Sunday, Day 4 of the MST Endurance Run, began on schedule for Diane Van Deren with a 3:45 a.m. wake up call. After getting off the trail the previous evening at 9:36 with Annette Bednosky, her trail guide for the weekend, she’d gotten her first good night’s sleep — 4 hours. She arrived where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes the Folk Arts Center in Asheville ready to rock a 43.8-mile day.
The mischievous Southern Appalachian Mountain gods had other plans.
On Thursday, Van Deren began her quest for a speed-record crossing of the 1,000(ish)-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, descending from the murky 4:30 a.m. dark of Clingman’s Dome en route to Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic, hopefully on May 30. By Sunday morning, she had covered 134.3 miles.
I tagged along with Van Deren and Bedonsky for the first five miles Sunday, a steady climb into the Craggy Mountains that began dry but evolved into a steady drizzle. No big deal to Van Deren, who once trekked 430 miles across Canada’s frozen tundra in the Yukon Arctic Ultra.
“The rain is meditative to me,” Van Deren said as she applied a fresh dose of moleskin at mile 5 Sunday morning. “It’s like music.”
That music was about to turn from Neil Diamond to Iron Maiden.
I peeled off at Craven Gap to perform my journalistic duty, with plans to reconnect early afternoon somewhere in the Mount Mitchell area. My journalistic duty took longer than expected, and by the time I was ready to reconnect, it was mid-afternoon. By then, the Craggy and Black mountains were enshrouded in thick (20-foot vis) clouds in a steady, drenching rain. As I drove up the Blue Ridge Parkway from NC 80 at 15 miles an hour, hunched over the steering wheel, a thought occurred: This is ridiculous. There’s a much faster and safer way to get to the top of Mitchell.
So I turned around, drove to the Black Mountain Campground and began the 5.6-mile, 3,600-foot climb to the highest point east of South Dakota’s Black Hills, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell.
Mount Mitchell Trail is in considerably better shape than the first time I hiked it in the mid-1990s. At the time, it took the National Forest Service trail philosophy that essentially denies the existence of switchbacks. It followed path-of-least-resistance drainages, for the most part, resulting in a rocky, steep climb that was typically wet, often flowing. The trail came to resemble more of a trail when it became part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Despite the MST upgrades, it remains a steep, rocky, rooty, wet trail. Saturday afternoon, in a steady rain, it was as bad as it gets in warm weather. (Warm? Make that non-freezing; it was a wet 44 degrees.) The closer I got to the summit, the more I realized this would be a dicey descent, especially in the dark.
When I reached the top of Mitchell at 6 p.m. the place was deserted. No cars in the lot, the concession stand bolted shut. The wind was blowing, the rain was picking up. The mountain-top thermometer read 42 degrees. I found a sheltered spot and called expedition leader Chuck Millsaps with the Great Outdoor Provision Co.
I learned that the weather was even worse on the Craggy Mountain end. Van Deren and Bednosky had been pulled off the trail an hour earlier at Walker Knob, about 10 miles from the summit. The plan was to get Van Deren rested, let her feet heal, then resume at 5 a.m. the next morning.
I looked at my watch: It was 6:16. Sunset was in a little over two hours; darkness would come sooner in a cloudy forest. I skedaddled down the mountain and made it to my tent as Sunday faded to black.
I mention my roll here mainly because of the accompanying photo. I only spent 31 miles on the trail this weekend, both with Van Deren and trying to track her down. Yet those 31 miles of wet, rocky, rooty Appalachian Mountain trail trashed my trail runners (look closely and you’ll see the seam at my big toe is busted open, on both shoes) and my feet. When I finished those 31 miles and went to take my shoes off, I thought my feet were just wet. They were bloody as well. And those dark toenails aren’t the result of Goth toenail polish; they’re a sign that we’ll be parting ways by week’s end. That’s the damage done by just a fifth of the miles Van Deren has logged.
Van Deren is an elite athlete with the mental and physical wherewithal to cruise into Jockey’s Ridge on May 30 — or earlier. Provided the cantankerous Southern Appalachian Mountain gods let her emerge from their 300-mile reign with her feet in tact.
I talked with expedition leader Millsaps early this morning. Van Deren and trail guide Doug Blackford made it to the Woodlawn Work Center off US 221 yesterday afternoon at 5:30. That was the good news. The bad news: the rain continues and today’s route through the Linville Gorge includes a rock-hop crossing of the Linville River just below the gorge. The rain-swollen river is running high according to the USGS, very high, at 600 cubic feet per second.
“A crossing is unadvisable,” Millsaps said.
Van Deren has made clear from the start that her MST Endurance Run isn’t a race, it’s an expedition.
The Southern App Mountain gods are seeing to that.