Location: The Black Mountains | 35.7650° N, 82.2652° W | Temp: 29°F/-1.6°C
Even with all your travel, exploration, and the vastness of your tribe, your home will always be North Carolina darlin. It’s mountains. It’s blue skies. It’s the crest of the Woody Ridge Trail. – Katie Smith
Take some time for yourself when you return. Go for a run. Get a real cup of coffee. Go to South Toe. – Gia Branciforte
As I crawl into my sleeping bag, my first thought is finally.
Throughout our time in Antarctica, I never felt homesick. I never wished I wasn’t there. But I did spend a few nights tossing and turning—either from the lurching of the ship or the turbulence of my own mind.
In those moments, as I squirmed around in the small bunk, I allowed my thoughts to drift to my "happy place"—not my bed, not my house in Chapel Hill—but my little orange tent, the Creamsicle.
Now, as I pull my sleeping bag up to my face and breathe in the cold, crisp mountain air, I can't believe I'm finally here.
After a wonderful homecoming from my best friends in Durham, and a day in Chapel Hill, I did what everyone said I should do: take time for yourself. I unpacked, re-packed, and loaded up the trunk of my car. As I merged onto I-40 West, I felt a strange sense of liberation. For the first time in six weeks, I was driving. And I was completely alone.
When my alarm goes off at 5am, I’m already awake. Taking a deep breath to brace against the cold, I crawl out of my sleeping bag, don my layers, and grab my head lamp, water bottle, and camera bag.
It's still pitch black when I reach the Woody Ridge trail head 30 minutes later. With clouds blocking out the moon and stars, the night sky feels dense. But even in complete darkness, I know this place well. I’ve climbed this mountain many, many times.
The Woody Ridge trail is not long—start to finish covers a distance just under three miles. But the elevation gain is substantial—over 3,000 feet, with one portion clocking in 1,000 feet of gain in less than a kilometer. We call it the Vertical K.
As I approach this section, I start to see remnants of the wet snow that fell here two days ago—not just small chunks of white, but large ice pellets that cascade downhill with every step I take. I'm wearing my regular hiking boots, and as my feet slip and slide beneath me, I have to laugh at myself. My ice axe and mountaineering boots—both of which went all the way to Antarctica with me—are currently sitting in my house in Chapel Hill.
As I climb higher, I encounter more snow than ice, which is helpful for gaining purchase. I kick steps directly into the crunchy snow. As Jon and I learned in our mountaineering course on Mt. Hood last summer, this is the German-style (and the most physically taxing) type of mountaineering step, but it’s the only way I’m going to avoid sliding down the mountain.
I always think about Jon Haas when I'm climbing mountains, but I really wish he was here now.
Despite all the sliding and slipping, I reach Sunrise Point in just over an hour. I've seen all kinds of striking sky lines from up here, but this morning the thick cloud cover persists. A sliver of pink sky appears for a few seconds, then the clouds roll back in. I snap a couple photos, take a few sips of water, and crack open my hand warmers. Among the many lessons I learned in Antarctica is this one: go ahead and open the hand warmers before you lose feeling in your fingers.
“How was it?” Van asks me when I return to the lodge just before 9am.
“Amazing! It was so snowy and icy – it’s like Antarctica followed me home!”
Debbie hands me a Cuban espresso, and I smile, unable to contain my joy.
“I love this place so much!”
I spend the rest of the morning working, marveling at the speed of the internet at the lodge. In three hours, I accomplish what would have taken two days to do on the ship in Antarctica. I spend my "lunch break" laying in the sun, reading about Denali. After another espresso, and a soulful chat with Van, I head out to Woody Ridge again.
The second climb of the day feels much more taxing—six weeks of living on a ship, with minimal exercise and lots of heavy food, has done a number on my otherwise healthy body. Tired and frustrated, I breathe hard and start to berate myself for falling so out of shape.
But I came here, as I always do, to get right with myself. Thinking of Katie Smith and Michael Juberg and all they've taught me about mindfulness, I gently direct my mind away from the negativity. I methodically place one foot in front of the other and turn my thoughts to a passage from Gabrielle Walker's book, Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent. In it, she details the kinds of questions that can arise in the mind when you venture to the southernmost continent.
You can ask yourself the true questions: what's important for me? What direction should I take? Who are the people I miss and why? Who misses me?
I know what's important to me and the direction I want my life to go in—the answers to those questions have been clear for three years now, and my time in Antarctica only reinforced those truths. But who did I miss the most when I was at the bottom of the world?
Now that's an interesting question. I have an abundance of friends and family (and friends that feel like family) who consistently offer me their love and support. But when it comes down to it, there is one person that remains at the forefront of my heart, always.
I talked to Austin on the phone during my drive yesterday, and we decided a sibling trip to South Toe is in order. That thought alone sustains me through the rest of the steep climb. The next time I come up here, my lungs and legs will feel stronger, and I'll have my brother with me. Hell yes.
When I make it down from the mountain, I stop in Burnsville to pick up veggies and a bottle of wine to share with Van and Debbie.
Over a beautiful spread of roasted asparagus, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and spinach salad, I chat with them about my new life as a self-employed individual—both the stressful parts, like figuring out finances and health insurance, as well as the perks, like spending a Monday in the mountains.
"This has been the best Monday ever," I say. "I might have to make Mountain Mondays a regular thing."
We talk about the magic of South Toe and how we all came to be here. I tell Van and Debbie about how much I love sharing their story. They lived in Miami for decades, finally decided they were sick of it, and created a whole new life for themselves in the North Carolina mountains.
The next morning, as I pack up and try to mentally prepare myself for returning to life in the lower regions, I tell Van and Debbie how grateful I am for giving me a place to call home in the mountains.
"I'm so glad I came up here," I say. "I really needed this."
Van smiles. "It's a good beginning."