Saturday, May 23, 2015

For over three hours last Monday I sat in a doctor's office waiting to hear the news I already knew. When I'm still for that long, I get antsy and I did anything I could to pass the time from play with my phone to watch a TV I couldn't hear in the corner of the room, but mostly I thought of everything I was going to miss out on.

When I finally got put in a room after hour two, the insult to my injury was hung on the wall for me to see. A couple of sub par nature pictures stared back at me from dusty frames and I recognized each of them as places that I had already hiked.

Hiking, after all, is what got me in this mess. My right big toe was snarled sideways swollen and blue. The day before was perfect, I was even dumb enough to say it, "today's been a perfect day" and this was AFTER I broke my toe.

Climbing the ridges along Sill Branch.

Sunday was Mother's Day and although I worked for part of the day I still found time that afternoon to travel to my parents and spend time with mom who is recovering from a broken ankle. She's used to being on the move and a lot of my drive I definitely inherited from her. It was her holiday but I always include dad and Uncle Jim and the four of us shared our meal and the strawberry shortcake I'd brought from work. Mom read her card once, and then again after she ate, and cried when I left.

Driving home I was exhausted, I felt like I hadn't had a day off in weeks. All I could think about was how nice the late afternoon nap was going to be and when I slipped between the cool sheets my mind wouldn't let me sleep. It was absolutely gorgeous outside and at around 90 degrees, one of the warmer days we've had this year. I glanced at my weather app on the phone and noticed there was no chance of rain in Erwin, Tennessee. I hadn't been hiking since the Sand Cave a week earlier and I had thought of the trail every day since.
The view got better as I climbed.
First view of the Monkeyhead Rocks.

On the road, my spirits remained high as I zipped toward Erwin and a date with Monkeyhead Rocks in the Clarks Creek area off of highway 107. I'd never been there before but knew their location from viewing them across the gorge from the Upper Sill Branch Trail. The dirt road into Clarks Creek was packed with people. Campers, horseback riders, and hikers filled all the pull offs as I made my way to the Sill Branch parking area. I got lucky by getting the last spot available there and jumped out of my truck and surveyed the situation. I chose to find the rocks my way, which also happens to be the hard way.
The way higher.
Along the cliff wall.

I walked back down the gravel road a short distance crossing over Sill Branch and leaving the road into the woods. Keep in mind, there's no sign of a trail here at all. The rest of the way to Monkeyhead Rocks would be fueled by pure determination. I found my way onto a flat grade about twenty feet above the stream and followed it upstream pushing through heavy growth on what once was most likely a logging road. I decided I would gradually climb the ridge instead of trying a straight up approach. As I wound up the ridge the footing and terrain were difficult. Although it was late in the afternoon the temperature still hovered around 90 degrees. Adding to the enjoyment of it all was the shrubs covered in thorns I was wading through as I picked my way up the ridge toward distant blue sky on the horizon.
Standing in the shadow of Monkeyhead Rocks.

Rest breaks were frequent and as I climbed higher the views of Sill Branch Valley became better through the tree limbs. A large tree had fell down the grade clearing the path a little for me to shimmy up its trunk to the root system where I took an extended break in it's shade. My legs were already bleeding and I was soaked in sweat. I scanned the ridges in all directions with no sign of the cliffs. When I made it back to my feet I decided I would push straight up the ridge to save some daylight. I made it only a short distance before entering a mess of downfall and briars that were nearly impassable. The energy it took to clear this 100 yard maze can't be put into words to accurately describe it. Keeping my head down I pushed through and was rewarded by spotting a large rock rising up into the tree line off to my right. I thought it was maybe the beginning of what I was searching for but it turned out to be a lone boulder.
On top of Monkeyhead Rocks, all the climbing had paid off.
The top of pyramid rock. My last obstacle to make it onto the rock tower known as the sentry.

I picked my way to the top of the ridge and found a faint wildlife trail with tufts of hair along the way stuck in branches from passing deer. There was no sign of the cliffs but the easy walking led me into a small valley and onto the adjacent ridge. The terrain once again turns steep but the open forest made the climbing easier and as I wound around the ridge I arrived at the base of the first rock making up Monkeyhead Rocks! I climbed around it cautiously knowing my true target was about to be revealed and there looming above the tree line was the Sill Branch Sentry.
I figured I would take one last picture in case I fell.
Across this rock is where I wanted to get to, but look how difficult the pyranids shape is, and on both sides is around a 50ft drop off.

The rock formation was more impressive and intimidating than the pictures I'd seen and I wondered if I could even get out on its edge from where I stood below. I found a narrow chasm to access the cliffs and eased my way up the rock wall. When I arrived above the rock tower I found that what separated me from it was the challenge. A pyramid shaped rock connected to the back of the tower. On either side of the pyramid rock was a drop that would probably kill you. I decided to rest before doing anything and took in the scene from the cliffs. Distant views above Sill Branch Valley and beyond unfolded before me. I could hear the crowd of people at the waterfall making me thankful for my solitude. After having some water and taking some pictures I decided it was time to tame the Sill Branch Sentry.
Across the pyramid rock, I accomplished my goal!
Another shot from Monkeyhead Rocks.
It was hard to give up this awesome view.

I carefully studied my options and found a slight crack with a shrub growing out of the right side. It wasn't an ideal foot hold but enough to give me a way to grip a hand hold further up on the rock. In one of the dumber stunts I've pulled I went for it and got my hand hold on the first attempt but my foot slid causing my arms to have to support my full weight. When you think you might die you find strength you didn't know you have. I clinged tightly to the rock and swung my leg high finding a tiny ledge to support a little weight before I wiggled over the top of the pyramid rock and was now facing backwards. I'm sure it looked hilarious but I couldn't laugh because as I looked off either side I knew I could have been in serious trouble. I scooted backwards until I was in a small saddle off of the pyramid and I was able to spin my legs around and face the right direction. All I had to do from there was slide out to the edge and take the gopro shot I had came there for. After playing with different angles I found that it was much easier to get off the rock than it was to climb it. Once I felt some sort of safety again, I rested on a large flat rock and listened to Sill Branch Falls far below my perch. There was a lot more cliff area to explore but the sun was heading down fast. To save time I elected to hike straight down from the cliffs knowing I would intersect Sill Branch and the main trail on the opposite side when I got to the bottom. My plan was working perfectly even as I negotiated tangles of briars and downed trees and that's when things went wrong. My feet got wrapped up in the mess of vines and limbs and I knew I was going down, I dug my feet in and put my hands in front of me to break my fall and keep me off my camera gear attached to my back. I came to a violent sliding stop and quickly jumped up afraid I may have irritated some bees or snakes hidden from my view. My wrists and elbows were scratched up and I checked my pockets to make sure my keys and wallet were still there. Whether it was adrenaline or simply knowing I had to get off the mountain before dark, I felt fine even though my toe was severely broken.
The Sill Branch Sentry from below.
Gopro parting shot from Monkeyhead Rocks.

Hiking back I felt no pain and I emerged on the opposite side of the stream back on the main trail. I passed a nice dressed couple on the way to Sill Branch Falls despite the late hour. The girl was wearing so much perfume I smelled it for a good distance past them, it was obvious they weren't there to see a waterfall.
Sunset over Johnson City, TN.

The doctor entered the room and pulled the x-ray's up on the screen revealing a fracture running the length of my big toe. He said it was an impact fracture meaning it was crushed as opposed to a twisting break. Thankfully it wouldn't require any surgery but he suggested taking a month off from hiking to let it heal properly......suggested. Until next time, happy trails.

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