Monday, November 24, 2014

The Land of Sharp Edges (Part 4 of 9)

So six months after Greg’s initial trip, when temperatures were at a more civilized level, all four of us (Greg, Keith Oakes, Charlie Roth, and I) did the Lester Prong-Jumpoff trip. While the name Jumpoff has some glamour, the name Lester Prong doesn’t. It sounds tame, even to the point of being a bit dorky. I don’t want to offend anyone out there who’s named Lester, but there’s a reason why wrestlers and other celebrities name themselves Rock, Diesel, Bono, Sting, even Ray or Jon, but never Lester. (To avoid the appearance of conceit, let me hasten to say that I fully understand that they don’t name themselves Greg, either.) It’s just not a name that conjures up images of bravery and excitement. But Lester Prong is anything but tame. Yes, it’s small – it would be nearly impossible to drown in it – but it wouldn’t be hard to fall to your death. If I had been on that advisory committee, I’d have suggested Deathwish Prong, only because Styx Branch (you know, the river that flows through Greek hell) was already taken by a creek on the other side of Mount LeConte. 

Lester Prong, Below 4,700'

After hiking up Lester Prong for about half an hour, we began to see car, truck, and trailer sized tangles of debris – trees and rocks – in the creek. This is always a sign of a landslide, usually the result of a sudden, heavy rain that saturates the ground and pulls several acres of soil off the mountain side, bringing tons of rocks and trees with it. This conglomeration will ride its way downstream as a wall of mud, wood, rock, and water, eventually slogging to a halt and creating huge tangles in the river valley. 

Debris Field on Lester Prong
After a few hundred yards of these tangles, which got bigger as we moved further upstream, we came to a fork in the creek around 4,700’ elevation, about 1,300’ below the Jumpoff directly above us. The line of debris flowed from the right branch, showing that this most recent landslide had come from that direction, near Horseshoe Mountain to the north. The left branch had a long, thin, scoured look with only a few loose rocks and a modest stream of water running down the middle, meaning that if we were going to follow Lester Prong as far as possible, this was the fork we would take.

So we did.
But it wasn’t easy.

Starting up the left fork at the 4,700' split

This was the point where our hike changed from a feet-only affair to feet -& hands because this left fork was slippery and steep. Later we calculated that the overall incline of this section was about 45 to 50 degrees, which doesn’t seem difficult on paper, but on the ground it’s tough because this 45 degree incline is an average. There would be ten or twenty feet of 60+ degree incline followed by a few feet of maybe 10 or 20 degrees, followed by another ten or twenty feet of steep, wet cascade, followed by a few feet of easy stepping. The result is mostly hands and feet climbing, with only a few brief reprieves. Did I mention the fact that water has been flowing over this bed of slate since time immemorial? So it tends to be a bit on the smooth, slippery side of things with very few sharp, strong hand and footholds. The result is that we spent much of our time a few yards to the side of the cascade, alternately pushing and pulling our way through a thick layer of green, wet, soft, loose moss, plus a lot of roots and branches.

Jumpoff Cascade, about 5,000'

In this kind of climbing, our most trusted allies are spruce trees. We can trust these trees and their roots with our lives; although we try not to put ourselves in that position very often. Whether climbing up a steep, rocky bluff or through a steep thicket of shrubs and trees, it’s best to keep your weight evenly distributed among your four points of contact – two hands and two feet – but occasionally it’s necessary to put all your weight on just one point. I will rarely do this on a rock surface but will resort to it upon occasion if I can use a root or branch – but only healthy spruce trees. They are always strong and sturdy, which is something I can’t say confidently about birch, rhododendron, mountain laurel, and the dozens of other bushes that grow on these steep slopes.

A close second is sand myrtle which is a small, leathery bush that often grows in the cracks of very acidic, rocky terrain, which is exactly what the ridges and cliffs of the Land of Sharp Edges consist of. We won’t put all our weight on a single sand myrtle the way we would a spruce root, but we can use a sand myrtle bush to pull ourselves up with as much or more confidence than we place in the rock itself, simply because the rock is fragile, Anakeesa slate that sometimes breaks off in your hand when you pull on it. The sand myrtle that grows in the cracks of these walls of slate really is more trustworthy than the rock it grows on.
Rhododendron is a distant third. Apparently its roots aren’t designed to dig deep into cracks in the rock, so these plants – which seem strong and rubbery at lower elevations – are often weak or dying on these high, rocky slopes. Only occasionally can they be trusted as a secure hand-hold. Mountain Laurel – rhododendron’s close cousin – is a bit too brittle and breaks too easily. So we tend to use the laurel and rhody to help us keep our balance when we need just a little extra help in leaning the right direction. It’s like holding on to a handrail as you go up a flight of stairs. You don’t need it to support your entire body weight; you only need it to provide a little support to help you keep your balance. [To be continued]