Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't Do It! (Part 6 of 6)

After spending 4 ½ hours hiking, sliding, and finally crawling up Porters Creek manway, we arrived at the Appalachian Trail on the main ridgecrest with a surprise. For the past hour we thought we had been headed far east of Charlies Bunion and Dry Sluice Gap, farther east than we had hoped. Instead, we came out onto the AT where we had originally intended – just a few yards away from Dry Sluice Gap and about a quarter mile east of Charlies Bunion. Trusting the cairns all day had taken us up the tough, “don’t do it” route, exactly what we had wanted to do. While we had been ascending, I had been thinking: “If this is an easier, safer route then I really won’t be able to come down the old ‘don’t do it’ route. I’m not even sure I can descend this easy route.” But as it turned out, we had ascended the “don’t do it” route, and it hadn’t been too bad. Trust the cairns.

Once we were on the AT we spent a few minutes walking to Charlies Bunion – just a five minute walk to the west. But we soon had to make a decision. It was getting close to 2 pm, so we didn’t have a lot of day light left on this mid-December day. Should we walk about 20 minutes to the east and try to find an easier route down Porters Mountain? What if such a route doesn’t exist? What if it does exist, but its intersection with the AT isn’t obvious? What if there is more than one spot that looks like a Porters Mountain trail? If we walk 20 minutes and haven’t found it, how much longer do we walk looking for it? What if we do find it, but it’s not easier?

We could potentially waste an hour looking for another route that we weren’t certain even existed. So, we decided to go down the way we had come up. This would be exactly what the old Sierra Club trail guide had warned against: “Nobody should attempt to descend this trail from the AT. The latter section is the most difficult and dangerous stretch of trail described in this entire handbook. Don’t do it!”

Until that moment I had assumed that we might not do it. We would ascend that segment, but we wouldn’t try to descend it. But lack of daylight pushed us down the way we had ascended. So we stepped off the AT and back onto the old Porters Creek manway. We were able to stay on two feet most of the time, but occasionally I’d switch to a crab walk using all fives – two hands, two feet, and my butt – to drag and bounce down the slope. The result? Dirty hands and feet and butt, but otherwise fine. There was some slipping and sliding on wet rocks and a lot of holding on to those same trees, rocks, and roots that had helped us on the ascent, but it was enjoyable – as long as I kept my butt or hands on the ground and stepped carefully, often crab style. In fact, descending in this manner enabled me to see more of the surrounding forest, slopes, and valleys than on the ascent. Like before, being cautious and deliberate made it a bit stressful, but interesting – just the right level of adventure for a couple of middle-aged hikers in decent, but not great, shape.

We got past this steep, topmost section in about 15 minutes, reentered the creekbed, and soon encountered a four foot high cairn that we had passed on the way up and had wondered what it meant. Now we knew: “Brave hearts to the front, cowards to the rear. It is a good day to die!” I know, I know, that’s a bit overdramatic, but I love that quote by Crazy Horse, and unless I decide to climb a waterfall and somehow manage to survive and write about it, this may be my best chance to use it.

But, of course, we didn’t die. In fact, the hike back was beautiful, long, and uneventful – as most hikes in the Smokies are. We arrived back at the car just as dusk was settling in. Sometimes when you are warned not to do something, it’s best not to do it. But this wasn’t one of those times. Instead, we had been careful, managed not to get lost, survived without injury, and loved every minute of it. We were glad we did it.

And the next time we’ll be better prepared. I’ve always thought of walking or running as being the best ways to prepare for a hike. Now I can add crab walking to that list. On flat land. Up stairs. Down stairs. Just keep your butt near the ground and scamper around on your hands and feet. When someone asks what in the world you are doing, you can casually say, “Getting in shape for a hike” as if the answer should have been obvious.

Be sure to pay attention to the look on their face.

NOTE: An earlier article in the series of six on Porters Creek manway has detailed directions for this old, old route. Porters Creek manway (aka Dry Sluice manway) is an extension of Porters Creek Trail. The manway begins at the wooden #31 marker at the campsite at the end of Porters Creek Trail.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Caution: Slippery When Wet (Part 5 of 6)

On our December hike up the old, Porters Creek manway, there was one particularly memorable moment when it seemed that we were going east when we should be going south. We had pulled away from what seemed to be the main channel of the river and were following the rock cairns as they led us along a small tributary. We considered backtracking to the main branch, but we decided to continue on the small tributary because backtracking isn’t something you want to do unless absolutely essential. In other words, “The best thing about here is that we’re, well, here.” So we followed the cairns as they led us up a sometimes wet, sometime dry, always slippery streambed. It was fun and tiring and getting steeper by the minute. We didn’t know where this route would deposit us – somewhere on the AT, but where exactly? But things were going well. This off-trail hiking isn’t too hard when you have a trail to hike on! It was somewhere on that streambed that we learned to trust the cairns.

The higher elevation meant that the creekbed narrowed, so of course the rhododendron took advantage of the situation and squeezed in even tighter. Greg, who stayed a few yards ahead of me, would alert me with his standard rhody warning: “I see some rhododendron in our future.” The water was flowing, so we’d stay to the right or the left of the water, trying to keep our feet dry but giving the rhododendron branches their opportunity to reach out and grab us. If rhododendron is anything, it is relentless. It fights its battle by slapping, taunting, and grabbing; bending but not breaking. It’s like being pecked to death by a duck.

Then, suddenly, the water simply disappeared underneath us, and we were walking in a dry creek bed: a “dry sluice.”

Did I say dry? Well, it was a waterless creek bed. However, this cold, shady piece of land was very moist. The rocks were consistently slippery. It was slow, careful hiking. We were often using our hands as well as our feet as we would scramble slowly up the rocks, boulders, and tree trunks that littered the creek bed. Let me say it again: the rocks were slippery. I was reminded of the warning that the NPS gives about climbing on waterfalls; although, there was rarely a chance for any tumble farther than five or six feet. However, we also knew that it’s very, very possible to get bruised and broken by just a short, quick off-balance fall. Greg survived one potentially disastrous spill in which he ended up hanging upside down on a log, but other than an occasional slip or slide there were no other dramatic, near-death experiences. But to tell you the truth, there easily could have been. We had to be very careful in choosing our footing, and our years of experience in fishing and wading Smokies rivers really did seem to help. In fact, I think this part of the hike was as risky as the final, steep quarter mile when we were on a 45 degree slope and pulling ourselves up to the top with the help of roots and small trees.

Sometimes wet, sometimes dry, always slippery

Around 4,000 feet spruce trees began to appear, and above 4,500 feet we saw some fine walls of ice where trickles of water in a shady gully or north facing slope had frozen over. The final 30 minutes were risky but manageable – assuming we didn’t do something stupid. There were a few places where we could stand up on two feet and walk up the slope – but very few. We spent much of our time on all fours, dragging ourselves up the muddy, rocky slope. We were still in a forested area, so there were small trees, rocks, and roots that we used to keep from sliding backward. In such places, standing up and trying to walk really could have resulted in serious injury. It wasn’t a straight, vertical drop, but a lengthy, head-over-heels tumble over rough ground could do just as much damage. The secret was to not do something clumsy, and somehow we succeeded. Maybe this last quarter mile deserved to be upgraded to a seven on the danger meter – below climbing on a waterfall or grabbing a wild boar’s tail, but higher than poking a copperhead with a stick. [To be continued]