Black Mountains, North Carolina | December 31, 2017 | 10:55am
On the last day of 2017, at a trailhead deep in the Black Mountains, the temperature hovers right around 20 degrees. We have a big crew - 10 people bundled up in all the warm clothing they own. Armed with snacks, hand warmers, a thermos of tea, and a flask of bourbon, we're preparing to do a nine mile hike with over 6,000 feet of elevation change in temperatures that will only decrease as we climb higher.
"Alright, let's do this!" And off we go.
I've lost count of the number of times I've climbed this mountain. I smile at the familiar bold "Most Difficult" rating symbol on the first Woody Ridge trail marker and think this is going to be epic.
A big hike often includes conversations about big adventures. We talk about mountains we’ve climbed, and others we want to climb. Andrew lists big peaks in Colorado while Jon and I relive the glories of climbing Mt. Shasta and backcountry camping at Crater Lake. We talk about the possibility of visiting Jen in Glacier National Park next summer where she'll be working as an assistant trail crew leader. She wants to take us up Mt. Cleveland.
The first mile of Woody Ridge is rolling - up, down, up, down - with a few small stretches of flat trail. The second section is straight up - over 1,000 feet of gain in less than a mile. Taking a big group of people up terrain this steep in conditions this harsh is... well, it's classic type 2 fun. But I have a team of champions out here today. We make good time and no one complains.
With the steepest part of the trail behind us, we stop at the first overlook, dropping our packs and dishing out snacks. I eat cheese and hummus while the carnivores pass around their "meat stick". Because he's in the company of a lifelong vegetarian, Andrew West gives a long diatribe about the pain and suffering that went into manufacturing his cured meat.
"Salt and suffering!" he says, chomping off another huge bite with a devilish grin. "That's all this thing is!"
I tell everyone about the time I almost froze to death up here. It's just as cold up here today, but the mountain is mercifully devoid of wind now. Still, we need to keep moving.
A few minutes later, we come to my favorite spot on the trail. Theresa, Bryce, and Andrew stop to take pictures with me. I tell them what I told the crew of friends that hiked up here on my birthday: if I kick the bucket before all of you, this is where you bring the ashes.
Another 20 minutes of climbing up vertical terrain, and we finally reach the top. What is typically a lush meadow has transformed into a frozen ice field full of alien-looking trees. This isn't just snow and ice, but a phenomenon called hoar frost - when really moist air collides with really cold temperatures, forming large, interlocking crystal patterns that are much larger, and more bizarrely beautiful, than typical frost.
Some of my friends (ahem, Beth) struggle to understand the frequency of my visits to South Toe – why do I always go to the same place and hike the same trails?
I have my reasons, but one is abundantly evident today - no matter how many times I hike this trail, it's always completely different. We feast our eyes on what seems like every iteration of ice.
Hiking along the flat section of the Black Mountain Crest trail feels like a walk in the park after all the elevation gain on Woody Ridge. We stop to take a group photo, and I hug Jon for a long time, nuzzling my snotty nose into the warmth of his puffy coat. “I love climbing mountains with you!”
“I love climbing mountains with you too!” he says, squeezing me even tighter. Our cameras are pressed between us, and I joke that they're hugging each other too.
“We should take our cameras on double dates," Jon says.
“That’s pretty much all we do," I say, thinking of the incredible places we've gone with our cameras. "Really epic double dates.”
Back at the house that night, I ask Jon about the process of filing for an LLC. He teaches me some editing tricks in Lightroom, and I show him some of my footage from Belize. We talk about how exciting - and how daunting - it is to start a business.
"I'm just trying to channel Jay-Z," I tell him. "You know that lyric? I'm not a businessman. I'M A BUSINESS, MAN."
Jon smiles broadly and says "Marley, you're just like Jay-Z."
Best compliment ever.
When the clock hits midnight, we pour champagne, set off beautiful Chinese lanterns, and light up the fire pit. I tell anyone that will listen "this is how I want to spend every New Year! Go ahead and mark your calendars - we're doing this again next year!"
The first day of 2018 dawns with a remarkably clear, vibrant sky.
"Damn, we should have gone up there for sunrise," Theresa says.
Instead of doing another big climb, we hike to the waterfall near the inn. Snow cascades down in sheets of glittering white dust, and we can't stop talking about how beautiful it is. The bright blue frozen water reminds me of a glacier, and I feel the now familiar jolt of nervous excitement that accompanies every thought about Antarctica.
As we walk back, I savor the sound of snow crunching under my boots. I wish I could stay up here forever. Gia patiently listens to what she's heard me say many times before - I feel like I'm the best version of myself in the mountains. I recite the poem that Jon and I found on Mt. Rainier.
You cannot stay on the summit forever.
You have to come down again.
So why go in the first place?
What is above knows what is below.
But what is below does not know what is above.
One sees no longer
But one has seen.
There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions
By the memory of what one saw higher up
When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.
"The energy and confidence I feel up here - I wish I could take it back down with me."
Theresa overhears me saying this and says “of course you can Marley." She goes on to remind me I'm not alone, and I have a rad crew of people supporting me.
“I know I do. I really do.”
It feels surreal that it’s actually 2018 now. This is the year everything changes. I'm quitting my job and starting a business. I'm going on three (maybe more?) major expeditions that will lead me farther away, and for longer periods of time, than I have ever gone before.
I take a deep breath and try not to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. I still have a lot of stuff to figure out, but my gut tells me the same thing it does at the bottom of Woody Ridge this is going to be epic.