Sometime around early winter in the late 1980’s Dwayne Morrison, President of the Northwest Outing Club, planned a long weekend backpacking trip to Mount Mitchell. I went along, together with a friend of Dwayne’s from Morganton. I drove my big, old Bronco with the granny gear to pick up Dwayne from his house on NC-115 south of Wilkesboro and pick up his friend from Morganton.
Our trail route started from the Pisgah National Forest’s Carolina Hemlock Campground. We ascended to the west up the Colbert Ridge Trail to the trail shelter (now gone) at Deep Gap. We then headed south on the Black Mountain Crest Trail over Potato Hill and Cattail Peak. From there we descended to the east on the Big Tom Gap Trail to the Buncombe Horse Range Trail (on older maps marked as Maple Camp Ridge Trail), back to the Carolina Hemlock Campground.
Unbeknownst to us until after we had been on the trail for awhile, there had been a huge ice storm on Mount Mitchell the week before we arrived. Lower on the mountain the weight of the ice in the trees had caused the trees to topple over and break off. These were fully grown hemlocks and pines. The fallen trees formed 15 foot high criss-crossed barriers on and around the trails. Farther up the mountain, the trees and all the dirt that held them had slid down the mountain in gigantic landslides, taking acre-sized chunks of the mountain with them, leaving only slick, muddy bed rock where there used to be a trail. We had to use cliff climbing techniques to surmount the piled trees and bare rock hillsides.
At the top of the mountain, the ice was still there. It was not the usual slick, clear frozen rain ice. Rather it was rough, milky white frozen fog, sometimes called hoar frost. But instead of the normal half inch thick hoar frost, this ice was in two foot thick, basketball-sized mounds stuck all over the trees. As we hiked along, sometimes the sunlight and warming air would cause a 10 pound chunk to fall and hit the ground next to us. With a little less luck, one of us could have been seriously injured.
Dwayne and his friend were both practiced rock climbers and had even been to New Hampshire to take ice climbing lessons. They were also fitter and more athletic than me. I had trouble the whole weekend with them hiking off and leaving me behind. Finally, on the way down the Buncombe Horse Range Trail, I saw where they had missed a turn and were hiking down the wrong trail. I whistled them back. For the rest of the trip, they kept me in sight, and I kept them on the trail.
It was an eye opening trip, to see the power of Mother Nature, and just how big hoar frost can get!