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)|
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!|
|Baxter Creek Trail|
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.
|Frozen tunnel of leaves|
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 . . .|
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.|
|Asheville Brewing Company|
|Uhhh, no thanks!|