Thursday, May 26, 2011

An Old Landslide From Top to Bottom (Part 4 of 5)

If you stop near Morton Overlook about a mile below Newfound Gap, across the valley to the north you’ll see Anakeesta Ridge. On the right (east) end you’ll see two peaks. The right peak is Anakeesta Knob at the easternmost end where Anakeesta Ridge converges with the Boulevard near Mount Kephart. The left hump is the place where our morning route along a nameless side ridge reaches the main crest of Anakeesta Ridge. You’ll also see that most of the trees and soil to the left of that peak have been shaved off by a landslide. That scar is one of those dangerous, vertical scars that could be deadly, but a few hundred yards to the left (west) there is a low swag in the ridge. Greg Harrell and I worked our way along the ridgecrest to that swag, had some lunch, and began to wonder…  would it be really, really stupid to scramble down one of these rocky scars?

After letting that thought simmer for a while, the answer became obvious to both of us. One of our reasons for coming to Anakeesta had been to see the landslide scars up close. Finding a route down one of them would probably be interesting, maybe educational, and definitely up close. So that’s what we did, and as you can see, we lived to tell the tale.

At the low swag in the ridge where we were having for lunch, the landslide scar looked less treacherous. I’d guess it was at least a 45 but not quite a 60 degree angle; not easy, but far from vertical. In fact, along the western edge of this scar, a small forest of young trees and bushes was growing up. About 25 years worth of leaves had begun to create a layer of soft dirt that actually made walking pretty easy.

So we left the ridgecrest at the swag and angled our way through this young forest, down the slope, and to the bare rock scar. Once we reached the bare rock below the crest, we gingerly worked our way down the scar. In situations like this, I tend to be a bit more cautious than Greg. He says I’m a sissy. I say he’s too stupid to be scared. We’re probably both right. So I crab-walked down the scar on all fours with my butt dragging the ground as an emergency brake. It’s a slow process, but that’s sort of the point. Thus, we both managed to travel down and across several rocky scars with a few, small bumps and bruises but no near-death experiences.

In most places these scars are barren and still crumbly. In other places there are long cracks in the rock that have filled with dirt and have sprouted various species of shrubs. I would guess that 100 years from now, this will be another Smoky Mountain heath bald – one of those smooth-looking evergreen swaths that punctuate high, rocky ridges. It was a perfect laboratory for what we’ve all learned in school – that given enough time, a rocky surface will turn into a forest or field (or, in this case, maybe a heath thicket). If I were a young biologist, I’d study these scars on Anakeesta Ridge to track their progress. I suppose it would be a rather long, drawn-out project that would outlive several generations of researchers, but it would beat sitting in a laboratory watching petri dishes.

So we zigged and zagged our way down the barren slope to lonely outposts of vegetation that would provide a chance to stand up and walk a few yards. There were also a few small ridges that had their sides scoured by the landslide, but their crests were still covered with small trees and shrubs. All in all, the terrain was scrubbed and sterile, with occasional islands of life scattered about. I guess it’s really just a large version of a driveway or sidewalk – mostly clean and well-swept, with the occasional dandelion or tuft of grass poking up through the cracks.

After an hour or two of scrambling and exploring these rocky acres, we entered phase two of the landslide – the debris field. All the stuff that had once been high on the mountain slope now formed a tangled mess below. [To be continued]

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Place of the Landslides (Part 3 of 5)

Our hike to the top of Anakeesta Ridge would be steep, ascending 1,000 feet vertical in 3/10 of a mile horizontal. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was dirty, tiring, and slow. Greg the Statistician told me the next day that this was the slowest hike we had ever done. We covered one mile in five hours; although, in our defense, there were more than the average number of stops for pictures which is a sure sign of a memorable trip.
There was a lightly worn path running right up this narrow crest, meaning that this route was occasionally used by others. Who these others are and how they discovered this route are mysteries to me; although, I have a hunch that not all of them are human. Sometimes a path is clear from head to foot, but others are only about knee high. Those knee high tunnels through the brush are almost certainly bear paths, which adds another layer of drama to the trip. Walking on a trail is fine. Walking on a manway has a greater sense of discovery to it. Walking on a bearway is wildly enticing, as long as the bear is black, not grizzly.

Whoever they are, human or ursus, they keep their secrets well, and I found myself thanking them for their covert trailblazing. Pushing one’s way through a pathless tangle of rhododendron and mountain laurel is the hardest, most frustrating part of off-trail hiking. Yes, off-trail hiking is a lot easier when there’s a path… and I’ve been surprised at how often there is one.

On the other hand, the presence of rhododendron, mountain laurel, and sand myrtle means that you are in a beautiful, wild place that becomes outrageously beautiful in May, June, and July. In fact, when it’s all said and done, I think these lonely, rocky, narrow ridges covered in heath thickets are my favorite places in the Smokies. There’s always a good view of the surrounding terrain, there’s always work and sweat involved which makes the destination all the more special, and there’s a gradual progression of spring blooms which is so outrageously outrageous, so extravagantly extravagant, that redundancy is necessary but not quite sufficient.

After about two hours of hiking, scrambling, and picture-taking, Greg and I reached Anakeesta’s main crest, and we found the spot where a month earlier we had taken a wrong turn and stumbled upon this side ridge. We followed the faint trail leading west along Anakeesta’s crest, giving magnificent views across the Alum Cave and Styx river valleys. The broad crest of Mount LeConte was visible: Myrtle Point, High Top, Cliff Top, West Point, Balsam Point. Looking down we could clearly pick out Alum Cave Trail leading to Inspiration Point and Peregrine Peak. There are many reasons why people hike, but views like this are high on everyone’s list. It’s good to know early in the day that your hike has paid off handsomely in the form of vast panoramas, and this one had. If we had quit right then, the hike would still have been a success.

But the really unique part of this hike was yet to come: the landslides.

There have been several large landslides since the park was established in 1934, and numerous smaller ones. A storm on September 1, 1951 and another on June 28, 1993 struck the south slopes of Mount LeConte around Peregrine Peak. From our vantage point on Anakeesta Ridge, rocky scars from these downpours and subsequent landslides were clearly visible high on the south slopes of Mt. LeConte.

Another large landslide was actually a pair of landslides that occurred on August 10, 1984. After a heavy, evening thunderstorm two sections of mountainside slid off the southern slope of Anakeesta Ridge and onto Newfound Gap Road, between Alum Cave Trail and Newfound Gap. About 30 cars were trapped on the road between these two slides for several hours. Amazingly, while there were several near-misses, no one was seriously injured. These are the prominent rocky scars that are visible from the Morton Overlook parking pullouts. It was these scars that we were walking above today.

My wife is skeptical when I tell her this, but it’s true: those rocky scars are not quite as dangerous as they appear. Looking at them from a mile away, they look slick and vertical, but as we walked on the ridge above them we could see that some spots were dangerously vertical, but plenty of others were not. Many of these scars had small shrubs beginning to repopulate their cracks and gullies. In fact, small spruce forests were developing along the edges of these scars where there was enough soil to support trees.

As the day wore on, Greg and I began to ask each other what our plans were. We had originally thought that we’d hike along the ridgecrest, enjoy the views, and be flexible. We might follow the entire crest all the way to the Alum Cave Trail parking area. Or, we might hike down some other side ridge or creekbed. But as we looked down the rocky scars we began to consider another possibility: would it be really, really stupid to scramble down these rocky scars? And if so, should that stop us? [To be continued]