Climbing Big Celo Mountain

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal: Thankfully, another spring, the season of warming earth, emerging life. I’ve been yearning for a walk up into the high country. After pouring over stacks of wrinkled maps, I choose the 5 mile Bolens Creek trail. It climbs the north end of the tall Black Mountain range up to a dark, Balsam-bristled peak named Celo. Its pinnacle stands 6,327 feet above the ocean, over 3000 feet over the deep valley floors on either side.

Every day we view the mountains lofted high above us, casually ‘lifting our eyes to the mountains’. Some might even wonder: what’s it like up there? Fewer still pull on hiking boots and go up to discover for themselves. We know little of the wild weathers blasting these mountain crests, bleaching the wind-twisted skeletons of spruce and fir. Fierce sky-blizzards rage, summer lightning frequently strikes the higher mountains. Celo’s remote peak can not be reached by road. Something in me is glad of that. The Bolens Creek trail ascends through three forest zones. But the effort rewards those who love deep-woods solitudes, the stark beauty of high places.

The first half mile or so, the trail climbs beside the tumbling waters of Burleson Branch. The stream spills over boulders, crashes into deep clear pools. Steep slopes on both sides echo the noisy falling waters. Migratory warblers flit through the trees. The air is rich and fresh, the ancient fragrance of early spring rising out of the dark waking mountains.

The trail climbs away from the rushing stream into hardwood forest, still gray with the emptiness of winter. The soft roar of the water quickly fades below. As I climb the northwest slopes of Celo, clouds gather along the ridge-tops high above. The forest darkens with cool shadow. On the point of a ridge I sit and rest, listening to the silent mountain. Somewhere across the hollow, a Yellowhammer drills on a dead tree. My sweat dries with a chill. Time to get going, higher into the lowering clouds. In the next two miles of steady climbing, cold raindrops start to fall.

I hike through the long transition from deciduous to dark spruce-fir forest. Finally the trail breaks out into a drizzly grey openness of upland meadows and sky. Thick mists swirl around the black teeth of jagged peaks. I crouch under a windblown fir, gobble a large apple and some almonds, drink a cup of hot tea. Cold rain drips on my poncho.

In the timelessness and quiet of high places, I sometimes feel how utterly brief are the decades of life, centuries of humans scuttling around the base of these big mountains. Wind sighs through the firs, ravens cry into the stormy sky.

I have several miles of trail to descend before an early nightfall. I reach the base of the mountain in less than half the time it took to ascend. In rainy dusk I step carefully on the last wet stones across the dark stream. Finally back to the road, I stand and look down the pastoral valley. Window lights of houses are twinkling yellow, supper’s on the stove. Soft mists are rising from twilight fields. Spring Peepers jingle by the creek. Behind me, the big black mountains stand silent, keeping ancient mysteries in the evening rain.