Over the long weekend of March 28 – 30, 2008, Jim Smoak, Kelly Pipes and Bob Laney backpacked over the top of Grandfather Mountain, camped two nights and hiked back out. Lead by Ranger Bob, the idea was to get in a winter backpacking trip, at the end of the season when conditions would not be too brutal. If March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, then we got bit by winter’s last tooth and growl. On Sunday, we were in freezing rain and a few flakes of snow. But by the following Tuesday afternoon, I was playing tennis in short pants and a t-shirt.
Jim and I met Friday morning at the old K-Mart in Wilkesboro and carpooled up. Kelly drove up alone later Friday afternoon. We parked at the Boone Fork parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our itinerary included backpacking about 2 ½ miles up the Tanawha Trail and then the Boone Scout Trail to the Daniel Boone campsite, the only campsite other than those at the bottom of the mountain on the Nuwati Trail with water. Friday afternoon Jim and I bushwhacked from about two-thirds of the way up the Boone Scout Trail, out a ridge northwest to the top of Boone Fork Bowl. We pushed our way through dense brush, on no trail except those popularized by rabbits and deer. Upon successfully arriving at the saddle, there was a distinct ridge top and a view down into the bowl. Navigating our way back to the trail was fairly simple using the compass and altimeter. Later that afternoon, Kelly joined us in camp.
Saturday we awoke to a steady, cold rain. The plan was to break camp and backpack over Calloway Peak to Alpine Meadow, where we would set up the second camp. From there we would day hike over Attic Window and McCrae Peaks to the Swinging Bridge, and return to Alpine Meadow for the second night. During Saturday breakfast I had considered the idea to leave camp where it was and just day hike over Grandfather. Kelly beat me to the punch by suggesting the same thing out loud. I thought it was a good idea, and we got Jim’s agreement.
Soon after breakfast, we set off for the fairly rugged day hike. The approximately 8 miles round trip does not sound very long. But the trail is sufficiently steep, rocky, slick and exposed as to be wearing in any weather. There are many short stretches that are really like rock climbing on short cliffs. On this day, with rain slick rocks, cold wind and a few spots of ice, it was a solid workout.
Lunch was what we carried with us, enjoyed in the Visitor Center at the bridge. Fortune smiled upon us by the Center being open and heated, since we were all feeling the effects of cold, wet conditions. Heading back the way we came, it seemed faster on the second traverse, even though we gained more altitude going north. For a few minutes near Attic Window Peak, we were blessed with some energizing sunshine.
We were glad to get back to camp for a leisurely supper before dark. I was starting to suffer from a sore ankle cause by the rough trail and my stiff boots. The temperature was steadily dropping. Due to the outside dampness from non-stop rain, fog and 100% humidity, and the inside dampness from sweat after hard hiking, and having worn all my clothes (leaving no dry clothes in reserve), I was feeling the pressure to figure out a way to stay warm all night. I was a little nervous when I crawled into my damp down sleeping bag, wearing all my damp insulating clothes, before sundown to start an early night’s sleep. I feared that I would be shivering heavily before the night was over. Thankfully, my high quality, Marmot Helium, 900 cubic inch fill, down sleeping bag heated up and kept me in thermodynamic stasis all night. By morning my insulating clothes were even dry. But my outer shell clothes, hanging from a rope clothes- line inside the tent, were frozen stiff.
Sunday we woke to the results of a freezing rain. It was not a full blown ice storm. Most of the ice was on our tents, and on parts of the trail. I was too cold to get outside and cook breakfast, like tough old Jim did. So, contrary to the accepted wisdom to keep open flames out of tents, I fired up my wood burning stove (another of my many camp gear inventions) and cooked breakfast in my tent. I had brought my high-ceiling, no-floor pyramid tent just for that purpose. We had an adventuresome time folding up our ice coated, crackly tents and stuffing them in our packs.
In hindsight, Kelly’s idea to keep camp the same place both nights was a God send. If we had moved camp to higher on the mountain, and then after the freezing rain, we would have had to hike back over Calloway Peak with full backpacks. The weighted down traverse on steep, rocky, ice coated trails would have been miserably difficult, and dangerous.
Our hike out, from the Daniel Boone camp site, down the mountain to the parking lot, was mostly uneventful, except for two interesting things. There were a lot of sections with ice on the trail, which made watching our steps tricky. And Jim is a treasure trove of Wilkes County economic and political history, so he kept Kelly and me enthralled with stories of good and bad deeds stretching back over the last 50 years.
For this trip, based on the season of the year and the predicted weather, I expected early spring conditions – possibly down to freezing at night but pleasant days with intermittent showers. The weatherman missed the call. It was a couple notches closer to true winter. Most of the gear I took – clothes, boots, tent, stove, sleeping bag – were a shade too light, designed for spring / fall weather. It left me feeling during much of the trip that I was on the verge of being too wet and cold. We were never more than about 5 miles from a road, so there was no ultimate danger. But being on the top of a rugged mountain with slick, tough trails required to navigate down to the parking lot, it made me feel several times that I was a tad over-exposed.
On a good note, we saw for first time on Grandfather, exploding from beside the trail, a grouse about two-thirds of the way up, and a wild turkey near the top. Kelly heard coyotes. Jim and I saw deer sign (manure pellets) in higher concentrations than I had seen before. I believe that wildlife is making a strong comeback to Grandfather.