Posted by: pjbarr | March 18, 2010

Three Top Mountain – Shakedown Hike or Death Traverse?

“The influence of fine scenery, the presence of mountains, appeases our irritations and elevates our friendships.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life, 1860


Three Top Mountain Proved Even More Formidable Than It Looks

So, what am I doing to prepare for the Appalachian Trail? Well, you’d be surprised that it hasn’t been hiking…. For years, I was an every weekend hiker; I was so compelled to frequently get back to the mountains that hiking seemingly developed into my own personal religion. My calluses were thick, my leg muscles strong, and my lungs voluminous. So you’d think having these advantages would be worth hanging onto prior to the start a five month hike – one in which I’ll be walking every day over difficult terrain. Oops. I suppose my mentality has been that I’ll be hiking for five months so therefore I can spare a weekend of hiking here or there. With so many projects I’ve been working on while not on the trail, skipping a few weekends here and there developed into a hiatus lasting several months. The one time that excessive hiking could be considered “preparation” as opposed to irresponsibility, I pass on the opportunity. Go figure.


Climbing the Snow Covered Narrow Ridgeline

Of course, it hasn’t been for the lack of trying – at least to some degree. This winter has been one of the most harsh that the southern Appalachians have ever seen. Plans to hike have been repeatedly hampered by snowstorms that seem to arrive at the start of each weekend. The few hikes I got in during their respite had me swimming through deep snow, making less than a mile an hour pace. Realizing that I was destined for a month of these conditions on a daily basis even made me reconsider my AT thru-hike departure date and delay it a full month.

I still had plenty of remaining hikes I needed to cover for my upcoming peakbagging book. Unfortunately, the peaks I need to revisit are those in the higher elevations, which means more snow and hampered accessibility, both by road and trail. This weekend (3/6), I decided that the snow wasn’t going anywhere quickly. I better get in a hike or two before I leave for my big trip. I joined my newfound friends Rick Shortt and Tommy Bell from Wytheville, Virginia.

I’m not sure why I haven’t found Rick, Tommy, and Shane (whom didn’t join us this weekend but rounds out my new trio of friends) before, but I’m sure glad I’ve found them now. This Virginia trio shares my passions for seeking out the highest peaks, the most rugged ranges, and dramatic ridgelines. They collect summits and trails and they’re suckers for a breathtaking view. They’ll go out of their way to catch a stunning photograph and they plan their outings to cram the most possible hiking into the amount of daylight they have. I like them because they’re just like me. Their enthusiasm for hiking and their obsession for exploring the mountains mirrors those of mine as much as anyone I’ve met yet.

I met Rick, Tommy, and Shane in November when we hiked the Woody Ridge Trail up to the Black Mountains and then traversed the infamous Black Mountains Crest Trail in its entirety and beyond – from Celo Knob at the north end of the range, all the way over Mt. Mitchell, and continuing until reaching Potato Knob at the southern extremity of the crest. I knew I was going to like these guys just by the masochistic hike they agreed to take with me. It was one of the more ambitious I’ve completed in a day; while the mileage was only about 17 miles, we nearly achieved a cumulative elevation gain of 7,000 ft. These guys were true peakbaggers and they lived and breathed mountains. I knew quickly that friendships were being forged along that high crest. It’s funny how mountains seem to have a way of doing that…


Looking Down From Three Top’s Summit

Rick, Tommy, and I had continuously cancelled our plans for a ridgeline traverse and summit attempt at Three Top Mountain for several weeks in a row on account of snow. We finally got a clear weather day and said to hell with the snow that’s already up there. Three Top is one of the most visually impressive peaks in the southern Appalachians. Centered in Ashe County in the northwestern part of the state, it also boasts one of the sharpest and most dramatic ridgelines in the region, too.


Rick in Waist Deep Snow – At Only ~4,500 ft.

With new technology and data, I recently discovered that the southern summit of Three Top Mountain (ironically, not even one of the “three tops” in the profile view for which it is named) was seven feet higher than its northern and more heavily visited counterpart. Having spent several years and countless weekends chasing every 5,000 ft. peak in the southeast, it was a bit unnerving that I had apparently missed one. I needed not only to write about it for my book, but to obtain the summit for my own quiver of peaks, especially considering my hopes to complete all of the eastern U.S. 5k’ peaks this summer along the AT.


Tommy (Low Gear, GA->ME 2006) Stands Under the Three Top Summit Block

We started with an ambitious agenda to chase three separate northwest NC peaks, all in a day. Thwarted by private property access while pursuing Phoenix Mountain, we focused our efforts on Three Top Mountain – my primary objective for the trip. The route led us up an old trail for about two miles. Buried in several feet of snow, the going was tiring. I learned quickly that my recent hiking hiatus had left me miserably out of shape. I was sucking wind in a hurry – too short of breath to complete conversations with Rick & Tommy while postholing uphill through the snow. My balance was also poor and my legs muscles were quite weak. Not the ideal conditioning I’d prefer prior to my thru-hike, but what can you do….


Rick and I Dig Deep While Climbing the First Peak Along the Ridge

Upon reaching the crest of the ridge, it was clear we were going to have our work cut out for us. The ridgeline was a true knife-edge in many places, and the rock was jutting upward at an angle that made a level crossing impossible. With a few feet of iced over snow on top of it, the danger was mounting. We saw many precarious snow cornices extending over the edge along the crest. In many places, we had to drop down to the side of the mountain. Clinging to the steep slopes with nothing to hold onto but handfuls of snow made the going even slower. Once, the snow gave out from under me and I slid down the slope a startling distance; attempts to reclimb my lost ground caused me to slide even further. I finally was able to stop, but precariously close to going over a rock ledge. While I eventually was able to recover, the incident debilitated my confidence and had me spooked the remainder of the hike.


Looks Like a Lot of Snow, Rick… What Do You Think?

Upon reaching the giant summit block, it became clear that a 100 ft. scramble would be necessary to reach the top. Under warm, dry conditions, the climb would not have been very intimidating. But completely covered in snow and ice and positioned directly above a high, vertical drop-off, this peak was going to be far more difficult to achieve than I anticipated.


Climbing the Summit Block with a Belay From Rick

So disturbed by my earlier snow slide and persisting lack of balance, I informed my hiking companions that I was willing to leave this peak behind. Those who know me well will realize that this isn’t something that I typically come to terms with easily. Rick and Tommy sized up the climb once and decided it was too dicey. We attempted to find a way around the rockface to the opposite side of the summit block, but were unsuccessful. Hungry to reach the summit themselves and equally eager to get me up my final 5k’ peak, they gave it another look. To my dismay, Tommy fearlessly scaled the slippery rock and reached the top. Even so, I continued to declare my intentions to forfeit this summit, scared silly of the thought of having to mirror Tommy’s scramble.


Three Top Mountain Conquered

Rick, a true peakbagger, miraculously produced both microspikes for my boots and a 50 foot rope tied to my waist. He followed Tommy’s route up the rock and belayed me from above. Still full of fear, I managed to climb up to the summit – albeit connected to a tight rope. Once on top, I crawled the final few feet to the highest point. Rick congratulated me on once again completing the southeastern 5,000 footers. The sky was deep blue and views of the surrounding snow covered peaks were stunning. We remarked how it felt like being out west, especially with the mountaineering-esque adventure we endured to reach the summit. The sight of the jagged ridgeline we had traversed was dramatic. While excited to be on the summit, I had flashbacks to the mixed emotions of exhilaration and dread I experienced atop Mt. Olomana on Oahu. Like that peak, I still had to go back down the summit block – a task more difficult and dangerous than the ascent. Rick belayed me again, an effort filled with twice the fear as I had coming up. Tommy descended first, calling out my footholds and sometimes physically placing my trembling feet. I’m endlessly appreciative to my friends for getting me up and down that mountain. What an absolutely epic hike.

We retraced our difficult route and finished up our hike with only a little daylight to spare. Our trip of “only” five miles took us over eight hours. Without question, this hike was a classic. It will long stick out in my memory above others for its amazing scenery, rugged terrain, and ever-present danger. But above all, I’ll remember it for my great new friends.


  1. PS – thanks to Rick Shortt and Tommy Bell for the stunning, dramatic photography seen above.

  2. Hello, great story and great photographs!

    I’m trying to track down Rick Shortt for permission to use some of his fantastic photos in our upcoming newsletter. My organization recently added some more land to Three Top Mtn. Gamelands, and we’d love to highlight this story with one of Rick’s pictures. I can’t seem to find a way to contact him–can you help me?

    Thanks, and best of luck in your future adventures.

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