Sunday, December 8, 2013

PCT training: Brasstown Bald

I’ve stood on the summit of Brasstown Bald (highest point in Georgia) many times before, but had never seen it like this- a cloud inversion made the surrounding mountain peaks look like islands in a white ocean.  So often, climbing a mountain on a rainy day brings you into a thick fog where you can’t see anything.  This was different- the mountaintops were clear, the valleys obscured.
Valley filled with clouds and rolling fog.  Stunning!
Missing links
I ended up on Brasstown Bald this weekend for a few reasons. The first is that I enjoy imagining the connections between mountaintops and rivers, and I find it satisfying to know I’ve walked the trails traversing the landscapes of the north Georgia mountains.  I’d previously done most of the Jacks Knob Trail, which connects the Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee Gap with Brasstown Bald.  But there was a 1 mile part I’d missed.  Enough incentive for me.

On top of Brasstown Bald, I could see the routes of the other two trails that descent from Brasstown Bald (the Wagon Train Trail and the Arkaquah Trail) and out in the distance was also the top of Blood Mountain (on the AT) poking up out of the clouds.  By completing this little section of trail, I got another piece in my mental map of the north Georgia mountains filled in.
View from summit of Brasstown Bald.
More PCT training
I was also out getting practicing carrying extra water and food weight over significant elevation change for my PCT training.  Up to 30 lbs now- my legs are game for anything, but my poor feet need extra time to build strength.  I walk daily with my pack around my neighborhood, but that's nothing like climbing up and down several thousand feet (which I did by doing an out and back on the Jacks Knob Trail and most of the Arkaquah Trail).
Lots of rain, fog, and tree foam at lower elevation.
Looking for salamanders
During the hike, I took a detour to one of my favorite places to find salamanders.  I’ve had salamanders on my mind lately.  Natural history is often what gives my hikes meaning, and finding salamanders (or plants or tree foam, etc.) is what I do, part of my identity.  As a weekend backpacker, I reference guidebooks that contain natural history, many of my trips are motivated by seeking out particular plants, and finding plants or salamanders never fails to cheer me up when I’m having a rough day on the trail.
A salamander friend.
It’s hard for me to imagine how this will fit in with the thru-hiker mentality that I think I will need for the PCT.  Where the priority is light, fast, efficient.  Where I will have limited battery power and internet access.  Where my priorities may be different.

A few nights ago, I was flipping through my copy of the Wilderness Press Guide Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon and Washington, pondering maps and guidebooks.  I got this book years ago- it's heavy and outdated, but I love reading the information on the geology and natural history of the PCT.  Naturally, this salamander reference caught me eye and I started daydreaming about more salamander detours:
From the Wilderness Press Guide.
Most maps and databooks of the PCT (i.e. the ones I plan to bring) do not contain this type of information.  Do I try to bring guidebooks (or their pdf's) that do have natural history info?  Could this at least be justified when it helps me infer suitable habitat for hammock campsites?  Will I be happy being immersed in the natural splendor of the PCT and not having access to information, or even something as basic as a way to ID plants?

I know my priorities when I do my weekend trips- but it is hard to imagine how these will change on a long-distance hike.  I read a lot about how people's gear and food preferences change over the course of a long-distance hike, but what about more fundamental values?  Will I find other sources of meaning or inspiration?  My enthusiasm for nature runs deep.  A childhood spent climbing trees, turning over rocks in streams, swinging from rope swings.  Will I ever grown tired of these things?

As with much of this PCT planning, I guess I'll just have to keep an open mind and find out next year.  This is all part of the adventure of attempting something new.


  1. What a nice inversion to see! We had a great one at the Rice Field shelter in Virginia, looking west into West Virginia one morning.

    As for enjoying the natural world while on a is definitely possible. On the AT everything was new to us and most of the time we just took photos and hoped someone could identify something later on. Especially when spring came we always stopped for wildflowers. I remember seeing squaw root for the first time and not knowing what it was. We had made it to Fontana Dam and was at the Fontana hotel/resort area and inside their general store they had a few books. I flipped through and saw it along with several other plant we had been seeing. It was very nice to identify some plants I had been seeing. And then of course we met two uber-hikers, Sea Otter and Nuthatch, and Nuthatch (she) had been carrying a guidebook during their hike (starting on the Pinhoti). So, there's always that....carrying a guidebook of plants.

    Technology has changed so much in 4 years that I think you could easily look items up when you get cell signal. It wasn't nearly that convenient 'back then'.

  2. You could carry a kindle...I know, the horror! I will never be a real thru cause I can't imagine not carrying reading/reference material.

  3. Hi Misit- Yes, inversions sure are memorable!

    I really appreciate your thoughts on enjoying the natural world on a thru. Sounds like the strategy of being observant and taking photos, and finding out about the neatest finds later worked for you. That’s reassuring. I have been noting the ranger stations along the PCT with interest. And it could be a great excuse to seek out local naturalists.

    Hi Mary- Some of the women I’ve hiked with do like to carry a kindle, and I’ve certainly been known to carry a heavy guidebook on my weekend trips, especially now that I’ve got my other gear weight down. But I’m too worried about how heavy my pack will be for the PCT. It’s definitely a learning experience for me, rying to imagine how to change my ways for a long hike.

  4. I'll be curious to learn how you will balance "exploring" with thru-hiking. I think it can be done, but will require discipline to actually stop and observe instead of focusing on making miles.

    Tree foam is fascinating! I've never seen that phenomenon here in the PNW.

  5. Hi Allison- I'll definitely keep you posted about finding the balance (or not...)

    Oh how interesting that you've never seen it out there. Hummm.. I wonder why that would be the case. Have to look into it.

  6. I'll be curious to read about how your enjoyment and curiosity surrounding the natural world evolve throughout your trip as well. I thru-hiked the AT in 2012-2013. I began bright eyed and bushy tailed, carrying a small winter tree guide and a monocular for birding and stopped often to admire wildflowers in the spring. I came home after my year long flip-flop feeling accomplished but pretty burnt out. But I wasn't someone who enjoyed going out every single weekend to begin with. I also think being able to hike at a faster pace and finishing the trail in 6 months +or- could have had a big impact on preventing burn out. I got to a place where I had to stop satisfying my curiosity so much and just get on with hiking. Even though I did a "thru-stroll" more than a fast hike, I found I had to sacrifice quite a bit of stopping to sight see. And honestly, after a year out, all the sights started looking the same and lost their luster. It was my version of staring at the same four walls all the time. I hope you don't get to that point. If I do another thru one day, I'd look hard into how to prevent burn out.