If anyone, especially me, ever asks you if you want to backpack the highest peak east of the Mississippi in cold, persistent rain, make sure your answer is “HELL NO.”
I was scared brainless by the idea of solo backpacking in winter. At least one of the days I would be gone the forecast called for a windchill of 10℉. 10℉! (Okay, Abominable Snowmen, quit laughing). I’ve only seen the mercury dip that low a handful of times, and I was loathe to see it again with just a tent and the clothes and gear that I carried. My gear had robust ratings for winter weather, but every person is different, and what if my comfort level was ten degrees above normal?! After all, I am a Southerner born and bred. But I wanted to experience the solitude of winter backpacking and the joy of snowy wilderness, so two days before New Year’s I drove across the state to Black Mountain Campground. The campground was closed for the season so I left my car in the hikers’ parking lot and...promptly got lost. (Apparently you have to walk through the campground to come to the Mt. Mitchell trail). After a little bit of wandering around and double checking the map I started my ascent with 3689 feet of elevation change ahead of me.
It wasn’t long before the rain came: a chronic drizzle that pursued me up the trail and soaked me to the bone despite layers of rain protection. The forecast had called for rain only in the morning, but forecasts mean nothing to mountains. The trail became a creekbed as excess water gushed down the mountain. With every wet, miserable step I fantasized about warm meals, warm beds, dry houses, and sitting on the couch.
I climbed for hours through sucking black mud and rhododendron tunnels and then spruce-fir forest. Twilight fell early under the dark canopy and I picked my way back and forth on switchbacks while the forest eerily closed around me. Maybe it was the unfamiliarity of the red spruce and Fraser fir - you don’t see those sort of trees except at high elevations in the southeast - or maybe it was the simple starkness of the trees - so uniform with their straight trunks up into darkness - but the forest was unnerving. I liked it because it was so different, and because it so easily thrilled me.
Even so, I was reticent to make camp in the forest, not least because of the trees but also because of concern over water drainage and “widowmakers” (dead trees or limbs that fall and crush you in the middle of the night while you sleep). So I kept climbing, stumbling at times in my haste and the cold and the twilight, until finally I reached Buncombe Horse Trail and, just past that, the “generous alpine meadow” that my backpacking guide book had promised. I picked a site that didn’t have standing water and, shivering in my wet clothes and the wind, I pitched camp. I was almost desperate in my work, so eager was I to get into something remotely dry. I knew wind would be a concern on the exposed meadow, and sure enough it near ripped the tent from my frozen fingers as I pulled it from my pack.
I didn’t even bother to prepare food. I just pitched the tent and grabbed essentials for the night and finally - FINALLY - I peeled off my wet layers and pulled on something dry. I settled in with a bedraggled copy of The New Yorker while the tent rocked under the gathering gale.
Whoever says Nature is peaceful and quiet is a liar. Nature is loud and unknown and terrifying. Yep. This trip was TERRIFYING. As I lay in my sleeping bag, hugging myself for warmth, I thought to myself, “I could be warm and indoors right now with a big tin of Christmas cookies beside me.” The tent shook as the wind screamed over the meadow while I forced myself to sleep.
In the morning it was cool and cloudy on the summit of Mt. Mitchell. The observation deck hosted a few visitors - off-season stragglers who had driven up the Blue Ridge Parkway while it was still open. An older couple from Fayetteville watched over a toddler who sprinted around the platform, shrieking at the novelty of it all. There was the mother-daughter duo from Florida who shivered against the bitter wind on the exposed summit. The girl blew hot air on her fingers in between taking pictures of the slowly opening view with her iPhone. A few cold minutes later and the cloud cover had lifted enough to see into the valley. I stayed a little while, huddled in my coat, and then hurried back down the mountain. My clothes were soaked, and the temperature was dropping, and the wind bit at my knuckles and nose. I knew I would go no farther; it was time to go home.
I stopped again in the meadow for an early lunch on my way down the mountain, munching on a pink apple and cheddar slices. I was so focused on my lunch that I jumped with surprise when I saw an old hound dog emerge from the treeline near me. She wore a hunter orange collar and a GPS tracker, and she brashly stuck her nose into my pack and rummaged through it for food, so I quickly finished my meal and moved to leave. She followed me a bit before tagging along with some day hikers who overtook me down the mountain.
The old she-dog must have followed those day hikers all the way down the trail because I eventually found her again at the Black Mountain Campground, tied with twine to the barrier next to a handwritten note that said, “tie dog up here if she followen” [sic]. She whined as I walked by and then she settled onto her haunches to wait for her ride home.
Ultimately it was fear that drove me down the mountain - fear of wet clothes, freezing temperatures, gale force winds, an exposed trail along a ridgeline, and gear that was still untested in bitter conditions. But there was another fear too: one that was less visceral and more of a deep internal ache. I was alone in the mountains on New Year’s Eve and I knew, more than anything, that I should be with the one I loved, wherever that was, to ring in 2016. And so I headed home.
Disclaimer: that link to the backpacking guide book? It's an Amazon affiliate link. If you click it and buy the product then I get a tiny bit of cash. Y'all, I love you and I love this blog, but blogs are expensive to maintain, sorry. Hopefully it's discreet and doesn't drive you crazy. Thanks!