An up and down day in the Blacks

Getting to the top of the mountain is great. Getting back down even better.

I realized that, again, today after finally conquering — after two unsuccessful tries — the Woody Ridge Trail in the Black Mountains, then starting back down the east-facing flank I’d come up. Coming up, pristine blue sky above, clouds in the distant distance. But when I headed back over the crest of the Black Mountains, the highest mountains east of South Dakota’s Black Hills, and emerged through a thick balsam fir forest onto a knob looking east —

Uh oh.

Finishing in a cloud made for an intimate hike.

Perhaps a thousand feet below, the bottom of the mountain disappeared into a thick, cottony sea of white. Those clouds once distant had snuggled up to the base of the Blacks. Which wouldn’t necessarily be bad except that the trail I’d just come up had a split personality. The first mile and a half followed an old roadbed that, while it didn’t exactly ease it’s way up the slope, at least respected the fact that it was climbing a mountain. After a mile and half, the trail seemed to say, “To heck with this,” and proceeded to go straight up. Which it did, for about a mile and 2,000 vertical feet. Going up was tough enough. Coming down, I knew, would be even tougher.

Lesson one in steep mountain hiking: You think it’s painful and slow going up? Coming down is even more so, especially on a pair of knees that are nearing the end of their warrantee. It’s easy to twist a knee or take a spill coming down a steep slope, especially if said slope is rocky, rooty and slippery. This trait of the descent is especially important to keep in mind during winter because of …

Lesson one in hiking in winter: Check when sunset is before heading out and keep that time in mind as you hike. If the sun sets at 5:47 p.m., keep in mind that you probably want to be back to the trailhead by 5:47, and plan your activities on the mountain accordingly. And realize, too, that if you’ll be hiking the east or north slope, you’ll be losing sunlight even earlier. Today, for instance, I was counting on an hour or so to walk the Crest Trail once I’d reached it’s intersection at the top of Woody Ridge. But it took a little over two hours to make the arduous 2.42-mile climb; By the time I got to the top, it was time to head down, which I did. Good, thing, too, because when I saw the cloud bank settling in below, I realized the last thing I wanted was to be feeling my way down a steep, slippery, indistinct trail in a thick fog.

Fortunately, visibility didn’t become an issue until the trail reached the more friendly old roadbed. What could have been a treacherous situation became a very intimate hike, the clouds consolidating this massive mountain into a cozy, contained landscape in which the massive trunks of old-growth hardwoods magically appeared from the fog. I got back to the car with about 20 minutes to spare.

And, of course, rued the fact I could have spent another 20 minutes on the sun-drenched summit.

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