In a unique land of boiled peanuts, Civil War memorabilia, pickup trucks, and funny accents lives an equally unique list of mountains with names like Yellow Face, Shining Rock, Graveyard Ridge, and Big Butt. Too tall to fit in with the 4,000-foot peaks of the Northeast and too low to stand with the 14,000-foot peaks of the West, the 5,000-foot peaks of the South – all 198 of them – have an identity crisis. Like a mediocre high school basketball player, a kid who is good enough to be on the team yet not good enough to start, the mountains on this expansive south-of-the-Mason-Dixon Line list just don’t know what to with themselves. But I knew what to do with them: climb them.
During my decade-long project to summit every Southern peak above 5,000 feet, a list that bottoms out at 5,010-foot Boteler Peak and stretches to 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest summit east of the Dakotas, I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good includes a feature unique to the South: grassy balds. At times surpassing the dimensions of city blocks, grassy balds are just that: vast areas completely empty of trees (hence “bald”), and carpeted with grasses, found high on summits and ridgelines. The views from these perches are nearly unsurpassed in the East. In Southern fashion, ridgeline upon ridgeline is stacked one behind the other, at times seeming one stacked on top of the other, stretching to the horizon all around, as far as the eye can see. It’s quite the sight.
The bad includes a feature also unique to the South: rhododendron thickets. Accurately dubbed “rhodo hells,” these thickets appear to be out of place in American mountains, looking like they belong to the jungles of the Congo, the Amazon Basin, or Vietnam. With each rhododendron growing so close to its neighbor, at times a hiker cannot even force his way through a hell no matter how much he may push, shove, and swear. Sprinkled within these thickets are stands of stunted mountain laurel, sort of a little sister to rhododendron. Greenbrier vines, which look like strands of barbed wire simply painted green, hang from the canopy and add to a bushwhacker’s foul-mouthed repertoire.
And the ugly? Well, perhaps I was just quick to use a popular cultural saying above. It really wasn’t that ugly. When it wasn’t raining weeks on end, when the thermometer wasn’t stuck below freezing for a few days straight, when the ground hornets’ nests were not stirred up, and when the 4,000-vertical-foot climbs eased near the summits themselves, it was actually quite pretty. Blooming azaleas, cardinal flowers, bluets, trilliums, and lilies speckled the mountainsides while forests that contain more species of trees than all of Europe combined gently shaded them from that hot Southern sun tracking high across the sky. White-tailed deer, elk, black bear, and songbirds added to a feeling of Eden, lumbering, hopping, and flitting through the woods.
Still, the lonely are often the unpopular. Despite hundreds of people climbing the forty Southern peaks above 6,000 feet, only three people (that’s including me) have tackled the additional 158 peaks to reach all 198. Perhaps this is for good reason. To hike this list you’ll have to trek more than 700 miles, climb more than 250,000 vertical feet, do some honest to goodness backpacking, and travel to the most remote regions of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. But we all know that the harder you work for something, the greater the reward.
So when I reached peak number 198 this summer I surely felt rewarded. And it felt good to be a close friend of the 5,000-footers though they’ll be lonely for quite some time again. That is, until a fourth person climbs them all.
– Erik Schlimmer is an award-winning outdoor educator and inspirational speaker. More on his adventures can be found at www.erikschlimmer.com