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Ascent of Cold Spring Knob on 2019-02-03

Climber: Chris Gilsdorf

Date:Sunday, February 3, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Cold Spring Knob
    Location:USA-North Carolina
    Elevation:5920 ft / 1804 m

Ascent Trip Report

There are two ranked 5ers on the spur ridge leading north from Richland Balsam: Cold Spring Knob, and Lickstone Bald. They are very infrequently climbed, and beta is sparse...I found reference to an old planned trip up Cold Spring Knob, but upon contacting the leader, he couldn't remember any details of the route! This pair can be tackled, together or separately, from three different angles: 1. Following the ridge north from the summit of Richland Balsam, 2. Obtaining permission from the Ascot Club and climbing Lickstone from the west, or 3. Climbing Cold Spring Knob from the southeast, following old logging roads and abandoned trails from a national forest trailhead. Given the time of year making option 1 nonviable, and option 2 being one I'd found out about only just before my climb, that left option 3; this would turn out to be a monster of a day, lasting 11 hours and entailing a net gain in the ballpark of a vertical mile. Go this route, and getting even one of the peaks will be an accomplishment...

To get there, I followed the now-familiar route from Canton down NC-110 to the junction with US-276, continuing on NC-215 S toward the BRP and past Lake Logan. Just beyond the Sunburst CG, and just before the highway really starts to climb, there's a wide dirt road on the right. It can be driven by a car with some care. Go past a first gate on the right to a second gate on the right with a signed road number, and park here; if you cross the river you've gone too far.

I'd explored the logging roads a bit, including an ill-fated and short-lived attempt a few weeks earlier. I'd reached the first split shown on the topo, at 3280', and found no evidence of a route. Visions of all-day bushwhacking dancing in my head, and being on a time crunch, I'd turned around then. This time, despite my later start (7:30 AM), I was less rushed, and more willing to explore. I followed the obvious route up alongside a roaring river, eventually reaching the switchback shown on the topo. I continued toward the second switchback shown (actually inaccurately on the map, the trail swings all the way out to the gully to the N), and then followed the still-obvious road/trail higher still. At around 3950', I crossed a dirt road--an actual dirt road! In fact, I'd see someone driving it on my descent. This may well be the continuation of the road on which I'd parked...someone with a hardy vehicle could probably shave almost a thousand feet off the ascent if they could make it to this crossing. The logging road continued on the far side. I stayed on the lower fork at a split just beyond. This aside, thus far the route had been very straightforward.

That was about to change. At 4100', where a large tree had toppled and uprooted itself in the middle of the trail, the going quickly got rougher. A neat waterfall was visible across the valley here. I continued up what had once been the Boomer Inn Branch Trail, but was now a series of steep old logging roads with occasional orange flagging. After a tricky stream crossing at 4320', the trail switchbacked, about 50' higher up the mountainside than is shown on the topo. The last two long passes were very, very faint...less a road or a trail, and more a foot-wide, slightly-less-steep passage without many trees in the way. Whatever trail had once existed here was all but gone, and with the leaves underfoot, footing was a bit treacherous. At around 4900', the route bent around a ridge, became overgrown with young pines, then opened up into a small bowl where it traversed fairly levelly before turning right and following the Boomer Inn Branch steeply uphill. This eventually became choked with piney deadfall, and the flagging became scarce, so I cut higher up the hillside to avoid it, finally topping out on the spur ridge at 5420'. The road shown on the topo on this ridge was nowhere to be seen. But to my infinite delight, the road leading to Double Spring Gap was obvious, grassy, and clear! Feeling more optimistic about the hike, I strolled up to the gap, passing what appeared to be the start of a trail leading to Richland Balsam, shown on the topo.

At the Gap, the good road continued down the other side, but there was a No Trespassing sign for the Ascot Club. I decided to just go straight up the ridge, following another grassy road that quickly petered out, but by and large, the woods were fairly open. After topping out on the first bump and wandering the easy, broad ridge north, I picked up the grassy two-track again and followed it toward the summit of Cold Spring Knob. As it reached its highest elevation west of the summit, I spotted an overgrown logging track doubling back uphill, and followed this to just below the ridge crest. It was a trivial matter to get onto the crest, and follow it north to high ground, which was actually at almost the extreme north end of the contour. No views, but a pleasant enough little summit...it had taken three and a half hours to get there.

I continued down the other side, picking up what I think was the continuation of the overgrown logging track. This led to the ridge crest further downhill, and here I found sections of fence and occasional boundary markers, as well as a surprisingly good trail on the national forest side of the fence! I figured I might as well just follow it. That turned out to be a good choice, and I continued north to where the ridge broadened. The forest here was mostly open and easy going, honestly some of the best and easiest bushwhacking I've ever had on the high peaks of the Southeast. An hour after leaving the summit, I reached the broad saddle of Deep Gap, where there was a rain gauge, and not much else. Of the several routes shown on the topo, the only one I could see was the one coming from the SW. Above loomed the SE ridge of Lickstone...

This next section ended up being one of the worst of the entire hike. Open forest gave way to brambles, which gave way to thick shrubs that required a bit of bashing to get through, as the slope got steeper and steeper. Despite this misery, though, the way again became easy as I topped out on the flat, broad ridgetop. I had a few tenths of a mile of easy walking, then the downhill to the saddle between where I'd come from and Lickstone itself. I kept an eye out for the tracks shown on the topo, but they never really materialized...however, there was once again a trail of sorts along the property boundary line as it climbed steeply toward the summit. There were still a few brushy spots, but I finally topped out on the small summit area. There were some limited 360-degree views through the trees. It had taken only another hour from Deep Gap, and I was pretty happy with my pace.

Overall, the return journey would take almost as long as the ascent. I was dragging at this point, and trying not to cramp up, so I took the dreaded re-ascent of Cold Spring Knob slowly. This time, at 5600', I just opted to drop a short distance west off the ridge and pick up the grassy track running west of the summit. This saved me a little bit of uphill. It still took about two and a half hours from Cold Spring back to the car. I had briefly considered trying to follow the good grassy road down the ridge heading E from Double Spring Gap, but ultimately decided not to chance it on an unproven route. I limped back to my car around 6:20, the sun already having set and the sky quickly darkening. It felt very, very good to have this pair behind me, even if I'd taken probably the hardest way up! I'll be very curious to see if there's much of a trail between Double Spring Gap and Richland Balsam...but that'll be a journey for another time.

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