Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Desolate Peas-GAH

Its not very often that mother nature waves her wand in the right manner for snowy conditions in the Appalachian Mountains. Donning all my cold winter gear, including ski goggles, gloves and a slew of other safety equipment I met up with, ZB, Valerie, Clay and Dennis this past Saturday for an all day sloth through the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Even if we don’t like to formulate expectations in our minds, they will still creep into our subconscious and lead us astray. In this same manner, I expected there to be snow on the ground in the higher elevations on Saturday. As I was driving to the trails, the mountains had a very “out west” feel to them as they were gleaming white even with the sullen grey skies that loomed overhead.

Everyone wanted to know what the plan for the day was, I hadn’t thought about it much besides the fact that I wanted to be out all day. So we started traditionally by climbing from N. Mills River up 5000 to Wash Creek Road, up the gravel road to the top of Bear Branch. When we hit the turn to go up to Bear Branch, I knew it was not going to be a normal day. Getting the bike to go up a slope in four inches of frozen snow takes more than twice the effort as normal.

Snow sports have always been my favorite recreational activity. The snow puts off such an energy and that energy turns to synergy when you go out and play in it. Coming down Bear Branch was rad, yes I said rad. The snow made this incredible ripping sound as the crystals that you rode over tore apart from the surface. We were making fresh tracks and loving every minute of it.

After our glee from Bear Branch resided, we decided to take Wash Creek Road all they way to the top of the Parkway since the trails were so hard to go up. Plus I had something EVIL in mind. So up the road we went. The road had snow and ice on it but you could avoid the hard pedaling in the car ruts. I was telling a story to Dennis, Zach and Clay when I hit some ice chunks and promptly fell over going uphill almost taking Dennis out at the same time. I am sure at least one person laughed.

We knew the parkway would be closed and what a wonderful time when it is:

From there we traveled up through the tunnels of the parkway to the top of Trace Ridge. Trace was untracked and ready for our taking. Coming down a steep slope on frozen snow is different than any biking I had ever done. It takes on an entire new learning curve and forces you to forget what you already know about riding dirt. The front brake is virtually useless unless you want your front wheel to breakthrough the top layer of snow and have your bike come to a screeching halt. The back brake only works if you have broken through the top layer or it becomes a “commence rubber skating” lever by your right hand’s fingertips. Therefore, I quickly learned that the only feasible way to slow down was just like skiing. If you want to go slower, get into the deeper snow and let the friction of the snow slow you down.

So this is how we descended Trace, a wicked sliding, riding fiasco that drove everyone to pronounce their love for the outdoors. Unbeknown to us, desolation Pisgah was soon to freeze our smiles in place.

Big Creek was looming and Clay agreed that we should indeed hike up the beast on this day. This is no joke, and in the beginning we surmised how long it would take. Little did we know what lay ahead. I figured we would be able to ride the lower portion. It was slow going and took about four times the power normally necessary but we cut a path through the snow and lumbered our way to the steep section of Big Creek. I took a break and watched everyone (except for Valerie, she was smarter than the rest of us) march their way up the steeps. I had a lot of thoughts while I drug my bike up the snow. I started feeling very lethargic when I looked up and saw Clay. He was struggling to get a glove on a frozen hand so I stopped and helped. I had yet to get cold but some of the guys had taken a small foot plunge in the creeks at the bottom of the trail. I had fallen on the rocks pretty hard but avoided getting wet.

Once we got Clay’s glove back on, the sloth continued. Take a few steps, watch the bike try to slide and slip out of your grasp as the tires wouldn’t even roll on the frozen surface of the snow. Close to the top, the snow was around a ½ foot deep. I made it to the parkway and heard voices coming from the tunnel, it was my frozen comrades. I didn’t realize it at the time but we must have all looked like a bunch of crack heads up there in the tunnel trying to consume some calories and get warm:

My plan had been to descend Lauren Mountain after that incredibly difficult hike up Big Creek and our second ascension of the parkway. As I started to pedal up the parkway to the Pisgah Inn, I heard Zach yell “See ya dude.” So I went back down and talked to Dennis, they all were headed down the parkway back to Wash Creek Road and to the safety and warmth of the cars.

I couldn’t let it slip away, something drove me to want more. After all I was looking for an all day experience and it was only 3:00. I pedaled alone up to the inn. I stopped at one point just to take in the serenity and imagine how different this picture would be on a warm August day:

The last picture of the day was taken as I hiked up Pilot Rock from the Inn. I thought my hiking would be over soon as I would have some steep slopes to slide down soon. The snow continued to get deeper.

When I got to the Laurel Mountain connector I had a reality check. I would knock all the snow off my cleats while sitting on the bike and grasping a tree, clip in and shove off the tree as hard as I could. A couple times this resulted in a uncontrollable slide for ten feet or so, the rest of the time I just didn’t go anywhere. The snow was deep enough and frozen enough that even a 25 degree slope wasn’t steep enough for gravity to win over the snow. I was going to have to hike down now too.

Even though I was still relatively warm, thoughts of loneliness crept into my mind and threatened my ever decreasing will. My once over rambunctious joy of the snow had turned to a hatred. Laurel was hardly ever steep enough to ride and after going through all the necessary steps it took to get back on the bike I felt as though I was losing time every time I tried to ride.

It felt as though my tiredness was increasing at an exponential rate and I wondered if I would make it to 1206 before dark. That’s when I saw two other madmen out in the forest. I was about a 1/3 of the way down Laurel Mountain when I came across them. I can’t imagine how I looked to them but one said “Hey what’s the best way to North Mill’s River from here?” This confused me, I responded with “Where did you come from?” as they were obviously headed up the trail. They said “N. Mills River.” So I asked them if they had only come up Laurel, they said yes and wanted to know the quickest way back to the car. I wanted to laugh as I truly wanted a quicker way back to the car too. But instead I pushed on and told them the only way down was back the way they came.

This was inspiring, I had two fellow crack heads behind me wanting warmth just as bad as me. With a little luck, I was able to ride some of the bottom sections, when I went passed the meeting log I started to hold onto the hope that I might make it to the car before dark.

The guys passed me and told me they were in “survival mode.” I eventually made it to 1206, pedaled the very short distance to the top and then I knew all I had to survive was the 15 minute descent down the frozen gravel road to the car. I looked up at one of the switchbacks and saw the two guys loading their car. I thought about how nice warmth would be when I hit an ice patch and went sliding down the road. I just laughed at myself and re-mounted the bike. A few yards later I saw headlights coming up the road. It was Zach and Dennis about to form a beer party, oops I mean search party. I am grateful to have friends that are concerned.

Yes, I am labeling this one as, epic.



Stephen said...

Nice, I'm not gonna say that sounded fun, definitely unique and challengin though. I ended up driving around some and taking my wife and kid sledding. Later,

Palmetto Solo said...

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\/ \/ is for WARRIOR

clay said...

Big props for finishing the ride out! Sorry I was part of the bailout party...