My first hike up Pole Steeple was in 2010, three months after I’d had my right knee lock. In between I’d had treatment with Euflexxa, a synthetic joint fluid, and a diagnosis that knee replacement was in my future at some point. I was cautious about what I could do, but determined to be active. I’d been sedentary most of my life, and I was too young to go back.
Somewhere I’d read or heard about Pole Steeple, the rock outcropping overlooking Pine Grove Furnace State Park. It might have been when I camped there in 2009. It might have been online, or in one of the many hiking guidebooks I’d consulted. But I’d come across it, read it was only a mile up, and longed to hike it. So on Memorial Day I arrived to join a group hike up the mountain. Our guide was a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Park Ranger; our group soon enough consisted of the two of us, the other hikers going at a faster pace.
The climb was tough for me, and I had to stop at a couple of places. I picked through some of the rougher spots. Soon enough I was on the switchback to the top. We chose the back way to approach the overlook, instead of the direct assault with the rock scramble.
And after coming through the trees we were on top. This was a big moment for me. I’d hiked before, but never so high. Nor had I ever reached such a place before on my own two legs. And the view! No wonder I held my poles in the air, looking as a friend said “like the god of lightning summoning the elements.”
But for all my bravado, I didn’t venture very far onto the rock outcroppings. I wasn’t as brave as these young women, for instance, sitting on the edge of the cliff over a 75 foot drop to the trail below. The second after I took this photo, the woman on the left screamed. She claimed she felt the rock move under her. I doubt it moved, but still, her scream made me nervous to be any further out on the rock.
The sky began to darken as we stood on the overlook. The ranger knew what was coming, and we turned around and headed back down the mountain, as the faster hikers fled past us.
We passed around the back of the overlook as the rain came down. And it wasn’t a gentle rain, but buckets. Streams formed on the switchback as we slowly made our way down. The ranger could have hiked out in no time, but he stuck with me as I picked my way down. As we transitioned from the switchback to the main trail I thought “I hope that’s the worst of it.”
Then the hail started.
The ranger tried to keep me engaged in conversation as we made our way down the slope. Had someone been listening, they might have found the conversation surreal.
“How much water did you get in your boots?”
“Too much,” I said. “My socks are soaked. And these boots are nearing the end of their life.” I stopped to clear water off my glasses.
“I got these at a sporting goods store, and waterproofed the heck out of ’em. You should try that before your next hike. Its an easy and cheap upgrade. By the way the slope over here is a little easier.”
Meanwhile hail is falling and water is gushing down the trail deep enough to reach my boot laces.
Eventually we reached the trailhead, just as the hail stopped. In the rain I turned to the soggy ranger and thanked him for helping me up and down Pole Steeple. It was his job, but he didn’t have to be as nice as he was while doing. it. His calm on the descent helped me stay focused despite the weather. As he got in his truck he said to me “you might think of yourself as a beginning hiker, but today you took everything the mountain could throw at you and came through.” And he drove off to the park office and a dry uniform.
In the trailhead parking lot a couple waited out the rain. I asked them to take my picture. Sopping wet, cold, water squishing from my boots, I wasn’t going to be denied my victory photo. After all, I’d taken everything Pole Steeple could throw at me and come through.