Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mt. Mitchell Double Ascent

Several weeks ago a friend of mine (Karl) asked me if I was planning on doing any big climbs in preparation for Leadville this year.  While I had thought about it, I hadn't gotten around to actually planning anything and probably wouldn't have.

Karl suggested we drive to Black Mountain and run to the top of Mt. Mitchell.  Twice.  There is a trail that runs from the Black Mountain Campground to the top of Mt. Mitchell, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi River.  The trail is approximately 5.5 miles long with a low point of 2,995 feet and a peak of 6,684, for a total elevation gain of 3,689 feet.  On top of that, it is a pretty technical trail.  Naturally, I said yes.  Who wouldn't want to do that?  Besides, it was a great way to simulate the double crossing of Hope Pass between miles 40 and 60 of Leadville.  Well, as good a way as us east coasters are going to get.

So at 4am we left Raleigh for the 4-ish hour drive to the Black Mountain Campground.  We arrived shortly after 8am, got our gear together, made a pit stop, and headed for the trail head.  The campground office, store, and restrooms are conveniently located between the parking lot and the trail, which made the morning much more pleasant.

We started off at a light jog, and very soon the trail pitched up.  Like a couple of morons, we kept running for the first little while in a gross overestimation of our abilities.  Very quickly it became apparent that this "run" was going to be a power hike to the top.  We slowed our pace to a brisk walk, which was as fast as we could manage with the incline and the roots and rocks that were omnipresent.

As we were getting an early start, we kept rounding corners and finding patches of young hippies and hipsters camping just off the trail in campsites of varying complexity and sophistication.  Many of them were just beginning to stir and seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

As we climbed higher we encountered fewer hippie nests until we were very alone on the mountain.  We got extremely lucky with the weather.  We chose July 5th for our adventure, not because of the holiday, but because that was when it fit with my training schedule.  Normally July in North Carolina is hot.  Hot and steamy.  Stupid hot.  Not today.  It never got out of the 60s and at times became downright chilly.  This was right up my alley as I function much better in colder weather.

The trail is marked by blue blazes, which should be easy enough to follow, but we managed to miss a turn on the way up and added another half mile to our first trip.  This was a minus, plus, minus situation.  The first minus was the extra half mile.  The plus was that the gradient was a little more gradual.  The second minus was that the trail was WAY more overgrown than the more direct route, and at times I joked that I felt like I was running the Barkley.  (Side note:  I am VERY aware that climbing Mt. Mitchell on a marked trail is no comparison to Barkley.  I'm not a moron.)

Eventually we met back up with the blue trail.  Fortunately, Karl had studied the route and knew about the split and that it would rejoin, so we didn't have to back track.  I was in no way prepared and was relying completely on his knowledge.  He will be crewing and pacing for me in Leadville next month so I figured it would be a good opportunity to put my trust in him.  That and I'm lazy and disorganized.

We made it to the top in about two hours.  We posed for a picture and explained to some tourists what we were doing, which made them feel lazy and us feel superior.

After that we hit the rest rooms, refilled our bottles, and headed back down.  I was excited to go down because I knew it would be a rest from a cardio point of view.  We ran when we could but had to hike most of it because of all the rocks and roots.  I didn't want to risk a fall and an injury that could sideline my training.  The trip down seemed to go much faster than the trip up, but in reality was only about 10 to 15 minutes faster.

We got to the car, refilled bottles, sat for a few minutes and ate, then headed back up.  Not too far into the return trip I began to feel nauseated.  I could tell I was running out of gas and pushing too hard.  Karl was beginning to open up a gap.  He noticed it too and asked if I was okay and slowed his pace.  Here is where I learned a valuable lesson.  I dialed my pace back just a bit and made myself eat a gel and drink some water.  Sure enough, in just a few minutes, I began to feel better.  Aha!  Nutrition and hydration are important.  Who knew?  Oh, wait.  Everyone knows that.

After that, I got my second wind and began to feel really good.  In fact, I felt as though I was getting stronger as the day progressed.  We made it back to the top, this time taking about two hours for the slightly shorter, steeper trail.  We hit the snack bar, watched the tourists, posed for another picture, and headed back down the mountain.

The woman who took this one asked if we were brothers.  Nope, just a couple of morons with matching beards.
As we left the summit for the second time, I was feeling great and excited to only have 5.5 miles to go, all of it down hill.  We didn't run very much at all, but just hiked as quickly as we could.  What I discovered is that I can power hike on a rugged trail as fast or faster than I can "run" it.  We hammered down the trail, passing people that we had seen earlier in the day.  Some of them we passed as many as three times.

As we got closer and closer, I got faster and faster, feeling more and more encouraged and excited.  I also realized this was my one chance to train on a mountain before Leadville, and I wanted to push myself as much as I could.  When we were about to bottom out, the trail smoothed out and allowed for running, so I broke into a fast run for the last quarter mile or so.  It felt great to open it up.  I felt light and strong and happy.  Karl was right behind me as we reached the dirt road that led back to the camp ground and the car.

We loaded into the car as quickly as we could and headed out.  There is no cell phone service at the trail head, and we wanted to let our families know we were alive and on our way home.  We had to drive for about twenty minutes before we finally got service. 4 hours later we found ourselves back in Raleigh.  We had started at 4am, driven 4 hours, run/hiked over 22 miles in just over 8 hours with a total elevation gain of 7,378 feet and a total elevation loss of 7,378, and driven 4 hours home. It made for a long day, but an amazing adventure.

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