Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Land of Sharp Edges: Wandering and Wondering Up the Face of Mount Kephart (Part 6 of 9)

The Jumpoff Cascade is so long that just standing at the bottom and looking up its path gives you absolutely no idea of its real length. It twists and turns and just disappears after about 200 feet. So you can’t see it from the bottom. Later that day, as we stood atop the Jumpoff and looked down, we could see the general path of the creek as it zig-zagged down the slope, but there was too much distance and greenery to see the actual rock and water cascade. From above there’s no visible evidence that anything extraordinary is happening in the valley below – other than a wonderfully steep slope. And the Lester Prong valley is so remote that there’s no place to stand in the distance and hope to see this cascade. The only way to view it is to climb alongside it for several hours, from bottom to top, which only adds to its mystique. It’s unapproachable, unattainable… and, therefore, that much more alluring.

On the less-dramatic, more-delicate side, this slope surrounding the Jumpoff Cascade is covered in thick, wet moss with frequent outposts of Grass of Parnassus, a lovely, white wildflower that few visitors ever see. As my Wildflowers of the Smokies says, “Consider yourself very lucky to find this outstanding native of bogs and seepage slopes.” My hiking partners and I are not exactly wildflower enthusiasts, but we do like to know what’s going on around us, so we did indeed consider ourselves lucky to stumble across these small, white reminders that much of the wonder of the Smokies is at knee or ankle level.

The split in the creek at this “top” of the cascade is at 5,700 feet – about 300 vertical feet from the top of the Jumpoff. At this point we all split up, not out of design, but simply to follow our various interests. I decided to go up the left fork; although I can’t really explain why. This fork had the heavier flow of water, and it seemed that it would lead to the crease where the Boulevard meets the AT. (It didn’t.) Maybe I was hoping there would be a few gawking tourists at the top when I walked out of the woods. Greg, Keith, and Charlie followed the right fork which seemed to head straight up to the highest point of the Jumpoff, but certainly couldn’t go all the way to the top, simply because the last 100 feet or so would be a nearly-vertical climb. Even a guy with a death wish gene would have enough presence of mind to think about the people who love and depend on him to keep him from trying to climb that last vertical 100 feet.

So my three partners headed right, but they spread out a bit as well. There was a rocky scar that stopped their progress across the face of Mount Kephart, so they did some backtracking and re-routing to find a path that would lead them to the top. In short, they had the same troubles that I was having – rocky cliffs that would form a barrier that had to be avoided, usually by moving laterally along the base until a gap in the cliff would allow them to move upward. It’s a zig-zagging route that always holds that possibility of climbing for an hour or two, only to find yourself hemmed in by cliffs above and to both sides, meaning that the only option is to retreat and regroup.

There were several points in their climb that this seemed to be happening. Occasionally during the afternoon I was able to look across the slope only to hear and see patch of rustling bushes on a frighteningly steep slope, but they were usually able to find a crease or a gap or a ledge or some escape route that eventually led them to the top. Of course, this involved the same tactics that we had been using for the past two hours – push through the bushes, hang on to roots and limbs, crawl up moss-covered rock, rest, repeat.

While they were engaged in their struggle, I was working my way up the left fork in much the same manner. They had stayed with their part of the cascade for several more minutes before the slope became too steep and they had to move laterally. I also stayed with my fork of the creek, but it quickly became too steep and slippery for me to actually climb in the cascade, so I moved to the brush and thickets along the side. As I pulled myself up through the bushes and moss, my imagination began to run away with me. The slick cascade wouldn’t let me go further left. What if I came to a rocky cliff that wouldn’t let me go higher and another that wouldn’t let me go right? My only option would be to backtrack, but backtrack to where? The fork where we had separated? How long would that take? Where would my partners be? Would they have stumbled upon a route to the top that I might miss?  [To be continued]