I’m so hydrated you can’t even see my pee

Apparently on a clear day, one could see Charlotte.
Apparently on a clear day, one could see Charlotte.

Gear I would not do this trip again without:

In addition to the usual stuff, of course …

Yaktrax – attaches to your hiking boots to make them easy to walk in snow/ice
Toe Warmers – I used to think they were a luxury. In this weather, they were a necessity. Next time, I will have enough for 2-3 pairs per day.
Trekking poles – I couldn’t get up the mountain without the Yaktrax. I couldn’t get down without the trekking poles.
Sea to Summit stuff sacks – Keeps items organized, dry and compact.
Titanium mug – Nothing like having to wait for someone else to finish their coffee so you can borrow their mug. Better to just get your own. Also, make sure it’s titanium. Chris had stainless steel/enamel mug. His coffee cold. Mine hot.
Soloist cookset – Ditto for not having to wait for someone else to finish their dinner. This cookset was one of my Christmas presents and I loved it. It folds up neatly – holding a fuel canister, a bowl, a spork, a pot and a bag. The pot with the long handle proved nice for scooping up water from the creek.
– Just-add-water meals. I used Mountain House mac and cheese and Backpacker’s Pantry tofu pesto and dark chocolate cheesecake for dinners, and Mountain House eggs and bacon and Backpacker’s Pantry granola with bananas and milk for breakfasts. They were all very good, in my opinion. They’re more expensive then, say, a box of mac and cheese, but here’s the thing – the meal comes in a bag that you can pour the boiling water into and then eat from. Meaning you don’t dirty up a bowl. Meaning the only dishes you have to do at the end is whatever eating utensil you prefer. Totally worth it.
Starbucks Via – Wow. This is not your mother’s instant coffee. I prefer it to some of the coffee I’ve had on the ground. In restaurants. I don’t even care if it costs an arm and a leg.

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Day 3: Establishing that I’m hiking with the insane

So, as I mentioned yesterday, the day started with a bang. The bang being Chadd yelling. As you remember, Chadd is the friend that turned around and went home due to his bad knee. Chadd apparently had arrived at home, grabbed a knee brace, dropped most of his gear, and turned around and came back. And hiked the trail alone in the dark. And arrived at camp at daybreak.

This is what Chadd saw when he came to wake us. Photo by Chadd Landress
This is what Chadd saw when he came to wake us. Photo by Chadd Landress

The order of craziness in our group apparently goes like this:

Jeff, Chris, John and I are crazy for hiking a mountain in the winter.
Kevin, Andrew, Chad and Tyler are more crazy for hiking a mountain in the winter in the dark.
Chadd is the most crazy for hiking a mountain in the winter in the dark alone with virtually no gear.

Read that last sentence again. That is most definitely crazy.

But, with a lot of luck and a lot of skill on the most crazy people’s parts, we were all at camp successfully. We even got a real fire going, thanks to the men’s abilities to gather and chop firewood. I had coffee – and I’m not sure I can describe how wonderful coffee is when I’m on a mountain, sitting on snow, holding a hot cup of my favorite liquid of all time …

I also had freeze-dried bacon and eggs. Sounds weird but it was a) hot, b) convenient, and c) actually tasty.

After a little socializing and trying to figure out how to get my feet warm (sticking them inside of cold boots is not the way, that’s for sure), we decided to hike toward the summit. I’ve summited once before, and I remember how challenging those trails are. I wondered if I’d be able to reach the summit with the lower trails being as icy and snowy as they were. But I wanted to try.

Chadd decided to head back down the mountain – yes, for real – he promised his wife he’d be home by dark. Chris chose to stay behind because of his falling issue – those trails get really narrow, and if he were to fall in the wrong spot he could really hurt himself. And Jeff decided to stick around at camp because he was generally worn out from the day before, so the two of them pledged to get firewood for the night. That was a great thing to hear, and the rest of us started out toward the top.

John, Chad, Tyler and Andrew heading toward the summit
John, Chad, Tyler and Andrew heading toward the summit

The easier part about this hike was that I carried only a day pack, containing food and water. The more difficult part about this hike was that the trail is steeper, the icy parts are more frequent and larger, and everything I said about taking deliberate steps the day before is even more important on this trail. Again, I could not have done it without the Yaktrax or the trekking poles. Or the guys that were helping. They were all really great about telling me where to step, how to step. Kevin even helped give me a boost a few times as I had to take a big step, and he caught me once when I went sliding backward in the ice.

Smiling and bearded in the cold
Kevin smiling and bearded in the cold

Our group divided into two groups – with Chad, Tyler, Andrew and John leading the way, and then occasionally they’d stop and wait for me and Kevin to catch up. I have no doubt Kevin could have easily kept pace with the lead group – but he’s such a good brother that he stayed with me as I kept it slow, steady, deliberate.

When hiking, especially hiking a difficult trail, one tends to look down the entire time. A hiker has to know where his feet will be going, so looking up almost isn’t an option. In fact, sometimes I found myself taking several steps, stopping, then looking around to see the sights. As a result of looking down, one doesn’t always see what’s above him  – at times, directly above.

During one such time, I saw a shadow of a branch in the snow above me. Rather than do the smart thing and stop and look up, I ducked and kept walking. I had no idea if the branch was right above my head or 10 feet above. Kevin was right behind me, and about the time I had the thought, Maybe I should warn him about the shadow, I heard, “Ow!” Oops.

Chad turned around then and started laughing – apparently he’d also hit the branch, and was hoping we hadn’t seen him do it. He then stuck with us for the rest of our hike – and I laughed to Kevin later that between my slowness and Kevin’s branch hitting, Chad probably thought, those people need a guide!

The great part about this hike was that we took the time to stop and photograph the views. We weren’t in a huge hurry, and it was such a fun thing to take in all the sights. We could see Chimney Rock, a well-known mountain with lots of things to do. Chad had heard that we could see Charlotte on a clear day, and we looked for it unsuccessfully.

Speaking of time, some of the guys in the fast group even left us a gift on the trail:

They claimed they were going to make snow angels while topless, but given the cold - I doubt the topless part happened.
They claimed they were going to make snow angels while topless, but given the cold - I doubt the topless part happened.

We all reconverged at the point where the Mount Mitchell state park began. At this point, there is a sign stating that the summit is 1.6 miles away, and that it will take 1 hour and 40 minutes to get there. Kevin and I knew from experience that it didn’t actually take us that long before. However, if the conditions worsened, then it could actually take longer. We looked at the time, did the math, and decided that if we did this, it was possible we wouldn’t make it back to camp before dark.

As much as we wanted to summit, we wanted to be smart about it. Neither Kevin or I had lights, and I wasn’t sure about how well this “deliberate footing” thing would work in the dark. And Kevin wanted to get back to camp to put on dry clothes before sunset in an attempt to keep warm.

The rest of the group went ahead to summit, and Kevin and I started back down to base camp. We had a conversation in which Kevin noted that my too-careful steps were perhaps a result of my fear of falling (duh!) “You just need to fall once,” he said. “Then you’ll see it’s not so bad!”

Then about 10 steps later I had my 1/2 fall I referenced in the Day 1 post. I was coming around a switchback, slid, and ended up in a snowbank. The snowbank was just high enough that it was more like a forced “sit” than a fall, as I ended up in a chair position. I laughed and totally blamed Kevin for what he’d just said. Didn’t cure my fear though – on Day Two, we passed a guy who had a bloody face, and he said he’d fallen that morning. So, yeah, I’m still scared of falling!

We made it back to camp with plenty of time, after a lunch break of a frozen Lunchables and some trail mix. The hard part is finding the eating/cold balance. Stopping and taking off a glove to eat leads to cold. But not eating leads to hunger. So it’s a delicate balance.

Once we got back to camp, we changed wet socks and warmed by the kick-ass fire Chris and Jeff created, and enjoyed some more coffee. The others showed up just before dark – they made it to the summit! – and Andrew showed me his pictures from near the top. It was amazing how much more wintery it looked even up there – and he said the winds were crazy! Check out his pictures and story here – and definitely check out his beard. Crazy cold.

We ate dinner – I had pesto and tofu, and dark chocolate cheesecake – both of which were delicious. Eventually the group retreated to warm sleeping bags and tents and bivys – except for Kevin, Chris and I. We decided to warm up with some spirits by the fire.

Note how much bigger it is this night ...
Note how much bigger it is this night ...

Here’s my layman’s understanding of how alcohol works with the cold: When your body is super cold, it kicks into survival mode by sending all your blood to your core – keeps your organs warm. Hence the cold hands, feet. When you get frostbite it’s typically on your “extenders” because your core is the “important” part. When you drink alcohol, it lowers your body’s core temperature but it also sends your blood haywire – instead of keeping your core warm, it’s roaming all over the place. So less cold hands/feet, but more cold overall.

I kept all this in mind while doing some drinking – wanted to have a little bit, but not so much that it was dangerous. We’d picked up some plastic bottles that contained White Russian and Long Island Iced Tea, and those are officially new backpacking favorites of mine. In the past we’ve only had minibottles, which are easy to carry but I’m not a huge fan of straight liquor. Oh, and of course – we had minibottles this time too, just not only minibottles. And Kevin and Chris enjoyed some Jim Beam (gross).

After a couple of drinks, we were feeling pretty “happy.” In fact, I went into the woods to pee – and came out and announced to the group, “I’m so hydrated you can’t even see my pee!” (get it – no yellow snow?)

Right as I said that, two hikers appeared from out of the woods. I am certain they heard me. Excellent timing! Kevin and I had met them earlier that day – they were heading up toward the summit as we were going down. We invited them to hang by the fire, have a drink, but they were ready to get back down the mountain. Too bad!

Eventually we decided to turn in. I tried sleeping in the bivy and that was just way too cold for me. Again, the body heat does wonders. So I crashed in Chris’ tent again. Kevin kept threatening to come in – would have been almost impossible in the one-person tent – but so warm!

Then we drifted off to sleep until morning …

Coming tomorrow – getting down the mountain …