The location was Grandfather Mountain. The date was April 19, 2014, just a week before MerleFest when Wilkes Community College will be full of people running around in short pants and tank tops. The weather report was for intermittent rain and temperatures in the 50ís. When I got to Calloway Peak, the trail was covered with ice, the wind was spitting snow and I was suffering from mild hypothermia.
The week before this trip I had planned to hike on Grandfather with some of my tennis and yoga buddies. Due to the predicted chilly, wet weather, all the other hikers decided to take a rain check. In hindsight they made the right decision. I went ahead on the hike solo. The route I took was from the Boone Fork overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the Tanawha trail, to the Daniel Boone Scout trail and then to Calloway Peak (the highest point on the mountain), and then back to the beginning, for a total of about 8 miles.
I was wearing heavy long underwear, a full set of winter clothes and a rain suit. But as I ascended the mountain, I became concerned that it kept getting windier and colder. By the time I got to the top, my clothes were wet with sweat (kept in the clothes by the rain suit) and offered little insulative value. Things were getting dicey. I needed to hang onto the cold rocks, trees, cables and ladders to keep my balance on the slick trail. So, I should have been wearing my gloves. But I needed to keep removing the gloves to adjust my clothes and take photos. In the end I gave up on the adjustments and kept on the gloves.
Most times when I take this route, I eat lunch on Calloway Peak. This time it was too windy and cold. So I retreated a few yards back down the trail and got on the lee side of the ridge (out or the wind) to the east, and hunkered down in the brush. By the time I had finished my meager trail lunch of a peanut butter Pro Bar, my hands were numb and I was shivering from mild hypothermia.
On my way back down the same trails to the parking lot, I ran into several other small groups of hikers going in the direction from where I was leaving. I tried to warn all of them of the difficult conditions on the peak and not to go there unless they were well prepared. One nice lady from Durham let me play Ranger Bob; she listened to me and changed her plans accordingly. But two other groups were led by middle aged men who seemed to be determined to chart their own course. Some of them were wearing short pants. If I am approached by someone in the wilderness coming from the direction where I am going, I will pay attention to what they are trying to tell me. These men would not engage me in a conversation and kept talking to their companions. I left them to their own devices and went on down the trail. I will watch the news for a rescue on Grandfather Mountain in the next day or two.
Some of the park rangers had gone to a great deal of trouble to cut back much of the rhododendron, briars, balsam and other brush that hems in most of the trail. A few rough places were straightened or smoothed. In some ways, the results were pleasant. When things are getting tough Ė cold, near dark, maybe a little lost, it is more heartening to have a wide open trail. But in another way, I missed the old grown over trails, which I had been used to hiking for multiple decades. Still, the trails are never easy. Nearly every step is on a rock, root, in the mud or an occasional puddle. Regardless of the weather, 90% of the time the trail is wet and slick. The hiker can never relax and just walk. Every step requires work and effort planning were to place his or her boot.
For the last few years, each of the times that I have hiked rugged trails on Grandfather Mountain, in Linville Gorge and a few other rough places, I have been surprised by how difficult they are. I have been hiking on these same trails for the last 45 years with little concern. I donít think the trails are actually changing. The only thing to which I can attribute this new found problem is my own advancing age. At 63 years old, I may be losing some of my strength and balance. Unfortunately, some day I may have to face the prospect that these trails are beyond my reach. In the meantime, I have been pleased to see that I can navigate the trails about as well as most of my companions. In fact, I am the best hiker I know when it comes to balancing on rocks and logs to cross creeks without taking off my boots. So, I am good for a few more years.