07 December 2012
Blackhead Mountain and Arizona Ridge - 23 Nov 2012
Ken and I set out from his house around 07:45, and were at the trailhead by 08:10. We geared up and headed out 10 minutes later. The first stretch of this trail follows some kind soul’s driveway, and after that it follows the remains of a road through Dutcher Notch. For the first segment of the road, there are private lands on either side, but eventually it comes to state lands. Before we could do any of that, though, I had to double back and get my phone, which I had left on top of Ken’s truck. It wasn’t the only thing I had forgotten.
Before we get too far into this report, I’d just like to give a “shout-out” to my trekking poles. I really appreciate them, especially on steep, treacherous descents, where they help significantly. My knees appreciate having some of the weight taken off of them, I’m far less likely to fall, and they engage my entire body in the exercise. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that I left my poles sitting in the trunk of my car, parked at Ken’s house, a half an hour away from the trailhead.
Furthermore, I didn’t realize this until we were already headed up the trail. I thought about going back for them, but I didn’t want to waste an hour or more on it. So we pushed onwards. 10 minutes after heading up for the second time, we reached the register, and another 10 minutes after that, we were on state land. The trail runs right beside the old road for most of its length, which is fortunate, because the old road was covered with several inches of leaves, which made it impossible to see what we were stepping on.
We made it up to the col (Dutcher Notch) by 09:30, and we hunkered down behind some rocks to our left, to get out of the wind a bit and have a snack. 15 minutes or so later, we started up the Escarpment Trail, literally up, passing first over more leaf-covered ground, up switchbacks, and then straight up into a more coniferous zone. Along the way, I managed to scratch Ken on the head with a whipped branch. I turned around to say “watch out” and the stupid thing was already scratching him. To add insult to injury, the same tree got him on the way down.
After the climb out of Dutcher Notch, the trail opened up a bit, flattened out a lot, and we reached “Arizona”, a long ridge that may or may not be considered a peak, depending on what source you’re reading. It doesn’t really matter; it was a pretty walk through the woods, and the going was mostly flat. On the other side of Arizona Ridge, as I’ve decided to call it, we climbed down into the next col and then started our ascent of Blackhead proper.
At about 11:20, somewhere around the 3500’ marker, I started running out of gas, and I stopped to carb and salt up before the final push. Ken joked that I would be at the summit before it kicked in, but Larabars work fast, at least in my body, and I was ready to roll after a few minutes. We knocked out the last bit of ascent, arguably the most technical of the day, which is to say we had to use our hands a couple of times. By 11:40 we were at Camp Steel, and a minute or two later we were at the summit.
The summit sits at the junction of the Escarpment Trail and the Blackhead Range Trail, and was windy, but just back on the trail we found enough shelter to eat a quick meal in relative comfort. We remarked how we hadn’t seen anyone yet today. At the trailhead there was one other truck, but the gigantic NRA sticker on his or her door indicated that he or she was most likely off hunting and not hiking up a mountain. I took a quick walk down the Blackhead Range Trail, but saw no footprints in the snow. I didn’t continue on the Escarpment Trail to look for prints, since it dropped down steeply, and I didn’t feel like climbing back up.
At 12:15 we headed out, and about halfway down into the col, we met the only other soul we would see on the trail that day. We stopped to chat for a moment, then headed on. I pushed the pace a lot on this stretch, where possible, and attempted to get over my fear of falling and my fear of my knees giving out and just ... bound ... down the mountain. I thought about Reinhold Messner, his reputed deer-like grace on the hills in a National Geographic piece I had just read a month ago. I thought about Sarah Lavender Smith’s write-up of her trip to Alaska, and her description of the “Geezers”, running down a snowfield in giant, bounding steps, sliding with every step. It worked, for the most part, though I wasn't quite bounding, yet. I applied one of the few hiking lessons from my father that I can actually remember, and took quick, light steps down the steepest parts. It was a leap of faith, for me, but my knee held up fine. It was sore by the end of the descent, and for a good week after, but it held up.
When we reached the leaves, near the top of the switchbacks, the descent became downright treacherous. We were in danger of and did fall several times on the way down, but we avoided serious injury. Several times I froze briefly, unsure of where to step next, and I scolded myself for not bringing my poles. There was no use in fretting about it, though, so I slid and skidded down. Ken stayed close behind for most of the descent, but we spread out a bit over the sketchiest bits.
After making it safely down into Dutcher Notch around 13:30, we were on better ground for a while. As we descended, though, the leaves on the ground grew thicker again, and there were several more stumbles, but it never got as bad as the drop into the Notch was. We were back at the truck by 14:20, scratched and sore but otherwise unharmed.
Pics are here.