Fear of heights, gale force winds, chutes and ladders, rime frost, and pushing my boundaries on a solo backpacking adventure
I was slow to get moving on Saturday morning, putzing around for last minute packing and shopping for food like salami and trail mix. All this meant I was a little slow to leave for Boone, past rusting cars in a field by a sign that read "Dirt for Sale" and billboards and signs advertising ski supplies and fly fishing guides. Worse than being late though was finding the Profile Trail parking lot blocked by orange cones and a sign that read "Lot Full." I skidded into a parking lot down the road from the trailhead to try to figure out my next move. There was another trail option for hiking up Grandfather Mountain: I just had to find it. Signs to "Grandfather Mountain" directed me to the paid attraction for the swinging bridge and nature attractions where a ticket booth attendant gave me a map and directions to the Daniel Boone parking lot off the Blue Ridge Parkway where I could leave my car for overnight parking.
The Blue Ridge Parkway outside Boone offered jaw-dropping vistas and incredible overpasses where the parkway skimmed treetops. It took me 2 to 3 times before I finally found the trailhead. It shouldn't have been that hard though: the lot was full of cars with a park ranger truck in the corner. I parked in a questionable location because the lot was so full and then I was finally loaded up and ready to go. The park ranger in the parking lot reminded me to register for a permit at a kiosk by the trailhead so I nodded and smiled and traipsed into the woods.
I was a bit at a loss at the kiosk. Since I'd planned to take the Profile Trail I wasn't prepared for how far I would need to hike from my new starting point and where I might end up. I'd checked the forecast for the night and the prediction of "gale force winds" and windchill of 16ᵒF on the summit made me a little nervous, but also gave me a tingling sense of excitement. My planning was interrupted though by an older couple: specifically a man who marveled at my pack.
"What a huge pack that is! Is that like the biggest pack they sell?"
I frowned at him. "Uhm, no. It's actually one of the smaller backpacking packs."
"It's gotta be huge! It's like two or three times the size of the pack I carried all over Durango. I had the Osprey 30 Liter!"
"Yeah, it's not that much bigger. This is the 50, because I need some serious cold weather gear for tonight."
"It's so huge! I bet it's heavy, isn't it heavy?" And with this the man grabbed my pack and tried to lift it from my shoulders to test its weight. I immediately clammed up and stared at the trail map until he and his wife finally went away. That was a first, and it took me some time to swallow my indignation at his familiarity, which was a shame because the next people who joined me at the kiosk I rather liked and wished I'd been a little friendlier towards when we first greeted each other. It was a man and his daughter, maybe around age 11. They were from Hillsborough, a town not too far from Durham with a nice state park: decent hiking for the piedmont. The man and I both surveyed the map. Had I been to the Grandfather Mountain area before? No, first time. Same for him. We chatted a little bit about the trails and potential campsites when suddenly the little girl piped up, "Is it hard hiking alone?"
I paused for a minute and thought: how do you answer that question and articulate all the highs and lows of the solo experience, while still encouraging her to be strong, independent, and see what's possible? I answered as truthfully as I could.
"Sometimes. But not always. It's nice being able to go my own pace," I said, and she seemed genuinely happy with my answer and I felt the frustration with the backpack-size-obsessed man melt away.
Finally with our campsites picked out and our permits filled out we waved goodbye to one another as I headed down the trail and they went back to their car for their camping supplies.
And honestly it was nice hiking at my own pace. I could cruise through sections of "green tunnel" or stop and admire views through dense rhododendrons and crawl atop rock outcrops that pouted like a thick lip past the edge of the trail where I caught glimpses of the rising mountain and lullful valley. And despite the rain, despite my late start, despite all my frustrations built up over the weeks before, despite it all it was wonderful being out there alone and exploring.
The father/daughter duo caught up with me at an overlook called "Flat Rock." As we all explored the sprawling rocks we made small talk - where I lived in Durham, where they camped the night before. At one point the daughter paused in her exploration, inhaled sharp, and then leaped across a small chasm between boulders whose dizzying roots disappeared in darkness ten feet down.
"We just hit our wall, so this was a good place to stop," the father remarked. "I'm still learning my daughter's limits."
And I'm still learning mine.
I left them behind at Flat Rock and that was the last I saw of them that weekend, although when I was cold and shivering in my tent on the high ridgeline I wondered how far they'd managed to hike and how they were faring that night.
I knew Grandfather Mountain was going to be insane with all the ladders, but I hadn't realized just how exposed the trail is. As I ascended through the spruce-fir forest the trail meandered in and out of tree cover.
At Calloway Peak the summit opened to the sky in a dramatic panorama. The wind literally took my breath away and I stood, stunned by the great expanse of it all. There was Watauga Valley, Linn Cove, and ahead of me the other peaks of Grandfather Mountain, rugged and rocky and imposing. It was the chill that chased me into the tree cover, and a twinge of desperation knowing that late afternoon approached and I still had miles of hard, ladder-riddled trail ahead.
Just feet past the peak I almost failed my mission. To continue along Grandfather Trail I had to take a short ladder and then ease myself down a notched rock face, completely exposed to the valley and steep slope below. I shook from the wind and the sheerness of the decline. I was afraid.
I've been afraid like this before. Just a glimpse down the trail gave me vertigo and I felt something clench like a fist in my gut, squeezing the breath from me. I was almost frozen, two hands attached to the top of the ladder rails as the sight of the valley turned me to salt, but before my muscles tensed and the rigor mortis of acrophobia set in, I whispered aloud, "Come on, Liz. You can do this."
You can do this!
"One foot down and now the other."
You can do this!
"Hold tight and step down to the next ladder rung."
You can do this!
I didn't stop. I climbed down the ladder and then I climbed down the rock face, finding hand- and footholds even as my pack swayed against my own movements, even as the wind howled in my ears.
You can do this!
This wasn't the last challenge: I spent the rest of the afternoon pulling myself up and down ladders and ledges and tackling boulder fields where the blue blazes faded into grey stone. At one of the most intense rock obstacles I shocked myself at my own agility: three young men with no packs had caught up with me on the trail and they blazed ahead nimble and sure-footed. I stared as they easily scaled the boulders and my cheeks burned from the cold wind and my self-consciousness. One of the young men noticed my hesitation and asked if I needed a hand up.
"No, I've got it," I said, and then I proceeded to prove myself right. I've got this. And, without looking, without thinking, blind to the dizzying heights, I proved myself right.
It took a moment to gather myself after the sudden burst of scrambling. I re-centered, I refocused my awareness, I took control again of my breath and my pounding heart, and I said thanks for that small accomplishment, and then I took off down the trail again.
I passed the alpine meadow campsite and picked my way along a cliff edge, panting against the growing wind that swept me and my pack against the mountain face and threatened to steal my feet from under me. The last half mile I sang to myself wryly for some sort of encouragement:
"Up on the ridgeline
gale force winds,
Oh I wish I had
Down through crevasses
and along the cliff edge,
Oh I hope I don't
end up dead.
Oh ho ho
Who wouldn't go?
Oh ho ho
Who wouldn't go
Up on the ridgeline
Click click click
God I hope I don't
break my neck!"
Finally my little song led me to my target campsite: Attic Window.
I puzzled over the wooden platform for my tent and my icicle fingers struggled with guylines as I tried to tie down my shelter against the merciless wind. I cut off slices of salami and cheese with my Buck knife and nibbled on some dark chocolate squares and wondered what I would do with the rest of daylight before finally giving up and retreating into my tent and sleeping bag in an effort to get warm and escape the pounding, insistent outside.
I emerged only for a pair of hikers: a stout man and his young son who surveyed the area to hang some hammocks.
"Do you think the wind will stay this strong?" the man asked.
"It's supposed to. The forecast said gale force winds through the night and wind chill of sixteen," I replied.
"Yes, sixteen or eighteen, I saw that. We were heading for Hi-Balsam Shelter."
"Oh," I said. "Well, you're still a ways off."
"Yeah, it's taking me longer than expected. This is the first time I've been to Grandfather Mountain since I had my son, so at least eight years. It's slower than I remember."
"Mmm." I looked over his bulk and his camo backpack and his son in a green beanie and green REI pack who kicked at dirt and fir needles and inspected the trees.
"Did you park at the paid attraction?" I asked. They had come up the trail from the direction of the swinging bridge.
"Oh no, my wife and daughters dropped us off. They'll pick us up tomorrow at the other end."
"Ah." I wondered what kind of person his wife was and how old his daughters were, and I thought about the Hillsborough man camping with his daughter somewhere on the mountain. The wind blew hard up the mountain and rattled my tent poles.
"Well, I am a little worried about the wind chill if you all are sleeping in hammocks. There might be more tree coverage on that end of the campsite, but I'm not sure about the spacing of the trees."
"Yeah," the man squinted dubiously at the fir trees which shook, animated, in the gale.
"How far is the next campsite?" the man asked me.
"It's Alpine Meadow, about a half mile from here. But it's a meadow so it's pretty open and exposed too. But it is tucked in a little from the mountain edge, though I'm not sure about places to hang hammocks there."
"Yeah," the man said and he glanced around as wind roared up a rock channel and across the campsite. "I think we'll try at least for the next site and see how it is."
"Okay. Good luck."
And as they disappeared over the rocky incline I retreated again into my tent and closed my eyes against the evening sunlight, too cold even to take advantage of the rare time to read and write.
In the morning I woke to a wintry ice-scape. A layer of rime ice coated the fir trees - real life frosted Christmas trees that looked nothing like the annual glittering kitsch on display at big box stores around the holidays. Overnight fog had supercooled on the mountain, but the water droplets only froze when the gale winds pushed the droplets against something solid like tree branches or shrubs, as though the trees were reaching frosty fingers into the wind. It was dreamlike except for the biting wind that made my eyes water, but those frozen tears just gave the forest an eerie, fantastical sheen, blurring lines and edges and muting colors to just white and grey. I checked the tiny thermometer on my pack: 20ᵒF. I shivered so violently when I ventured just far enough to retrieve my bear bag, and, miserable, I returned to my sleeping bag and resolved to wait to start hiking until it was above 25ᵒF.
An hour later, or maybe it was two or three - I'm not sure because the cold blurred more than just the trees - I finally emerged from my hibernation. Twenty-five on the thermometer. It was time to move.
I decided against shimmying down "The Chute" and hiking over McRae's Peak toward the paid attraction. The wind seemed to eat away at my courage; I only wanted to retreat, to go on home. I desperately wished for some easy teleportation to warm, humid Durham as I balked at the first steep rock ascent, but I somehow pulled myself up and out, back over the exposed cliff edge, back over the boulder field, past the deserted alpine meadow. I wondered if the man and his son had camped here or if they'd moved on, and I wondered about the group of campers I'd passed the evening before - if they'd spent the whole night and when they'd headed out that morning.
Vista, rock climb, biting wind, heavy pack. I stumbled and I crawled as my ears and fingers and toes all in turn burned from the cold. My water froze in my pack after a mere five minutes on the trail. But slowly I descended, slowly I escaped the relentless wind and sky and frost.
I finally stopped for lunch in a sunny spot that looked untouched from the night's cold ravage. It felt good to be away from some of the insanity - from real-life chutes and ladders and from a wind that blew specks of ice off fir trees and into my eyes. It felt good to be past some of the worst clamoring, some of the worst cliff edges, some of the moments when the wind blew so viciously it almost sent me careening down the mountainside.
"Seriously," I wrote in my journal, "this mountain is insane."
Hours later I finally escaped the last of the insanity as, happily, no, gleefully I stumbled into the bright sunshine of the trailhead parking lot. I was going home. I'd found my limit and I'd pushed it. I'd expanded what I knew to be possible for myself, opening up the folds of my comfort zone, pushing my personal boundaries just a little farther out. I needed space to recover from the strain, to let the stressed spaces of my mind and body repair a little, to rebuild just a little stronger, a little tauter. I would return home to rest and recover and store up a little more resolve to test my new limits again.