Thursday, July 27, 2017

Week 9: July 12-16, 2017

Crew 1: Highcock Knob Relocation

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The final stint at the infamous Highcock Knob loomed ahead as Crew 1 departed from Base Camp and headed for Natural Bridge, VA for the 9th project week of the season.  With the forecast predicting a heat index close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the normally strenuous hike up to the relocation promised to be downright fearsome this time around.  Having analyzed the hazards of the job in advance, Crew 1 prepared by bringing even more water than usual and committing to ascend the trail slowly and deliberately. 

Comprised of a team featuring many new faces as well as a couple of alumni, the crew was finally met with the most difficult section of trail out of the three weeks spent at this project site.  This daunting section was the switchback where the trail had previously been pulled up out of the Pit of Despair and on to a rocky outcropping, resulting in the need to build three separate sets of stone steps at grades up to 35 percent.  Never one to shy away from a challenge, Crew 1 formed a plan of attack and prepared to trounce this trail section head on.

The hike up from Petite’s Gap was just as onerous as expected, with the heat and humidity combining to create a one-two-punch of pain.  Volunteers and Crew Leaders alike were drenched in sweat by the time they reached the top of Highcock Knob, but after a short break to replenish fluids and calories it was time for business.

Jerry and Josh started off with the weekly tool talk before outlining the initial task: a massive quantity of rocks needed to be quarried for steps before any construction could begin on the switchback.  Although there wasn’t too much time remaining in the first work day, volunteers got a chance to get their hands dirty with some rock-hunting and a taste of rock net transporting before it was time to call it quits. 

Having gotten acquainted with the project site, Crew 1 descended back to the vehicles and headed for the signature campsite off of the Blue Ridge Parkway: Watson’s Pond.  In typical style, the kitchen tarp provided for some of the more frustrating moments of the project week, especially considering that one of the paracord lines had been twisted into a knot of Gordian proportions by an unwitting volunteer from the week before (or was this a case of sabotage?!). 

Despite the need for some extra untangling, the tarp was installed without too much trouble and the rest of camp was assembled quickly, including the privy which was dug sans-shovel and with an aluminum can drafted as a shovel impersonator.  As it always does, Watson’s Pond proved to be an idyllic home for the week, with sun glinting off of the water just pleasingly enough to outweigh the discomfort of the resident biting flies. 

The work week really ramped up on the second day, as Crew 1’s ranks were boosted with some additions from the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club.  The rock-quarrying operation cranked into gear as Crew 1 divided into two groups and began transporting rocks that had been identified the day before.  This was no easy task, as many rocks weighed 500 pounds or more and several needed to be dragged uphill a considerable distance.  As difficult as it might sound to excavate and move such massive stones, the wonders of rock bars, rock nets, and teamwork made this mission achievable, although not without a lot of sweat and exertion.  

In the midst of all the activity, Jerry recruited a few helpers and pulled out the Griphoist for its first task of the season.  This seldom-used contraption takes a bit of time to set up, but enables a crew to drag otherwise immovable rocks using the mechanical advantage conferred by pulleys.  That’s exactly what the Griphoist was employed to do, as a truly gargantuan boulder was dislodged from the path of the relocated trail and dragged down to a lower positon (with the help of a few rock bar-wielding volunteers to guide it along the way). 

By the end of the day, the very tired and sweaty crew had made considerable progress in locating and transporting an array of solid step rocks to use on the switchback.  After hiking down to Petite’s Gap, the crew elected to take a well-deserved trip to Fallingwater Cascade to cool off in the clean mountain springs.  There’s nothing quite so refreshing as a waterfall shower after a sweltering day of trail work.  Having attained varying states of less-dirty-than-before, the crew members headed back to Watson’s Pond for a filling meal and some relaxation around the campfire. 

On the third day, Crew 1’s numbers were augmented to a record high (at least for this season) thanks to a larger than average contingent of Natural Bridge Club members in addition to Bethany, a Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) Ranger.  With so many workers willing to lend their skills and brute strength, the day promised to be a productive one.  Quarrying was still the main objective, as many rocks had been previously moved to the tread surface but still had to be carried to the site of the staircases. 

To expedite the transport of rocks from the upper end of the switchback to the lower end, the Griphoist was utilized once again.  This time, the full potential of the mechanical device was realized in the form of a highline system.  This configuration is very time-consuming to set up, but the rewards are great as it enables a limitless quantity of heavy rocks to be “flown” (zip-line style) in a controlled manner from one location to another.  

The use of the highline comes with its own safety hazards, including some tree climbing involved in setup and the risks inherent in any system that contains a thick wire rope held under incredible tension.  Strict safety protocols were thus observed throughout the operation of the Griphoist.  Thanks to the highline system, all of the rocks needed for steps on the lower two staircase sections were flown to the lower end of the switchback with very little human exertion required.  Meanwhile, Natural Bridge Club Vice President Doug DeJarnette was able to lead a contingent of volunteers in starting on the upper staircase while the highline was in operation.

With all of the step rocks finally positioned for easy access near their appointed places, the crew was finally able to start building in earnest on Day 4.  Although the Club turnout was much lower than the day before, Crew 1 had the benefit of a second SAWS Ranger, Stuart, this time around.  Dividing into smaller groups as usual, crew members worked on a variety of tasks.  One group continued working with Doug on the upper staircase - an incredibly steep section.  Another group worked with Josh on initiating the lower staircase, while Jerry led yet another group in construction of some cribbing for tree protection further down the trail. 

Even with the availability of step rocks achieved by two hard days of quarrying, step installation was far from easy thanks to the steep grade on the upper section and the preponderance of roots and protruding bedrock on the lower section.  Nevertheless, volunteers got to enjoy some of the classic problem-solving that goes into any rockwork project, in addition to the omnipresent task of crushing rock into gravel-sized pieces with sledgehammers.  By the end of the day, nine steps graced the upper switchback section, two steps formed the foundation for the lower section, a crib wall provided rock-solid protection for some tree roots, and as an added bonus the Citadel, formerly known as Pit of Despair #1 was finally completed after three weeks.  While the overall number of steps installed was less than other project weeks, the amount of work that went into quarrying and moving all the rocks means that materials are now staged for next year’s crew.  It should hopefully only take another week or two of Konnarock’s work to finish the Highcock Knob Relocation for good!

The final work day was followed by a glorious dinner spread provided by Natural Bridge A.T.  Club members.  The third incarnation of this dinner, delivered right to Watson’s Pond, proved to be just as delicious as the previous two--featuring BBQ, salads, casserole, brownies, and watermelon.  To make matters even better, this dinner featured a special guest in Mike Rieley, President of the Club. 

Having finished work for the week, Crew 1 departed from Watson’s Pond for the last time in 2017.  On the way home, the crew made a stop at the famous Bill Foot Footbridge, and was fully prepared to journey toward the Glasgow Dinosaur except for the fact that a massive blowdown barred the road and forced a change of plan.  Instead, the crew headed for Salem, VA and stopped for Sunday brunch at Mac & Bob’s.  With full stomachs and a week of hard labor under the crew members’ belts, it was a sleepy drive back to Sugar Grove.  Eventually, tools were cleaned and everyone got to take their long-awaited showers at last.

Special thanks to Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club for a stellar showing of volunteers this week.  Crew 1 could not have accomplished nearly so much work without all of this help - especially on such a hot and humid week.  Another thanks goes to Bethany and Stuart from SAWS for coming out to assist Konnarock during the project week.  Finally, thank you to all who volunteered with Konnarock, forming the body of Crew 1 and donating time and energy to the cause of maintaining the A.T.  

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

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