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Colbert Ridge to Winter Star Mountain October 9, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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Looking from Colbert Ridge over to Potato Hill

Yesterday morning I thought I was going to go crazy. Here’s the situation. On my hike the other day up Trout Branch, my knee popped out of joint. This has happened before, but the frequency and the severity have increased in the past few months. I noticed the joint stiffening as I descended the mountain, and the following morning I was hardly able to go up or down stairs. No big deal— right? Just take it easy for a few days.

Except that the very next day I was scheduled to join a group of six for anĀ  off-trail backpack to Three Forks, up into the deep, wild headwaters of Raven Fork. I’d been looking forward to this trip since mid-August, when it was first proposed. It took half a day before I finally faced reality and gave up on the Three Forks idea. It would be harder to imagine a more tortuous workout for a strained knee: the extra weight of the overnight pack combined with all the jumping, crawling, twisting, swinging legs over blowdowns, etc., etc. So I told my friends I couldn’t join them on this Friday-to-Sunday adventure.

I made it through Friday rather unhappily, woke up Saturday to yet another of the clear, brilliant days we have been dealt out this past week. These glowing days have been strung together like beads on a bracelet, with that gemlike translucency and play of light.

I simply had to get out to the mountains. A trail hike, not a bushwhack: with the much narrower range of motion involved, I’d be less likely to aggravate the injury. The stiffening had subsided somewhat. Take the poles, move carefully—I could do it. I opted for one of the ridges that approaches the Black Mountain crest from the east. I’d take Colbert Ridge this time, not Woody Ridge. The latter is one of my favorite exercise hikes, but it would be too steep for the knee. It rises 3000 feet in two miles. Colbert takes twice the distance to achieve the same vertical.

On my drive over along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I got a preview of the Black Mountain crest.

My route would hit the crest at Deep Gap, the indentation over toward the right

I reached the trailhead off Hwy. 80—that pretty road that follows the South Toe River valley—had a friendly chat with a guy who appeared to be living out of his van at the trailhead, and headed up into the world of bright colors.

What is it about the flame colors that amazes us so much?

But the pinks and yellows make it even better.

The contrast with the deep green rhodo leaves was also pleasing.

This maple was on fire.

I saw few wildflowers, mainly purple aster in the lower elevations and gentian scattered further up. These shades of purple and blue did just a tiny bit to dampen down the oranges and reds to the point that my eyeballs were not completely seared by the heat. I was looking at a clump of gentian when I noticed the tell-tale wobble that indicated a bee was feasting deep inside the blossom. I managed to catch a shot of the bee when it emerged.

Bee emerges from gentian.

Then the bee dived down into the next blossom. You can just barely make out the hind feet sticking out here!

Plunging down inside for more pollen. (Click for zoom.)

The oaks are a bit more subdued than the maples, but I liked the shapes and colors here.

Chestnut oak. Nice contrast between scalloped edges and straight lines of the veins.

This northern red oak was partway through its transformation.

Harlequin leaves of red maple.

Glossy galax.

As I passed the 5000′ elevation mark, I entered the deeper, darker forest of spruce, and the trail grew rockier and steeper. I’d been leapfrogging a group of three young guys backpacking. They knew I had an altimeter, and they asked me each time what their elevation was. “4170!” I’d call out, or “5250! You’re in the home stretch now!” I was somewhat embarrassed not to be going much faster than a group with overnight packs.

But I surged ahead on the steep part (“surged” is a slight exaggeration—oh well, it’s my blog, I can do that if I want!) and reached the crest just north of Deep Gap, at 5800′. I turned away from the gap to climb Winter Star, 6203′. I passed some nice mountain ash along the way. I was back in the familiar boreal forest.

Mountain ash berries.

The summit of Winter Star was definitely the ugliest, drabbest place I visited all day.

The uninspiring summit of Winter Star.

I touched my toe to the actual summit bump out of old peakbagger habits. I’d passed within a few feet of it in July 2010 on a backpack along the crest, but that was not a peakbagging trip. I still don’t consider myself to be working on the SB6K, despite whatever Peter Barr says.

Not far below the summit, I stopped in a warm, sunny spot to have lunch. The funny thing about the spot was, the rocks looked as windblown as the trees.

View southward toward Potato Hill and Cattail Peak (more of those 6Ks---the Black Mountain range has more than its share).

On my way back down, I encountered more backpackers. It seemed everyone was planning on camping at Deep Gap and doing either an up-and-back or had some kind of car shuttle arrangement to go out at Mt. Mitchell. I had accomplished my own personal goal—to avoid going crazy.

Strange-looking rock near Winter Star summit