ice

Raven Cliff Falls Hike January 2010



Titles I’d considered for this story:

Wish I’d brought my ice-axe.
I’ve never been so afraid.
The dumbest thing I’ve ever done.
Why did I leave the rope in the truck?

What is it about a group of men tossing their gear into an old pick-up and heading off in the twilight hours to the mountains? Since Josiah was a wee young thing he was thrilled to be awakened before dawn for whatever adventure might await. “Hey buddy, time to wake up.” His sleepy eyes would slowly part then widen. Recognition of what awaited would stir the anticipation in his eyes and a big, beautiful grin would transform his tiny face. A love for wildness and adventure must be encoded in our masculine DNA.
This morning, my boy (now 17) opted to sleep in. Nonetheless a band of brothers, old friends…3 generations of the Garrett clan: Chester, Josh, Taylor and I would find our way to the Mountain Bridge Wilderness to see what adventure awaited us.
When I was invited along on this hike I first checked the weather (high of 32 degrees with a chance of snow) then I called the ranger to make sure the trail hadn’t been closed (It hadn’t been but apparently a particularly treacherous section made it a close call) and then finally and most importantly I confirmed the existence of an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet (Doris’ Kitchen) in Marietta.
Upon wheeling my truck into Doris’ parking lot, I hopped from the cab and very nearly ran into the restaurant. (The benefits of a pre-hike-southern-cooking-romanesque-food-orgy can not be over-estimated) We were greeted by a friendly young waitress who seemed more than accustomed to seeing a bunch of unshaven, unkempt, backwoods looking characters at 7 am. That could only be a good sign. A restaurant that draws rugged, working-class men typically could be counted on for the kind of high-fat, cholesterol laden fare I was hoping for. I was not disappointed. Moist, tasty, scrambled eggs were accompanied by buttery grits (of course) along with some tasty, well-browned milk gravy, cat-head biscuits and an assortment of delicious meats including bacon, country ham, thick-sliced slabs of fried bologna (or baloney as it is correctly pronounced) and an assortment of other items that never made their way to my plate. After shoveling in an over-sized helping of these breakfast delicacies I was disturbed to discover that a vat of what so obviously was syrup (it was with the pancakes) was not. It was red-eye gravy. Not to wax philosophical, but deep within the heart of every true-blooded southern boy is a hole that can only be filled with red-eye gravy. So I returned with an empty plate for a second helping of grits and a watershed helping of some pretty decent red-eye. Gorged and wired from too many cups of black coffee, we set out for the last stretch of asphalt that would lead us to the mountains we had come for. Thanks for breakfast, by the way, Chester.
We arrived in the Raven Cliff Falls parking area right at 8 am. After completing the requisite hiking forms we donned our coats, shouldered our packs and made our way down the red-blazed trail with even more enthusiasm than we’d shown earlier for Doris. It was cold. As cold as I’ve ever been. Fortunately, our bodies are designed with an internal heater which is switched on by getting your butt in gear. So we did. Buggy and I were both intrigued that our bodies seemed to warm in stages, core first, then legs and arms, one foot then the other then toes and finger-tips.
It was a cold (have I mentioned that?), crisp morning and due to the season there was no foliage to block the beautiful views of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness. Guess it was the pay-off for braving the temps. Chester wondered out loud what the temperature was and I remembered that my Dad had just given me a whistle equipped with both a compass and thermometer. When we reached the over-look for the falls I pulled it from my pack and hung it outside. It read 25 degrees. It read 25 degrees for much of the hike. After some cheesy-poser shots, trading cameras and photographers we headed back to the trail to enter the Dismal. Our trek through this old hardwood forest would involve a descent of over 2,000 feet in a mile and a half. The purple-blazed Dismal Trail dumps you, with quivering legs of Jello at a juncture with the pink blazed Naturaland Trust Trail which leads to an exceptionally fun cable-crossing over beautiful Matthew’s Creek. We stopped and spent about a half an hour doing some rock-hopping, boulder-climbing and junk-food munching before crossing the creek and beginning our equally steep climb up the deceptively pink-blazed Naturaland Trust Trail. Pink is apparently not for sissies.
It was in the midst of this difficult climb that I realized the water in my bottles had frozen…solid. I managed to abate my thirst by licking a little moisture from the opening but more than anything was taken aback that my water could actually freeze. It was really cold.
Our trail led us to a high-pass that wormed it’s way around the base of a huge granite out-cropping. I’d walked this trail a year or so ago in the summer but the ice and snow of winter had transformed the landscape so that what we were hiking now was really a different trail. Spectacular vistas and ice formations became visible throughout the entire hike but nothing could have prepared us for what was around the next bend. We made our way up a series of steps cut into the earth and crudely fashioned with wood and slabs of stone, to enter “The Cathedral.”

Even a brief study of architecture reveals that ancient (and sometimes modern) man-made cathedrals are engineered with high-vaulted ceilings and open, ethereal spaces so as to make the congregant aware of his own smallness in relation to the building. Some say this was done to emphasize the vastness of God but history has often proved otherwise. In many cases the motivation was that the congregant be reminded of his own insignificance and subsequent need for the institutional church…de-emphasizing the love and grace of an Abba who moved heaven and earth to rescue us. Having said that, the magnificent view of the 150 foot high granite face covered in enormous ice formations not only spoke of the vastness of God but also his un-explainable infatuation with his creatures, the object of his affection. It seemed as though he had set this otherworldly setting up just for us…just for me.
As I began to awaken from my reverie it slowly dawned on me that we had to cross this. Our path to the other side was a 6 foot wide slab of solid ice probably 50 ft across. Josh wasted no time. He dropped to his knees and began to crawl across the icy slab. A third of the way in he called for Taylor who crossed in the same fashion…reaching out for a hiking pole his dad extended to him. Chester decided that, caution being the better part of valor, he’d explore other options. Against my better judgment and for reasons un-explained I went with Chester. He reasoned that rather than cross at the top where the ice was level he’d cross down lower where the ice formed what can only be described as a 15′ foot wide, 75 foot long giant-ice-slab-sliding board. His first step was to be placed on a piece of bark about the size of a credit-card, his second a rock about the size of a hamburger bun, his third on a loose rock Josh had just tossed onto the ice and finally a rock protruding from the ice that was about the size and shape of a nalgene bottle. Each of these “footholds” were a full stride apart. Now understand, one slip, one mis-step would send him rocketing 50-75 feet down this uneven, solid-ice-slip-and-slide to what (if God was merciful) would be death, if not, a long, cold, painful wait for Mountain Rescue to arrive and drag his broken body to a hospital. He yelled, “Get out of my way!” and ran across. I swear to you he ran. When he reached the other side I realized I had been holding my breath. I exhaled and it immediately occurred to me that all 3 of the Garrett boys were on the other side of this icy slip-and-slide-of-death. Probably ranks as the all-time dumbest thing I’d ever done…I followed him. I did not run. I hesitantly and awkwardly twisted and stretched, legs trembling, palms sweating and tried not to think of what the bone-crunching impact would be like when I smashed into the bottom. Well, I made it. Thank God I made it. Stupid, stupid, stupid…but I made it.

We found the trail and continued our ascent which grew more difficult (though not as treacherous) with every step. It was time for lunch. The bitter, winter winds had made their appearance and drove us to find shelter for our meal. Chester pointed out what appeared to be a three and a half foot high open cave beneath a boulder. I thought he was kidding. He worked his way around the massive monolith and discovered a much bigger area than I’d first imagined. A perfect place for lunch. (Bear Grylls would be proud) Taylor fired up his new Snow-peak iso-butane stove and minutes later was enjoying a hot-steaming plate of Ramen noodles. I had chosen to go low-tech. A half bottle of denatured alcohol and an entire box of esbit tablets later I sat down for a tasty meal of Lipton Alfredo Noodles. Next time I’ll bring a wind-screen or fall back on my trusty iso-butane stove. By the time I was done cramming down my noodles, the rest of the boys had shared a cup of coffee, were packed and ready to go. “On the trail again,” Josh “willied-out” as we worked our way up and around the mountain.
Moments later we arrived at the suspension bridge spanning Raven Cliff Falls. People standing on the overlook we’d just left a coupla hours ago would (with binoculars) be able to see us shivering in the freezing mist on this bridge. More phenomenal ice formations were visible just beneath us. We snapped some pics and continued to follow the pink blazes. Eventually our trail connected us with the blue-blazed Gum Gap, basically a Jeep trail, that led us back to the familiar red-blazes we’d started with early this morning. As often does, excited banter and playful ribbing gave way to a contemplative, natural silence comfortable only among old friends. Occasionally I’d chuckle to myself at the ridiculous chance we took crossing that icy section of the Cathedral, amazed that we were alive and un-scathed. We walked, ran and played our way back to the truck, where we un-burdened ourselves from our packs and rode back down the mountain, basking in the afterglow of a rugged hike, grateful for friendship, grateful for the warmth of the truck heater, grateful for mountains, rivers and waterfalls and grateful to be returning to our families. Chester said, “Hey, let’s do this again tomorrow!” Soon, old friend. Soon.