Grandfather Mountain in Ice

Grandfather Mountain in Ice

I wish I had more and better photos to show for this trip. Unfortunately, I carried my camera in an outside pocket, without insulation or access to body heat. Apparently the cold (the wind chill was somewhere below 0 degrees) sapped the battery power or froze the parts, and the camera failed about half way up the mountain, just before I got to the scotch tape ice and rime ice ['more on that below]. Photos # 5 - 9 are from another trip 33years earlier, of the same trail in the same weather conditions.


In preparation for my trip next week to lead a winter backpacking group on Grandfather Mountain, I planned a hefty reconnaissance day hike on the same trails. My goal was to renew my annual backcountry hiking pass, which expired this week. Also on the backpacking trip I plan to spend the second night at the Attic Window camp site, where I have not stayed before. I needed to see if it is big enough to hold 3 - 4 tents. [No, it is too small, so we will stay at Alpine Meadow.]

My route was an almost-double-traverse of the whole mountain. Several times I have started at NC Hwy 105, ascended the Profile Trail, connected to the Grandfather Trail at Calloway Gap, crossed Attic Window Peak and McCrae Peak, continued to the Swinging Bridge, then turned around and returned to NC-105. That is a major, all day affair. This time I started at the Blue Ridge Parkway, ascended the Tanawha Trail, the Boone Scout Trail and the Grandfather Trail, crossed Calloway Peak and stopped at Attic Window Peak. Then I returned to the Parkway. It is about the same mileage and altitude gain as the other double traverse.

The day before this trip, I checked the Boone and Banner Elk weather reports, which showed the usual early spring weather: cloudy, temperatures in the high 40's and 20 mph winds. I dressed and prepared accordingly, with several layers of warm clothes and a wind shell, but no real winter parka, bib pants or gauntlet gloves.

Imagine my shock when I got to the parking lot and saw the entire mountain covered with stark white trees, coated in rime ice and rocked by 60 m.p.h. winds. I guess the weather man missed it. I forged ahead with my trip (my mantra is that I go regardless of weather) but this weather would put me to a real test. Today was the first time that I could remember - at least in a decade or more - when I was unprepared for a mountain trip. Most of the day I had numb hands and occasionally shivering limbs from cold.

The first half of the trip up the mountain was mostly uneventful. By the time I passed the Boone Scout camp site and started climbing Calloway Peak proper, where the trail snakes around to the north and west sides of the mountain, it was full-on winter. To my further surprise, I encountered seven kinds of ice, including one that I had not seen (or don't remember seeing) before. They were:

1. normal frozen water on the surface of liquid water, like on a puddle in the trail;

2. black ice, where liquid water freezes on a hard surface, with no air bubbles, clear and transparent, but with a reflective sheen on the surface;

3. what I call 'scotch tape' ice, where fog droplets freeze onto a hard surface after first melting for an instant, leaving a microscopically thin, transparent layer like black ice, but with no apparent thickness and no reflective sheen, as if you put down scotch tape and mashed out all the air bubbles;

4. 360 degree rime ice, where fog in still air freezes onto trees, encircling the leaves and branches on all sides, trapping microscopic air bubbles and making a bright white coating;

5. windward rime ice, where fog in a high wind freezes onto trees or rocks, building up a brilliant white deposit in one direction, as much as 6 inches thick;

6. hoar frost, where water vapor rises from the ground, briefly liquefies and then freezes, which is pushed up from below by more of the same, making tiny ice geometric structures up to 4 inches tall; and

7. graupel snow, which is small, hard lumps like airy sleet, and was falling intermittently all day.

Several places I came upon 'fairy trees.' These were tiny evergreen trees, completely coated on all surfaces with glowing white rime ice. It looked as if I had surprised a band of woods fairies getting ready to decorate a Christmas tree, and as I walked up I must have frightened the fairies into hiding, until I passed by and they returned to their decorating.

Any of these kinds of ice would present a challenge to hiking. All of them together, mixed and matched in endless configurations on bedrock, loose stones, dirt, roots, trees and leaves created dangerous and sometimes barely passable conditions. The scotch tape ice was the worst, because it was most prevalent, and almost always invisible. Many places the trail was so slick, steep and narrow that I could not actually hike up (or down) it. Sometimes I had to take to the woods and push through dense trees limbs to get by. Other places I had to use rock climbing moves, such a stemming, to brace my hands and feet on rock to either side of the t rail and leverage my way up. Other places I got down to crawl or slide.

At one point I decided that my footing needed better traction, so I put on a pair of army surplus instep crampons. I had never used crampons before. The firm, crisp feel of the steel teeth biting into the ice and crunching on the rock was so satisfying that I could almost describe it as 'delicious.' Unfortunately, I had not practiced sufficiently with them at home. The crampons did not correctly fit my boots and soon fell off. I definitely plan to fix the straps and use them on future trips.

The trail slickness, added to 60 m.p.h. winds, and many exposed places where a slip would mean a long fall off a rock face and at least broken bones, if not a fatality, combined to make the hiking intensity similar to climbing a cliff. In fact, some places it WAS a cliff. This trip takes the record as the most difficult hike of my career.

The awareness that I was traveling solo, with questionable cell phone coverage, kept me on a mental and emotional edge the whole day. By the time that I returned to the truck, I was exhausted. But I accomplished my goal of scoping out the Attic Window camp site. Was it worth it? Yes, but only because I made it back in one piece. If I had taken a bad fall, then probably not

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.