A couple days before the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, on June 20, 2015, I attempted to repeat my rarely accomplished grand traverse of Grandfather Mountain. I have hiked on Grandfather Mountain close to 100 times, but I have never met or heard of anyone who has done this particular hike. I start on NC Highway 105 at the base of the mountain; ascend east on the Profile Trail; pass the Watauga River and Shanty Springs; reach Calloway Gap; turn right and go south on Grandfather Trail; climb and descend Attic Window Peak and MacRae Peak; and go steeply down the trail to the Swinging Bridge. At the Top Shop I tank up with water. Then I go back the way I came, all the way to NC Highway 105.
This is a long, tough hike. The total mileage is not all that impressive – only about 10 miles. But you have to climb the entire Grandfather Mountain; then you must climb and descend about that much more over all the intervening peaks. Large chunks of the trail are steep, rough and slick. It takes a long day. Thus I like to go near the summer solstice.
I have never found anyone to go with me on this route. All my attempts and several successes have been solo. On this trip I asked half dozen persons to go with me. Their answers were summed up by Dan Bumgarner, who said “Not just no, but hell no!” So, this trip was solo, too.
I got a good, early start, leaving home before daylight. Knowing how long a hike faced me, I probably pushed a little too hard at the beginning of the trail. Numerous times as I ascended from the Watauga River to Calloway Gap I got seriously out of breath and had to stop for a short rest. Upon further reflection, I think that I was also worrying about the difficulty and suffering mild anxiety attacks.
The trail is so rough that usually hikers only carry the minimum equipment needed to get by – a canteen of water, lunch food, rain suit and first aid kit. Most park visitors are apparent WASPS (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Rarely do I see a person clearly from another race or culture. Astoundingly, on one of the peaks, I encountered a young man of Latin American heritage playing an accordion! He was performing good Mexican mariachi music. I have no idea how he got that large, heavy accordion up the mountain; or why he felt compelled to practice at the top of Grandfather. But there he was.
One of my favorite things to do on outdoor trips is to play Ranger Bob. For unknown reasons, even when with a group of other persons, I frequently get approached and asked directions or advice on the questioner’s logistics. This trip I was lucky and got asked for help four times.
The good news is that I had a nice hike, a strong physical work out and plenty of fun. The bad news is that I did not complete the traverse. I got as far as Attic Window Peak and felt that I had bitten off more than I could chew. There was nothing specifically wrong, no injury and it was still early in the afternoon, with many hours of daylight left. I simply had the sensation that if I went on to the bridge then I would be too sore and tired to make it home. So I ate a leisurely lunch and turned back.
I think that I made the right decision. On the way down the Profile Trail, while my feet were stretched out over a large rock, I stepped onto a slick spot with my right foot and slipped. I almost fell and caught all my weight on my left leg. I hyper-extended (bent backwards) my left knee and sprained it. It did not help that I had left my hiking staff at home so my hands would be free to grab all the steep rocks, trees, ladders and cables. The staff may have caught my weight and prevented the sprain. Fortunately, it was not a debilitating injury and I could limp the rest of the way back to the truck.
Later while I was commiserating with Terri about my travails, mostly my disappointment that I did not finish the traverse, she asked me how much tough hiking I had done lately. When I replied “none,” she pointed out that my expectations were too high, especially for a 63 year old man. I should look at this hike as training. I should do a bunch more tough hikes. Then I can attempt the traverse again. So, I will!