Sunday afternoon: the sun is shining, and it’s hard to comprehend how this weekend’s training plan, a self-supported repeat of the “All the Way to Calloway” got smacked down by Mother Nature some 36 hours ago. Then again, neither could we comprehend it at the time…
Saturday morning: we didn’t understand what the torrential rain and hissing river were trying to tell us. Our camp beside the North Fork of the Catawba River was a two-inch bog upon which the tent floated. Breaking camp in a downpour is no fun, but we diligently packed and readied ourselves before dawn for a 35-40 mile trek.
After four hours of hiking in the rain, we had made it past Bald Knob and to the west rim of the gorge. We found temporary relief in an open radio tower storage building to call my dad and confirm that clear skies were still on the way.
More messages were received from the creeks, roads and trails, all gushing with muddy water. I thought: maybe we shouldn’t try fording the river… But there’s still a bridge, right?
As we deviated northward from the MST along the west rim headed for the Spence Ridge Trail Bridge, we took the opportunity to explore Rock Jock Trail. Clouds were beginning to lift and we caught glimpses of a waterfall wonderland. The rains had transformed the gorge into something both staggeringly beautiful and horrific.
The trail itself was a continuous cascade. We often found ourselves in positions that put us at risk of inadvertently taking the quickest way down to the river. Still, the clouds were lifting and so too followed our spirits
That is, until we actually got down to the river…
Swollen beyond recognition, it was an awesome sight. Reality began to set in, but we persevered to the bridge, or what was once the bridge. The message was now loud and clear: No one was getting across the Linville today.
After thirty minutes of staring blankly at the raging water, I blinked.
Now we were not so much in a hurry, so we decided to climb Pinch-In. We found a pleasant camp along the MST to bed down for a second night. Saturday night was windy and chilly, all in all another great opportunity to test some gear. Come morning, we returned to Woodlawn and made contact with my folks.
Although this ~45-mile out-and-back trek wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, it was certainly a memorable experience. Both Uwharrie and I hiked strong and the homemade gear performed well in conditions more extreme than what it was designed for. A little video action:
Still, I'm looking forward to our Spring Break, which is just days away. In lieu of the Highlands 100 route, I intend to fastpack ~sections 12-16 of the MST to test among other things a recently completed polycryo tarptent prototype.
Fool’s Day, 5PM after work: Lily and Uwharrie drop me off at the Woodlawn/MST trailhead. The plan: run/hike the MST to Kistler Memorial Hwy, divert to Pinch-In, set up camp after nightfall, wake up, descend into gorge, ford river, ascend Cambric Branch and join crew for the 9AM start of Brandon’s Linville Gorge Madness Marathon.
For this 50-mile (with 17,000’ climb) adventure, I carry homemade fastpack gear with supplemental 35-degree sleeping bag and more powerful headlamp. I have 3500 calories packed away in the form of standard quickie mart fare in addition to the last half of a veggie burrito from Eddie’s that I wolf down while walking.
Lily and Uwharrie run and hike with me for the first couple miles in the late afternoon sun before returning to the car. I descend solo to the North Fork of the Catawba and up Bald Knob for a beautiful sunset. Above 3,500’, it’s blustery and getting chilly. I put on my wind shirt and pants and continue into the night. Lingering twilight makes the headlamp unnecessary along the gravel roads.
Reaching Pinch-In before 10PM, I descend a ways before setting up camp. The exposure on this burnt-out buttress has me pondering the 30% chance of early morning showers. I pitch the cuben fiber tarp underneath the stars and quickly climb into my sleeping bag before cooling down. Within a couple hours, the wind has picked up and a mixture of rain and ice is blasting my inadequate shelter.
Several bands of wintry precipitation are interspersed with clear skies, making for a fitful night’s sleep. Still, 7 AM comes quickly and unexpectedly. I break camp in a rush to make it across the gorge and to the start of the marathon in time. Grabbing two sturdy hiking sticks on the remainder of the steep descent, I prepare for a potentially dangerous ford of the river across to Cambric Branch. To my pleasant surprise the icy water only comes up to my upper thigh as opposed to my chest during last year’s gorgefest.
Across the river safely, I warm up on the bushwhack ascent of Cambric Branch and successfully make it to the MST before the proverbial sounding of the conch. It takes 45 minutes to ascend the Chimneys and reach the gang at the marathon start. Adam tops me off with coffee and soon we’re headed back over the Chimneys and towards Shortoff on a clockwise circumnavigation of the gorge.
After enjoying the company of my fellow adventurers, I soon find myself alone in caboose position without the fresh legs and unburdened shoulders of my cohorts. It’s okay, I’m happy to have a wonderfully sunny (albeit scary windy) day to use for testing out my MST gear and fitness. Fording the river once more, I face the second climb out of the gorge for the day up Pinnacle. Hannah and Martha are there to provide aid at the Pinch-In trailhead where I learn I’m 15-30 minutes behind the others.
I make my way back down into the gorge and pass several occupied campsites. Blasting through the tall rock walls, the wind causes two large trees to fall near me. One comes down across the river with a loud crack and explosion of limbs. Mesmerized by the confetti floating in the air, I realize it’s actually bark and branches coming my way and quickly take shelter. The destruction from above cannot detract from the celebration of life in the lower elevations: irises, violets and trillium are especially abundant in Conley Cove, the third climb out of the gorge.
At Babel Tower trailhead, the crew greets me and offers water and salty snacks in preparation for the last six miles back down into the gorge and up once more to Table Rock. I pass even more campers along this rugged stretch of the Linville Gorge before crossing the footbridge to start the long and steep ascent up Little Table Rock Trail.
Finally at the summit 24 hours from leaving Woodlawn and 8 hours from the start of this ridiculous marathon, I greet Lily and Uwharrie who have driven up to hike in and meet me on top. We endure the wind gusts to take in the panoramic views before heading back down to the parking lot to hang out with the rest of the gang. Thanks Brandon, Hannah and Martha for putting this on! And thanks to Brandon for the photos (below):