Not all those who wander are lost.
– J.R.R. Tolkien
The mountains of North Carolina are a thing of beauty when viewed from afar. They are an even greater spectacle when you experience them up close. And when snow blankets the ground they are truly wondrous. Until they’re not.
This past weekend my buddy, Coop, and I set our sights on the Shining Rock Wilderness for our first winter backpacking trip. We monitored the location via webcam, checked the weather forecast daily, and packed the essentials we thought we’d need. We planned everything out meticulously, and fully expected a flawless trip that we’d remember for a lifetime.
2/20/2010, 10AM, Day 1: The trailhead at Big East Fork warns of extreme trail conditions. We scoff and head in. Within minutes we’re going in the wrong direction. No fault of ours mind you. The people who went before us hadn’t a clue where they were going. A quick check of the GPS confirms that the parking lot is 50 yards in the other direction. Not a good start for sure. Luckily, two hikers pop out of the woods and we fill their gap. One step at a time, deeper into Pisgah National Forest, traversing snow-covered trails and fighting through rhododendrons.
CHRIS: More tracks.
COOP: And it looks like they have a dog.
CHRIS: Orange tape must be a makeshift trail marker.
COOP: Good enough for me.
We push on with the sun shining down on our shoulders. Sweat begins to pour so we remove our gloves and hats. We still look cool. Real experts.
An hour in, we determine the trail we’re following is bushwhacked. Poop! We continue anyway. Over rocks, snow, and ice, through mud, up a steep slope, back down a steep slope, breaking branches, tearing skin, and eventually finding the trail.
COOP: Where’d that trail come from?
CHRIS: It’s been there.
Instead of taking the real trail we track the hiker-dog trail. A quarter mile later a group of hikers are sitting with their agitated dogs ’round a fire. Another half mile and a man with big feet is hollering at us from below.
BIGFOOT: Where you guys headed?
CHRIS: Stranger Danger, Coop.
COOP: Shining Rock Gap.
BIGFOOT: I just came from there. Too deep. Went up and had to turn around. Been walking back for about an hour.
Neither of us are fans of treacherous hikes in the dark so we stay the night with Bigfoot. Coop and Bigfoot gather wood. I gather rocks for the fire pit and set up a place to relax. Sun is going down. The three of us stomp out paths to the creek, tents, the fire pit and the main trail above (rather not get injured on the first day). As the others get settled I build a snowman to ward off bobcats (little known fact btw). The campfire is slow going. It simply doesn’t want to burn. Finally, three firestarters later, the flame is cooking our steaks. I blaze my MSR Pocket Rocket and cook up a bag of rice and pilaf. Coop grabs the iced beverages. After eating, we enjoy a cigar. A great end to a great day. Tomorrow we tackle the Shining Rock Gap Trail and hit Flower Knob.