Switchback

Brasstown Bald

Georgia

November 2012

First you go this way, then you go that way, then you go this way again and then that way…

This trail climbs a relatively steep mountainside so to lessen the load, so to speak, it was designed with many switchbacks.  My research turned up one source claiming 40 switchbacks from trailhead to the upper parking lot, but Lisa and I, as we ascend this mountain, carefully count 41.  This begs the question, “What, exactly, makes it a switchback?”  And why the heck, surrounded by all this exquisite forest, were we counting switchbacks?

A switchback is a hairpin curve, or a zigzag pattern in a trail, road or path.  Some specify that the turn has to be 180° or more but others are content with the change in direction of a sharp turn.

When you are climbing a steep upslope, you could just go right straight up the incline, the shortest distance between two points.  But when you’ve got a lot of elevation to accomplish, this can be strenuous to the point of vexation.

One time, my backpacking partner Martin and I hiked the Mid-State Trail in Pennsylvania.  The chosen terrain upon which they designed and built this trail, I believe, was that they would stand at the bottom of the mountain and point to the top.  “Okay, let’s find the shortest, most difficult climb possible to get from here to there.”  And then they went straight up the side of the mountain.  It was a test.  Y’know, how bad do you want it!

Enter the switchback.  You cover a whole lot more linear feet, but the incline is less strenuous.

What is a switchback in real life?  Exactly when does a bend in the trail become sharp enough to be considered a switchback?  180°?  Or something less?

Lisa and I haven’t ever tried to classify what makes a switchback and what doesn’t.  We’re okay either way, which is why, once again, I’m wondering why we counted them.  Apparently, the guy who originally counted them decided that a switchback requires a sharper turn than we think they do.  So be it.  You climb the mountain and decide for yourself.

You want switchbacks?  Go out west.  There is something a bit more civilized about the trail design on our western mountain slopes.  More switchbacks, gentler inclines.  I mean, we’ve got our switchbacks here in the east, but they present a much tougher constitution.  Heck, I’ve done some trails here that are so steep, the ground was right in front of my face while I was hiking upright.  If my hat fell off, I wouldn’t have to bend down to get it.

If anyone asks about the switchbacks up to the summit of Brasstown Bald, there are 41.  Which kind of blows my whole theory about trails in the west being switchbackier.

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