Lessons learned navigating Linville Gorge

The following originally appeared August 15, 2018. We run it again because it’s a good reminder — to us especially — to always pay attention, to never get cocky out there, and that, nature is always in charge.

You learn a lot while backpacking, especially about yourself. I’m pretty sure the nine backpackers I spent this past weekend with in Linville Gorge know a lot more about themselves today than they did before our trip.

The weekend trip was an Intermediate Skills trip, meaning participants needed some backcountry experience, though not necessarily in a wilderness. It was targeted to people eager to expand their skills and push their comfort level. And that they did.

Late Friday afternoon, within 20 minutes of heading south on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Table Rock, the rain started. By the time we neared Chimney Gap, an electrical storm passed overhead. We hunkered down in this low spot for 15 minutes before the electrical portion of the storm moved on. We continued in a pretty good rain out of the gap. The rain had us focused on the fluid trail in front of us, as we picked our way around puddles and mini-torrents. While we were looking down, and not around, we missed a crucial turn and started heading downhill. It didn’t feel entirely wrong, based on previous trips, but it didn’t feel right, either. After 20 minutes of descending, the low clouds lifted just enough to reveal, to the south, the ridge we should have been on.

Forty minutes later we regained the MST and continued south. The rain was steady, and waves of unsteady air sparked and rumbled around us. It was 8:30 and almost dark.

We reached an area called Rock Peak, where the trail is especially hard to keep. We lost it, found it, lost it. When we found it again, we headed in the direction from which we had come, which was the wrong direction. The first campsites we came to, at about 10:45 p.m., were where we had taken the wrong turn more than 3 hours earlier (though we didn’t realize that until morning). The rain lightened, the backpackers quickly pitched camp, ate, crawled into their tents.

The next morning: unfazed

When morning come and I explained what had happened, that we’d basically done three hours of extra credit hiking in full pack in a storm, it was more of a “Huh!” moment, rather than a “Let’s-get-the-hike-leader!” pitchforks-and-torches moment.

“The gorge is the gorge,” Bruce said with a smile and a shrug.

There was more news to be delivered. Our plan going in was a 20-mile loop of the gorge that included two crossings of the Linville River. In backpacking circles, it’s a pretty big deal to loop Linville Gorge: most folks usually stick to either the east or west sides, avoiding a challenging river crossing. The crossings — the chance to pick up a new backcountry skill — was a big draw of the trip.

Before the group arrived, I’d hiked in and checked one of the crossings, at Spence Ridge Trail: the river was about six inches above where it needed to be for a safe crossing, and the six hours of rain overnight had added to that. It also ruled out the less-challenging crossing at the end of the gorge, where the river fans to 60 yards and is typically shin deep with a mellow current. Today, it would not be mellow.

“New plan,” I announced. “We’ll hike to Shortoff Mountain, set up camp, dry out, catch some sun, enjoy the view.” Our trip had gone from rollicking wilderness adventure to an afternoon of catching rays.

The group wasn’t fazed.

“Sounds good,” said Joe, who was backpacking with his two college-age sons.

“That’s backpacking,” Brandon added.

Lessons learned

At dinner that evening, Alison noted what a learning experience the hike had been.

“Maybe we didn’t do the river crossings,” said Alison, “but we got to hike at night, we got to hike in the rain, we got to navigate a wilderness area in the dark. That’s pretty good.”

“Maybe this should be an advanced skills trip,” suggested Sue.

Jason captured the essential lesson of the trip: “I learned not to panic.”

It would have been easy to lose it when we discovered we had descended nearly a mile on the wrong trail. It would have been easy to throw up our hands when the third electrical storm rolled overhead. And it would have been easy to yell “Why? Why!?” when, exhausted, we were three hours overdue at camp.

The most telling moment of the trip came at Rock Peak, at the peak of the storm, where the trail simply disappeared. Without needing a prompt, everyone began their own trail search. Everyone remained focused and calmly committed to finding a place to pitch camp for the night. No one panicked. No one came close. We had a problem to solve, and we were going to solve it.

Daily, we deal with situations that try our nerves and test our patience, from getting cut off in traffic to having technology fail us. We seem to spend some days doing nothing but solving one problem after another.

For the nine backpackers I took into the gorge this past weekend, those daily problems won’t seem quite as daunting.

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GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking

Backpacking won’t solve all your problems, but it can help you become a better problem solver! If you’re interested in backpacking,  our next GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking class begins the end of August.  This three-part program includes a gear session (get to know the basic backpacking gear and how to pack a pack, via Zoom on Aug. 24); a six-hour training session at Morrow Mountain State Park that goes over setting up camp, tearing down camp, cooking and nutrition (Saturday, Aug. 27); and culminates with a weekend graduation backpack trip to South Mountains State Park (Sept. 23-25). Some loaner gear is available, on a first-come basis. Learn more and sign up here.

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