New Years adventure runs have become somewhat of a tradition over the last few years. To ring in 2009, Mohammed and I decided to start at midnight and run the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Marion to Mt. Mitchell and back.
The mileage post at Woodlawn Work Center indicates that it’s 26.6 miles to the summit. Mohammed and I ran these rugged 53 miles unsupported. We carried everything we needed, which is more than usual. But it was good opportunity to test some gear. I carried my homemade pack built for the Benton Mackaye.
As we climbed Woods Mountain, we had great views of the lights in town and across the expansive Catawba valley. We spotted the fleeting colorful florets of fireworks booming distantly down in Woodlawn. More impressive was an unusually large meteorite streaking across the starlit sky. I could see chunks breaking off, something I’ve seldom witnessed before.
We knew water might be scarce on this stretch of trail. This waterless gap turned out to be about 15 miles and was difficult to cover with just two frozen hand held bottles. The trail was quite technical and the temperature was somewhere in the teens. Mohammed and I decided to stick together through the night for safety.
A strong wind chilled us on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We were still some 3000’ below the summit and I was wearing all my clothing including a synthetic insulated jacket. Miraculously, I kept my furnace stoked with mom’s delicious chex mix.
We finally arrived at water near the Black Mountain Campground. Mohammed pulled ahead of me as I tanked up. I soon caught him on the 3800’ climb up the Mount Mitchell Trail. He seemed very sleepy as he gave me some good pointers about the unknown trail ahead. I hoped to be on the summit shortly after dawn.
Mohammed was unsure about the water situation, but as I rounded a bend on the trail, I encountered a flooded stream covered in ice, which had to be forded. The sky was getting lighter as I got higher. Finally, somewhere on Commissary Ridge, the sun’s red orb emerged above the eastern horizon. It was a welcome sight through the beautiful spruce forest! Juncos greeted the dawn with song.
I reached the summit exactly eight hours into the trek. The newly finished observation platform was an unexpected surprise. So too was the absolute stillness. There was no wind whatsoever.
The New Years morning view is what blew me away: mountains were visible in at least four and quite possibly five different states including Pisgah, Shining Rock, the Smokies and Roan. I could clearly see the skyline of Charlotte. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could see the Mountain Bridge. Unbelievable!
I remained on the summit for as long as I could, which was about twenty minutes. By then, most of my body was numb. I can’t imagine what it might have felt like had there been any wind.
Although I was only halfway, the sun was up and there was going to be about 4000’ less climbing on the return. I was optimistic. That feeling dissipated as I missed Mohammed on the descent. He had the key to the car and access to my sleeping bag. The incentive to log a negative split was rapidly diminishing, but I decided to push on regardless.
As the day wore on, I became more hesitant on the ice and slippery leaves. There were quite a few blowdowns on certain sections of the MST, which slowed things down. I was still able to trim about an hour off my time on the return and finished in just over 15 hours.
I was fortunate to encounter a couple hiking back to their car at Woodlawn just as I finished. They took pity on me in my running shorts and agreed to drop me off in town. Mohammed came rolling in before dark and we practically fell asleep at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. We figured out that this route has about 13,000’ of climbing.
We took Uwharrie with us the next morning to tackle a burly half-marathon up Celo Knob via Woody Ridge (which rapidly diminished to a snowy commando crawl through ridiculously steep blowdowns near the Crest) to Deep Gap and down Colbert Ridge. And today, Lily, Uwharrie and I met my folks for a run at Salem Lake as my dad prepares for next weekend’s 50K. So far I’m three for three: three great runs in the first three days of the new year!