Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Not even 48 hours after the 18 mile Grayson Highlands hike, I was back on the trail and looking for another challenge. My vacation was off to a great start with nearly 30 miles of hiking and my friend Shane had offered to take a vacation day as long as I met a few of his stipulations. He requested somewhere he had never hiked to with at least eight miles so he wouldn't feel like he "wasted" a vacation day, oh, and he had to be back to his truck by 3:30pm. The first part of the request was easy but the time restraint made picking our trip really challenging. An early start was a must and transit time had to be minimal, I tossed around a few ideas before deciding to hike to Big Bald from Spivey Gap.
As soon as we got out of the truck I noticed this on the ground. It's as if someone was taunting me.
And were off...

Early in the year I hiked to Big Bald from Sam's Gap on a late afternoon run that was cut short at the top with blistering winds and cold weather, so when I awoke to clear skies and mild temps the day of the hike I felt even better about my choice. I picked Shane up at our usual rendezvous point and headed toward Spivey Gap. Shane asked me several times on the drive over how many miles the hike was and each time I would answer "12ish" he didn't seem to believe me and kept saying "Horton, I HAVE to be back to my truck by 3:30pm!" It's become kind of a running joke since considering I've yet to meet one of his time deadlines but I was confident today would be the day we would do it.
Footbridge early in the hike.
Shane passing by High Rocks.
Fall color at the spur trail to High Rocks.

When we arrived at Spivey Gap there were a few other cars which wasn't too surprising considering the nice weather. Shane and I hit the trail passing the first sign for Big Bald indicating it was 6.8 miles away. I pointed it out and said, "see, 12ish." The trail wasn't completely new to Shane as we had hiked to the first point of interest along the way earlier in the year. A little over two miles from Spivey Gap lies High Rocks and we had stopped by for some miles after a copperhead had turned us away on Whitehouse Mountain earlier in the day. I remembered the hike for the suffering climb and wasn't looking forward to it but the elevation profile seemed to calm down past High Rocks from way I could see online. Despite the short break from my longest hike of the year my legs were feeling good and hit the stairs up the first drainage a good clip ahead of Shane. When the trail leveled he caught up with me and we wound slowly up the mountain knowing we had some more tough trail before High Rocks. Across small foot bridges and stone stairs we began to get in a rhythm and soon we were at the thigh burning final push around High Rocks. When I finally started the downhill grade that passes in the shadow of the rock I was so relieved I paused for a minute to regroup before our next section that would lower us into Whistling Gap. The cruelest part about hiking on the Appalachian Trail is the amount of work you put into climbing a mountain before walking down the other side and having to face climbing another one. This stretch, as we would discover, would really test our mental toughness.
An old tree dominates the surrounding forest.
Another giant.
A peek of what's to come.

Heading into Whistling Gap Shane suddenly started laughing. I looked over to see him fixated on a tree with an unusual growth that looked like male genitalia. We both laughed pretty hard and of course had to take a few pictures before refocusing on conserving time. Hiking downhill we both shredded trail and before we knew it we were once again hiking uphill although it wasn't extremely steep. Between Whistling Gap and Little Bald the trail climbs, and climbs, and climbs. I seriously consider it some of the hardest hiking I've done. Each time I rose from doubling over holding my knees more trail rose in front of me and the horizon seemed to be running away. I was almost relieved to see Shane suffering as much as me. We both would occasionally laugh at how ridiculous the climb was before trudging on for a few more minutes. Miles went by, slow miles, in tenths and in torture. The trail started snaking wildly in switchbacks and suddenly I was on level ground. I waited for Shane to join me and we spent a few minutes of heavy breathing, knee holding rest, before he looked over and said, "Jason, I hate you."
The male tree.
Shane resting as we start the brutal climb around Little Bald.
Old fence as we continue to climb.

Just a few feet up the trail we were rewarded for our efforts. A small rocky cliff gave us an open view of the valleys below and mountain after mountain rolling away from us blanketed in beautiful fall color. The scene was almost as perfect as it gets. It's funny how you think you couldn't possibly hike another step buy then you get the view at the top and you're ready to keep on going. Shane and I both felt the energy and regained a little of our dignity as we crossed the top of the forest covered Little Bald and quickened our pace knowing there wasn't much climbing until the final assault on Big Bald. In the guidebook, theres mention of a shelter near Big Bald. The mileage was right for us to be passing it at anytime but all we found was more trail. I saw a tree with a sign ahead but found it only to be a water source. I didn't have a lot of water left so I left Shane as I followed the spur trail a few tenths of a mile before coming to a small spring. When I rejoined Shane he had scouted ahead with still no so sign of the Shelter. We were now about a mile past where it should have been and I was beginning to think we had somehow passed it when I seen the tiny building in the distance. Shane and I both were ready for rest and food and we settled in to the shade provided by the Big Bald Shelter. As Shane was digging out his meal I spent a few minutes flipping through the journal reading of other hikers hatred for the climb around Little Bald. A nice fire pit with some camping chairs set up around it was a short distance away and another water source was behind the shelter, much closer than the first one I chose to use. Shelters are often littered with graffiti but I like reading the various musings of other hikers on their journeys, so while Shane finished his Beanie Weenies, I was reading the walls.
Near the top of Little Bald, we finally got some views for all our work.
I had to take my camera out of the pack for this view.
Big Bald Shelter.
Resting up for the run to Big Bald.
Shane reading the journal.

The only remaining obstacle between us was Big Stamp. The rolling summit of Big Stamp has some climbing but nothing like we had experience on Little Bald and we eased up the trail among some twisted trees from years of high altitude weathering. Just ahead I heard some hikers and noticed Randy Tarpley taking some pictures of John Forbes dangling from one of the trees. They had drove in to the gated area below Big Bald and were hiking back to Spivey Gap. I've hiked with both Randy and John and so we stopped to visit a few minutes before climbing the remaining couple hundred yards onto the top of Big Stamp. The forest recedes and small shrubs pop out of the grassy summit. I noticed nets stuck in the surrounding trees and a pop up tent with tables and various supplies. Randy had warned us that the "birders" were up top and they were pretty loud. The tent was empty and as we popped out to our first clear view of Big Bald I could see a steady stream of people marching toward the summit. I'll have to admit, my heart sunk a little when I seen so many people but there's a good reason so many people suddenly appeared. Along the base of Big Bald is a large parking lot and it was full of cars and a school van, I couldn't help but think they cheated themselves by driving. The private Wolf Laurel community lies in the shadow of Big Bald and if you know the right people you can pass through the gate and park...half a mile from the summit. Even more frustrating was the fact that someone had driven into the field between the two balds and parked, ruining a picture of our approach.
Leaving the Shelter the trail was really photogenic.
Approaching Big Bald.
Big Bald heading to Big Bald.
Climbing higher along Big Bald.

Shane was undeterred by all the activity and set his sights on the top of Big Bald. He was so excited I could hardly stay with him as he stretched out to a lead winding up the mountain. The tiny stream of people we had seen were now just ahead of us and we both arrived at the summit hot on their heels. The group was students from a school in North Carolina and they all stayed pretty grouped together allowing Shane and I time to walk around and explore the summit uninterrupted. The views were much better than my previous trip and I was sure to take my time and get as many photos as possible. Shane wandered across the summit from the group of students and rested by leaning on his hiking stick staring deep into North Carolina, the picture of the moment was one of my favorites of the day.
Looking back to Big Stamp.
Shane near the top of Big Bald.
This was my favorite shot from the day.

We eventually settled into a patch of thick grass off the side of the trail near the students. We struck up a conversation with one of the teachers and he pointed out several different hawks to us as we snacked and enjoyed the views. As much as I wanted to just spend the rest of the day there, I had promised to get Shane home on time so I started packing away my gear for the hike out.
I found a spot to take it all in among the crowds.
Shane helps scale the summit of Big Bald in this shot.
The group of students posing for a group picture.

Strangely, my GPS was now over 7.7 miles and the 12ish miles I had promised Shane was suddenly looking like 14ish. We only has two hours left to meet his deadline and the pressure was just fun for me to see how much more hiking I had left in my legs. Down Big Bald and across Big Stamp our progress was temporarily halted by one of the bird watchers. She used a walkie talkie to communicate to someone further ahead of us on the trail and once the bird they were after was secure she told us we could hike on. Once we reentered the woods, I thought of Randy and John and wondered if our pace could reel them in. I kept check of our time and we were knocking down miles about every 16 minutes. Despite our torrid pace, I still would take time for the occasional photograph and we even took a few rest breaks along the way.
Gopro time from Big Bald.
I think the day was a success.

The climb back down Little Bald made me appreciate the climb up it even more. It seemed like we walked downhill for an eternity and when we leveled off in Whistling Gap I knew there was only one more uphill grade before we went around High Rocks. We were a little over 12 miles and the final push to High Rocks took a lot of our already tired legs. We had several more of the hold onto your knees and gasp for air breaks before finally walking by the shadow of High Rocks again. Another hiker was close to us for this part of the hike but there was still no sign of Randy or John. Once we began the last two mile stretch into Spivey Gap the other hiker couldn't touch our pace and we never saw him again.
Back in the woods.
It was a long day. Despite the look on his face here, he forgave me.
Finally back at High Rocks.

We finally popped out of the woods at 3:45 missing Shane's deadline once again. I looked down at my GPS to see we had hiked 14.96 miles and a stunning 4500ft in elevation gain. Although Shane and I were tired we weren't to the point of exhaustion we couldn't carry a conversation and relive our great day. As we slung our packs in the truck I recognized Randy's car still in the lot and wondered where we had passed them. It was another challenging hike but it helped put me at nearly 40 miles of hiking during my vacation and inched me closer to my 500 mile goal. Hopefully Shane didn't feel he "wasted" his day after it was all said and done...Until next time, happy trails.

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