“The mountains are calling and I must go.”-John Muir
I’m cursed with the genes of a rambling mountain man, luckily I live in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Saturday mornings forecast was calling for snow. The flurries dancing outside of my window made my heart beat just a little faster knowing that I would be setting up camp in the snow later on that night. Looking south from Asheville I could see Mt. Pisgah hidden in a snow cloud off in the distant range. The high temp for the day is 24°F and a low of 14°F. Here is a little mountain tip if your wanting to know what the temp is at a higher elevation. For every 1000 feet there is a drop of 3.5°F. THis is vital information to consider packing for a trip up into the high country. For me this meant that going from Asheville altitude 2,134’ to the ridge just below the Mt. Pisgah summit was at an altitude of 4,957’ a +3,000’ gain in altitude. In order to take on this kind of adventure I needed to take the proper gear to keep me warm and safe at a temperature of abound 0°F not including the wind chill factor which would make if feel much colder.
This isn’t a trip that I would recommend a novice adventurer take on and especially not solo. When I take on adventures like this it may seem crazy but it is a very calculated trip. Being 20 miles away from emergency services in an area that is closed off for the season from car access. Other than just bitter cold temps and snow I also have to take in consideration of black ice due to the nature of the variety of precipitation in the last 24hrs it has gone from 50°F rain to 24°F and snow.
Clothing: wool socks, Bontrager Old Man Winter(OMW) boots, fleece tights, kit, synthetic long sleeve top, fleece vest, Patagonia down jacket, Patagonia rain jacket, Bontrager RXL gloves, Outdoor Research Meteor Mittens, knit beanie from momma Kilby and a back up polyester beanie.
Tech gear: crampons, Marmot Tungsten 1 person tent, North Face ultralight zero degree sleeping bag, silk liner, Thermarest sleeping pad, Sea-to-Summit inflatable pillow, MSR pocket rocket, small propane canister, MSR bladder, and bags by Revelate Designs(triangle, rear, sweet roll, two feed bags.
Before getting started packing I put the bike on the stand and replaced the bottom bracket which was causing some nasty sounds with each pedal stroke post CFiTT(Cross Florida Individual Time Trial). 300 miles across Florida clogged up the bike with a good bit of sand so I gave the El Mar a little TLC before loading her up. The process of finding all of my gear post move into a new house took about 2hr. This delayed my departure significantly. After looking about for my multi tool with no luck I decided I would just make my route to Pisgah include a stop to one of the local shops Liberty Bikes AVL. It was a little after 3pm before I took off pedaling from my house in East Asheville. Liberty Bikes had been sitting on a carbon fork that I had been keeping my eye on for a while. I made a deal with myself on the ride over that if the fork could be installed in the amount of time it would take for me to go next door and shop for dehydrated meals and snacks at Diamond Brand Outdoors then I would go ahead with the purchase. Eric hooked it up! By the time I made it back to the shop it was time to put the bags back on and head toward Mt. Pisgah.
Winter is a special season for outdoor adventures who choose to head up to the higher elevations. The Blue Ridge Parkway is shut down and no motorist can access the mountains but for a cyclist this is prime time to get to enjoy the parkway without fear. I enjoy using the whole road, stopping to take photos and taking in the stillness. The only downside is the sub freezing temps and high winds.
I told Eric that I thought I could make it to the top in 2ish hours. I was a few hours off. It is a solid 4,000’ feet of climbing and due to freezing water and lack of appetite I felt myself slowly draining as the night fall set in but I didn’t want to stop. It was extremely cold and stopping only made it harder to keep pushing. Opening and closing my hands became increasingly difficult the longer I was out there exposed to the elements. My fingers felt like they were covered in shards of glass and my toes...well I hadn’t felt them in a while. Surrounded in darkness the city lights sparkling from the valley below. I could see the lights of Asheville off to my right and Hendersonville to my left and up ahead of me was the blinking red lights on the radio tower that is at the summit of Mt. Pisgah. The pain and fatigue were real. I started to question if I should just call it a night and set up camp at Elk Pasture Gap at the intersection of Hwy 151 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
After a little positive self talk I looked at my pain and remaining miles as a test of will. I know I had all the gear necessary to camp around Mt. Pisgah and I just needed to suck it up for a few more miles. This was also the steepest miles. I pushed on until I reached the Pisgah Inn. I made it! Well mostly. I still needed to decide where to set up camp for the night. Staying down in the tree line would be a must due to the high winds so I made myself at home in the empty campground. 66 empty campsites all to myself. The pain from the cold was now almost unbearable. The clasp and zippers can be very challenging when you can no longer feel your fingers. In times like this it is imperative to stay calm, mind over matter. Frustration and pain will bring panic if I don’t keep myself composed. I’m not dying but I am very uncomfortable in my body. I know my mind doesn’t feel cold but my body is screaming “Steven you're an asshole!”.
In my head I talk to my hand to help guide my digits as they set up the tent. The ground is frozen so I use some large rocks to secure the rain fly. Next comes the sleeping pad followed by the sleeping bag and silk liner. I submerged myself into the bag and liner, ahh home for the night. After I regained sensation back in my fingers I broke out the camp stove and dinner. Dehydrated meals are amazing on nights like this. Boil 2 cups of water, pour in pouch, reseal and cuddle the bag for 20 minutes. A hot meal was the pick me up that I needed to get me out of the suffer cave. I forced myself to drink some of the slushie ice water that was in my MSR bladder before settling in for the night. I had some slight cramping when taking my boots off and didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night locked up. This is one of the only nights that remember that I have gone to sleep wearing gloves.
The wind howled all night causing me to have trouble falling asleep. Frozen tree limbs knocking and breaking would wake me but I was warm. At one point I might have been on the verge of sweating. My original intention was to make it up to Pisgah to get some sun set pictures, fail. I had also hoped to get up early and take some shot of the sunrise but I had fallen into my deepest round of sleep of a solid 3 hours before waking up to the sun peaking through the trees. It was too cold to get out of my down cave. After a little check in with my body I decided to take my time and have breakfast before rolling out for pictures. Breakfast was a combo of a granola meal and an oatmeal dehydrated packs. Again I boiled water then poured it into the food pouch. I had combined the pouches into one to consolidate into one big meal. Being out in extreme cold requires more fuel than normal so that the body can maintain warmth. Shivering requires calories. Like unpacking, packing the gear back onto the bike is the most miserable part of the winter bikepacking experience. It was a little easier to pack back up with the food all gone, me wearing all of the layers and only carrying enough water to get me home. I took a quick exploration to the Funnel Top Overlook. So many times I shoot past this overlook due to the volume of tourist gathered in the pull off. It was nice to take in the vast range of mountains that spread all the way to South Carolina in solitude.
The awesomeness was short lived before the cold wind reminded me of the effect of single digit temps on my exposed hands. I started heading back towards the Pisgah Inn when I got caught off guard by a large cat crossing the parkway 50’ ahead then disappear into the rock face on the other side of the road. I later looked up pictures of mountain lions and confirmed what I saw. These big cats are very rare to see in this area. Some say they don’t exist around these parts but I don’t think there would be a large house cat above 5,000’. It is almost all descending back to Asheville which makes the return trip take less than half the amount of time that it took to get up here. This descent in the summer on a road bike I hit speeds around 45-50mph but with snow covered roads and black ice in the tunnels I had to modulate my speed to a speed that I could control if approaching a sketchy section. One short climb was welcomed to help me warm back up before descending off the Parkway via Bent Creek Gap. Pretty sure I was the first to drop in for the day, everyone else is much smarter for staying indoors. It was amazing how much warmer if felt from the loss of elevation and sunshine. A couple short climbs back into civilization where the silence was lost. I pedaled through Carrier Park enjoying the view of the French Broad River to my right. Im now dreaming of coffee and toast. One more climb and I was back home. Time to unthaw until the next adventure.