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The Art Loeb Trail Attempt

The definitions of attempt as a verb: 1) make an effort to achieve or complete (something, typically a difficult task or action) or 2) try to climb to the top of (a mountain). As a noun however, attempt is described as typically unsuccessful or not certain to succeed.

Last weekend I did make an effort to complete the Art Loeb trail in a long weekend and I did not succeed. However I did manage to climb to the top of a mountain and succeeded in learning several lessons.

For several years now I have been hiking and backpacking in Western NC and eastern TN. I have done two 20+ mile long weekends on the Appalachian Trail, a couple of overnights in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Pisgah National Forest plus multiple day hikes. This spring I did a 20 mile one day hike of the Perimeter Trail around Sewanee TN.

A three day trek to complete the 30 mile Art Loeb Trail through Shining Rock Wilderness and Pisgah National Forest seemed completely doable. Was sure it would be another awesome chapter to experience in my #50for50 adventure.

I bought a bear canister since they are required to overnight in Shining Rock, packed my winter weight gear and had three liters of water to start since water is harder to find on Art Loeb. I upgraded my All Trails phone app to Pro so I’d have a good map to follow even when no signal, plus printed out 10 pages of detailed topographical maps. Rain was forecast so I also made sure I had waterproof items.

I felt very confident that I was prepared and capable.

I realized a few hours after starting the trail that I was neither.

The morning started off right by dropping my car at the Davidson River campground/Job Corps end of the trail head and met up with the folks with Meetup for the trip. There were eight of us and we all seemed ready and willing to take on the challenge of the elevation, weather predictions and trail length. They were of course all strangers to me and only a couple of them knew each other from the group.

I have gone on many hikes/backpacks with nearly/complete strangers I’ve met on Meetup or other online groups. I know I am typically a slower hiker and am quite used to spending a fair amount of time hiking alone during a trip. However even knowing this I didn’t take the time to get the trip leader’s cell phone number (nor any of the other hiker’s info except first names) even after we shuttled to Daniel Boone Camp, the northern terminus, to start the trail.

As we got started it didn’t seem like a big deal. At first I was keeping up pretty well and we were all staying together as a group. The trail is a slow climb at first but I did realize that it was a lot of steps up roots and rocks.

My least favorite type of trail.

As a short woman with short legs it is more difficult to traverse on terrain that includes high steps. Especially with a backpack that I knew was heavier than normal to keep me slightly off balance. I also was wearing new hiking shoes that I thought would be more comfortable because they have a wide toe box. However the width seemed to be messing with my stride because my foot seemed to slide around some in the shoe even though they were securely laced.

But I had my trekking poles and I was just so confident I’d been walking hills on treadmills lately and I definitely could climb a few rocks.

By mile two I decided it was a good idea to start drinking some of the heavy and sloshing water I had packed.

Before we even stopped for lunch I had already slipped way behind the stronger 4 hikers, and was a long ways ahead of a slower hiker and two others that stayed behind to help him keep going.

I had noticed some vague cramps in my calves. Then it happened.

I stepped up with my right foot onto the next high rock, pulled myself up by my poles, went to step forward and I collapsed over with a cramp in my right calf.

Thankfully I fell straight forward and didn’t slip over the side of the trail. I desperately tried to stretch the leg out and stop the cramp.

The foot stayed locked in flex position and pain shot up to my knee. I wrestled off my backpack, rolling over like a turtle to keep from dropping it off the steep bank below.

Still the leg stayed frozen as I massaged and cursed a blue streak. Nobody had to hear the litany as the fast group was way ahead of me and the slower group was nowhere in sight behind.

Finally, on the verge of tears, I felt the cramp release. I also heard hikers coming up the trail and was able to get up and dust off.

I got my backpack hoisted up on my shoulders again, strapped in and got going again. When two much fitter hikers strode up and as I made way for them to pass I asked if they saw the fast group ahead to let them know I was okay.

Within the hour I actually caught up to the fast group where they were taking a break to eat. I barely got a few bites of trail mix in and some water and they were already headed off again.

Without me.

It wasn’t their fault I am slow and they weren’t unfriendly, just motivated to keep their pace. They said they’d see me up at Black Balsam and to keep hydrating after I had mentioned my leg cramp. I took in some electrolytes and hoped the extra salty beef jerky I was eating with my trail mix would help get me stop cramping.

The cramping seemed to abate as I finished the ascent and felt a sigh of relief. The steep climbed was over I assumed as I walked the trail away from the Cold Mountain spur and followed the ridge line. The relief was short lived as I entered the “narrows”. Although less elevation changes the path is barely wide enough for both feet and is still very rocky. My shoes were still giving me some challenge in my overall balance.

I managed to catch up with the fast group one more time as they had stopped to take in some beautiful vistas. They stayed for a couple of minutes and then headed on. I dropped my pack, took a few photos of both sides of the view back towards Cold Mountain and the other unknown peaks surrounding.

After that stop around mile 5, I started struggling again. The path was filled with more up and downs, short but rocky “stairs” and my first every experience with thigh/groin cramps. The pain made me so angry. I knew it was caused by dehydration. Possibly acerbated by me not being in as good of shape as I had assumed.

At every turn in the trail I felt uncertain if I was still on the right path. I stopped multiple times to check AllTrails.

And I was alone. Normally this is okay because when I am sweaty and downtrodden I hate others to see me. But on that day even with the fresh air, beautiful fall colors peeking through the trees, and lovely sounds of the outdoors I felt tired, irritable and weak. I needed moral support.

I kept walking however knowing that I needed to make better time if I hoped to catch up with the front runners. I have no idea what happened to the slow group that had been behind me that should have caught up at some point. But I just kept going.

At one point on a narrow but completely level part of the path I fell again, just tripping over my own feet. Despite the new hiking shoes being extra light they were starting to feel like they were weighed with concrete. The fall hurt my knees and definitely hurt my pride.

Tears stung my eyes. I started wondering if my friend Jackie Compton, in Brevard, had been sincere when he offered to bail me out. Part of me was like, I know I am beat down but I can keep going. The other part of me was like, I am not having fun, why am I here.

To pass the time I took some extra pictures of the beautiful and mysterious looking quartz like boulders along the way. I hummed Jason Isbell songs to keep myself company. His song “Traveling Alone” seemed especially ironic. I only saw a few other hikers, most of them young and moving fast.

By the time 5:30 rolled around I was on top of a hillside overlooking Ivestor Gap. I had a tiny bit of cell service and I texted Jackie. He assured me he was willing to help – did I want him to come get me where I was?

With dark coming soon I texted him no that I was prepared and able to spend the night on the bald at the gap and would hike the remaining two miles out to Black Balsam parking lot in the morning. He agreed to meet me there at 9am and while I continued down an overgrown path I lost cell signal but at least help was going to be there in the morning.

As I headed along the washed out, narrow trail I looked at my Alltrails map and realized I was not on the Art Loeb at the moment but instead on an abandoned spur that was supposed to be closed due to erosion. Oops. I couldn’t do anything but finish my descent and make camp at Ivestor Gap.

Thankfully there were some other campers there so although no one spoke to me I didn’t feel so alone.

Sunset had begun and it was a glorious companion as I set up my tent, unrolled my sleeping bag and got out the bear canister to make a small dinner.

The wind picked up and I shivered in my puffy jacket as I heated the water for soup. The colors as the day slipped away were more brilliant than I’ve ever seen.

Sitting there on the grass I felt some regret that I wasn’t going to finish the Art Loeb on this attempt. I never like giving up but I also know I had made some errors. I didn’t hydrate properly, my backpack was heavier than I had ever carried, I knew better than to wear brand new hiking shoes, and I just hadn’t hiked enough lately.

The troubling thoughts dissipated once I got changed into my sleeping clothes and I snuggled into my cozy bag in the zipped up tent. I tossed a bit during the night and had to get out for potty breaks twice but it wasn’t an unpleasant night.

The next morning before dawn I started packing while fighting stronger winds over the bald. The sunrise didn’t warm me much as I headed back on the trail. I was sad that I couldn’t get my stove to stay lit long enough for coffee.

The old road bed that apparently gets a lot of love from off road vehicles this time of year was muddy but blessedly level. Two miles felt like twenty and yet I made it to Black Balsam parking lot a few minutes before 9am.

A little bit later Jackie pulled up and helped me get my backpack into his warm truck cab. “I have no idea how you hiked that far with a pack this heavy, Tracy.”

I have no idea either just that next time I will be more prepared.

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