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Another failure—or not? March 12, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
Tags: , ,

Ice and snow along Woody Ridge trail

Every now and then I have a hiking experience that leaves me divided as to whether it was worthwhile or not. The last time I had this sort of outing was on my unsuccessful attempt to go up the Ravine of Raymond Cataract. This time, on a beautiful spring day, I decided to do a hike I’d done before, going up Woody Ridge to Celo Knob in the Black Mountains. It was partly just to get some good exercise, since the trail is very steep, ascending 3200 vertical feet in 2.2 miles—about a thousand vertical in one particular short steep section of well under half a mile.

As soon as I got onto I-26 heading north of town, I saw that all the high elevations in sight had snow on them—visible mainly on grassy spaces and ledges, but definitely lurking everywhere under the trees. Of course! The big rain event we had in town on Wednesday had been a snow event in those places. This is the sort of thing that I really should have thought about ahead of time—the kind of thing I’ve been known to sneeringly criticize others for not realizing—but now the joke was on me.  I had plenty of warm clothing with me, but the one item I  should have brought with me was my microspikes or any sort of traction device for going up steep snowy terrain. Should I turn back and get the spikes? I thought about it, but you know, it is very hard to turn around once you’re moving along on the open highway.

I turned east to Burnsville, then south on Hwy. 80 at Micaville. The Black Mountains towered above the Toe River valley—the upper gullies and ridges looking quite snowy. I drove to the Woody Ridge trailhead at 3200 feet and started my way up. Temperatures were pleasant, the trail was mostly bare with a few patches of snow. I reached the start of the steep section, which is a very distinct departure from the gentle woodland climb below. Up, up, up over bare ground splotched intermittently with white. At around 4500 feet, I got into continuous snow. Slippery—but at least I had my poles. I slithered and scrambled up the trail, my boots doing a sort of comical Road Runner routine of spinning around in circles with minimal forward progress.

At around 5000′ I looked at more steep snowy trail above me. The will to continue dissolved. (In fact, if I had continued another few hundred vertical feet, it would have gotten less steep and probably better.) I was there by myself and no one in the world knew where I was. I fall somewhere in the middle between folks who won’t go anywhere on their own without someone else knowing their destination, and others who will do all sorts of crazy things on their own and take the risk (you know who you are!).

It wasn’t the physical effort that was the problem, it was the continuous slipping that made me wonder when I would collapse in some interesting and awkward position with appropriate injury to ankle or knee.

So I turned around, and going down was a lot harder than going up. I retreated very slowly with my tail between my legs.

When I think back on it, part of me feels embarrassed not to have forged ahead. Part of me looks back on the image of myself climbing alone in the snow without proper gear, and I have this odd feeling of pride for being out there at all. There is a certain kind of intensity to the memory that I actually treasure, the solitary struggle up the trail.

What do you think? Be honest—I’m not looking for validation. You can tell me you think I should have gone to the top.



1. Peter Bennett - March 12, 2011

If I had been on the hike I would have been content to stop and then go back. The feeling of pride in being out there would satisfy me. When I was in my twenties I was more driven by the numbers – had to reach a certain altitude, had to reach that altitude every month of the year, etc.. I was one of those who did crazy things all alone. But on one of those trips I fell off a cliff and almost died, so I stopped being so crazy and started telling people where I was going. When I was in my thirties I became more appreciative of just being out there. A week ago I had an opportunity to do a short hike. I picked a spot where I thought no one else would go, but I soon found that there were other tracks going the same way – and not coming back, and another car where I parked, so I knew I was not alone. So I just found an isolated spot in the sun and sat and enjoyed the sound of the wind through the trees. Ahhh…

2. Thomas Stazyk - March 12, 2011

I’m not a good judge of these things–I would have turned around when I saw the snow on the hills! But I think you did the right thing–an avoidable injury could prevent you from enjoying hikes in the future, so I wouldn’t take unnecessary risks.

3. Jenny - March 13, 2011

Thanks for your comments, Peter and Thomas. I think I’ve come to terms with my decision. Although the grade would indeed have moderated a little bit higher, the particular section ahead of me where I turned around was quite steep, the snow now around 4 inches deep, enough to cover the small roots and rocks that had given me a bit of traction thus far but not deep enough for my boots to firmly sink into at that sort of pitch. I almost thought I would have to sit down and butt-slide to get back down, but I managed to get down without doing that.

4. DaffodilPlanter - March 13, 2011

I wanted you to make a U-turn on the highway and go back for your spikes! We’d miss you, you know.

Jenny - March 13, 2011

Next time, I definitely turn around on the highway and get the equipment I need! 🙂

5. brian - March 14, 2011

Were you anyone else I’d call you chicken and say go right back there and do it again in tennis shoes. However, seeing as you’re a useful source of vicarious Appalachian hiking it would cause me some inconvenience if you were incapacitated. So for that reason please continue to use adequate caution.

Jenny - March 14, 2011

Haha! Of course I would never want to cause you any inconvenience. Thanks for reminding me of that important aspect. I will be sure to keep “Brian’s convenience” foremost in my mind at all times.

6. kaslkaos - March 15, 2011

It’s always the journey that counts. And it leaves you free to dream about a next time.

7. Seth - March 15, 2011

I’ll quote Ed Viesturs: Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.

I rarely have turned around on a hike myself, but there have been a few times when I’m glad I talked myself into it.

8. Adam - March 17, 2011

I would say not a failure but the fact that you are asking leads me to believe you wish you would have gone through with it. I always forget something. Once I forgot a lighter/matches on a 3 day backpack from clingmans down to little river and back up. Wasn’t about to walk back up there and get it and ended up improvising a way to consume food on the trip by putting my ramen, oatmeal, and such in a bag with water and letting it sit for an hour. The food hydrated up perfectly and tasted fine albeit cold. In this case perhaps you could have improvised some microspikes by duct taping small sharpened rocks to the sides of your shoes haha.

Jenny - March 17, 2011

Adam, you are absolutely right. I regret not having continued up to the top. I don’t think I could have improvised anything like microspikes, but I could have somehow made it to the top. even if I’d needed to butt-slide all the way down. Somehow I was not in the right mindset to succeed, and that is what really interests me—why did I not have the determination to make it to the top? I think I have been a bit depressed lately, and that must have influenced my attitude that day.

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