Frozen Mount Mitchell

Frozen Mount Mitchell

One weekend during late November in 1977, Ranger Bob and a group of his family and Sunday school classmates from Forest Hills Baptist Church went on a backpacking trip to Mount Mitchell, NC. We were expecting cold weather, but none of us considered ourselves to be true, hard-core winter campers, nor were we prepared for temperatures in the single digits.


Among the campers were Jack Laney with his new wife of one month Melanie, Frank Laney with a brunette girlfriend, Mark Boone with a blonde girlfriend, Tom Anderson (who's Dad was one of our ministers) with his wife, and me.

The first day we hiked about two thirds of the way up the mountain and set up camp at a switchback in the trail. It was near a creek with some blown down trees partially blocking the way to the water. After a chilly but bearable supper, we were washing dishes. This trip was long before headlamps were available on the market, and lanterns were too heavy for backpacking, so all our lamps were hand held flashlights. It took both hands to hold the pots and scrub them, so with no hand to hold a flashlight, we were working in the dark.

Each time we would scrub a pot and rinse it out, we would reach in to feel if it was clean. However, for some strange reason it continued to feel like crusted food inside. After multiple cleanings followed by the feeling of a crust, somebody finally brought a flashlight to bear on the issue. We discovered that the insides we completely clean of food. But all the pots were covered in ice. Each time we rinsed them, the water instantly froze and made a thicker crust. We re-started the stoves and gave the pots a final rinse in hot water, which solved the problem.

Being newlyweds, Jack and Melanie did not want to stay in separate sleeping bags. But the bags they had did not zip together. So they put down one back as a mattress and put the other one over them as a quilt. Unfortunately, that arrangement let in cold air around all four sides. They froze! They also experienced snow on them inside their tent, when their breath condensed and fell back on them. Jack said it was the coldtest time of his life.

We did not have enough tent space for each couple to have a private sleeping area, so I shared a tent with Frank and his girlfriend. Due to the cold, we put her in the middle, with Frank and me on each side of her as protection. This tent happened to be one of Frank's NC State design class projects, for which he actually manufactured a tent. It was a good design in most respects. But it was made for two persons, so cramming three persons inside meant the outer two campers would be rubbing against the walls, which is not a good idea. And, it fell short in the ventilation department. It kept our breath encapsulated inside the tent.

As the night wore on, our breath condensed on the inside of the tent walls. Soon a thick layer of frost developed. Being as mine and Frank's sleeping bags were rubbing against the two side walls for the entire length of the tent, our body heat melted a great deal of the frost. And being as the foot of my sleeping bag was in the lowest corner of the tent, all that water pooled at my feet. My sleeping bag was made of down and breathable nylon, neither of which was waterproof.

The next morning I woke to my feet in a several inch deep puddle of water, and a soaking wet sleeping bag and clothes from my knees down. A huge amount of my body heat had been wasted keeping that puddle melted all night. In that kind of cold weather, such a mistake can be deadly. I was immediately fearful of suffering hypothermia and / or frostbite. Fortunately, I was young enough and tough enough that neither ailment developed into an issue. Nevertheless, my feet and legs did stay numb until mid-morning. Jack said his fee stayed numb the entire next day.

The rest of the trip was pleasant and uneventful. We later determined that the temperature had gotten into the single digits. A good time was had by all.

Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.