Thursday, July 19, 2012

Walking along the AT #2: Blood Mountain

Date: March 12, 2011
Direction: SOBO Up, NOBO down
Distance: 1.5 miles one way, 3.0 round trip On AT (2.2/4.4 Total)
Start (SOBO): Flat Rock Gap on AT (Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Parking Lot Actual)
End (SOBO): Blood Mountain Summit

View from Blood Mountain summit

Of the seven short hikes I've made along the Appalachian Trail, the hike of Blood Mountain was by far the most difficult. Fortunately, I was in the best shape in a few years when I did this hike. Unfortunately, I still was in pretty sorry shape, as the frequent breaks going up the mountain would show.

The hike up Blood Mountain was part two of a two-day trip in Northern Georgia for my sister and I. The previous day we had hiked the beginning of the AT approach trail from the Amicalola State Park Visitors Center up to the top of the falls, and then back down along the old approach trail. It had been a beautiful hike, punctuated by the 600 stairs we had to walk to the top. After our adventure at Amicalola we had driven around through the North Georgia Mountains. At this point I hadn't quite decided where exactly we would walk on Sunday, but by the time we had checked into our hotel at Blue Ridge, Georgia, Blood Mountain was the leading candidate. It had the virtue of being fairly close to get to from Blue Ridge, relatively easy accessibility from the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial, and a certain amount of status, as Blood Mountain is the highest point along the AT in Georgia.

Therefore the next morning we set out for Blood Mountain. But first we had to make a stop at the Walasi-Yi Center in Neels Gap. For most hikers along the AT this is the first resupply point. It's also the only place where the AT effectively goes through a building, and a place known for its pack shakedowns. As we were not thru-hikers, we were merely visiting as curious wannabes, taking a look at the various equipment and supplies that they had to offer. At this point I had never been in a real outfitter store before, not even an REI or something like that. It was interesting to see all the various stuff they had in there, most of which I had just read about at this point.

After we had spent some time looking around, and Erin seriously investigated some of the sleeping bags they had, we decided that we had stalled long enough and headed back down the mountain a bit to the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial. This is the primary parking lot for day hikers on Blood Mountain, as the Walasi-Yi parking lot is only for customers and for a very short amount of time. There were two ways to get from the memorial lot to the AT: walk up the road to Neels Gap, or take the connector trail from the lot to the AT at Flatrock Gap. As we were going to the summit, it would up all the way.

After a short period on the trail where it was mostly flat, we finally hit some switchbacks, and it was time for the climb. It was here where I felt the more common other side of my hike up Springer Mountain, as I was the slow one of the group. I could tell Erin was getting impatient with my frequent stops, but I had to make them if I were going to get up that hill. Frankly I felt she was pushing me a bit too far, but after a while I set in to a method of counting my steps, and pushing myself to take 10-20 more each time before I took a break.

Finally, after a particularly steep climb we made it to Flatrock gap, the site of our first major break. I hadn't been sure of how far it was to the top of Blood Mountain before we got there, and found out it was 1.5 miles from the gap to the summit. This sounded about right, so we committed to the summit. Had it been more than two miles one way, we likely would have chosen another alternative, perhaps walking the AT back to Neels Gap.

After a much too short flat section, we began climbing again. Unlike most of the connector, however, this was much rockier. If it wasn't going up switchbacks, it was going over stone steps carved out of the side of the mountain. Getting my heavy legs up those steps was a chore, but I made it through them. By this point my energy was somewhat shot. However, I figured it was okay, because we had made the summit. I mean, it was rocky, and there were open vistas, so it had to be near the top, right?

Well, Erin went ahead to scout this out, as I slowly puttered along the trail. Very quickly we discovered that the first clearing was a false summit, as a short and steep section up through more trees showed us. Then we climbed up the face of a boulder, and there was still more summit above. Finally Erin had reached the summit, and came back down to where I was muddling along to lead me there. After several false summits the trail leveled off as well as the ridge, and I knew we were finally there. The USGS marker placed into the rock confirmed this as well.

I sat there and drank water, eating a couple snacks I had brought along. The view was pretty impressive, although it was mainly of more wooden mountains, so there was little in the way of distinctive landmarks. We took a few pictures, conversed briefly with a few other hikers (it was a very busy day with plenty of hikers), and resolved to head down. I would have enjoyed sitting up there a while longer, but other people deserved their chance to sit at the summit, and Erin was getting very impatient.

I think I must have skimped on breakfast, and made the mistake of not getting lunch, because on the way down I felt a bit drained of energy. Also, we both made the mistake of drinking too much water going up. Fortunately it was a cool March day, or that could have been a bigger issue. As it was, it took a fair amount of effort for me to navigate back down the stairs and switchbacks.

As we reached Flatrock Gap, I felt that I had to get some water to keep me going. Fortunately there was a stream just below the gap with flowing water. I filled my bottle up, making sure it was in a rockier area that was flowing briskly and not a more lethargic area of the stream. Still, I knew it was a gamble, as we did not have any method to treat it. It tasted fine, and it certainly rejuvenated me to an extent. It was enough to get back down the trail to the car.

Besides a need to get water, the biggest thing I noticed coming down were the people carrying packs. I had read up enough on thru-hikers to know that these people we saw were not them, or at least not ones likely to succeed. They carried gigantic packs that made them look like they were on some expedition to the arctic. As we talked to a few of them, we discovered they were just college kids out hiking a few days on their break. I suppose when you are only out there for a few days, you can deal with a pack full of unnecessary stuff.

After navigating down another set of switchbacks, I recognized we were back on the relatively flat section that followed the stream I had drank from. My spirits picked up at this point, even if my feet were protesting. We headed back through the path cut through the rhododendron and finally made it back to the sign at the entrance of the Blood Mountain Wilderness. Shortly thereafter we saw the car, and thus the end of the hike.

The hike up to Blood Mountain was then and still is the largest single incline I've ever walked. It was over twice the incline of our hike up to the top of Amicalola Falls. It was exhausting, at times infuriating, and at times a bit discouraging. However, for as much bitching as I may have done, I know I truly enjoyed, much more than the things I usually am doing in front a computer during the week. When we went back up to Walasi-Yi to get celebratory soft drinks, I felt a rush of excitement. I had walked up to freaking Blood Mountain. Although that unfortunately was the peak of my hiking achievements in 2011*, it's not too shabby.

Next Week: Andrew walks the length of the trail through Hot Springs, the first town right on the NOBO trail.

*A couple weeks after the hike I got an infection of some sort that seriously kicked my ass. I'm not sure it had anything to do with the water I took from the trail or not. The usual result from bad water was kind of the opposite of whatever I went through. I tried coming back from it too soon on a short hike from Cravens House on Lookout Mountain and that scared me off any real hikes. In fact, it wasn't until about a year later I made a hike of any real incline or distance.

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