Conditioning Hike: Elk Mountain Loop
May 10, 2014
Coordinator: Peter Urban
Summit Altitude: 3226 feet
Elevation Gain: 3700 feet
Round-trip Distance: 11 miles
Excursion Time: 8 hours (car-to-car)
They say that the Elk and King Mountain loop is 11 miles. I don't believe it and I was there. Great company and long conversations distilled the the miles to a near perfect day.
There was a significant threat of rain but all good souls showed for the day. If you include the four dogs, and you should, there was a pack of 11.
Early on the rain was more threat than actual wetness. The day improved and the clouds became more lingerie then blanket to the beautiful views of the coastal range.
There was a lesson at the end of the trip when the best of us, Fritz, took a literal tumble down the hill. Some time behind us we became concerned and were gladdened and concerned to find that he had some scrapes. He was a good trooper but the lesson here was not to take any situation for granted.
I joined up with the group at the King's Mountain trailhead. Since I just had surgery on my foot in January, I expected that I might have trouble on the ascent, so I skipped the few miles 'warmup' between the two trailheads so that if I had trouble I could make an easy retreat.
We did just fine on the ascent, my foot was holding out, and my dogs will still perky, so we continued on around the loop, along the rugged trails to Elk Mountain, tagged it, and started the final descent.
About a half hour down from the summit, I fell off the mountain.
I don't know how I did it, exactly. I was hiking alone (well, with my dogs), as I had stopped just a few minutes earlier to remove my sweatshirt, and got a few minutes behind the team. That trail is always a little difficult; it is steep with scattered scree, so it tends to periodically land people on their butts. But it doesn't seem dangerous, as there is generally no exposure... except in a couple spots, like this one where the trail heads over toward the edge, and then makes a switchback. Somehow, right at that wrong spot, I started slipping, and trying to maintain my balance, stayed on my feet as I slid about 6 or 8 feet, then right off the edge.
I felt like I did at least a couple forward somersaults, but given the physics, I'm guessing it must have been more like a log-roll. I certainly couldn't tell which way was up, I was just rolling and tumbling down the steep terrain, completely out of control.
I remembered my training, and spread all my limbs out to make it harder to tumble. I came to rest right-side-up, on a bit of a ledge, mixed up with some bushes. There was a bit more rock below my feet, a mossy ledge about 10 or 15 feet below, and below that... treetops. My pack was still on, my poles still in my hands, all my gear intact. My bad foot and left arm were hurting pretty bad. I felt my way along my arm to see if anything seemed broken, and it didn't, although there was quite a bit of blood.
I couldn't see my dogs, but I could hear them whining up above, undoubtedly wanting to follow along but not wanting to take my particular route of transport. It was too steep for me to get back up that way. I called out for them to stay, and inched my way along to the right, clinging to bushes and whatever I could grab, until I met with the trail again, and called my dogs down to me.
Just as I scrambled back onto the trail, a couple other hikers came up the trail. Apparently it was obvious by my disheveled appearance and bleeding forehead that something was up, so they stopped to help. I had my first aid pack - of course - in a readily accessible place in my pack, so I pulled out gauze and alcohol wipes and had them help me clean up. They said the cuts on my head were superficial, but I had some pretty deep gouges in the elbow that were still bleeding pretty bad, so I had them help me bandage that up with gauze and sports tape.
My foot hurt too much to walk on at first, so I took a couple of ibuprofen and sat in the bushes for a few minutes to let the medicine kick in and contemplate the meaning of life.
I sent word with some of the other hikers who were descending faster than I to let the team know what had happened. About a half hour later, Peter met me on the trail, and carried my pack for the rest of the way out. My foot was still hurting, so I grabbed the Swanson Shuttle from the one trailhead to the other, where I rebandaged and recleaned my wounds with the aid of a mirror, and made my way back home. Scratches and bruises, and the elbow took some pummeling, but ultimately no lasting harm done.
And thus... one of my closest brushes with an untimely demise. And on Elk Mountain, no less - not even a real mountain, not even a dangerous place to be, no protection even suggested. Of all the amazing places I could have died, I think that would be among the most embarrassing.
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