept pushing upward and soon I could see nothing but sky above a tricky ledge that was about the same height as me. The narrow cat walk had me heel to toe and I swung my arms over the rock to feel nothing on the other side. I  cautiously peeked over the rock to see it was only a few feet wide and the opposite side was a vertical drop of well over 100ft! I had made it to the top of Flint Mountain Cliffs!
Looking over to Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.
Zoomed shot of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.
Wide angle view from Flint Mountain Cliffs.
You can see my broken overalls here! Sitting on the cliffs taking it easy.

Carefully working onto the rock I found a perfect saddle like seating arrangement and I was able to look off both sides of the narrow spine without feeling like my life was in danger. Staring across the Rocky Fork I couldn't believe how incredible Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs were and could understand why Randy was so enamored with this pristine location.  The rocks were covered with beautiful moss and lichens and I was careful not to crush them while I was resting there. For over an hour I shot pictures and video from my lofty perch and decided I needed to climb further to the highest of the cliffs above me.
Looking off the left side of Flint Mountain.
Straight down to Rocky Fork!
This gopro shot illustrates the narrow spine of Flint Mountain Cliffs.

I didn't want to walk though the moss so I left the rock ledge and reentered the forest along the rock wall. I was cut off by a towering slab of rock but by channeling some Randy ninja trail knowledge I found a winding secret path upward. Small shrubs cover the highest portion of the cliff and I wound through them until I came to where I could go no further without sharp drops on all sides. I could tell someone had stood here before with a few branches broken from a large tree I was leaning against, so I assumed that's where Rat and Boulder Man had been as well. The vast expanse of the Rocky Fork unfolded before my eyes. I was now almost even with the cliffs on Whitehouse Mountain and could see the summit of the sharp peak above them. I broke out my zoom lens and shot the various points on the rock I had been scrambling just a few weeks earlier. I was lost in the scene the cold weather and wind didn't bother me as I stayed there for yet another hour switching between lens and filming short videos.  I finally looked at my watch to see that it was nearly 3pm and decided I needed to get down and out especially before dark.
The final approach to the summit of the cliffs.
Final push to the highest portion of the cliffs.
The view from the top!
Standing below an old pine tree on Flint Mountain Cliffs.

When I arrived back at the creek I didn't feel like spending any extra time finding a dry way across and waded the icy stream. In the half mile hike back to the truck the legs of my wet pants were frozen stiff it was so cold. I changed into some dry gear in the truck and my Rocky Fork adventure was in the books
The Rocky Fork property with Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.
Zoomed shot of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs on my hike down. You can see Shrine Rock at top and center of picture.

My first solo hike of 2015 was memorable because I went somewhere very few people tread. That being said, I hope that if you are one of the people that attempt this hike, know that it is off trail cliff scrambling and there is danger involved. Also be aware of what impact you are having on the habitat by simply being there, that crunching sound beneath your feet could be an endangered plant that will never return.
For size reference, the circled area is the Crack of Doom we had our picture made in on John Forbes 100th trail day.
And here we are in the Crack of Doom. Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs are huge!

I enjoy the challenge of reaching these difficult destinations but I want to see them in the same condition 20 years from now for future adventure seekers. Always try to live by the rule, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints and nature will continue to find a way to inspire us. Until next time, happy trails.

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