The park rangers always warn you that the weather in North Carolina’s mountains can change drastically in a short period of time. It’s easy to take the warnings as just so much lawyer-inspired overkill, or a message intended mainly for tourists from Florida wearing Bermuda shorts and tank-tops.
But I won’t take the warnings lightly again.
Last week I hiked up Mt. Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. It’s an altitude my college friends from out West scoff at, and rightly so, as the city of Denver sits nearly that high and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains rises another 7,000 to 8,000 feet above it in dramatic fashion. Six thousand whole feet, my friends say when I talk about the beauty of the North Carolina mountains. Those are hills, not mountains, they insist.
If they had been with me on that hike they might think differently.
In the course of three hours, the temperature dropped from the sunny mid-60s to a cloud-socked 30 degrees, and then kept on plunging. By the time I set up my tent, it was snowing. The wind was gusting to around 50 mph, great walls of air that hit you like a fist and would send you stumbling if you didn’t have good footing. The trees howled and groaned and pitched and twisted, the wind rushing through the limbs and needles of the spruce and fir like the sound of a thousand snakes hissing in a pit, or one snake so big he could hardly fit into a kid’s bad dream.
Clouds billowed over and swallowed the mountaintop, leaving the black trees outlined by the cottony air.
I had ignored the ranger warnings and only brought my spring gear. I spent the night shivering in a sleeping bag rated to 30 degrees and a mesh tent that thankfully had a rain fly that helped block at least some of the wind. I wore everything I had inside the sleeping bag: two pairs of wool socks, insulated booties, long john bottoms, two pairs of pants, a long john top, two pullovers, a down vest, a neck gaiter and a fleece cap. I didn’t freeze but I was never warm, and it was a lesson learned.
Mt. Mitchell may be less than half the height of Long’s Peak in Colorado, but records show it has snowed on the East’s highest peak in every month of the year. A wind gust of 189 mph has been recorded there, before the anemometer broke, and the lowest temperature registered was 37 degrees below zero.
Our Southern mountains are more subtle and quaint than the grandeur of the Rockies, the Cascades or the Sierras, but they are more than just worn-down hills. They can remind you of that in a hurry if you aren’t ready.
I’m not a native of North Carolina, and only vaguely knew the history of its mountains before becoming a regular visitor in the last few years. While the Great Smokies are by far more widely known, the Black Mountain chain, which includes Mt. Mitchell, is an impressive string of 10 peaks topping 6,000 feet.
Timothy Silver, a history professor at Appalachian State University, has written a very good book about the Blacks, called “Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains.” It’s an environmental history, which might seem dull to some, but Silver is an elegant writer and weaves a very entertaining narrative filled with far more than stories of bugs and rocks.
You can drive to the top of Mitchell from the Blue Ridge Parkway, about an hour north of Asheville, and there is even a restaurant and gift shop near the top. But hike just a half mile from those touristy spots and you will be immersed in the pungent smell of the fir and spruce forests, which in places are so thick they block out much of the light on even bright sunny days.
Until recently I was not aware that Mt. Mitchell is the site of one of North Carolina’s oldest and most tragic controversies. In the 1830s, Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a mathematics professor at Chapel Hill, surveyed the mountain and claimed it was the highest in the East. One of his students, Thomas Clingman, begged to differ, insisting a peak in the Great Smoky Mountains that now bears his name was higher.
The controversy led Mitchell to take another surveying expedition. He made it to the mountain’s top and took some readings, but somehow wandered off alone one evening and fell to his death on a slick waterfall that, like the mountain, now bears his name. His grave is on top, along with a small tower for the tourists who drive up.
When Dr. Mitchell went missing, worried officials quickly called out Big Tom Wilson, a legendary bear hunter and mountain guide who was said to know the Black Mountains better than any man of his day. It took Wilson a couple of days to find the body, broken at the base of the cascading falls, but it added to his legend.
Hiking the Black Mountain Crest Trail from Mt. Mitchell to Celo Knob is a rugged trip even today, when U.S. Forest Service and state park crews keep the trail at least minimally maintained. It’s hard to imagine what a trip up there would’ve been like in Big Tom Wilson’s day. The wilderness would’ve been pristine and unbroken, stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. Even today you can look down from the spine of the chain and there is little sign of humankind for a good distance, at least until you reach the flatter land in the valleys with their roads, tobacco farms and pastures.
It’s also sad to imagine what the forest in Big Tom’s day would’ve looked like. Lumber companies built a railroad up Mt. Mitchell’s flanks in the early 1900s and took down stands of gigantic chestnut, oak, fir, spruce and poplar. Photos from those days show loggers standing next to immense trees 15 feet or more around at the bole, not the size of the West’s amazing redwoods, but still trees that would’ve inspired awe.
There’s not a one of them left today, and what is there, while still impressive, is stunted and often sent to an early death by acid rain and pests imported from foreign lands.
But the Blacks, at least away from Mt. Mitchell’s restaurant and parking lot, are still largely wild, a place where humbling views and absolute silence on a 6,000-foot peak can put our modern world into a different perspective.