Grandfurther Mountain 25k: more adventures in the mountains
August 22nd… nearly 5 months into the Great Covid19 Pandemic of 2020. It’d been a bummer of a summer… no vacations, no trips, no gatherings, no seeing West Coast family. But there was a glimmer of trail running light during those months. The Grandfurther Mountain Race was one that I had to drop out of last year due to calf and heel issues, and I had signed up immediately when registration opened this year. The race runs from the bottom of Grandfather Mountain in Banner Elk NC, up the technical and steep Profile Trail to Calloway Peak, and then down the backside following the Daniel Boone Scout Trail, the Tanawha, Nuwati and Cragway trails, finally looping around and back up Calloway peak to descend Profile once again. Roughly 14 miles and 4400 feet of elevation gain over rough, rooty, rocky terrain… an epic run even for “only” 14 miles. I was looking forward to it for months even as I would consider it a “training race” for Pinhoti 100 later in November. Then the ‘Rona hit… and races got cancelled left and right. Tanawha Adventures RD Brandon Thrower kept folks updated regularly, and for a long time there was hope the race could still go off with Covid mitigation strategies in place… but as expected, we got the word in early August that the race would be “virtual”. The State Park was concerned that due to the fact that many people use the trail regularly anyways, and adding a couple hundred sweaty, huffing and puffing runners to the single-track trails was not felt to be wise. So as a “virtual race” we just had to run the same course unsupported anytime between the week of the race and the following month, with Strava result to be emailed to the RD. We already had an epic AirBnB house booked for the weekend and 9 of us had already been self quarantining and protecting ourselves from The ‘Rona AND had the weekend free, so we committed to running on the race day itself rather than take a refund or try to run later. I (we all!) need the break. The pandemic, the heat and humidity, lots of other life and cultural stressors, all added up to a serious NEED for a mountain escape.
The Grandfurther Mountain 25k race is described as: “...the ultimate mountain race in the Southeast on one of the most iconic mountains in all of Appalachia, Grandfather Mountain. Gnarly trail, 4000+ feet of climbing, fixed ladders and ropes, and the tallest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains at 5,984 feet tall!” . Truly… this was an amazing set of trails in a gorgeous setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We lucked out with the weather, having some rain as we headed up on Friday and even early Saturday before our 6:30am start, but then clearing and a comfortable 69-71 degrees with patches of sun and high clouds. SUCH a lovely break from the oppressive heat and humidity we’d left behind in the lowlands. Our lodging was perfect, with enough space for all of us to spread out, pool table, dart board, hot tub… excellent! One of our guys had been out of work due to the pandemic and shut-down so we covered his share and in turn he cooked us dinners.
At 6:30 am we were in the Lowes Food parking lot near the start of the Profile trailhead. Dark enough for headlights, just warm enough to not wear a light jacket, but (thankfully) packed “just in case” as was recommended by the RD in the pre-race emails. Also recommended was at least a 20oz water carrying device, and an emergency blanket. I had no idea how important these things would end up being as my adventure unfolded. The first mile or two was relatively smooth and rolling. Super fun and a joy to run with my waist mounted Ultraspire Lumen 600. Within a couple of miles we were already getting daylight, and… elevation. The trail quickly becomes more technical and steep. Chris Coker and I quickly found ourselves spaced apart from the others in our group (solid middle-of-the-pack guys), and power hiking soon became the name of the game. Several views of the valley and of the mountain “Profile” rewarded us. The overnight rains also “rewarded” us with plenty of puddles and muddy sections, as we navigated stone steps, boulders and slippery rock slabs. Inclines ranged from the teens to 40%. Shortly before the summit I reached back for my GoPro that was attached to a small tripod… only to find JUST THE TRIPOD! ARRGH. Amazingly, I phoned one of my buddies whom I knew was not far behind us and he had already spotted it lying intact perfectly in the middle of the trail and was holding onto it for me, (Whew!)
By the time we gained the summit and scaled the first few fixed wooden ladders, 3.7 miles and about an hour and a half of time, the air was misty and with zero visibility. No matter, as I expected that at 5900 ft. Coming off the backside of Calloway Peak are some of the longer (and sketchiest) ladders but we made it safely despite them being wet and slippery. A slight (accidental) detour shortly after those revealed airplane wreckage deep in the woods. We had stumbled upon an old small plane crash from 1983 that I had heard about from my kids (“cool things to discover in NC” stuff), so we checked it out and snapped a couple pics before finding our way back on course to the Scout trail.
The back portion of this race is super fun to run! The Daniel Boone Scout trail is an absolute BLAST to descend… still a little technical, splashing through the mud and trying to stay upright took total concentration, but I had a perma-grin plastered to my face the whole time. Approaching the lowest point, and now under a brilliant blue sky we linked up with the Tanawha trail briefly before finding ourselves once again climbing as we merged onto the Nuwati Trail and then Cragway Trail. Here were some awesome rock outcroppings to clamber upon and gaze back down the amazing valleys and rolling terrain. The air was clear and warm and the sun felt wonderful. By this time we were soaked to the bone both from sweat
and splashing through puddles and creeks. Briefly stretching out on a warm rock and looking off into the distance, I could’ve easily stayed longer. Luckily there were two of us motivating each other to keep going forward. At one point I tripped and sprawled out onto the SOFTEST mossy bed, I really didn’t want to get up. Climbing back out of the “lollipop” portion of the backside loop brought us back to ladders climbing up to Calloway Peak. By this time, though I was still moving well, these ladders sapped my strength and sent my heart rate skyrocketing. Thankfully an occasional pause was enough to keep moving forward. The peak was still socked in with a misty blanket of coolness, so we proceeded onward. About this time a runner coming up (many folks were “virtually” running today and had started later than us) asked us if we had any aspirin. We apologized that we didn’t and then they said “oh well, there’s a guy back there apparently having a heart attack”.
5 minutes down from the peak, on the uppermost portion of the steep and technical Profile Trail sat a man in some distress with his brother-in-law attending to him. He was clearly a hiker (not running the race), and he had been there for at least 30 minutes already. He was extremely pale, his lips were bluish-violet and he was still breathing rapidly. I’m an ER PA… this is my thing… there's no one else out here… the race was now on pause indefinitely. I introduced myself and gave him my credentials and took a seat on the side of the trail with him. We were now 3+hrs and 10+miles into the race, at 5400 feet of elevation and sitting on a 30% grade of wet rocks, roots and boulders. My “patient” was in his late 50s/early 60s, He had been hiking up Profile for the past 2.5 hours and began to feel lightheaded, dizzy, short-of-breath, weak and tingling sensations in his arms and legs. He thought he might pass out. He had a history of heart attack with stent placement 1 year ago at which time his presenting symptoms were the same. He had been doing well over the past year. He’s visiting from Houston, but back home he was a frequent hiker, so “I thought I could handle this”. He unfortunately forgot to pack his Aspirin and Nitroglycerin tablets. I spent some time initially coaching his breathing to slow down, and did a lot of reassuring. Within 5 or 10 minutes his color had come back and he was more calm. At first I’d had a hard time feeling a radial (wrist) pulse, suggesting high heart rate and low blood pressure as can be seen in shock. Now he had a strong pulse and seemed stable. Far away we could hear sirens, as his brother-in-law had been able to call 911, we knew that the time from pulling into the trailhead parking area, to actually being up here was going to be… well, a long time. I stayed very calm and light with the guy, trying to keep him from becoming anxious again, but in my head the math was not in his favor. “Time is muscle” is a phrase often used to convey the urgency to diagnose and treat heart attacks. Time was not on our side. There was no vehicle access here. The terrain is such that it would be impossible to carry him safely without a rescue stretcher, and those guys were an hour or more of strenuous hiking away. Plenty of woodsy canopy also suggested that helicopter extraction would be a feat. After 20 minutes of chatting and him drinking water and eating salty peanuts I figured I’d better see if he could walk… just so we might shorten the distance between us and incoming EMS. I stood him up, and for a brief 10 seconds he told me he felt “pretty good”... then he got pale, lips turned blue, pulse became fast and thready, and I sat his ass right back down immediately. We weren’t going anywhere! We gave him Chris’ space blanket to keep him warm, and we ourselves soon had to put on our shell jackets as well, since we were soaked and now no longer moving. It was about 1.5 hours before Linville Volunteer Fire Dept EMT emerged from the trail with a backpack full of medical gear. He got vital signs, and after hearing I’m a PA asked me to start the IV, (I hadn’t started an IV in over a year…) “Sure, No Problem!”... Got it. (whew!)
He got his Aspirin and a dose of nitro. He continued to feel ok as long as he was sitting down. Around this time a Search and Rescue guy arrived and advised that an NCHART National Guard Apache helicopter had been authorized to do an extraction if they could get him to a “window”. The SAR guy said he had a spot picked out 200 feet away down the trail and they were going to prep him for extrication. A couple more personnel were now struggling up the trail to the scene, so I knew my job was done. Approximately 2 hours after I arrived there I said goodbye to my patient, wished him luck with this medical issue but also with his wife who, if he survived, was surely going to kill him. Chris and I started back down with tight cold quads, haltingly at first and then finally hopping and slipping and careening back down Profile ‘till we got to the bottom and the Lowe’s Parking lot at last. Our friends were waiting and we all went into Lowe's to buy whatever sounded good, sat down on the ground in the parking lot and stuffed our faces.
We eventually found our way back to the BnB, the hot tub and the pool table. We shared stories of the day, and marveled at the online video that Linville Fire Dept had posted of the guy being long-line extracted from a small gap in the trees to a waiting Apache. We all voiced how much we hoped he did well, how glad we were that I could give him some comfort and calming, and how we all might consider carrying Aspirin from now on just in case!
Grandfather Mountain 25k is a fantastic course. It would’ve been fun to have the race vibe and aid stations, but honestly, the day was amazing and fulfilling as it turned out anyways. My total time on the course was 6 hrs and 48 min (counting at least 2 hours spent sitting with that guy). The cutoff is 6 hours, but I’m fairly sure the RD will credit me with a finish, right?