James and I went for our final practice hike this week before leaving for Patagonia on Sunday. We thought we would pick something challenging but not too long so we decided to climb up to Shining Rock at 6,040ft. The hike was a loop about 8 miles in total. Having never hiked in a federally designated Wilderness Area, little did we know how minimally the trails are maintained and how difficult to follow. What started out as an eight hour hike ended up being 33 hours long.
Shining Rock Wilderness was one of the original Wilderness Areas. It is the largest Wilderness Area in North Carolina and is named for a massive white quartz boulder which sits on top of the mountain. The purpose of a wilderness area is to leave the land as unchanged as possible. Trails are not marked or blazed in any way and are minimally maintained which can make it difficult to follow them.
It’s about a 40 minute drive to the trail head from our Asheville Bed and Breakfast so we left relatively early in the morning. We knew the hike would be hard and we made sure we had a map, guidebook and compass. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm with clear blue skies. We were looking for a change of pace from our usual Greenlife picnic so we stopped at the City Bakery Cafe for sandwiches. It seemed like everyone in the shop was wearing hiking boots so we weren’t the only ones planning to take advantage of the day.
We parked at the Great East Fork Trail-head, beside the East Fork of the Pigeon River and started our hike. We forded a pretty little stream on stepping stones and began the ascent. It was hard, very hard. I’m 5’6″ which makes me average for a woman but the
rocks we were climbing up and over must have been placed with a giantess in mind. The first mile and a half was pretty much straight up. I knew then that I would be sore the next day. I had no idea how sore. But it was well worth it. The views were amazing and the trail, while continuing to climb, was varied. We climbed up and then walked along a forest ridge, climbed some more and entered a bald (a bald is an area which was cleared in the past, usually by grazing livestock, and has little to no tall vegetation), climbed some more and saw the summit rising above us. It was almost 2PM when we started seeing quartz rocks and boulders around us. We had hoped to picnic on Shining Rock but in spite of being on top of the mountain and right where our guidebook said it should be, we never actually found it. So we picnicked beneath a two story high quartz
rock and headed on. We were very aware of the time and knew we needed to get back before dark.
Almost from the moment we left Shining Rock we lost the trail. Actually we didn’t lose the trail so much as have trouble finding the turn. We had already decided that the author of our hiking book could have been a little less parsimonious with his words. In this case, less was definitely not more. We back tracked a couple of times but couldn’t determine which “small glade” was the small glade he was talking about. And then we saw it–a pink ribbon tied as a trail marker on a trail heading east. Oh the pink ribbon! If not for that we would surely have turned back the way we came up and I would not be boring you with yet one more blog about hiking. Clouds were starting to gather and we needed to be on our way.
Heading down (a good thing) we came to the river(another good thing) and followed the trail beside it when all of a sudden the trail just…stopped. Did I mention they don’t really maintain the trails? If people haven’t been using the trail, it may become lost under leaves or blocked by a fallen limb or tree. James and I had been on the lookout for boot prints as
we went along to assure ourselves we were still on a trail. But this one was gone. We knew that the river passed by the car park so we decided the best thing to do would be to follow the river on down. It was only 3PM and there should have been plenty of time. It was easy at the outset but then we started running into a lot of wild blueberry canes and huge stands of Rhododendron which meant we had to climb up the steep hillside to go around them or bushwhack our way through them. Climbing was James’ preferred method but definitely not mine since it was so steep that for me it was a question of climbing up on all fours and dragging myself up using trees trunks and branches. And then we had to go back down on the other-side. This I usually did on my butt. Twenty minutes in we thought we were stuck. We had come to a large stream which joined the river and seemed impassable. And then we saw another pink ribbon–oh cursed pink ribbon!–indicating a spot to cross the stream. We crossed and followed another pink ribbon back down to the riverside and continued on our way. We didn’t see another pink ribbon for 18 hours.
Yes, we were lost and yes it got dark. So we settled ourselves under a sheltering canopy of rhododendron and took an inventory of our backpacks. We each had a set of rain pants which we put on immediately along with whatever other extra layers we had brought with us. For me this included my rain shell as I was trying to carry the same pack as I will carry in Chile. James had a second layer but had not brought anything waterproof. We had warm hats and gloves, a set of hand warmers and a set of toe warmers. We spread our waterproof gaiters underneath us so we wouldn’t be lying directly on the cold wet ground. Two litres of water, a handful of caramels and half a caprese salad sandwich completed our supplies.
Even though it was barely 7:30 we both fell asleep immediately as we were exhausted. And then it started to rain. We huddled together for warmth, me lying over James as I had the waterproof jacket. Initially it wasn’t too bad but as the night went on the gaps in the rain became fewer and the cover afforded by the tree less effective. About every two hours we would eat a caramel to give our bodies some fuel to burn. This would generally be enough to allow us to doze off for a brief while before sore muscles and shivery cold would wake us again. Sometime around four AM the rain settled down into a steady downpour and it became an endurance contest to wait for daylight so we could get up and get moving. Fortunately for us it continued to be unseasonable warm and the temperature never dropped below freezing, even though there was some snow mixed in with the rain at times.
Daylight at last and we climbed up to the top of the ridge above in hopes of a phone signal but there was none. So we continued on along the river. Progress was slow. It’s hard to say whether the distance was much farther than it looked on the map or we just were moving at a glacial pace. We would see a point or a bend in the river and finally arrive there only to find that there was another bend ahead. I think the song “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” was written about North Carolina! Frustratingly we could see a trail on the other side of what we believe to be the Pigeon River but the steady rain had made crossing the river completely out of the question. I told myself we would be back at the car by noon but noon came and went.
We came to series of creeks, swelled with water, which we managed to get across and finally came to the largest of all and there, on the other side, like the promised land, was a campsite with a trail running along the river. We headed upstream to find a place to cross and at last came to a tree which had fallen across it. Do you have any idea how hard it is sit on a hard wet log and inch yourself across? Well we got there and this was the biggest disappointment of all. The trail ran upstream beside the creek but ended at the campsite by the river. What to do? It was 1PM, still pouring rain and we had no real idea how much farther we would have to go beside the river or if it was even possible. So we took the trail. It was a legit trail, lots of footprints and well traveled. We told ourselves it had to be an out and back as it ended at the campground. At first all went well, we even saw another pink ribbon, and then it started to ascend. It was actually hard to believe that a trail could go up and up and up and up and then still go up!
By now we were seriously worried as we were in no shape to spend another night on the mountain. In addition to the rain, the winds had picked up and were roaring over the peaks and the temperature was supposed to drop drastically. We both soaked through, my phone had gotten wet and no longer worked, we had been without food for 24 hours. The only thing we had enough of was water! We had told our daughters where were had gone climbing and I was sending up silent prayers that they had called someone by now. Even then I didn’t know how anyone would find us. You certainly couldn’t send helicopters up in this weather and it was too big an area to cover by foot.
And then we saw it, high above us, Shining Rock! I can not even begin to tell you how good it felt when we turned a corner and said, “We’ve been here before!” and we knew how to get back from there! Never mind that it was after three and a grueling, steep climb down. We would do it inch by inch if we needed to get back to our car. We flew down the trail, as much as our beaten up bodies could fly and got back just as night fell. I have never loved the electric seat warmer in my car so much!
(Reading this last paragraph back I realize I have far exceeded my one exclamation mark rule but I think you will forgive me.)
We got back to the Carolina Bed & Breakfast to find a good friend’s car parked in the drive and the police across the street. Our daughters had raised the alarm and it was re-assuring to know that if our luck had been different at least someone would have been looking for us. And next time, we will bring a flashlight, a survival blanket and some extra food which hopefully will remain unused in our packs forever.
One last thing, while we are in Chile I have asked Chris Sparks and Jaime King, two friends of ours from Sparking Design (get it?) to write a guest blog or two so you will continue to know what’s going on here in Asheville!