27 Mar Rooftop of the East
The Black Mountain Crest…..
Overview: Solo hike from March 19 – 21, 2016 making a loop by dropping pack at Cane River Gap on Highway 197, driving to northern trailhead of the Black Mountain Crest trail at Bowlen’s Creek Road (Watershed Rd), leaving car and riding bicycle 10 miles back to Cane River Gap. Hiking portion was on Big Butt trail, Mountain to Sea trail, Mt. Mitchell Road, Old Summit trail, and Deep Gap trail (Black Mountain Crest trail) back to car.
It is difficult to find the Black Mountain Crest trailhead at Bowlens Creek. Turn onto Watershed road which is signed as a private drive. See sign for parking about 100 feet up road. Only room for 2 cars.
I rode my mountain bike from the Bowlens Creek trailhead of the Crest Trail along highway 197 back to the Big Butt trail at the Cane River Gap trailhead. After ending a 10 mile ride with a 1300 foot climb, my legs were toast. After I locked my bike to a tree and picked up my backpack I felt like I had nothing left for the hike. I was soon laid out my pad in the middle of the trail for a short rest. The night before, I hadn’t slept well in the back of my van at a brightly lit rest stop in Waynesboro.
It was slow going. Nice ridge walks. I looked for water and finally found it coming from rocks in side of the trail. Here is the location of this most likely unreliable water source.
Big Butt trail is a dry trail. I filled everything including my 2 liter. I was dragging all day. It blamed the bike ride. I finally reached the Blueridge Parkway and began the climb up Blackstock Mountain. It was still early to stop, but I camped in the middle of the MST trail at 6100 feet elevation. No water on the MST trail in this area. Fell asleep briefly before it got dark. Barely enough cell signal to get off a text after multiple attempts. Looking at the distances on MST and the various options up Mt Mitchell I considered turning around. I thought to myself, “I’ll sleep on it and maybe I will feel better in the morning. One good thing.The predicted rain did not come. Plenty of clouds though. Water is a big issue.”
It wasn’t long and I had made good progress on the MST. Found water dripping from overhead rocks and went to work filling everything. Seemed like more water dripped on me than went in the bottle. Later reached Mt Mitchell road and I opted for the road walk to save time. Need to finish Monday or people will be worried. There were numerous streams coming down to the road. It would have been a much easier place to fill bottles.
I reached the ranger station and opted to take the old Summit trail. The first part was okay but the piece beyond the restaurant was a nightmare of rock scrambles. Bypassing the summit, I came out on the road again and walked the short distance to Deep Gap trailhead. My map calls this Back Mountain Crest trail, but the signs here call it Deep Gap Trail. The trail starts in a picnic area on the far left (North) of the lower parking area. It is marked with Deep Gap Trail signs. The trail starts off flat and smooth. To good to be true and it doesn’t last. Soon I am knocking off 6’ers. Craig’s Pea and Old Tom’s peak. From here it trail is only 11 miles to my car and I have one more trail night which I spend at Deep Gap. I no longer worry about finishing on time.
Day 2 & 3 (Late Afternoon / Night / Early Morning)
Shortly before reaching Deep Gap a few snow pellets began blowing in. By the time I reached Deep Gap at about 4 PM the snow was coming down and the temperature was dropping. The first order of business was to get the tent set up. I soon learned that it is best to pack the tent with the doors zipped up. As soon as I raised the tent on hiking poles, the door opened to the wind allowing snow to blow into the tent. I later swept the snow out as best I could. The 2nd lesson learned is to place the tent in a less exposed area (even if it might have been hard to squeeze in) and to orient the tent so that the door is not facing into the wind. This being a new tent, I thought it had doors on both sides with one door always out of the wind. The opening on the other side was actually a large mosquito netted window, not a door. Additionally, this tent needs the lower profile end facing directly into the wind. The vestibule flap on higher profile side would make a nice sail. All night long the tent shook with loud rattling and ripping sounds. The walls pushed in and it felt like the tent was being bounced around by a giant. During the night tent stakes were ripped from the ground on the key tent anchor points of the vestibule flaps. Three times, dressed only in long johns and braving howling wind and blowing snow, I ran around in the dark replacing tent stakes.
There are a number of places where ropes are needed. In January there was a snow storm on this ridge that left 66 inches on Mt. Mitchell. Can you imagine attempting to hike this terrain in 66 inches of snow? You should always be prepared for severe weather at these elevations.
As fierce as the wind was all night long, at 6 AM gusts blew in that made earlier winds seem mild in comparison. It was bad before, but the 6AM winds made me wonder about the limits of my situation. I’ve always noticed that the wind tends to pick up just before and after sunrise and I hoped that the worst winds would soon be over.
Long before daylight I had made my plan for exiting this frigid wind tunnel. I knew which clothes I would change into and I planned to pack all gear except for sleeping pads and tent without leaving the tent. Even sleeping pads would have been packed while inside the tent if they could have fit inside the pack. Given the conditions, I had not hung a bear bag. If a bear wanted to come out in this weather for a snack, he could have it.
All packed except for the tent and sleeping pads, I exited the tent and was blasted by wind. I struggled to stand whenever I was knocked a little off balance by a gust. As I began pulling tent stakes it became evident that the tent would mount to the sky as soon as I pulled the last stake. I pulled my sleeping pad and backpack out of the tent and placed the backpack on top of the sleeping pad to hold it down. The backpack immediately caught the wind and started rolling and the sleeping pad began to fly. I snatched the pad just in time and wondered how I could hold or pin down tent, tent sack, and 2 pads, while simultaneously packing. This felt like a hurricane scene I had seen in one of those old silent movies… maybe the Keystone Cops. I explored to the backside of the campsite and found an area less exposed to the wind. There was a large rock ledge and some trees that provided some protection from the wind. One by one I carried my backpack and other items to this spot where I was able to lay out the last items while packing. A few days later, I checked the weather records for Mt. Mitchell and found that the temperature had dropped to 13 degrees F that morning with a -9 degree F windchill and wind gusts up to 40 mph. The Mt. Mitchell weather station also confirmed that the strongest gusts were shortly before sunrise.
The Crest Trail was slow going. Like many hikes that follow narrow ridges there were contnuous obstacles and scrambles. I hiked with only 4 oz of water since the night before and I had skipped breakfast. My other water was frozen. My main objective was to move steadily in order to get off the exposed ridgetop section of this trail. Whenever I hit an open area, it was difficult to keep balance with powerful gusts hitting me from the left. Hiking on the leeward East side of the ridge gave some relief. The scariest part was pulling up a rocky face to the top of an exposed narrow ledge where the wind felt like it was going to push me over the side.
I finally reached a road path that followed the contour of the mountain along the west side. Though on the windward side I could make fast progress on this easily walked section. This soon led me to the point where the trail descended from the crest. After 5 minutes of descent, I saw my first people since Mt Mitchell. A group of 5 or 6 with heavy backpacks were headed toward the crest. They were sure to have some interesting times with those packs on the rock scrambles. Once off the crest there were soon a number of water sources.
This is the trail. No ropes here.
Heavy cloud blankets view back along the Black Mountain Crest toward Mt. Mitchell.