Winter Star Mountain, Cattail Peak, & Balsam Cone, NC (10-16-16)
Go big or go home was the plan for this hike. An epic Black Mountain traverse from Mount Mitchell out to Celo Knob and back, bagging all the South Beyond 6000 peaks I still needed in the Blacks along the way. Well...by the title of this album you can probably tell that things didn't quite work out as planned. Time, terrain, and tendons conspired against me and I was forced to shorten the trip a bit. Regardless it was a fabulous day wandering along the crest of the Eastern United States highest peaks. The fall colors didn't hurt a bit either.
As I slowly chip away at the South Beyond 6000 list the level of difficulty keeps increasing on me. I essentially had two clusters of peaks to choose from on this day...either the group of peaks in the eastern Smokies or the northern Black Mountains. Since the Smoky Mountain peaks are almost certainly going to be an overnight trip the choice was obvious, I'd be headed to the roof of the eastern U.S. The big descision was just how much of a hike I wanted to make this. The remaining peaks I needed to bag are stretched out over about seven miles along the ridge to the north of Mount Mitchell. Balsam Cone is about 2 miles, Cattail Peak about 3, Winter Star around 5, Gibbes a sold 6, and Celo Knob a bit over 7. If you track my hikes you'll know that a 10-miler is right in the middle of my comfort zone while anything over 12 puts me at risk of aggravating an old knee injury (its amazing how accurately I can estimate mileage from the familiar twinges I get on long hikes). I really wanted to bag all five this day but I realized I might be pushing things attempting a 15-miler. I therefore set my sights on at least reaching Winter Star Mountain and make the call once I reached that peak whether or not to continue on.
The hike began at the summit parking area atop Mount Mitchell. The route, for the most part, was pretty straight forward. I'd simply follow the Black Mountain Crest Trail (also known as the Deep Gap Trail) northward from Mitchell tagging peaks as I went. Only Cattail requires a short bushwhack. The trail is well-maintained and easy to follow. It's also very popular, and for good reason. Views are abundant. The hike starts with a gradual descent then short, steep climb up to Mount Craig (6,648') which I had bagged on an earlier trip. Heading north from Craig I'd soon reach Big Tom Mountain (6,581') which isn't included on the SB6K list. The trail then makes an incredibly steep drop off the north face of Big Tom before climbing to the first of the summits I needed to hit, Balsam Cone (6,596'). The summit of Balsam is unremarkable and, despite my best efforts in searching, devoid of any official benchmark. According to the Carolina Mountain Club guide the Crest Trail passes right over the high point so even without a marker I could be sure to count it. From Balsam Cone to the next summit, Cattail Peak (6,620'), the trail is remarkably tame...at least by Black Mountain standards. Cattail is a bit of a confusing peak to bag. As you near the top you actually pass a sign claiming you've reached the summit...despite the fact you can clearly see higher land just north. To reach the true summit one has to bushwhack directly north along the top of the ridge from the point where the Crest Trail makes a sharp left off the west side of the ridge. There were no markers but by paying close attention to my map it was easy to figure out where I had to leave the trail. The bushwhack is easy and fairly open as the ridge ascends gently to the true summit of Cattail which is topped by a USGS benchmark. After summiting Cattail Peak I returned to the main trail for the long descent to Deep Gap (after one last climb over Potato Hill at 6,440'). As I descended to Deep Gap it became more and more clear that my turnaround would likely be Winter Star this day and not Celo Knob. The descent isn't bad but its long, and I was fully aware of what a climb it would be on the return hike. Upon reaching Deep Gap I was within a mile of what would be my final peak of the day, Winter Star Mountain (6,203'). The climb from the gap is steep but blessedly short. The summit of Winter Star sits right alongside the trail and sports and official benchmark and a limited, but nice, view.
Upon summiting Winter Star it was decision time. Do I continue on to Gibbs and Celo? It would add another 4+ miles to an already 10+ mile trip. My first instinct was to go for it and I started north, beginning the drop off the north side of Winter Star. I soon reached a nice open rock with a wonderful view north of my next two quarries. I was able to get a good look at the terrain that lay ahead and, to be honest, it looked much tamer than what I had already traveled. A glance at my watch though, and then a quick calculation, immediately told me it wasn't to be however. If I made a run at Celo I'd be racing the setting sun on the way back...there'd be no margin for error time-wise. I had to turn back. So, with great reluctance I began the five mile trek back to Mount Mitchell. The climb back out of Deep Gap was an energy-killer. That, and my old knee injury started to make itself known about the same time. Once atop the ridge the going was easier once again but then there was that last, brutally steep climb of Big Tom to overcome. Big thanks go out to those who set up the ropes for assistance on the steeper pitches! After that it was all downhill...well, not really, it was mostly downhill...and soon I was back at my car.
This was a hike I won't soon forget. The grandeur of the scenery, the unique ecology of the high elevation forest, the unrelenting roller coaster of a trail over spectacularly remote peaks...this hike had it all. That, and I managed to bag #28, #29, and #30 on the SB6K List! I'm now officially down to the final 10!!! Things are getting tougher but I'm too close to give up now...the next 10 are going to be epic!
So, come on along with me as I check three more summits off the South Beyond 6000 List...this time in the rugged northern Black Mountain Range. Lace your boots tight...this one is serious!!! Enjoy!!!
Mileage Hiked: 10.1 miles Hike Duration: 6:30
Trailhead Temp: 50'F Trail Traffic: 25-50 people
Min. Elevation: 5,700' Max. Elevation: 6,648'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,750' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 275'
Trails Used (blaze color): Black Mountain Crest Trail (yellow)