Linville Gorge 26M Traverse, Tablerock, North Carolina 5,5

Elevation:  2000' at the River to 3400' at the Rim         Elevation Gain:  ~9000'

Scrolling Photographs
April 19, 2014 - Forty years ago I got an unforgetable taste of the mountains of
western North Carolina when I backpacked the Appalachian Trail in the Great
Smokies.  After relocating to North Carolina I aimed to explore its western
mountains to a greater extent.  This would be the first challenge, with many more
in waiting.

There have been many mountainous hikes and runs in my repertoire over the years.
Linville Gorge is right up there in terms of its technical challenge and beauty.  While
following the route yesterday I was repeatedly reminded of other great trails and
challenges; at times I felt like I was in the Jemez Range of New Mexico, at others
it was like I was running in the Siskyous of Oregon, or in the northern Appalachians
of New England.  The place has deep character and great appeal to return.

Seven of us would hike in for most of three miles from the rim to the river, dropping
about 1400 feet down the Conley Cove Trail to establish our base camp from where
we would begin our traverse the following morning.  After setting up tents and 
hammocks and chowing down we spent the evening spinning anecdotes and 
enjoying each other's company while standing around a mesmerizing campfire.
As the rain of a mild storm off the Gulf eased into the valley we all sought refuge 
and hit the sack early, lulled to sleep by raindrops and the roar of the river along
which we camped.

It was a wet night with temps down into the low forties.  I had not set up my
bivy sack properly and had to endure a mostly sleepless night getting soaked in my
cocoon.  I was glad when dawn broke so that I could transition to running attire and
proceed with the day's adventure.  Eric Fogleman, Dave Zwiebel, Clark Zealand,
Jeff Kimrey, and I proceeded north along the river trail, leaving Eric's two teenage
sons, Nathan and David, to mind the camp all day in our absence.

I always begin easy, let the body warm to movement gradually.  I am old enough to
have earned that right!  Hanging back with Dave who was approaching the day
tenatively with a knee injury, I brought up the rear, stopping to take pictures right 
from the outset.  Our first 1400' climb from river to rim followed the Babel Trail.
The climb went up fairly quickly on fresh legs.  The others guys all climbed to the
top of a rock outcropping called the Tower of Babel; nursing a sore shoulder, I
opted not to climb in the rocks this day.

The trail emerged on the Kistler Memorial Highway, which we proceeded to follow
gradually downhill as we followed it a couple miles back to where we had parked
the vehicles at the head of the Conley Cove Trail.  It was good to vary the tempo
on this mildly sloping gravel road and let the legs run easy.  After waiting for
everyone to come back together, mostly, Eric, Clark, and I proceeded ahead of Dave
and Jeff on the next four-mile segment on the Rock Jock Trail which wound its way
south from watershed to watershed, undulating with the carved terrain.  The trail
had more than its share of rocks and windfalls, making for a nice dance above the
valley in the warming weather of the later part of the morning.  

The rain was intermittent, never very hard, but ever present below low hanging
clouds.  It was not a perfect day for photography, but one could see into the 
distance well enough to appreciate the remarkable features of this landscape.
Each of us proceeded with a tempo according to our own individual comfort level,
so much of the running here was solo as we separated, with Clark in the vanguard,
me back by ten minutes, Eric further back, and Jeff and Dave somewhere in arrears.
After a long slug back up to the Kistler Highway we were able to again run in earnest.

Running across the Rock Jock Trail I had found a comfortable zone, my sweet spot,
was rolling well, pushing the climbs relentlessly, nursing the downhills very
deliberately, and engaging every obstacle with control and no urgency.  My objective
was to run without falling and test my strength on the climbs and quads on the
descent.  It was a good, unhurried prep day for the aggressive schedule and
challenges that await me in the next six weeks.  In retrospect, I measured up to
expectation, suffering no soreness in my legs the day after, and confident that I
am ready for some really hard challenges ahead.

Without glasses I did not pay enough attention to the map and ran past the turn
off the road at the Pinnacle Trail, continuing on for most of a mile before concluding
I needed to retrace my steps.  I met up with Eric, who had made the same mistake,
so I didn't feel so bad.  We waited a bit for the other two to catch up at the TH.
Dave was experiencing some knee pain.  When Jeff said he would stay with Dave,
I proceeded on the descent back to the river.  Standing around, I was getting cold.
Clark had done the same thing before us.  It was just cool enough, and we were just
wet enough, that it was not a good day to be hanging around.  Motion was a saving

The descent down Pinnacle was largely covered with pine needles and mild in
comparison to the technical nature of the trails to this point.  It was a pleasure
to float along without obstacle or pressure.  I waited at the turn to the river at the
bottom until Eric came along.  From this point forward we stayed together to the
finish, not looking behind to wait for the other pair.

After crossing a broadened Linville River in knee deep water we proceeded up a long
climb to the plateau on the east side of the Gorge.  The immediate objective would
be Shortoff Mountain, following the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).  Over half way in
the day's exercise the legs were talking more.  For me it was a good time to really
engage the climb with power and resolve.  My legs and lungs rose to the occasion;
I did not reach my aerobic threshold once during the day.  All systems seemed good
to go; I did not need to pause even once on the climbs while in full RFP mode.

The north-running MST was long as it continued from Shortoff Mountain toward the
Chimneys and Tablerock Mountain.  Once Eric and I attained altitude we did not 
have to give any of it back for quite a few miles as we crossed a fairly barren 
landscape that had been the victim of different wildfires.  One final arduous climb
up to the Chimneys would define our level of fitness and test our mettle one last
time.  I put the hammer down and pushed the climb without duress.  All was good.

The Chimneys are a distinctive set of outcroppings on the eastern ridge of the Gorge.
I took copious pictures, but it is hard to bring back the expanse and overwhelming
magnitude of this place.  I waited at the Tablerock Picnic area for Eric to catch up.
We each bummed some water from a generous day hiker.  The only water on the
plateau crossing had been from a frog pond, so it was nice to rinse the taste of frog
from my mouth when I got to Tablerock.

From here back to the river, we followed the map closely, attempting at one point to
pursue a "shorcut" along the Little Tablerock Trail.  When it became apparent that
this route could cliff out or at least require some serious down climbing we retraced
our steps and opted for the standard route.  We parted ways with the MST to make
the final pitch back to the river on the Spence Ridge Trail, a mild quad path down to
where once had been a pedestrian bridge to cross the river.  The bridge gone, we
were obliged to hop boulders and logs to cross the must faster raging river to get
back to camp.

Eric and I wrapped up the route in ten and a half hours, with Jeff and Dave a half hour
behind.  Clark had zoomed through in seven and a half hours and had already broken
camp and was on his way home.  Not the kind of day you wait on anyone.  After a
weary climb of most of three miles back to the van on the rim, this time carrying all
our wet gear in our packs, it was good to be done and out of the weather, somewhat
dry with cleaner clothes and heat.  

The six of us returned home sometime after 2 a.m. after some more good camaradarie
and a stop for something warm to eat.  We should have been sleepy, but we were
still having too much of a good time.  It was a great day with great people in a great
place.  I look forward to their company and another adventure in these great western
Carolina mountains.