Returning to the Mountain Hurts Like Hell
Following a tough summit push, the author takes in stunning surrounding views. Photo courtesy of Will Harlan
I was afraid to go back. Years ago, I had spent my darkest, loneliest hours training and testing my limits on Mount Mitchell—the highest peak in the East. And for five straight years, I had run—and won—the Mount Mitchell Challenge—a 40-mile winter race to the top of Mount Mitchell. Some years, knee-deep snow and thick sheets of ice coated the traails. One year, torrential rain flooded the course.
Even in the worst weather, though, I knew that I had not fully faced the mountain. I had always ascended Mitchell from the west, where the climb is gradual. But there is another, meaner path to the top of Mount Mitchell from the opposite direction: the Black Mountain Crest Trail. It starts east of Mount Mitchell and climbs 3,000 feet in the first four miles. Then it roller-coasters steeply across five summits over 6,000 feet and ends atop Mitchell. The entire trail is only 12 miles, but it’s earned the moniker of Toughest Trail in Appalachia.
It had been over a decade since I had raced up Mount Mitchell. I was no longer the young, child-free, debt-free twentysomething who won the race five times. I was now a middle-aged dad with a wife, a mortgage, and a partially torn Achilles tendon. I had not returned to the summit of Mitchell since my last race in 2008. I had left everything out there on the trails that day and never looked back. I wanted the mountain to remember me at my best.
But earlier this year my friend Sam dared me to run the Black Mountain Crest Trail with him. Sam is the most talented all-around outdoor adventurer I know: he wins mountain bike races, paddles the region’s rowdiest whitewater creeks, climbs iconic routes, and runs the region’s toughest trails. How could I say no to a guy like him?
Sam was planning an out-and-back on the Black Mountain Crest Trail—around 25 miles. It was less than a marathon. I had run much longer distances. But the truth was: the trail scared the shit out of me. So did returning to Mitchell. I was afraid to see how age had diminished that younger version of myself. I had a choice: I could keep those shiny memories polished, or I could risk tarnishing them with an old-man DNF.
I had plenty of excuses not to go: injury, work, kids. I almost bailed that morning on the way to meet Sam. But I couldn’t let him down, or myself. I arrived at the trailhead, where Sam was waiting. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said, and bounded up the trail.
We began a steep ascent that instantly sucked all the oxygen out of my body. My lungs burned, my head fogged, and lactic acid scorched my legs. Clearly, I wasn’t the same runner from years ago. I was already thinking about turning back.
Sam glided up the trail, chattering away. I sputtered one-word responses and tried to hide my gasps for air as we climbed to the shoulder of Celo Knob. From there, vistas revealed the five jagged peaks we would climb on our way to the distant summit of Mitchell.
The boulder-strewn trail contorted and jackknifed along the razor-sharp ridgeline. At times, the trail was so steep that climbing ropes were needed to scramble up sheer rock faces. We slogged to the summits of 6,000-foot peaks—Winter Star Mountain, Potato Hill, Balsam Cone, Big Tom, and Mount Craig—and then stumbled steeply down them. On the descents, Sam deftly picked his lines through granite teeth and ankle-twisting rock gardens, and I wobbled along behind him. For most of the way, we were cloaked in the darkness of spruce forest—until finally we spilled out into the sunlight of Mount Mitchell’s parking lot.
Years before, I had sprinted this final stretch to the summit and bolted back down the mountain, eager to chase down competitors. This time, I paused for a few panoramic minutes to soak it all in: mountain melting into sky, ragged clouds, the bare quiet. There I was—standing atop that summit again—a shadow of my former self. I tried to remember what it felt like to be young, fast, and free. But all I could feel was the wind, weathering me and the 500-million-year-old mountain beneath my feet.
Still, it felt good to be there. I was okay with not being young anymore. Even in my forties, I could still push my limits and dig deep. The contest had always been within. I scanned the other side of the mountain and spotted the path I had once raced down. Those races never really mattered to anyone but me, I realized. And the only thing that endured was the resolve to keep going, no matter what. Those memories were long gone, and it was time to make new ones.
Sam and I began the rugged 12-mile return trip. I felt a bit lighter—but maybe that was because I had guzzled most of the water in my pack. I relaxed into the run and savored the time with Sam. Most of all, I cherished the mountain—and all the peaks and valleys it had given me. I would have to make the most of the moments I had left up here, running across the sky. And it was time to start sharing them with my two boys, who might someday climb this mountain and ascend to even greater heights.
Parched and punished, Sam and I silently soldiered through the final miles. It would take everything we had to make it back to the trailhead before sunset. There were no crowds waiting for us at the finish. And that was just fine with me. Breathless once more in the shadow of Mitchell, I had stopped chasing the kid I once was, and I had started becoming the man I didn’t think I could be.