Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Awesome Epochal DART Hiking Expedition

As the DART Hiking Trip was in its late planning stages, a thought occurred to me. We were planning an epic 3-day hike through the Linville Gorge Wilderness. We wouldn't be able to start until after Tristan got off work at 5 p.m. on Friday. It was now Wednesday. Don't you usually need to get a permit to camp in a wilderness area? A quick Internet search confirmed it. I called the USFS ranger station in Nebo, NC, and they told me that they had already issued the maximum number of permits. The only way to get a permit now would be to show up at the Linville Gorge information cabin between 10 am and 5 pm Friday, where 15 more permits would be issued, first-come, first-served. Oops.

Then I realized that the gorge was just 2 hours from my house, and I didn't have to work Friday, so I decided to drive to the park Friday morning, then return home, permit in hand, in time for all of us to set off on the expedition. Three hours later, I was driving my tiny Honda Fit along a rough gravel road, wondering if I'd made a wrong turn. Finally I arrived at the cabin, which turned out to be about a half-mile off a paved highway. Outside of the cabin was a sign, "Spence Ridge Bridge is OUT." I didn't have time to wonder what that meant; I got the permit, then took the quick way home, arriving back at 1:30.

After some frantic packing, I managed to meet Tristan and Joe at Tristan's office in Lincolnton, and by 6:00 pm we were finally on the road. We arrived at the trailhead at 7:30 -- we had about an hour and a half to hike 4 miles, straight uphill, set up camp, and cook dinner, before darkness arrived. Here's a photo of us before we started up the trail.

Tristan took the lead, and as we briskly marched up the hill, I realized that I hadn't hiked with people in such good shape for decades. I was used to being the fittest and most-experienced hiker in the group, but today that wasn't the case -- we were all equally matched. It meant that I had worked up a ferocious sweat within minutes. Within 15 minutes, we had climbed at least 500 vertical feet, and the views were already quite impressive. Our planned campsite involved another 1,300 feet of climbing, though. Despite carrying around 35 pounds each, we were walking at better than a 2-miles-per-hour pace. This is how fast I usually plan for hikes on level ground when carrying this much gear. Soon we were at the edge of the gorge, at an elevation of almost 3,000 feet. Here we all are, enjoying the view:

And here's another shot of the cliffs -- you can see they descend quite steeply into the gorge:

After another mile or so of hiking, we found a nice campsite -- with no water. We did a quick bit of figuring and decided we probably had enough water to make it through breakfast, so we went ahead and started pitching our tents. We had to cook our spaghetti dinner using headlamps, but the meal was quite satisfying. Tristan had even brought a box of wine for us to share with our meal. Delicious! There was only one problem. Joe had neglected to bring any kind of bowl or utensils for eating. Joe then reminded Tristan that he was supposed to bring utensils for him. "No problem," Tristan said. He had purchased some oatmeal that came in its own cup, so they dumped the oatmeal into a ziploc bag and used the oatmeal cups as beverage containers / bowls for the rest of the trip!

The next morning we got up and enjoyed coffee overlooking the gorge.

Then we packed up and got ready for a challenging day of hiking. The plan was to hike about 12 miles on Saturday, then 9 or so on Sunday when we had to be home by about 6 pm. Here we're about to start the day's travels:

Now we were hiking along the ridge line, and astonishing views presented themselves quite frequently. The Linville Gorge is known as the "Grand Canyon of North Carolina," and while that may be a bit of an exaggeration, there's no doubt that the scenery was stunning:

There weren't a lot of flat sections on this trail -- everything seemed to be heading straight up or straight down. As we made our way up one of the steeper sections of the trail, we noticed a peculiar sort of trail marker:

Yep, you're seeing that correctly. Someone on the trail crew thought it would be funny to taunt hikers with a little smiley face as they slogged up this steep trail with no switchbacks.

Eventually we emerged at another viewpoint, and we began to see Table Rock in the distance. Several DARTers had run the Table Rock Ultra a couple years ago, so it was neat to see it for ourselves.

Yep, that's me and Table Rock
We ran in to some climbers here, and they were nice enough to take our photo in front of the rock.

Hiking further along, we were surprised to see the trail pass through a very narrow gap. Here's Joe heading into the gap:

And here's Tristan on the way out:

Over the next few miles we saw some really spectacular rock formations including the Chimneys and Table Rock, but somehow neglected to take photos of any of them. In this area we ran into a lot of day hikers and climbers because there is a parking lot a mile from the top of Table Rock. It was surreal to be working up a huge lather of sweat, carrying heavy packs, and see day-hikers in capri pants and flip-flops strolling by, asking us how far it was to the parking lot.

After lunch on the Chimneys, we headed on to Table Rock, where there were more stunning (and undocumented) views. I had planned to take a photo of the group here with my phone and post it to the DART Facebook page (the better to make my fellow DARTers drool in jealousy), but despite not having turned the phone on for the entire trip, the battery was completely drained. Oh well, you'll just have to take my word for it -- the views were stunning.

Next our trail headed down into the canyon. STRAIGHT down, that is. It was a quad-searing descent, with nary a switchback to be had, on a very technical trail. We ran into several hikers making their way up the trail or we might have thought we were going the wrong way. Eventually we reached a nicer trail, "Spence Ridge." Now, where had we heard that name before? It sounded vaguely familiar. After continuing down on a more gradual path for a half mile or so, we had our answer. We had arrived at the Linville River, but  where there was supposed to be a bridge there were just a few twisted bolts embedded in a rock.

About 10 people were here, most of them wearing bathing suits. The water was deep, and where it wasn't deep, it was inaccessible. It was a beautiful day for a swim, but there was no obvious spot for a ford. Two young women in bikinis were trying to coax their reluctant dog across the river. Finally they carried him across a gap and hopped across some rocks. There were a few deep spots, perhaps two to three feet deep, with rapidly-moving current. The dog fell in the water a couple of times and didn't like it. I decided to head over to where they had made their way across and see if I could cross without getting my pack wet. Then I looked back to the large rock where the bridge had been and saw this:

A plan in action!
A couple of kind-hearted hikers had offered to carry our packs across for us. There was no access to this spot except through deep water, but once they had established themselves, it wasn't hard for them to port our gear over!

Next, we swam across and helped haul the gear over the remaining gap:

Everything made it across, and the only thing that got wet was our shorts! We even saw a bald eagle flying overhead as we finished porting our gear. For fun, I decided to put my Garmin in swim mode for the brief water-borne phase of the trip. Here's the satellite image of my 0.02-mile swim:

You can even see the (now-nonexistent) bridge!
It was a warm day, so we knew we'd be dry in no time. We put our shoes back on and continued up the trail, now following alongside the river. The scenery was completely different at the bottom of the gorge, at an elevation of roughly 1,400 feet. We could even occasionally look up and see the cliffs we had been hiking atop earlier in the day:

Finally, after about eight hours of hiking, we decided to call it a day. We found a great campsite along the river, and Tristan and I swam across and found a great rock for sunbathing:

Here we are back at the campsite:

After another good dinner followed by some good Scotch, we bedded down for the night. In the morning we had another breakfast with a view:

Then it was time to head out on the trail. We figured we had about 10 miles to cover. Within a hundred yards of breaking camp, the trail got rough again. Within a couple miles, we had lost the trail completely. Or perhaps the trail had simply been obliterated. We were in an area where there had been a rockslide a couple years back, and it looked to me as if the trail had never really been rebuilt. Fortunately Tristan had an excellent hiking GPS unit and a great knack for navigation, and was able to find the trail again, but it took a solid 30 minutes of bushwhacking and climbing over boulders. Did I mention we were wearing 35-pound packs while doing this?

This is what a South African looks like when he has re-located the trail
One small consolation on this part of the trip is that we did see a few rhododendrons in bloom. In my experience, you rarely see the blooms while hiking in the mountains, so I did my best to document it:

We continued to hike along, seeing a few other campers, one of whom warned us of a major climb ahead. Tristan thought we could continue along the river, and the map seemed to indicate there was a river route, but soon we found ourselves on a different trail, and consulting the map we could see that we were indeed headed up the side of the Gorge. Tristan suggested we go back and look for the river trail, but I argued for climbing out where the trail was more obvious. Then we could hook on to the road for a couple miles and make up for whatever time we lost on the climb. Somehow my argument prevailed, but when we were about halfway up the climb, some of the members of our team seemed to think we had made the wrong decision. I don't understand why they didn't think that a 1,500-foot climb in the blazing heat on a grade that averaged about 30 percent wasn't a good idea. These photos should give you some sense of the mental state of the expedition about halfway up the climb:


"What? You'r'e not enjoying sweating off 10 percent of your body mass?"
Finally we arrived at the road, and took the opportunity for a group portrait with the "Bridge Out" sign:

No, I didn't wet my pants. That's all sweat!
Here's the elevation profile for Sunday's hike.

Dave's Detour is that tall section in the middle. We pretty much climbed all the way up the ridge, only to climb back down again. In my defense, there was at least a mile section along the river with no marked trail on the map, so while we did have a hard climb, we may have avoided a lot of bushwhacking. I'll leave it to you to decide whose plan was better.

In any case, we had a nice three mile walk along the road before heading back down the ridge, where progress was quite rapid and we had a pleasant discussion of our views:

"Munger, we would have been there by now if we'd just gone my way..."
Finally we headed down, down, down to the river again where there was no one to help us ford across. Fortunately once we crossed there would only be a couple more miles left to our journey, so it didn't really matter if we got our gear wet.

And our gear definitely got wet!
It was just an easy hike up what we now considered to be a very gradual slope to the car, and we were done! Until Joe noticed a tick on his leg. Then Tristan noticed a tick on his leg. Then I found one, and Joe found several more:

Tick Count: Tristan, 3; Dave, 3; Joe, 12!
After tick removal we posed for our triumphant post-hike photo!

Soon we'll have pizza!
The expedition was complete! We drove back to civilization, in the form of a Mellow Mushroom pizza place where we enjoyed air conditioning and slice after slice of deliciousness. My GPS record of the journey is below.

I neglected to record Day 1, but here's the first section of Day 2:

Here's the Swim:

Here's the last part of Day 2:

Here's Day 3:

No comments:

Post a Comment