Mike and Verna Mitchell thought hiking Mount Mitchell would be, literally, a walk in the state park that carries its name.
True, the mountain was the highest east of the Mississippi River. But that meant it was a bit more than 6,600 feet. Mike of Windsor had climbed all the 14ers in Colorado — he finished in 2006 after turning 50 — and Verna had climbed 35 of them. They weren’t snobs, but they were Colorado residents who were used to peaks that scraped the sky, not shied away from it. And the peak featured a trail that wound its way to the top. Really, how hard could it be?
Well, both of them knew the answer. The answer was one that experienced mountaineers know all too well: It depends on the day, and the week, and the month and sometimes the year.
Mount Mitchell sits in the heart of the Black Mountains of western North Carolina, and according to the state park’s website, it is the centerpiece of the Blacks, the highest mountain range in the Appalachians. Mike wanted to climb it because he’d be down there anyway to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday, and his family had talked about it for years. You may have noticed that Mike shares the same name of the peak.
The peak is named after Elisha Mitchell, a professor from the University of North Carolina who determined its height in 1835. On a return trip to verify those measurements, and perhaps to prove to friends he climbed it the first time, Mike said, he fell to his death at Mitchell Falls (which as it turns out is an unfortunate pun). He’s buried on the peak. Mike isn’t sure, but there’s a chance his family has some relation to Elisha. It would make sense, as his family has roots in the Carolina area. But Mitchell is a common name. Regardless, his family almost considered it a piece of their history, and so he wanted to experience it. It would be a fun day trip, he thought, and then he called the ranger station a couple weeks ago to check up on it.
You probably can’t do it, the ranger said. The state park may, for all intents and purposes, be closed.
A bad storm, one of epic proportions, actually, blew through a few days ago. The ice and snow storm, accompanied by 70 mph winds, blew down big trees, scattered branches and turned the trails into more of a bog. The Mitchells, though, were undeterred. They’d been through bad conditions before. They only had a day to climb it, as that was the only window before the birthday celebration. They decided to head down.
They did get lucky on the weather, actually, on the day they climbed it. The storms abated, and the day was 68 degrees and sunny.
But their luck ended once they started their hike just outside of the state park near the Toe River. The campground hosts, when they asked, looked at them like they were nuts. They found out why in a bit.
They were stepping over logs and huge trees almost every step, not just for a bit here and there, for six miles.
They sank in the bog, pulling their foot out every few feet, and the mud holes were hidden by leaves, so it was impossible to avoid them. They wore microspikes to help with the ice, or else they would have slipped as if they were traversing a rink.
They thought about quitting. Just not at the same time.
“We didn’t verbalize it to each other,” Mike said. “As it turns out, we both thought it at various times. But when she was down, I’d be up, and when I was down, she’d be up a bit. It was as hard as any of the 14ers I’d done.”
They still enjoyed it. The scenery was much different than a 14er, mostly because of the large trees that smothered the trail, and that’s true of the ones that survived the storm, not the ones who fell to it. And that trail never really got above treeline until the very end.
“Even with the trees not having their leaves, the trees blacked out the trail,” Mike said. “You might need a headlamp in the summer.”
When they got to the summit, they discovered after looking at the roster that they were the first people up the popular peak in almost two weeks.
Because of their new route, the day turned out to be 12 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain, a significant number even for a 14er. Verna did do some difficult 14ers, including their first — Longs Peak. She didn’t want to do the hairiest, including Capitol. Someone, she said, had to be around to raise their two boys, now 30 and 24.
But since this peak is now an apparent family tradition, maybe they’ll do it with the boys again one year. They’ll just try to check the forecast before they go.