Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Art Loeb Trail Run

I have heard of the Art Loeb Trail before, but never paid much attention to it. When Charles first invited me to this run, I found some amazing pictures of the balds atop the Shinning Rock Wilderness area that made me super excited about this opportunity to run the entire trail.

After I injured my right leg during the unsuccessful attempt at 100 miles at Umstead 100, I took two weeks off from running and slowly got back into it during the next four weeks. A week before the Art Loeb Trail run, my longest run was 13 miles which was a huge cause for concern since I was forecasting at least 11 hours for the ALT. On Monday, I decided to see if I can do a little better, and staged a 20 mile run on the Falls Lake Trail from Hwy 98 to my parent’s house off Falls of Neuse Rd. It went successfully, though it took less than 5 hours, and nothing hurts afterward, so it gave me some confidence about ALT.

When Charles send out the list of runners, I recognized about half of them and realized there is a good chance I will be the slowest runner by far and there is a good chance I’ll be running alone for a good part of the run. After been warned about lack of trail markers and confusing trail intersections on the ridge portion of the run, I started preparing my packing list with the intention of be prepared to stay overnight on the ridge if necessary. I worried that my Nathan 2L pack won’t carry enough gear, even though I can carry almost 3L of water by combining it with the Nathan water bottle belt. So I went to the Camelbak 3L hydration pack that I originally bought for mountain biking, and that I have never run with before. It has two very large gear pockets which enabled me to carry the following:

• Map
• Compass
• Camera
• Rain Coat
• Long sleeve shirt
• Leg sleeves
• Hat
• Headlamp
• Knife
• Toilet paper
• First Aid Kit: bandait, duck tape, water purification pills, salt sticks, blister tapes
• Food: three Honey Stinger gels, three Honey Stinger chews, 3 oatmeal cookies, and 2 PBJ sandwiches.
• $20 cash

I was going to carry my phone as well, but when I found out the phone didn’t have signals within a few miles of Camp Daniel Boone, I decided to not carry it. In hindsight, it was a mistake. Damian later told me there are spots on the ridge with enough signals to send text messages. The Camelbak does not have any pockets on the front of the harness, so I added two Nathan pockets to lower webbing harness to have easy access to food, map, and compass.

Jade and I left Raleigh on Thursday morning and paddled the Nantahala River on Thursday and Friday in preparation for teaching the Carolina Canoe Club’s Novice/Intermediate Clinic the following weekend. We arrived at Camp Daniel Boone on Friday afternoon just after Mark and Tom but before anyone else. One by one runners, families and friends arrived and we made some discussions about the trail before going to sleep around 10pm. We end up changing cabins twice after discovering hornet nests in two of them. Finally got to lay down in the bunk bed around 11pm with the alarm set for 3:45am.

Ben planned to have simple breakfast of bagels, PBJ, and OJ for us. I usually eat oatmeal, almonds, crasins and bananas for breakfast with coffee. But since breakfast is provided, I got lazy and didn’t bring my usual food with me. Instead I went with what’s available: Bagel, turkey, OJ, and a can of Mountain Dew for caffeine. A few runners set their alarms at the wrong time so we end up not leaving camp until 5:45 as opposed to the planned 5am departure. Ben, Hayley and Melinda drove the 10 of us to the start of the run at Davidson River Campground. The shuttle route involves hwy 215, Blue Ridge Parkway, and hwy 276. All very scenic but extremely windy roads. My unusual breakfast, plus trying to drink mountain dew, plus riding in a fast car through the mountainous roads, made me extremely nauseas and it was all I could do not to make a mess in Ben’s car.

I also forgot to turn on the GPS earlier, so while people are getting ready with their packs, I was circling the parking lot waiting for the damn piece of crap electronics to get signal. It didn’t work, and I followed the runners into the trail with the stupid thing still searching for satellites. I did look at my watch and it said 7:04am.

Immediately I realized I have a problem. I put some food in one of the Nathan pockets and the camera, map and compass in the other Nathan pocket. These things are designed to be strapped to a 2 inch webbing belt, not the slim one inch webbing harness that Camelbak uses. As soon as I start running, they bounce around like banshees. Couldn’t stand this stupidity, so I moved the camera, compass and map to my short’s pockets instead. Fortunately I was wearing my hiking shorts figuring I will do more hiking with running.

The flat start lasted less than a mile, and we start up a long steep climb. Later I would not call this stuff steep, but perspective changes when one moves from flatlands to mountains. Soon I realized with my ultra heavy pack, my bouncing pockets, and my general lack of fitness, I could not keep up with anyone else without exceeding the effort level that I need to sustain in order to have something left near the end. By mile 2, I was all alone, and to be honest I was fine with it. This means I can focus on maintain my effort level rather than been sucked into keeping up with someone else’s pace. This portion of the trail is very dense with not much of a view. I found the climbs hard, but the descents just as hard and very difficult to run down. Pace is rather slow and not worth mentioning.

I came across a few trail junctions and had no issues finding the correct trail due to excellent trail marking. Around mile 6, I came across one junction and with no good indication of which way to go. Left or right? Right goes up, and left goes down. Left looks bigger, so I took it. After a minute or so, I was surprised to see Mark and Tom coming back. They haven’t seen a trail marker in awhile and decided to check. I came back with them, and together we took the right trail which went straight up, and up, and up, and up….. and finally we climbed to the very peak of the mountain. The view is spectacular, but the Art Loeb Trail is not where we’re. We had just made a 400ft climb detour to the top of Cedar Rock Mountain.

Back down the trail, we did a good job of sticking to the trail and arrived at our first aid station at Glucester Gap at 11:40. By then the three of us are an hour behind the group in front of us, and Mike and Mark decided to drop due to leg issues.

Tom and I refuel and refill, and after a 12 minutes stop, started the climb toward Pilot Mountain. Tom is a far stronger climber than I’m so I told him to go ahead and I’ll catch up on the downhill or when we get confused about trail junctions and he can wait for me and my map. The climb up to Pilot Mountain is absolutely brutal. In just under 2 miles, the trail climbs from 3200ft to 5000ft. It took me just over an hour to make the climb, yes I’m a pathetic climber. The other side of Pilot Mountain is just as steep, to the point of pretty much unrunnable. I made another wrong turn near Deep Gap shelter but fortunately found my way after only 10 minutes. At Farlow Gap, I ran into a couple attempting to make a loop hike armed with a hand drawn map. They were pathetic enough that I stopped and attempted to help them with my big map. Not sure how much I was able to help, and hopefully I don’t hear about search and rescues for a lost couple.

The trail then gradually climbs toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. The grade is not hard but consistent. I see no sign of Tom, and a few hikers that I ran across also did not see him. Finally I arrived at the unmanned Aid Station at 2:36pm. I wolfed down as much pretzel as I could since I had left my Salt Stick zip lock bag at the first aid station by accident, and have been swallowing as much sweat from my face as I could to not get into hyponatremia.

On the north side of the parkway, the ALT literally goes straight up for 500ft in 0.3 miles. It was slippery and wet since the fog has moved in. Once the trail reaches the top of the ridge, it flattens out to nice runnable trail for a mile before reaching a road crossing where Melinda was waiting with her kids in the truck. I checked in with her and pondered whether I should continue or not since it’s already 3:22pm and we had set an unofficial cut off at 3pm. I knew sunset is 8:24pm, which leaves me five hours to complete the last ten miles. Even with a bit of trail finding, I thought I had plenty time to complete the run before sunset. I knew all along that the next 6 miles will be the reward for all the hard work getting here since the trail traverses a 6000ft ridge through the Shinning Rock Wilderness and the scenery up there will be unmatched. I got this far, there is no way I will deny myself the chance to see this portion of the trail.

There are tons of hikers in the first few miles of this section. Quite a few made comments about my Dirty Girl Gaiters. Despite numerous side trails, it was relatively easy to stay on the ALT through Black Balsam. At top of Black Balsam, I could see the entire Shinning Rock Wilderness laid out in front of me, and with a quick compass reading, it was easy to find the set of ridges leading northward toward Cold Mountain. Even Cold Mountain was visible from this far away. I stopped quite a few times taking pictures, no way I come this far without capturing the moments.

Some of the trails are runnable here and some are not, but it was pretty easy going. Around 4pm I reached the summit of Tennent Mountain and set the camera on timers to take a few shots of myself. Come off Tennent Mountain, I was alarmed when the trail led me eastward toward an another set of ridges, all the while I could see another trail in the distance climbing up toward the northbound ridge that I need to go. Not wanting to make a mistake, I turned back and climbed back to the summit of Tennent Mountain and found a plaque confirming where I was, and the map then verified that the trail will eventually turn back from the eastward direction on Ivester Ridge toward then Grassy Cove Top which is where I need to go. Happy that I’m not lost, I took a picture of Looking Glass Rock that’s visible in the distance toward the southeast.

Running down as much as possible on big and small boulders and after an obvious trail junction, I arrived at Ivestor Gap where the Shinning Rock Wilderness starts and the very last trail sign points toward ALT. There are six trails that intersects within a few hundred yards of this spot, so I was super careful about not taking the first two rights, and really paid attention that I followed the contour line that wraps around Grassy Cove Top on the east side. The trail heads east first then wraps around the bald heading north. I kept the compass in my hand the whole time here checking directions. Just over a mile past the trail junction, I came across two backpackers coming toward me. I asked if they knew how far Deep Gap is, and they both looked at each other and said that would be on the Art Loeb Trail, and this is not the Art Loeb Trail. It turns out they had climbed up from Hwy 276 via Grassy Cove Ridge Trail and had hoped to eventually camp along the ALT. Crap! I turned back and ran along the wet and swampy trail looking for anything on my right that remotely looked like a trail. A couple false leads later, I found a well worn but tiny trail not even a hundred yards from the big trail junction that leads to the correct direction. Apparently the ALT is the tiniest of the trails around here. Happy that I survived this confusing trail junction, I ran as much as possible toward the next confusing spot, the trail junction near Shinning Rock.

Along the way, I passed a few backpackers already setup camp near Flower Gap. The trail here is super nice and I really enjoyed running and also the beautiful scenery and miles and miles of mountains visible around me. It was a wonder that the weather was nearly perfect, some rolling clouds but none are low enough to sock in the mountain, and pretty much no rain to speak of. Near Shinning Rock, I came across a beautiful clearing and thought to myself this would make a superb camp and wondered how come no one is using it. The map showed five trails in the trail junction just before Shinning Rock, so I stopped admiring the views and started to pay attention. Soon enough in the thick rhododendrons, the trails splits in two, veering left and right. The map showed two trails on the right of ALT, so I take the left split and continued to climb until I reached the base of a huge white quartz rock and the trail disappears. I searched the entire area for the trail and concluded the only possible route northward was a crack in the rock that climbs 20 ft up to the top of the rock. The climb was hard on wobbly legs but soon I was on the top and circling around looking for a way down. Soon I was on the west side looking down at what looks like a trail leading north west. Ok, this could be it, but between me and the trail is a 20ft cliff. I carefully climbed down the rock, and followed the trail into a wall of rhododendrons that’s impassable. Crap Crap Crap! Retracing my steps to the base of the cliff, I couldn’t find a way around it, either on the north side or south side. So the only route back was climbing back up the stupid rock. I would later learn that this pile of rock is the Shinning Rock.

There really isn’t a good way to get down on the south side so more free climbing is required. By now I was getting sick of this rock. Finally made to the bottom of the rock, I eventually found the trail that I came up on and retraced it all the way to the split. The logic goes if the left side dead ends, then the right side must be the trail right? Taking the right side I climbed higher and eventually came to a small camp with two trails leading off. Ran down the trail on the right a bit and realized it started to fall off the mountain, no good since I need to stay on the ridge. The trail on the left immediately splits into a couple trails. Taking the left split, somehow after some really thick rhododendrons, I end up at bottom of Shinning Rock again. Crap Crap Crap! Really couldn’t find my way back through the rhododendrons so I went all the way down to the bottom trail split, then climbed back up the right side to the small camp again. This time taking the left trail then the right split, I found another camp a few hundred yards down the mountain, and now the trail heads north! From this camp, two trails leads off, one northward, one northwest bound. The northern trail eventually bears east and down the mountain, so this is probably Old Butt Trail, no good. The northwest trail ends in a super steep area with no apparent trails leading off from it. By now it’s past 6:30pm, and things are not looking good. I have no idea where the ALT is, and only two hours of day light left to find the ALT, run 3 miles to Deep Gap, and 3.8 miles down from Deep Gap to reach camp. Pretty much giving up the hope of getting off this mountain, I remembered seeing a tent at Flower Gap about a mile back so I headed down the mountain toward it hoping to find someone to hang out with for the night.

The irony of this situation does not end, and on the way down I somehow lost the trail again and ended up once more have to free climb Shinning Rock for the final time. Just past the first trail junction, I saw a couple hikers off to the left near a cliff hanging out. They looked pretty friendly so I went over to talk to them. Turned out they had just arrived from Deep Gap! Holy Crap! They knew where the trail is. Two of them were nice enough to offer to show me, and led me southward to the clearing where I thought was a nice camping spot before. And in the trees on the west side of the clearing, two faint trails leads off! The right side is the ALT, and the left side is Little East Fork Trail. It had taken them two hours to hike from Deep Gap to this spot, but given my light load, they were confident I could get to Deep Gap before sunset. I thanked them for saving me, and took off running northward on the ALT at 6:45pm.

Surprisingly, the trail is extremely flat and runnable. 30 minutes later, my GPS died. Oh well, time to rely on stone age gear. The trail then ascends a small peak and ends up on a ridge called The Narrows. The top of the ridge is about 5 to 10ft wide at most, and both side drops off steeply at least 45 degrees. The view here is absolutely stunning, and sun shining from my left. At one point, I stopped to take a picture on both sides, and realized I probably could see Camp Daniel Boone on the left if the sun wasn’t shining into my eyes.

The thought about the IPA that’s waiting for me at camp renewed my spirit. After The Narrows, the trail drops steeply and shortly after comes out to a clearing that the hikers had told me is Deep Gap. I looked at my watch and it said 7:51pm.

There was a tent there and a hiker chilling out. I spoke with him for a few minutes, verifying the location and trail, and took off down the left side heading steeply down the mountain. Though this section is all down hills, it was not particularly runnable, very steep, and full of rocks and downed trees to jump over. The ALT descends 1800ft from Deep Gap to Camp Daniel Boone in 3.8 miles according to the map. Soon it was dark enough to get out the headlamp, and a few minutes later, I took the last sip from my Camelbak. There were a few streams to refill from, but it would take 30 minutes for the water purification pills to work, and I figured by then I would be at the camp drinking IPA. It was actually very peaceful going down the mountain at night, listening to critters waking up and going about their nightly business. I knew people at the camp especially Jade would be super worried by now. But there wasn’t much I could do about that, except to make it down safely. Running down at night was out of question from a safety point of view. A single slip around here at night would be a catastrophe.

Soon the compass indicated I had made the final left turn and heading south toward the final switch back of the trail. About 10 minutes later, I heard voice below me, and saw a couple headlamps. I yelled to get their attention, and it was Jade and Damian coming up to check on me. I was maybe sixty or seventy feet directly above them, and I yelled that I would soon turn down the switch back and find them there. Somehow among the excitement I missed the right turn down the switchback, and end up on a very faint trail heading across a ridge. Eventually the trail disappeared, and I turned around and realized I couldn’t really tell where I had come from. Thinking that Jade and Damian were on the road below in the camp, I figured instead of attempting to retrace my steps, I could simply head straight down the hill through the vegetations and find the road. Five minutes later, it was obvious the strategy was a bad one. I was on very steep hills, among greenbriar thorns and poison ivies, and generally have to hang on to thorns and ivies to prevent from slipping off. Eventually I heard Jade and Damian’s voice again, and soon saw their headlamp above me. It wasn’t long before I joined them on the trail and turned out we were still almost a mile from the end of the trail. Good thing I didn’t continue to bushwack my way down the hill. I was super happy to see them, but I think Jade was far more happier to see me.

We emerged from the trail at exactly 10pm, and Hayley was there to give me a ride back to the camp half a mile away. I was the last person off the mountain. Hot dogs, burgers, chicken and IPA have never tasted so good.

The Art Loeb Trail is a stunning place to run. Amazing views, very few hikers, and extremely challenging. I would not come back here without carrying proper survival gear, even though I know the trail very well by now.


  1. Great report, Jim! Congrats on making through the ALT run in one piece. Reminds me of the times I have been lost in Linville Gorge Wilderness. Good times....

  2. I did this hike last year and it's one of the most difficult I've ever done. My hat is off to you Jim. Starting from Davidson River makes the run even harder as it's a gradual elevation gain all the way to the scout camp.