Winter Backpacking on Grandfather Mountain

Winter Backpacking on Grandfather Mountain

To keep from losing my Ranger Bob merit badge for winter backpacking, I needed to go on such a trip some time before spring. It had been several years since I went backpacking at all - probably the last time was with Will McElwee to Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail in southern NC. And it had been a year or so before that since I went backpacking in the winter - probably also with Will on the Nuwati Trail on Grandfather Mountain. So, a couple weeks before the spring equinox - the official start of spring - I planned this trip for the weekend of March 10, 2007.


The Grandfather Mountain route was to be the Asutsi Trail to Tanawha Trail, then Nuwati trail, Cragway Trail, Boone Scout Trail and Grandfather Trail. Mostly it is uphill, some parts steeply. Along the way I saw wild turkey, deer, a hawk and for the first time on Grandfather, a grouse. It was a good way to get re-connected with the outdoors.

Joining me was'uh'nobody. Despite several invitations issued (admittedly only a week before), I was left with making a solo trip. Besides getting in some winter camping, my other goal was to shake down several pieces of equipment that I had rarely used, which I want to take on my trip this summer to Glacier National Park with Will, Hank Perkins, Kelly Pipes and Andy & Brooke Johnston. The Glacier trip will be a major test of people and gear ' 6 days of hard core backpacking for six persons at high altitude in the wilderness just south of the Canada border.

The gear that I took came through with flying colors. The main new piece to me is the Black Diamond Megamid Light tent. It is made of a new miracle fabric called SilNylon, which is so flexible and springy that it feels like rubber. Packed down into its stuff sack, it seems to be almost nothing - about 5 inches cubed. It provides a grandiose 50 square feet of floor space (double a standard backpacking tent) while weighing a zephyrous 2 ' pounds (half the normal weight).

To save weight, I omitted the tent pole and substituted my hiking staff, which I designed just for this type of purpose. It has numerous holes drilled in it. I can insert several small dowels through holes at appropriate heights, put rubber washers on each end and make hangers for a candle lantern, to dry gloves and socks, a hat rack or whatever. It worked well. Since Raven's Roost camp site has only a wooden tent platform with no flat ground, so I could not put tent stakes in the ground, I had to tie down the tent with rocks and small logs.

Another new trick was a homemade wood burning stove that I invented. It is a big tin can with numerous strategically drilled holes which causes the internally heated air to make a chimney effect and suck in more air from the bottom. It has a set of internal bolts and a screen to hold the fire box off the ground so that it gets air from below and the sides. Finally, it has another set of bolts to hold the cook pot a couple inches down inside the can, so that the top forms a chimney and wind screen. The result of these features is that it creates a bellows effect and burns hotter than a standard campfire, while concentrating the heat in a smaller place and using less wood. It only takes a hand full of thumb sized wood chips to boil a pint of water in a couple of minutes. While it is somewhat bulky to pack, that bother can be alleviated by packing other items inside it, like the cooking pots and food.

The trip was a good test of more than equipment. Surprisingly late in my career, considering how many times I have hiked and backpacked all over Grandfather Mountain for 44 years, on this trip for the first time ever, I backpacked to the top campsite, called Raven's Roost, just below Calloway Peak, the summit of the mountain. On prior trips, the campsites that I had backpacked to were the lower several sites on the Nuwati Trail and Boone Scout Trail, because those are the only ones with water. Water weighs a major 8 pounds per gallon. In backpacking terms, where every ounce counts, hauling that extra weight is like carrying a pack full of rocks. Nobody wants to haul enough water for an overnight camp stay up the mountain for several miles and several thousand feet. So, on prior trips, we stayed near the bottom. For whatever reason, I took it upon myself to go for the gusto. I found it was a reasonable slog, not the knee-buckling experience that I dreaded. It was definitely doable, and I will do it again.

Another test was to remember how to hike on a rugged trail while wearing a backpack. Since I have hiked on this mountain so many dozens of times, it was easy to forget that I was carrying a backpack. Whenever I approached an exposed rock section, it was tempting to scramble over it like a squirrel, as I am wont to do on day hikes. But carrying a full backpack changes the balance. It makes some of the more exposed trail sections tougher, almost like rock climbing.

In vertical rock climbing, many movements are committing. That is, once you make your move, there is often no turning back. You can't decide that your foot or hand is in the wrong place and just move them, because keeping your balance depends on leaving them where they are. On Grandfather, some places with rock faces on the trails are semi-exposed and require scrambling skills. These moves are easier than vertical rock climbing, but harder than hiking. Add to the equation a heavy, bulky backpack and the same locations require skills that go from scrambling to committing.

Several times, early on this trip, I attempted to scamper across a on a rock section, only to lose my balance, start to teeter backward and almost peel off the trail into a potentially long fall. I popped a huge sweat and remembered the backpack. Then I had to make some committed moves to get up (or down) the face. Add many stretches of left over winter ice, and some sections were quite dicey, especially when traveling solo. By about the third rock face, I started to get the picture and slowed down.

The weather was the usual late winter / early spring mix of cold nights and warm days. Weather conditions most of both days were sunny and pleasant. It rained all night in between (just like Camelot!). Getting up Sunday morning was tough. The temperature was just above freezing. Even though my tent was sturdy and water proof, everything inside was wet from the blowing fog and 100% humidity. Fortunately, I had done my homework the evening before and stashed inside the tent a stack of mostly dry firewood. After getting the wood stove burning, I was gratified at the difference that a fire makes. The growing light, crackling wood, smoky smell, heated air and taste of hot food satisfied all five senses and filled my body with pleasant sensations.

Soon after starting the fire, before breakfast, as I walked away from the camp site to find a secluded log and take my morning constitutional, the fog parted and shafts of sunlight broke through the tree limbs to form picture perfect sunbeams framing the campsite. I looked up and saw blue sky. Another beautiful day in paradise. Is this a great life, or what?

All did not remain perfect, though. As I was climbing from the last campsite to Calloway Peak, I ran into more and more ice on the steeper and more exposed trail and rock faces. Eventually, the degree of increasing exposure sank into my consciousness. I was by myself, and if I took a bad tumble, there would be no hope of rescue for maybe several days. With trepidation beginning to outweigh my enthusiasm, I eventually turned back. Still, heading down the mountain to the parking lot, it was a satisfying trip. A good time was had.

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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.