Walking awake

“Things can go seriously wrong out here in a matter of minutes.”

The first mile was rough — and it was all uphill from there.

I knew I was working with a pro when Sammy started weighing the pocketknives. It was the night before we were to embark on a three-day winter trek into the wilderness, and my backpacking partner and I were doing a final gear check. “Mine is slightly lighter,” he noted, staring fixedly at each one as he searched for some sign of unique utility or flawed design. “But yours has more tools — we’ll take yours.”

And so it went for the rest of the evening: Counting ounces and debating subtle choices. I have to confess that I found it all a bit unsettling. What exactly would we gain by losing an ounce here and there? And what if he slipped off a ledge and plunged into an abyss — taking with him our whole arsenal and tool kit? I saw myself fending off man-eating beasts with a pointy stick: Perhaps my lighter pack would give me some added measure of dexterity in battle. Still, I seriously doubted that the Swiss Army ever made its conscripts share their cutlery — so why the overkill? And what about the corkscrew?

Some of those questions were answered the next day as we set out from the trailhead, our carefully parsed packs nonetheless weighing close to 40 pounds apiece. Weight, it seems, comes in inverse proportion to fun: The more of the former, the less of the latter. And as I wheezed and stumbled my way up the trail, less than a mile into our hike, I was seriously considering abandoning such frivolous and clearly expendable items as, say, … my pack.

No such luck. This was, Sammy reminded me, winter backpacking. Gear was essential, particularly given that the forecast for our weekend in the woods had turned ominous. An arctic front, coupled with a low-pressure system to our east, was giving us a vivid taste of the season: Temperatures were expected to dip into the teens, and even lower at night. In scientific terms, such piercing climatic conditions are known as “f**king cold” (iconographically depicted by meteorologists as a moon wincing).

“Gear determines altitude,” Sammy explained, adding, “Things can go seriously wrong out here in a matter of minutes.”

I propped myself up against a tree and sucked water from my Nalgene bottle. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees — and I was sweating like a man unaccustomed to playing the role of Appalachian pack mule. Realizing that every step was taking me still farther from civilization, electricity and the defibrillation machine that seemed to loom large in my future, I suggested pulling a Jayson Blair.

“Why don’t we just head to a motel and hole up for the weekend?” I proposed. “We could watch football and ply ourselves with whiskey in order to achieve the kind of windblown, ruddy complexion that three days’ exposure to the elements will give you. Nobody will ever know the difference.”

Sammy just smiled, shrugged into his pack, and headed up the trail. And at that moment, I knew why he was accompanying me. At an editorial meeting a month earlier, I’d pitched this idea to my editors: “Winter camping. Great photos — trees, snow, maybe a bear or something. It’ll be a great story.”

“OK,” they responded, “but take Sammy with you.”

Sammy Cox wears many hats at Mountain Xpress; besides being the paper’s distribution manager, he’s also a contributing writer and the guy who handles “special projects.” That’s the most mysterious of Sammy’s titles. It sounds sinister, like maybe he breaks kneecaps for our Collections Department or secretly infiltrates the Asheville Citizen-Times to pull a black-bag job. But I quickly figured out that “special projects” means doing whatever’s needed to ensure that Xpress puts a paper on the street week in and week out. And this week, it meant shepherding a clueless journalist on a trek into the frozen wastes. It was a match made in heaven: Sammy is an avid hiker and a veteran outdoorsman; I like to watch National Geographic shows about the great outdoors and consider the three-block walk from the parking lot to our offices my daily “workout.”

Clearly, I’d become a Special Project.

Rime and reason

For our route, Sammy’d chosen a loop hike in the heart of Pisgah National Forest. With 156,000 acres and more than 275 miles of hiking trails, Pisgah is a smorgasbord for backpackers. A 35-minute drive from Asheville deposited us at the start of the Black Mountain Trail. When Sammy first told me we’d be hiking Black Mountain, I envisioned beginning our adventure at the Town Pump (home of the coldest beer in Buncombe County) or some other storied Black Mountain landmark. Instead, we were headed for a 4,286-foot-tall chunk of rock in Transylvania County.

We parked at the trailhead, a mere 0.2 miles from the ranger station off U.S. 276. The first day, we climbed about 2,000 feet in a little more than six miles. The U.S. Forest Service rates the Black Mountain Trail “strenuous”; with the benefit of hindsight, I heartily concur.

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