The Fiery Gizzard Trail: Certa Mors.

Some of you know this, some of you don’t, most of you probably don’t care, but last year, my do-gooder wife and I launched a company — Hobnail Trekking Co. — that arranges treks to (but not up) Mount Everest in Nepal. We did this partly because we’re slightly crazy and partly because doing the trek has been on our bucket list for years. In March 2018, Holly and I will fly around the world and check out Big E with our own eyes.

So we’re now in the midst of training and part of this involves hiking with our trek group members, several of whom live right here in Middle Tennessee. Last weekend, upon the suggestions of trek member Luis, we brazenly decided to tackle the Fiery Gizzard Trail, known as one of the Top 25 hikes in the nation. The full trail is around 12.5 miles long and is rated “strenuous,” which in Latin, means “certa mors,” which then translated back into English, means “certain death.” Not knowing this, I just assumed it actually meant “strenuous,” which is kind of a nebulous word and not to be taken too seriously.

As the Owner of an International Trekking Company, I approached this trek with all the optimism and preparation of a total nincompoop. I had good boots, a good Camelbak pack, and a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was also hiking with my company’s trek leader, Dawa, an Everest Region Sherpa and veteran of hundreds of long-distance Nepali hikes at altitude. So hiking with Dawa is like calling an Uber and Richard Petty shows up as your driver.

Regardless, the fact that this trail is called “Fiery Gizzard” rather than something like “Friendly Fluffy Bunny Path” should have raised a red flag. I’m not even sure what a “gizzard” is, but it sounds uncomfortable even when it’s not “fiery.”

Upon the recommendation of the one member of the group who had done the hike and shall remain nameless (Luis), we arrived at the trail head at around 10 am, giving us some five hours to knock this thing out before darkness fell. Again, lots of blind optimism.

Dawa, Luis, and Shari down at Foster Falls.

While waiting for the fifth member of the troop to arrive, the rest of us made a short jaunt to an overlook to view amazing Foster Falls far below in a deep gorge. It was beautiful and we all said the appropriate words. Then Luis, who is 16 years younger than me and has the physique of a pro soccer player, said “C’mon, guys!” and began scampering down a set of stairs that descended into the gorge. These were the kind of stairs that should have a sign at the top saying, “Keep in mind, if you walk down these stairs, you’ve got to walk back up them.” The angle of descent was roughly that of a sheer cliff face. Yet down we went, flush with verve. We took the requisite photos in front of the falls and then headed back up the staircase. Upon finally reaching the top, I was alarmed to find my legs were rubbery and my heart was pounding in my ears.

But we hadn’t even started the hike.

“Ahh, that was a good warmup!” shouted Luis. “Now we’re ready!”

“Gaaakkrrwwb,” I replied.

The last member of the party arrived and we took off. The first hour was heavenly. We cruised along a smooth, fairly level trail that meandered through a dense hardwood forest, sometimes skirting cliffs that offered amazing views for miles. After a while, we decided to break for lunch. An older, bearded man and his wife walked up and struck up a conversation. He was a local who hiked the trail regularly and had even conquered the Appalachian Trail in its entirety twice. After appraising us for a few minutes, he asked how far we were going today.

“The whole way, all 12 miles!” I replied.

He smirked and said, “Hmm. Good luck.”

At this, I should have suggested that we turn back immediately, but as the Owner of an International Trekking Company, I was nonplussed. (I know now that I should’ve been extremely plussed.)

We continued and the trail began to get interesting. More inclines and descents, crossing downed trees and footbridges, and splashing through shallow streams. At about two hours in, we approached a steep gorge and far below, we could make out a rushing stream. To my horror, I noticed the white tree blazes marking the trail actual led straight down into the gorge, instead of finding a suitable path around like any sensible trail would do. Without hesitation, Luis started down. The footing had become an ankle-snapping mixture of roots and wobbly boulders, and each step had to be considered carefully. We finally made it to the bottom, crossed a footbridge, and were faced with the incline on the other side. A combination of stone and wooden steps led up an impossibly steep hillside, making the first staircase the led to Foster Falls seem silly in comparison. Far at the top, I could just make out tiny ant people moving around.

Up I went, heart pounding, sweat pouring. Gasping for breath, I could feel myself turning green with nausea and my legs weighed 400 pounds each. On and on. Each torturous step seemed to be its own workout that lasted hours. I turned to look back.

I had climbed approximately 15 feet. At this point, a small child from another group smiled at me and literally ran up the entire incline, giggling. I tried to trip her as she ran past, but my reflexes were far too slow.

I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, I finally made it up. I glanced over at Dawa and he just grinned at me, barely breathing and sweating not a drop.

“Why aren’t you sweating?” I demanded.

“Because Sherpas keep it simple,” said Dawa. “We don’t need to sweat.”

After uttering some choice curses at my Nepali friend, we pressed on into the ever-lengthening shadows. The inclines and descents became more frequent, the ground rockier. My feet and toes were starting to complain and I was beginning to stumble more often. I had left my FitBit at home (of course), so I asked team member Shari how far we’d gone, assuming we were approaching the end.

She looked at her watch and then back at me with big, sad eyes.

“Four miles.”

It was a funny joke and I laughed wholeheartedly. But then I noticed she was staring at me. “I’m serious, dude,” she said. “Four miles.”

The background fell away from me like when Chief Brody is on the beach in “Jaws” and sees the little boy being gobbled up in the surf.

“F-four miles??” I stammered.

It was around then that began one of the longest, most difficult 8.5 miles of my life. The five of us realized that we weren’t even halfway through, there was NO WAY we were walking out in the daylight, but we were too invested to turn around. At least once in every hiker’s life, they experience that moment when they ask this question: “Why am I not at home on the couch, feet up, cat in my lap, bowl of Orville Redenbacher beside me, watching “Stranger Things” while simultaneously playing Candy Crush on my phone?” I know it’s weird, but it’s always that exact same question. And the answer is always, “Because I started this stupid Mt. Everest trekking company and now I’ve got to act like I’m some kind of amazing, super-experienced hiker so people will trust me and, oh by the way, I’ve got to get in freaking shape because in four months I’m hiking for two weeks at 14,000-plus feet and I’d prefer not die because that would be embarrassing and probably bad for business.”

So like all hikers, I had that moment, too.

Two hours later, the mood had changed. Now, the raucous laughs and inappropriate joke-telling, backslapping, doling out of “flat tires,” and braggadocios tall tales had been replaced by bitter cursing, sobbing, moaning, praying, or just tearful stony silence. (This was me. Everybody else was having a great time.) From time to time, someone would ask Dawa how this trail compared to the one we would travel to Everest Base Camp.

“This is worse,” he would say. “We have a Nepalese word for this kind of trail that roughly translated in English means ‘certain death.'”

Darkness fell. We followed Luis across one boulder field after another by way of headlamps and tiny flashlights. Every so often, I would suggest that we sit down just to give the rest of the group a much-needed breather and for me to consider vomiting my guts out.

We sat quietly in the primeval forest. A giant swath of stars twinkled down through treetops as the stream gurgled beside us in the blackness. A hoot-owl hooted in the distance.

It sucked.

From left, not including me in the headband, Stephanie, Luis, Dawa, and Shari.

OK, I’ll cut to the chase. The fact that I’m writing this post is a dead giveaway that we survived and eventually made it to the parking lot. We piled into a vehicle we had hired to carry us back to our vehicles at the other end. The driver, a nice and sympathetic man named Troy told about recent deaths on the trail and about how the area park ranger might “read us the riot act” when we got to our cars for being out there after dark. All that said, I’d never been so happy to be crammed into a mid-size SUV, knees under my chin, in my life. Upon return to the original trail head, we jumped in our vehicles and peeled out of there before the grumpy park ranger could catch us.

The Fiery Gizzard was indeed fiery, but certas mors was avoided. The Hobnail Trekking Crew made it from one end to the other, scorched slightly, but otherwise undamaged.

Next up? The Friendly Fluffy Bunny Path…

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5 Responses to “The Fiery Gizzard Trail: Certa Mors.”

  1. Joan says:

    I loved your story. Thanks for being so honest. I have a hard time hiking and would have turned around at 4 miles. I’m really excited to hear more about your training.

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Thanks so much for the comment, Joan! It’s those kind of experiences that not only create great memories, but also fodder for funny stories. And yes, I’ll post more about training as we go.

  2. Janie Gentry says:

    It’s easy to tell that you were a writer in one of your earlier lives. A great story teller, as well as an awesome Owner of an International Trekking Company.
    I look forward to more stories of your adventures.

  3. Kathy says:

    Thanks for the awesome read. Never going trekking, ever!

  4. j foster says:

    Here’s to those that continue to dream; and set out to fulfill them… by one. Thanks MJ

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