Sliding Down the Saddle – Descent of Mount Baker – Part 3

Just a little the worse for wear

My goal of cranking out our entire Mount Baker trip in a few weeks has been waylaid by work, as so many things tend to be. But fear not; we haven’t been stuck on the summit forever – we did in fact make a not very elegant but nonetheless effective descent.

One thing I inadvertently omitted from the account of our trip up to the summit was the eerie, almost tropical breeze that accompanied us at the beginning of our summit night. It was a harbinger because heat was the theme of the way down.

Of course, the first challenge of the descent was to reverse our way down the Roman Wall. As the smallest of our team of four, I was assigned the front of the rope, which meant I had the responsibility for picking out the footsteps we would follow on the way down. I had last led a rope line on Mt Elbrus and I was terrified as guide S short roped us (so he could control the rope better) and I cast a look down at the truly steep slope before me. He’d done the same short rope up the Roman Wall as well, which gives you some inkling of its incline.

It was much harder to get into a steady pace on the switchbacks on the way down, as we had very varying speeds on descent. To my surprise, the really vertical part was actually easier than the switchbacks – it required a boot plunge into already carved steps that you slid into – some almost 18 to 24 inches – but they felt fairly secure. The only problem was that so many other ice axes had already traveled that way when you dug your axe in you were just as likely to hit an existing hole and get absolutely no purchase.

I’d forgotten how much I liked leading a rope. The Roman Wall demanded absolute concentration and my legs felt shaky at times – nerves – but that complete absorption in the moment is one of the things I love best about mountain climbing (and glaciers, in particular). As our guide said – every step had to be purposeful. I’m afraid there are no photos of this. My hands were otherwise occupied.

Not quite sure about this angle but this is what it felt like

We made it down the Roman Wall in decent time and then reversed positions and I was now at the end of a long rope. Our guide, SH, was concerned about speed because temperatures were climbing and water was getting low also. Apparently my Florida heat training helped because I got down with water to spare.

But this is where the different trekking speeds really slowed us down. If I went too fast the rope would pool around J’s legs and he’d trip so I had to keep stopping and we never got a good downward rhythm going. It took almost five hours to get down (recall it had taken about eight to ascend), and it was an enormous relief once we could unrope and slip and slide down the last little bit.

Crevasses presented a few adventures on the way down also. The glacier is always moving and the cracks in the snow were no longer where they were or the same width. In fact, although I didn’t see it, T reports to me that M had a “crevasse crash.” The snow at the edge of one deep crevasse had gotten slushier, and you needed to dig in your crampons before hopping across it to get traction. As M approached, she couldn’t get a good foothold, and, worried about breaking her leg if one foot slipped in, chose to dive headfirst across the crevasse with full momentum. According to T, she quickly uprighted herself, sat up, and started laughing.

Back in camp everyone was exhausted. Poor J was still enduring whatever stomach issue was plaguing him, and M was also having to cope with feeling unwell. We had a latish dinner of spaghetti and needless to say, all were asleep at an extremely early hour.

Next up – the hike out, the miracle of my mountaineering boot drop, and had I actually gotten myself lost somewhere on the trail system of Mount Baker.

Back in the Saddle – Mount Baker Part One

It was the afternoon before the trek/climb. After visits with family and friends – and an absolutely gigantic lunch in Gig Harbor (perhaps I am taking the idea of carbo loading too far) – we got an Uber and headed off to the Georgetown Inn in the Georgetown area of South Seattle. Known for being “gritty,” there are a lot of breweries and some interesting restaurants, but it is a long way from gentrification. The hotel had been recommended by our guiding company, but the desk clerk still seemed surprised to see our two very large backpacks walk into the lobby.

We located an Italian restaurant called Mezzanotte in what looked like a deconstructed building. Three levels of crumbling brick walls, ceiling tin covering some of them, and lots of people sitting outside. We were just as happy to sit inside and enjoy our fancy pasta – mine with king oyster mushroom Raghu and J’s with a very peppery sauce. We walked briefly around the neighborhood and back to our perfectly acceptable hotel – if a little noisy due to some bizarre mechanical noises that clicked and clacked throughout the night.

We woke up at 5:30 and met S, our friend from Alaska who was part of our Elbrus and Stok Kangri expeditions, in the lobby. We all ubered off to the Mountain Madness office, accompanied by three very large packs. The MM office is in a small house and there seemed to be at least three trips all packing up in various areas outdoors. Fortunately we found our correct group (I suppose otherwise we might have inadvertently gone ice climbing or something).

We met our fellow climbers – T, who is S’s friend and a pilot, two women from Canada (about my age or a bit older), and our guides, SH and H. Having nicely packed our packs, we now had to completely unpack, and lay everything out on the ground so our guides could confirm we had what we needed and left behind what we didn’t need. Apparently all of us had panicked when we got the packing video only two days before, which had led to multiple unexpected last minute purchases such as glacier glasses and sun hoodies! Two items, by the way, that I was very glad to have.

Everyone ended up leaving behind at least some items. I ditched my rain pants and second pair of pants. We reloaded our packs (my guess is mine was about 32-33 pounds), and met our porters, C, a Montana State student who was really serious about the mountains , and Z, a mid 20s exmilitary guy who was really serious about his sugar addiction. Z became best known on the trip for his hiking kilt – all he needed was a sporran!

After our packing and repacking extravaganza, we all loaded into the van, packs atop and in the back. We were enjoying trading travel stories with S, when just outside of Seattle he received a call to let him know there was a family medical emergency. S understandably felt he had to return to Alaska and pick up his wife so they could go where they were needed, so he ended up taking an Uber back to the airport. What a disappointment – this had been one of his bucket list trips. His friend T was a super good sport about it, and things were greatly eased by the fact that we really did have a congenial group.

We started off yet again, making a few bathroom and snack breaks. Z proceeded to sample every variety of junk food known to man (or at least available in Washington State), and I even found myself buying a large chocolate bar. Maybe it’s contagious.

Finally we turned off onto a series of dirt roads, gaining altitude over some teeth shattering potholes that sent the whole van rattling. We entered the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area, and traveled along more dirt roads, ultimately meeting up with all the vans and cars of other Mt. Baker adventurers. Vehicles were parked way down the road, but we were totally lucky and someone vacated a spot right by the trailhead. One final bathroom break in our last real bathroom and we were off!

Our merry band

The trail starts off as an easy walk, even with a crushed gravel trail in some spots, but rapidly starts a somewhat unrelenting slope up. There are a fair number of dried out rocky river beds to navigate, tree roots to clamber over, and stone steps to climb. You first hike alongside the towering dark evergreens that stalk the trail; after some elevation gain the trees give way to shorter growth and meadows spotted with pink, purple, and white bell shaped flowers. I would have loved to use my plant identification app but there was no cell service and we weren’t stopping much anyway.

After a while, we reached the portion of the trail known as “Railroad Grade.” It’s a very skinny, straight ridge line that leads to Sandy Camp, which was to be our home for the next three nights. It is on an incline, although not particularly steep, but there is a lot of exposure. One side is a sheer drop down of rock and gravel caused by the receding Easton Glacier; the other side is a slightly less sheer drop into a wild flower covered meadow. I would definitely have preferred to fall meadow side, but neither option was very appealing. At times the path was barely a foot wide and you had to navigate over rock. At some point it must have been wider, making the trail look like a railroad track – hence the name, I presume.

Once we finished the Railroad Grade it was a short jaunt to camp (although maybe jaunt isn’t the right word when you’re lugging heavy packs). Sandy Camp is a small bowl quite close to the edge of the glacier and partly on and off snow banks. It’s somewhat sheltered from the wind – although wind was almost nonexistent while we were there anyway.

SH and H set up tents and we helped shovel snow to flatten out the foundation. As the temperature warmed and snow melted we ultimately found ourselves camping on quasi-islands. SH had to move his entire tent the next day because it turned out he was on a pond! C and Z, in the meantime, had to hike back to the lot to pick up their personal gear for the mountain and return again that same night. What a long day! Altitude gain was about 2300 feet.

After we settled in, we had a dinner of Mac’n cheese and smoked salmon and hiked up to a nearby bluff to see a spectacular sunset. On one side are the majestic mountains of the Cascades, on the other, the glassy ocean with Vancouver Island in the background. The setting sun backlit the clouds and snow capped mountains turning everything a soft apricot. It was a good omen for the next day and our upcoming summit attempt.

Upcoming – Mt Baker Awaits

This is going to be short. And no photos. I’m afraid I’ve given FromSwampToSummit short shrift recently. A and N’s wedding presented its own summit; followed by adventures in Vermont (think that old Bob Newhart show), and on mountains and around race tracks in Saratoga Springs. So much content to come!

But in the meantime – we leave for Mt Baker next Wednesday. The hike in starts Friday; Saturday is skill training (which we need since it’s been 4 years since we donned our crampons), and we should leave about 2 or 3 am Sunday morning for the summit. Hike out on Monday.

At 10,880 feet Baker is the third higheat mountain in Washington State and extremely glaciated. While it is way lower than many mountains we’ve climbed it’s the most elevation gain in one day – 4500 feet.

So, now the typical pre mountain jitters are surrounding me. Did I train enough? Will I be able to get my crampons on? (Pointy side down as my brother says.) What if there’s a crevasse and I can’t get across it? What about some of the creeks to ford on day 1? What if I’m so slow on day 1 they say I can’t go up the summit? And, God forbid, what if I step on the rope as we are going up the summit? (Those of you have climbed understand the shame that brings.)

Anyway, I’ve done this enough to know that fear is a healthy thing – as long as it doesn’t become overwhelming. So here’s to staying in the present, one step at a time, and a good balance of being a tortoise most of the time and a hare when necessary.

And I promise more to come – and photos.

Never Say Never – Mt. Baker

S looked at me bemusedly. “Really? You swore you were never again going multi day backpacking where you carry your own stuff after the slog up Long’s Peak.” His words resonated as I found myself buying my fifth or so back pack – this time a 70 liter one. It towers over me.

All it took was a late afternoon chat with SB, of Elbrus and Stok Kangri fame. Steps on the Summit The Trek to Base Camp, Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India As we commiserated about our lack of adventure and travel over the pandemic, SB noted that Mt Baker in the northern cascades had always been on his bucket list. A few internet searches later we were all signed up for a Mountain Madness four day trip up Mt Baker’s Easton Glacier route in August.

In deference to our advancing age we are taking the slow route (relaxed, they call it, I guess like a fit of pants) and there are others who haul up the tents, cooking equipment etc. You “only” have to carry 30 or 35 pounds, but it’s too much bulk for my 53 liter pack.

So, it’s back to training for us. I did stairs twice last week and am forcing myself to run when I can stand it. J’s various Achilles issues seem to have resolved and he’s back to basketball.

But we are really hoping to get more outdoor hiking in….and yesterday was a good start with a beautiful walk in the Lake Proctor wilderness near Geneva, Florida with S and M. It’s a generally shady trail with Florida scrub on one side and views of a small lake on the other. The weather was spectacular- blue skies and in the 70s and we took our time and relished just being outdoors. There was even enough standing water to wade through and around to make S happy. Should all training hikes be so pleasant!

Our Mt Elbrus guide described Baker as a mini Elbrus so I guess it’s appropriate we are doing it with SB. Hopefully I’ve learned some things over the last 9 years and this time will make sure I have sun screen lip balm, not chapstick in my pocket.

Yes, that’s zinc sunscreen but none on my lips.

Long’s Peak – Down Down Down in Colorado

Since you can’t stay at the top of a mountain forever (or near the top, in our case), it was time to start the clamber down through the rock boulders. Being significantly shorter than the others in our group, I have developed a wedge yourself into a crack, slide down, squat and start it all over again technique. It’s not fast but it’s undoubtedly safe. The sun was scorching down on the reddish rocks and we were all glad when we finally reached the Boulderfield. J managed to get totally dehydrated but was better after some electrolyte tablets.

Once we packed up the tents and ourselves, we finally got on the “road”. We had another 4 plus miles to our next campsite, but at least the trajectory was downward, which certainly helped ease the weight of the packs. We climbed over and through lots of rock, and then emerged onto a broad expanse of rocky grasslands. We stopped for lunch where we were joined by another hiker we had met at the Boulderfield- he had gotten to about 100 feet below the summit but had to stop at that point because of ice. A number of large and well fed looking marmots also participated in our dining activities – or attempted to!

We reached the Boulder Brooks campsite in decent time. It’s situated by a rushing stream and consists of three very spread apart sites. Of course, as soon as we got the tents up it started to pour with a hard rain, which seemed to be the pattern of this trip. J and I hunkered down in the tent and I finished my book. My kindle is truly worth the extra few ounces on trips like these.

The location was beautiful and I sat outside for a bit in the early evening. Unfortunately a multitude of mosquitoes found it equally enjoyable and ultimately chased me back into the relative safety of my tent, where an early bedtime – combined with more rain – made for a very good nights sleep.

The next morning our tents and any possessions stored outside were all quite soggy. We had stayed dry inside but the exteriors were soaked. After a pancake breakfast we dried everything out as best we could and then started a three mile trek out to the pick up point.

The trail followed the same creek we had camped by and we criss-crossed it several times on narrow log bridges just above the water. A far cry from the high swinging bridges of the Himalayas. The Douglas firs soon gave way to silvery white barked aspens. Although they are beautiful I appear to be allergic to them and snuffled and snorted my way the last few miles to the pick up point.

Made it!

The guide company van met us, and delivered a gourmet picnic lunch which we devoured at a nearby state park. The drive back to Estes Park went quickly, and we were deposited at the back of The Stanley Hotel, of The Shining fame, where we were to spend the night. S, J and I were each given a large black garbage bag to serve as a receptacle for the by now extremely dirty contents of our backpacks. The rooms weren’t ready yet so we and our very muddy and smelly possessions found a discrete corner on the porch of the hotel to while away a few hours. We met back up with M and her sister D, who politely refrained from too much commentary on our bedraggled state.

I couldn’t help but think that a haunted hotel was just the right spot to conclude the first part of a magical trip.

Stanley Hotel. Redrum.

Long’s Peak – Through the Keyhole

See the Keyhole in the background

I felt like Alice. Going through the Keyhole was as though we’d walked through the looking glass, only to find ourselves in the netherworld. But we aren’t there yet on this journey – let me resume where I left off, at the Goblins Forest.

We woke up on time, about 6 am after an adequate nights sleep – except for the part where I thought J’s shadow as he reached for a drink of water was a bear…

After a filling breakfast of eggs, bacon, and potatoes we started hiking about 8:10. The first section was what we had done the day before – but this time with over 35 pound packs. As I had feared, an 18 inch step up is a lot harder with 35 pounds on your back – especially as you are working your way up a couple of thousand feet of elevation gain.

It took about five hours to get to the next campsite – the infamous Boulderfield, the real start of the Keyhole Route. We started by disassembling our tents etc, and once fully laden with our packs and the ever constant bear cans, started to hike, up, up, and more up. We made decent time to the junction we’d reached the day before, but definitely slowed down after that and as we went above the tree line.

Weather was moving in, and we all got out our rain gear. The sky turned progressively grayer as the thunderclouds rolled in. The rain came first. Then, just as we reached an even more exposed traverse, the hail started. This was larger than the Twin Sisters hail – almost buckshot sized pellets aiming at us as if fired from shotguns.

The stone steps kept going up and up. I only kept going by focusing on my office building stair training – each time there was a brief leveling out I pretended I was on a landing.

Eventually the stairs turned into an uphill field of boulders, and after a few wrong turns we finally made our way to the “campsite.” It consisted of a square gravel and sand base outlined by small rock walls. Stark, to say the least. No vegetation to speak of except for a few clumps of grass peeking up between the rocks – leading one to wonder what in the world all the marmots are surviving on.

Once there, we got the tents up just before the next rain storm arrived. J was very dehydrated and we just hunkered down in the tent. I amused myself by trying to video the tent interior as he slept. Eventually our guide T delivered carrots, hummus, and cheese to each tent for a mid afternoon lunch – which revived J considerably.

Finally the rain stopped and we emerged from our tents to take in our surroundings. Our guides had suggested in lieu of the Keyhole we could climb Mt Lady Washington if we wanted. After we asked what it looked like and they pointed to a high pile of what can only be described as a rubble heap, there was not even any discussion among the three of us. The Keyhole it was!

We were up at 4:30 am on what appeared to be a true bluebird day. The Keyhole is visible from the Boulderfield and each clamber up another boulder brought it closer and closer. Just below the Keyhole is a stone monument to the first woman to summit Longs Peak in winter – she died on the way down.

I wasn’t even aware of the precise moment I went through the Keyhole – it’s a steep bit and you’re looking down. But once through, suddenly a previously unseen mountain range spreads out before you, towering over a dark, stony valley. It was as if we had entered another world, some magical kingdom populated by giants and goblins and ghosts.

We ventured out onto the Ledges, the next section of the route. There’s a fair degree of exposure, but I felt comfortable- able to lean into the wall and move fluidly. We followed the bulls eye markers almost to the end of the Ledges section, which is marked by a piece of rebar. At that point you have to step around a fairly intense rock – it was slippery and you have to move around it without being able to see to the other side. It was clear our guides weren’t going to let the 60 year olds under their charge go any further.

But the elation of reaching that other world – paired with a lot of adrenaline and endorphins, I’m sure – brought back all my summit experiences. It always makes it worth it.

But – we couldn’t stay there forever. The descent had to begin.

Colorado – Up, Up, and Away in Estes Park

On the road

After the angst of packing and extracting ourselves from work, we were finally on our way to the Rockies. Despite all the horror stories of Uber unavailability and cost, we obtained one with no issue and made it to the airport with time to spare. In fact, we were there ahead of M and S, which is an unusual circumstance, to say the least.

We had a relatively uneventful flight to Denver, which is always a good thing. The airport entry into Denver is surprisingly industrial, and looks more like Elizabeth City, New Jersey in the ‘80s than a gateway to the Rockies (no offense meant toward New Jersey). It’s not helped by the massive interstate construction project that has created a literal bombscape for much of the way.

But very shortly the cloudscapes of mountains start to appear in the distance. We took a toll-free route that led us right through Boulder (I kept thinking of Mork and Mindy), where we had a nice lunch of ceviche tostados at Wahoos. Not sure why I opted for a salad with tofu.

It wasn’t too far from Boulder to Estes Park, at elevation 7522’. The directions to our Airbnb were confusing, to say the least, but after many twists and turns, largely centered around looking for the Bank of Estes – which was the main landmark – we found our way to a very nice small house, just a short walk to town, with mountain views and a great night vista of the illuminated Stanley Hotel.

Estes Park itself is populated by throngs of tourists of all shapes and sizes, small restaurants, and an extraordinary number of candy shops (indulgence in which did not seem like a good idea as a precursor to Longs Peak). There’s a lovely river walk that goes along the banks of the Big Thompson and Fall Rivers, and ultimately we ended up at a pizza place just off the river for dinner. The pizza offered some truly unusual toppings. I treated myself to smoked trout, capers, and cream cheese, while S experienced a little bit of Hawaii with pineapple and red sauce. J and M had something more conventional.

The next day it was time to start some acclimatization hiking in preparation for the Keyhole Route. S had picked out the Twin Sisters trail, which reaches just over 11,000 feet with about 2475’ of elevation gain. Rocky Mountain National Park has timed reserved entries from 9 to 3, so it’s key to get there early – and that’s a necessity for Colorado weather anyway – as you’ll see.

We hiked up a dirt road from the parking area to the trail head. The beautifully maintained trail starts in tall Colorado pines and firs, with a sprinkling of wildflowers. Each uphill stretch was met with a period of relatively flat recovery, a far cry from the straight up treks in the Balkans.

We finally broke through the tree line and the terrain turned rocky, but it was still easy to pick our way through the boulders. Walking through clouds we reached the saddle between the two small summit peaks that were a few feet higher and just a short scramble. But we decided the saddle was summit enough as we started to hear the first claps of thunder.

Being good Floridians and heeding the warnings about exposure and lightning we decided it was time to go down. We were a little concerned about the youth group that we encountered close to the top. They’d broken up into several dispersed groups and the last we saw of them the youngest seemed to be scrambling to the summit as the rain started. Apparently they didn’t take to heart our admonitions that they might want to think about starting down.

Just as we approached the tree line, the real rain started. We managed to get our raincoats on but not our rainpants. Soon the rain turned to pellets of hail, which was to become a weather theme for our trip, although we didn’t know it then. It turns out hail really hurts when it starts to hit your face and hands.

J and I moved fast through three different sessions of hail, all the way to the bottom where, naturally, the sun was now emerging from the clouds. M and S were slightly ahead and we were all soaked. Fortunately the house had good laundry equipment which we took full advantage of.

We had a late lunch at a very informal spot called The Local. I tried the elk stew, which seems to be a specialty of the area. It was good, but frankly anything would have tasted good by then.

We managed to relax in the afternoon as more rain poured down, and did some additional gear shopping (which seems to be an integral part of such trips). I scored a great $13 long sleeved hiking shirt. It helps when you can fit into a boys large.

Despite large lunches we forced ourselves to choke down a good dinner at Claire’s, a nice restaurant where we could sit at the bar without a wait. We had read that Twin Sisters was a great training hike for Longs Peak, and were pretty pleased with our prowess. We were all feeling very ready to go. Were we?

Long’s Peak Loop, Colorado – Here We Come!

I’ve been promising an announcement – and here it is – Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is to be this summer’s adventure!

This is Ladakh, India but I couldn’t find a free Longs Peak photo to use!

When J and I began mountain climbing and trekking in 2011, we saw no point in starting with something small. So Kilimanjaro, at over 19,000 feet and the highest mountain in Africa, was our poison of choice. We’ve never been to Colorado or climbed a 14-er either – so why not start with one of the most difficult – Long’s Peak via the Keyhole route!

While not the tallest of the so-called 14-ers, at 14,254 feet this summit presents a number of segments of class 3 scrambling. The trail is broken up into sections, each labeled with forbidding names such as the Boulder Field, Ledges, Narrows, the Trough, and the Home Stretch.

J and I have watched any number of YouTube videos, many of which are taken with GoPros and whose goal appears to be to strike terror in the eye of the beholder. My favorite is an 8 minute long one, where the climber repeats at least three times, “it’s not really as bad as the GoPro video makes it out to be.”

While this plan may be slightly insane, we are not so insane as to try this on our own without a guide. We are returning to Wildland Trekking – the company we used for an absolutely perfect trek down the Grand Canyon back in 2013 – see fromswamptosummit.com/2017/02/20/journey-through-time-in-and-about-the-grand-canyon-part-2/

And intrepid hikers M and S will be accompanying us on this latest adventure. Last Saturday after an urban hike we all sat in the porch trying to get our heads around the amount of exposure on this hike – no easy feat when you are looking out at an ever so gentle slope down to a lake and only Florida flatlands beyond.

But where there is will there are ways, and yesterday’s foray to Blue Swan Boulders was the start of a new aspect of training designed to get us to the top. Aside from climbing a rock wall on a cruise ship (remember those?) many moons ago, neither J nor I has ever done any indoor climbing. An indoor bouldering gym consists of multiple walls at various inclines reaching up 15 or 20 feet or so, ornamented with hand and foot holds color coded by level of difficulty. There are no ropes – and you spend a lot of time practicing how to fall.

Only drew blood a couple of times.

Although we were clearly the oldest people there we loved it! Talk about a mindfulness practice – as you swing your center of gravity toward that next handhold while reaching with your foot – not much else you can think about. On day 1 we limited ourselves to yellow and beginning green routes – and may not advance much further – but mastering those should translate well for Long’s Peak scrambling.

We ended up with a few scrapes and are pretty sore today but plan to return on Monday. And the craft beer we rewarded ourselves with at the Ivanhoe Park Brewery afterwards was pretty good too!

Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company

After the Cabin – A Trip to Switzerland

Well, it’s Little Switzerland, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lest anyone be concerned we somehow managed to weasel our way into Europe despite our perceived status as coronavirus carriers. No such luck. But Little Switzerland seemed about as far away from the plague-ridden swamp of Florida in late July 2020 as the actual country would have been.

Following our idyllic two days without electricity in the cabin on Sandy Mush Bald – one of the most beautiful places we’ve been and our explorations of the “balds” – it was time to venture north. Even though our summits were severely curtailed this year, there was a chance for one – Mt. Mitchell – the highest mountain east of the Mississippi at a whopping 6,684 feet. It was an easy (if seriously winding) drive from Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which, despite its reputation for summer traffic jams was practically deserted this year.

We’d planned to do the “easy” hike up to the summit, only to find it was closed, so there was no alternative but the “harder” “Old Mitchell Trail.” We had a quick picnic lunch at the welcome area which normally houses a restaurant – needless to say, this year it was closed. By now our daughters A and S  were quite tired of the picnic food we had lugged from Florida and had been dutifully eating for the last several days, and were questioning their parents’ fondness for non refrigerated cheeses (read Laughing Cow), not to mention the other dietary staples of life without electricity (read dried salami). A’s boyfriend N, however, was quite polite and ate his salami and laughing cow sandwich without comment.

In any event, we all ate enough to fortify ourselves for the couple hours hike to the top. It was a very beautiful trail, a bit too crowded for my taste, but had some fun moments of easy clambering up and down some steep cliffs and rocks. But the Razers Edge at Katahdin in Maine – where we were supposed to have been in a pre-pandemic world – it wasn’t.

Regardless, a good time was had by all, and it was time to journey on along the rhododendron-bordered parkway to our next stop – the Skyline Village Inn in Little Switzerland. J found the place on the internet (where else) and it was reasonably priced. Things we didn’t know about it:

  • The inn has been around for decades, backs up to a cave, and was used as a site for transporting moonshine during prohibition;
  • It’s a well known spot for motorcyclists and has a special open air garage for parking bikes;
  • The rooms are small but are wood paneled through and through, including the ceilings. I’ve never seen more wood in one room in my life, short of a log cabin.
  • There’s a great game room with darts, pool, and an elderly mannequin sitting at the bar dressed in her motorcycle garb; and
  • We were the only non bikers staying at the entire place.

And the other thing – the Skyline Village Inn offered one of the best meals I’ve had recently, which was enhanced by the view of the mountains from the outdoor patio where we ate.  There were only a few items on the menu and steak was the order of the day. Cooked by the owner on a grill on the patio – just as if you were at a neighbor’s cookout, the steak was accompanied by a potato salad that I can only describe as  a deconstructed baked potato, sour cream and bacon included. The green broad beans tasted like they’d just been picked from the garden. And the three desserts offered included homemade strawberry pie. Goes to show that when you offer a few items and prepare them remarkably well, you create a remarkable meal.

Breakfast was equally good and gave us the strength we needed for a complicated day. A, boyfriend N, and S were driving south to Oak Island, North Carolina south of Wilmington to open up the AirBnB beach house we’d rented for the week. We were driving north and east to pick up my parents in Durham and then immediately turn south again to meet everyone in Oak Island. Mountains, meet beach. It was time for the next leg.

A Cabin in the Woods – Sandy Mush Bald, N.C.

Once it became clear that our permits to camp in Baxter State Park and climb Katahdin in Maine were going to linger, unused, in my desk drawer – thanks to the fact that Floridians are generally unwelcome in many spots – a Plan B was in order. Where could we go for a few days before venturing to the North Carolina beach that would allow at least a semblance of adventure?

J stumbled across a website with the improbable name of Hipcamp – an Airbnb type application for those who are interested in staying in yurts, tents, RVs, tiny houses – basically anything that might cause most people to ask, but “why?” It seemed to list the perfect spot for J, me, daughter S, daughter A and boyfriend N – a cabin with no electricity reached via a steep uphill hike of a couple of miles. Just the thing, we said! Well, J and I said. The girls were not enthralled with the lack of electricity and N wisely made no comment.

After a logistical puzzle that involved an automobile adventure from Florida to Asheville, plane flights from Austin, Texas and Providence, Rhode Island, and a rendezvous in an Aldi’s parking lot where A and N met us with a rental car, we organized ourselves and all our mountain gear into the appropriate back packs to head off for adventure. There’s something inherently difficult in packing for both beach and mountains.

The parking area for the starting point of our hike was about 45 minutes from Asheville, past lots of large estates that ultimately morphed into much more modest dwellings. Eventually we ended up at our turnoff where a large homemade sign announced that we were about to start a 24 mile drive on “The Rattler.” The road lived up to its name but after miles of literally hair raising turns we found the mailbox that marked a small parking area. I had worried about leaving things in the cars for two nights – but we were so far in the proverbial boondocks there was no need to fear.

The trek to the cabin lived up to its reputation, at least as memorialized in the online reviews. It was seriously uphill; probably 1500 to 2000 feet of altitude gain. J and I were carrying about 30 pounds apiece (started to wonder about bringing beer at a certain point!), but we persevered nonetheless, and it felt so good to be away from Covid and the generally sad state of the world for a while.

Rhododendrons were in full bloom and wildflowers edged the trail, interspersed with meadows of tall wavy grass. It reminded me a little of the rhododendrons on the lower part of the Everest Base Camp trek, but instead of splashes of fuscia, these were white, fading into a pale pink.

Once we reached the cabin, our hosts, a young couple who lived in two small rooms on the bottom level of the cabin greeted us. Their goal was ultimately to farm, and they had several ambitious looking gardens planted at the 4500 foot or so elevation. They also had an absolutely adorable part Siamese cat, Kasmar, who provided an endless source of entertainment.

The cabin was originally a 19th century barn. Its owner was a 99 year old, former pilot and physician to coal miners who had bought up old barns and similar structures in the Appalachians and turned them into rental cabins. The downstairs had a kitchen and living area and one of the cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. An old claw foot tub with a shower, and plank floors that absorbed water with no need for any mat. Despite the lack of electricity there was a propane stove for cooking with a full range, and a large hot water tank, so we felt we were living quite the life of luxury.

The five of us slept in the upstairs loft, up a ladder to a semi divided attic with dormitory style beds. Very reminiscent of some of our Balkans accommodations.

The porch overlooked a meadow – little Sandy Mush Bald (more about balds in my next installment). The ridges of the Blue Ridge were iridescent against the sunset. And the NY Times recipe for ramen noodles, eggs, and precooked bacon, all of which we’d lugged up the mountain, actually made something approximating mac’n cheese. Who knew that dried Parmesan would actually turn into cheese. That, with some boxed wine, boded well for the start of a pandemic vacation.