Monday, January 17, 2011

Winter Solace

The shorter days of winter tend to cause a lot of despair here in the Ohio Valley.  Those shortened days are likely to be overcast.  Add in daylight savings, wind, arctic air masses, and precipitation and you have a formula for depression.  That is what many people have told me over the years.  Soon after we fall back into daylight savings people start complaining about the now and pining away for the Spring.  NOT ME!
I love everything about winter, especially when it comes to being outdoors in wintry conditions.  During the summer you can take off most of your clothes and still suffer in the out-of-doors heat and humidity, but during the winter you simply have to put on whatever is required to keep you comfortable.  If you have been following this blog, you know that I drank as much as I could last summer and still lost 10-15 pounds of fluid on my attempts to train for activities in CO.  Lately, I've been enjoying my training after simply throwing back a glass of water before each training event.  And I do not have equilibrium problems or headaches and nausea for the remainder of the day.  I will take cool or cold air any day, even if it is capped off by ominous looking clouds.

Mt. Sterling with an active summit snowstorm (iphone pic)
 For many years I have made a habit of traveling to the Great Smoky Mountain NP between Christmas and New Years.  I am drawn to this place I like to refer to as my playground because of the biodiversity, the absolute beauty, and the physical challenges.  I've traveled there with family and friends, but this year I went alone.  I was not going to be denied an opportunity to experience that park immediately after a heavy snowstorm.

High on my list of winter trips into the Smokies is a climb up Mt. Sterling because it can be accessed in even most suffocating winter conditions.  I have climbed the mountain using several different approaches.  On most occasions I have backpacked in from Cosby Campground via Walnut Bottoms.  This year, with a lot of fresh snow on the ground, I wanted to challenge myself.  So I chose to run up the 6.2-mile Baxter Creek trail.  What a fitting distance for a runner!

Baxter Creek Trail climbs from an elevation of 1,750 ft at the trailhead up to 5,820 ft at the summit.  That elevation gain makes the climb similar to many of the 14ers in CO.  The obvious difference being the availability of oxygen!  It turned out that my effort called upon that oxygen.

The narrow road leading from I-40 to the Big Creek ranger station had been driven on by locals up until it turned into a one lane mountain road in the park.  It was hard for me to not look at all of the wind-blown snow stuck to the sides of trees and piled high on the creek that followed the road.  My excitement and anticipation of the climb spiked as I navigated that narrow road.

I parked in 6-8 inches of snow at the ranger station because the road up to Big Creek campground is closed in winter.  A car with son, father, and grandfather pulled in just before I left.  They were going to backpack to the campground, spend the night, then climb the mountain the next day.  I smiled knowingly as the grandfather described their intentions.  They seemed prepared for a for a magical bonding trip.

Using Kestrel 3500 NV weather meter, I recorded the conditions.  Temperature 19 F.  Wind 9-11 mph.  Wind chill 9 F.  My eyes told me it was sunny.  I was dressed in a heavy Duofold shirt and tights while a gortex parka was tied around my waist.  I also wore a sock hat, liner gloves, mittens, and Oakleys.  On my feet was a pair of La Sportiva Crosslites and ultra-thin socks.  I used La Sportiva Skylites in the Silver Rush 50 last summer, so I knew the Crosslites would serve the purpose.  I wondered if I needed microspikes, but in the end I don't think they would have provided much of an advantage over the big lugged Crosslites. I wore a Nathan 1.5 vest filled with water and loaded with a couple of gels, my phone, and my camera.  I also carried a pair of trekking poles.  The run was recorded on the new Garmin 410 HRM I got from Ultimate Fit.
Ready to go, minus the feet - oh, how I hate that!
After a 0.8-mile run up the gravel road to the trailhead I stopped to adjust my shoe laces, take pictures, and drink.  The goal was to drink as much of my water as possible before it froze.

Baxter Creek Trail
There were no footprints in the fresh snow on the bridge over Big Creek at the start of the trail.  I would be alone until I reached the top.  Though the trail climbed slowly at first, my heart rate quickly climbed above 150 bpm - a HR that I achieve at about 6:30 on the road.  As expected, it would be a hard effort.  I wasn't racing, though, so I planned to stop along the way for sight-seeing and picture taking.

What an awesome climb!  It was a totally new experience on a familiar trail.  The trail begins to climb steeply as it enters the deep and narrow Baxter Creek watershed.  The depth of the snow slowly increased as the elevation increased.  Above me, the sun was shining brightly through the giant leafless forest in the early afternoon.  More than once I had to scale or vault over snow-covered trees that had fallen across the trail.  It was truly a playground.

Rugged trail
At one point the trail crossed Baxter Creek.  There I knew I wanted to keep my shoes dry on the ascent.  I stopped to find a path across the snow-covered stones.   But several of the stones did not have snow on them.  Strange.  I looked all around me on both sides of the stream.  No footprints approached from any direction.  Close inspection revealed that the footprints belonged to a bear who had walked up the stream.  Hmmmm.  I gingerly hopped from stone and crossed the stream keenly aware of the fact that a black bear had been in the watershed within the previous couple of hours.
The bear did not go upstream . . .
As I ran up toward the high end of the watershed I came to a set of tracks in the 10-inch deep snow.  They were big!  I placed a mitten next to one and shot a picture.  Then I placed my hand down into the same print.  The bear's paw had been slightly larger than my hand.  Hmmmm.  I found myself hoping that the fishing expedition had been successful as I ran along.

Soon after crossing the significantly narrowed creek near the top of the watershed I came upon another set of tracks.  It was easy to look down and see that these tracks had come from where I was earlier.  They crossed the trail and climbed up a steep pile of boulders.  Above me, perhaps forty feet up, I saw the head of the bear as it peered down at me.  It was a BIG bear that appeared HUGE with a winter coat of fur.  That bear was not at all interested in me.  It slowly backed up and disappeared into the rocks.  I turned around and ran out of the watershed as quick as I could, but I was consciously aware that the bear could have easily continued over the ridge to where the trail had ventured.

Frozen tunnel of leaves
Such thoughts probably helped to elevate my HR.  When I glanced down I saw 176 bpm.  That is over 90% of my maximum HR!  So, I stopped to take a few pictures of the tightly rolled rhododendron leaves.  The Cherokee and early settlers learned to predict the temperature based on how tightly those leaves were rolled.  My Kestrel told me that it was 9 F with a wind speed of 17 mph giving a wind chill of -9 F.  Needless to say, I quickly became chilled and had to start running again.

I call it running because I was going hard.  My stride was not at all long and my pace none too fast on the steep trail that was covered by a foot of snow.  My HR, however, was the same as if I were running a half marathon - roughly 170 bpm.  Sunlight still sparkled off of the snow that clung to the sides and tops of everything.  The winter storm that had passed hours before might have been powerful and dreadful, but it had left a sparkling winter wonderland.

A thousand feet above . . .
By the time I had reached 4,500 ft I could see the clouds enveloping the ridge above me.  I stopped for a final drink and a gel.  The tube on the Nathan was, of course, frozen.  I unscrewed the lid and drank the cold water that had not yet frozen because of the sloshing motion.  The scene at this point was amazingly intoxicating, serene, and, well, white.  I took pictures with the iphone and the camera while standing in knee-deep snow.  What beauty!


The Kestrel read  a temp of 3 F, clocked the wind at 21-24 mph, and declared the wind chill to be -17 to -21 F.  It was as dangerous as it was beautiful.  I quickly put the gadgets away and "hurried" along.  I was moving at a snail's pace in the deep snow with the cold wind freezing the sweat on my eyebrows and nose.

Before long, at about 5,000 ft, I found myself in the cloud.  And snow was whirling around in the wind.  It wasn't snowing hard enough to cause a white-out, but it was snowing hard enough that I was instantly covered in the white stuff from head to toe.  Ever conscious of the danger, I kept my effort high.  The Garmin data indicated that my HR stayed above 170 high on the mountain and that it had reached 183 bpm or 97% of my maximum.  That hard work kept me warm.

Until I stopped moving at the summit.  I ran under the old tower and pulled my parka shell on before the wind and blowing snow completely froze me.  Honestly, that was the shortest and least fun of my eleven summits of Mt. Sterling.  The blowing snow kept visibility to about twenty feet while also forcing me to keep my camera safely in its case.  Past summit stays included a climb of the tower and a meal.  The blizzard conditions forced me to retreat after only about ten minutes.

The run back down the mountain was a blast.  I managed to keep my feet dry while flying across the stream both times, but I caught a toe on a tree I was attempting to hurdle.  That snag resulted in a spectacular spinning crash into the thick cushion of snow - and a lot of laughter.

Those feet are actually quite warm.
I reached the RAV in good condition.  The seven mile climb had taken 1:36 and the descent 1:06.  Despite the lower HR on the descent, I averaged 161 bpm for the whole climb.  It was comparable to a marathon race effort. I treated it as such by driving to Asheville, NC where I ate an entire BBQ chicken veggie pizza and drank two pints of beer at the Asheville Brewing Co.  I then walked up the street and had a couple more brews at Jack of the Wood.  I was still hungry, so I then ate a bunch of fruit I had brought with me.

Asheville Brewing Company
The next day I ran up Mt. LeConte on Rainbow Falls Trail.  That climb was not nearly as memorable as the Mt. Sterling climb because of the large number of day hikers coming out of Gatlinburg and because the melting snow quickly froze my feet.  Large clumps of snow continuously fell from the trees as temperatures around Sugarlands and Gatlinburg climbed into the 30's while the sun shined brightly.  The warming sun convinced me to return home instead of attempting a run on the AT the next day.  That was fine with me, because I knew that another trip was just days away.

Uhhh, no thanks!

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