Friday, June 28, 2013

The LeConte Trip, Day 3 of 3

 To tell you the truth, on our winter trips to Mt. LeConte  I rarely walked to Myrtle Point or Cliff Top to see a LeConte winter sunrise or sunset, partly because I was cold and tired, partly because I had explored LeConte’s ridgetop during other seasons, but mainly because winter hiking in the Smokies provides so many great views, I just didn’t feel the need to walk to one of LeConte’s extremities to see another. I’d have been doing it just to say I’d done it, and that’s something I quit doing several years ago when I realized that I wasn’t going to do anything in life so rare and fabulous that I’d be able to impress folks with the tale of my achievement. Now I just hike or fish or whatever if it’s something that I’ll enjoy or learn from. Besides, all the really good stuff has already been done – first man on the moon, first person to climb Everest, first person to hike the entire AT. Just thumb through any Book of World Records to see all the stupid, pointless activities that people are pursuing, just to say they’ve done it – balancing spinning plates on poles, eating hot dogs, burping the alphabet. I just paused and visited a world records website. Did you know that a guy ate 36 cockroaches in less than one minute to break the old record? How do you practice for something like that?

After our night on LeConte, we always hiked back down to the main road via Alum Cave Trail. This is a very popular trail, and for good reason. It’s one of the best, most varied, most dramatic trails in the park. A lot of people who hike up this trail get only as far as Alum Cave, an impressively large, rock theatre about half way up this five mile trail. It’s a nice spot, but those who stop here miss the best part of this trail.  If you do this hike, don’t turn around at Alum Cave. Make the commitment to go all the way to the top. While you are on the top, visit Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. Trust me on this one.

My favorite part of Alum Cave Trail on our winter trips was that it’s all downhill. My second favorite part is the section of trail that’s cut into a vertical cliff. There’s a hand cable bolted into the rock. The trail is about two or three feet wide and the drop-off to your right is steep and long. It’s awesome, if you don’t slip on the ice that inevitably covers it in January. No, actually the risk is precisely what makes it awesome. Just don’t let go of the cable.

Also awesome are the views from LeConte, from Charlies Bunion, and from Alum Cave Trail. It was on one of these LeConte Trips that we began experimenting with various, colorful adjectives to describe these views. I won’t go into the lurid details. Let’s just say “Boys will be boys” and leave it at that.  

Just so you won’t get the wrong impression, we also discussed a lot of politics and theology, too. We were still trying to figure out why the world was so screwed up and where we stood in it. Over thirty years later, I’m still wrestling with many of the same questions. I’d like to get all mystical here and say that a few days in the Smokies will clear your head and help you to understand reality and your place in the universe. Unfortunately, that never quite happened to me. My time in the Smokies has been a mixture of fatigue, relaxation, meditation, and education. It’s been fine fellowship with some good friends. In some sense, it is always a spiritual time, and I have had some epiphanies, but nature hasn’t given me the answers to life’s great questions.

Maybe that’s all you can expect from the Smokies, but for me that’s enough.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The LeConte Trip, Day 2 of 3


One year on our annual, winter “LeConte Trip,” I went to bed at dusk and just couldn’t get warm. I tossed and turned and struggled all night, dozing fitfully, keenly aware of my chilled body parts. Finally, after a long, restless night I awoke to the sound of voices. Two of my partners were standing at the head of the bunks, discussing the impending uphill hike to Mt. LeConte. My spirits soared. I had survived the long, cold night! I began to crawl out of my bag to eat breakfast. It seemed a bit dark, but I was ready to get going. That’s when I noticed that these guys were taking their boots off. I watched as they unzipped their sleeping bags and crawled in. They were going to bed! It was 8:30 pm, and I had been in my sleeping bag about 2 hours. Morning hadn’t come, and as best I can remember, it never did.

That all happened at the Icewater Spring shelter. The next day we hiked on the Boulevard trail to the Mt LeConte shelter, where we spent the second night. There’s a cozy lodge on top of Mt. LeConte with a central dining hall and sitting area. There are several small cabins with beds, mattresses, pillows, and linens. Supplies are carried in via helicopters and lamas. It’s not luxurious, but it’s rustic and comfortable. And, most importantly, it’s not where you stay on a backpacking trip to LeConte.

Backpackers stay in a three-sided rock and mortar shelter with hard wooden bunk beds. Did you catch the part about three sides? The front is open to the elements, and in January in the Smokies there are a lot of unfriendly elements, cold wind being at the top of the list, right above black bears and skunks. Of course, that’s why you are backpacking in the Smokies in January. You are doing it to prove something to yourself, to your backpacking partners, and to your frail acquaintances back home. They don’t have what it takes. You do. At least, that’s what you keep telling yourself. Otherwise, sleeping in the cold and snow on top of a mountain in January begins to seem like a stupid idea.

Mount LeConte is a big, dominant mountain covered mostly by virgin forest. It’s either the tallest mountain in the park, or the third tallest, depending on how you want to measure it. If you start at sea-level, it’s the third tallest at 6,593 – that’s 50 feet shorter than Clingmans Dome. If you start at the base of the mountain, it’s the tallest, rising 5,300 feet from its base. In fact, measured this way, it’s the tallest mountain in the eastern US. Whenever I’m on the top of LeConte, it doesn’t bother me that two other mountains in the park are higher than I am. If you are the obsessive-compulsive type then such details might keep you awake at night, so you’d be better off driving to Clingmans Dome and making the half mile hike on the paved trail (along with the hundreds of other people) to the top, just to say you’ve been on the highest mountain in the park. I know I shouldn’t do this… but you O-C folks need to remember that there are two other peaks in the eastern US outside the park that are taller than Clingmans Dome. There, let that fact keep you awake.

LeConte is about 30 miles south of Jefferson City, as the crow flies. I can’t see it from my house, but there are several locations nearby from which it is clearly visible. Or, I should say, it’s clearly visible on a cool, crisp, clear day. From May through September the air is usually too warm and hazy to see it, but during cool weather it stands in the distance as a pleasant reminder that life is still good because there are mountains nearby.

To get a good look at it, go to picnic area at Cherokee Dam on a cool day and look to the south, directly over Jefferson City (in line with the double water towers). LeConte has a distinctive shape to it – a broad, ridgetop about 1½ miles long with three or four or five humps (depending on how you define “hump”). The main humps are West Point, Cliff Top, High Top, and Myrtle Point, some of which are popular spots to watch sunrises or sunsets. [To be continued.]