We were in our 20s, pre-children and craving adventure. My wife, two brothers, and three cousins started a backpacking group. We were determined to hike every marked trial in the Bankhead National Forest and highlighted our trail maps to prove it. One particular weekend we planned to climb through Needle’s Eye.
For a skilled climber Needle’s Eye is a nice climb and the only challenge is squeezing through the elevated opening in the natural rock formation without pulling off your backpack. For the less proficient climber it is a moderate to difficult climb, but for the hiker that is afraid of heights, climbing up to and passing through Needle’s Eye is a challenge accepted only once if at all.
Typically my wife was the only woman in our hiking and camping group, but after much persuasion I had convinced her sister to come along. She was an occasional day hiker, but had not aspired to backpacking. We excitedly helped her gather gear. We were invested, financially speaking for the new gear we could justify buying, and emotionally. We were excited!
Our hike into the forest was hot but uneventful as we passed stuff down the trail. Stuff like stories about when and who had passed here last. Stuff like reports of distance ahead and expected arrival times. Stuff like updates on how our boots were feeling. But never, not once, did we share stuff about Needle’s Eye. We didn’t share that it was in the air, way up in the air. Not simple facts like climbing is required and packs can throw a hiker off balance on the climb. Not any helpful stuff was passed down the trail other than enthusiasm. In retrospect, we seriously should have prepared her! The truth is we all suspected, although we never said it aloud, that she would have never put on her pack and hit the trail if we had.
As we approached the bluffs the revered rock formation came in and out of view through the trees. Echos of “I see it! I see Needle’s Eye!” spilled down the trail and through the woods. Within a half hour of the first distant sighting we hit the clearing and were standing at the base of it, all looking up with our mouths agape. Regardless of how many times we had been to and through, we were still amazed at the adventure that we sought and conquered there.
The more experienced climbers headed up first and waited just shy of the eye to allow us all to summit together. However, not long after the climb started something became clear. I’m not sure if it was the tears or the screams that gave it away. My sister in law is terrified of heights. My wife and I literally had to coax her one foot at a time every step as she trembled and shook and cried. “Can’t we go around this thing instead of up and over?” she pleaded. Responses like, “It’s too far. It’s miles out of the way and we won’t make camp by dark if we don’t go through the eye. The creek is just on the other side. Don’t you want to see the creek? It’s the prettiest hollow in this forest. You’re going to be so glad you did this!”
As it turned out, she was not impressed by the creek, or the hollow and certainly not by any of us. She was miserable and would not get over that climb for a long time. We tried to distract her with a swim in the creek, a campfire supper, the late night howl of a bobcat and an exhausted night of slumber on the ground. The next morning we succumbed to her misery, broke camp and headed home via the trail around the bluff rather than up and over. .
We learned so much on our adventurous in the forest. First and foremost was that backpackers will minimize what they need to and maximize whatever the can!