After the usual RSVP fluctuations for a cold winter trip, Kyle, Joe M., Joe (Mtn F*ker), Stuart, Karan (B.A.), and I set out for Dolly Sods on Saturday morning There was no sign of winter (except for the frigid cold) until the last few miles of mountain driving. We were starting to think the past few days of warm weather had melted all the snow, when we suddenly rounded a corner on the way to the Red Creek Trailhead and found a thin layer of white on everything.
Those two days of melt had had a severe effect on Red Creek, however. It was boiling and angry. Jokes aside, there was no way we were trying to ford that thing. So after parking the cars at the trailhead, we doubled back along the road and used the bridge to cross the raging waterway. It was about 15F (-10C), gray, with light flurries.
Just on the west side of the bridge, we took a herd path that loosely followed Red Creek north. After some bushwacking, route finding, and stream jumping, we worked our way around to Little StoneCoal Run which was also much higher and faster than normal. It was a bit of a challenge, but everyone managed to get across with mostly dry feet.
After that, we were on our first proper trail of the trip. We took Little Stonecoal to Dunkenbarger, which wove through the winter wonderland all the way to Big Stonecoal Run. It was sweaty climbing despite the cold. The pine trees, laden with snow and hanging low over the path, would often dump cold wetness down our backs as we plunged through.
The trails, unsurprisingly, were also full of water. We had to employ some fancy footwork to keep our feet from plunging into the numerous frigid pools, many of which were concealed by a layer of ice. Despite all that we managed to keep relatively dry feet.
When we arrived at Big Stonecoal Run, it was also much higher than normal. There was no way to cross at the trail junction with any hope of keeping dry. The pool was easily waist deep in the middle. So we took a small herd path to the south a few yards, hopped some icy rocks across and scurried up the opposite bank. We passed trekking poles around to those without them, as they made it much easier to manage. Then we just had to low-crawl through some mountain laurel to get back to the trail. Pound for pound, it had been a very challenging 3.5 miles.
Just after the crossing, we hit Big StoneCoal trail and found a nice large campsite which we decided would be home for the night. Six shelters quickly went up, and everyone ditched their icy boots in favor of down booties. We circled around the fine ring (which sadly would remain cold due to lack of firewood) and broke out our array of stoves. I had some trouble with my WindPro 2, and eventually figured out the canister valve was jammed with a bit of ice which resulted in leaking fuel and an anemic flame. Booze, snacks, and deserts were shared around. Shortly after everyone finished dinner the cold drove us into our shelters.
The consensus of the thermometers was somewhere close to 0F (-18C) for the night. But everyone stayed warm, and we began to emerge from our cocoons around 7am. That was about 12 hours of sack time! Such is winter backpacking. There was just a tiny amount of fresh snow accumulation, and Big Stone Coal was just slightly lower than the night before. Everyone downed some breakfast, then we hit the trail at the luxurious time of 8:45am.
Almost immediately we had to cross back over Big Stonecoal. During the crossing, Karan decided to go for a quick swim when he slid off the log he was using as a bridge, plunging waist deep into the nearly freezing water and soaking his pack. The air temp was maybe 10F (12F). Not a good situation.
He put on a dry bottom layer and got what water he could out of his boots. Then it was time to motor so he could warm up. He took the lead and shot off down the trail. Two and a half miles later, we arrived the the large intersection with Breathed Mtn Trail, Blackbird Knob Trail, Rocky Ridge Trail, and Forest Road 80.
As we all grouped up again, Karan revealed that his feet were frozen numb bricks. With a sleeping bag that was almost certainly also soaked, he decided it would be wise to bail, and Timberline Ski resort was just a short walk away. We all agreed this was a good call and decided to cut our trip short in order to rendezvous with them later. Joe (Mtn. Fcker) decided to accompany him in case amputation was needed, and they headed off for hot food and beer while the rest of us marched on.
The four us modified and shortened the remainder of our hike, so that we could get back to the cars well before dark and have plenty of time to deal with crossing Red Creek. I was a little concerned, as the only other backpackers we encountered that day said it was still high and raging. If we had to bushwack again, I didn’t want to do it in the dark. So we took Breathed Mountain trail another 2.5 miles southeast to Red Creek, where we turned right to follow the water south. We crossed even more higher-than-normal feeder streams along the way.
Red Creek trail was fairly hard to follow. Numerous herd paths and campsites, along with the layer of snow, concealed the main route. Mountain laurel was blown down in many places as well, which got us on our hands and knees several times. Combined with the perpetually icy path, it made for slow going.
We surveyed a few potential crossing points, but none looked particularly appealing. Eventually we arrived at the main trail crossing at Fisher Spring Trail, which looked like as good a place as any to go for it. Stuart, who was trekking-poleless, rustled up some sticks to use. We had a short huddle, and then hit the creek.
The first third of the crossing was on thick ice, then the next third or so was on rocks at various levels of submersion. The next dozen feet or so was the trickiest bit. The water was funneling through, fast and deep, and there was no staying out of it. So I plunged in one then leg, and then the other. It was a bit above my knees, so not too bad. The rushing water slowly overcame my gaiters and began pouring into my boots. But I ignored the sudden cold and slowly side-stepped to my right, leaning heavily on my poles upstream. Each time I lifted a foot, I could feel the current threatening to pull the the other one out. So I moved slowly and deliberately, eventually reaching the bank where it was just one big step up out of the water. I raised my poles in triumph to Kyle who was just behind. He too made it across and out without getting soaked.
We dumped water out of our boots and wrung out our socks as Stuart and Joe made their run. I was convinced Stuart’s flimsy looking twigs were going to snap under him as he hit the fast water. But he made it out without falling. Joe wasn’t quite so lucky, slipping at the last moment. But he made an incredible save, landing on a rock instead of in the deep rushing water, only getting a partial soaking.
Everyone quickly got the worst of the water off, then hit the trail again to get warm. We had more route-finding to contend with. Some steep sloppy climbs, and more crashing and crawling through thick mountain laurel. The trail was awash with fallen brush and was extremely hard to follow. I lost track of how many times we got off trail and had to find it again. Inevitably, it was always a steep climb above us through more mountain laurel. We had yet more stream crossings, which were all nothing compared to Red Creek. We plowed through, warm water sloshing in our boots. At long last, we hit the last couple of trail intersections with Big StoneCoal and Little Stonecoal. Beyond them was the trailhead and our cars.
We loaded up, then made the 20 minute drive to Timberline, where I found Karan and Joe lounging in the sweltering heat of the restaurant. They had gotten shot down on a free ski-lift ride from up top, but had been directed to an aid station who gave B.A. a check up. Then they scored a snowmobile ride down. Not a bad way to end a trip!
Reunited, we left the mountain behind and headed to Sirianni’s for hot pizza.
By Will “Savage” Fink