Friday, April 17, 2015

The Land of Sharp Edges: The Top of the Jumpoff (Part 9 of 9)


Keith, Charlie, and I had managed to find our way to the top of the Jumpoff, but Greg Harrell was still scrambling around somewhere down below us. I went to the middle of the Jumpoff overlook and yelled for him, wondering where he was.

His response came back to me immediately, because he was only about 50 feet below me. (Later, as we sat at Arbys eating our celebratory meal, Greg told me that at that moment, he was just sitting and wondering what to do next. To quote him: “It was good to hear your voice.” For Greg, that’s a warm and fuzzy moment.) We talked for just a moment – me above and Greg below but both hidden from each other by the shrubs – then I moved north along the Jumpoff and found Charlie and Keith sitting at the spot where they had topped out. About 15 minutes later Greg came up at their spot by aiming at their voices as they taunted him for being so slow. Because I’m the slow one in our group, this was one of those rare instances in which I arrived at our destination before he did. I should have taken advantage of the situation and joined in the taunting, but I was too tired to muster up any enthusiasm for the project, so I let Keith and Charlie do all the work.

We spent fifteen excellent minutes on the Jumpoff, basking in the view, the quiet, the cool breeze… and the sense of accomplishment. It was only at this moment that I realized how relieved I was to be finished. It wasn’t physical relief; it was mental. This trip’s stress level had been a bit higher than average, probably the result of risk mixed with angst about the unknown. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were in serious danger, but for those last few hours we all understood that the consequences of a moment of clumsiness or carelessness could have been serious. We also understood that a few people had probably done this route before, but we didn’t know any of them, so we weren’t 100% assured that we could reach the top before the sun set. Running out of daylight is always a nagging concern when we are off-trail because there’s a very, very thin line between being off-trail in the dark and being lost, and I’m pretty sure that while you are doing it, they’d feel like the same thing.

Of course, the views, the 1,400’ cascade, the effort, and the angst all worked together to make this one of our most memorable Smokies trips. For a full month afterward, during quiet moments I‘d find my thoughts drifting to that eastern slope of Mount Kephart – everything from the rush of adrenaline to the delicacy of the Grass of Parnassus.

As I write this, we’ve all done this Lester-Jumpoff trip one or two more times, and I must admit, each time has been a challenge. I had expected that the drama of the unknown wouldn’t be quite as pronounced because we now knew that it is possible to get to the top, but that wasn’t quite the case. Yes, we now know it’s possible to reach the top, but finding that route isn’t a foregone conclusion. Even a slight deviation from a previous route can create a trajectory that puts you in a spot that you don’t want to be in, which is something that has happened to us every time we’ve made this trip.

The Jumpoff: A bloody good trip

Eventually, sanity prevailed and we decided that we should take a break from the Jumpoff. While we’d had no near-death experiences, we did begin to wonder aloud if perhaps we weren’t pushing our luck. How many times can a guy put his trust in sand myrtle bushes, worn slate, spruce roots, and globs of wet moss, and escape unharmed? We’d been rolling the dice and had continued to win, but eventually the laws of probability would catch up with us. So we quit while we were ahead.

But like any temptation – gambling or otherwise – a relapse isn’t completely out of the question, especially in late summer when the Grass of Parnassus is in bloom and the Jumpoff beckons.

The delicate beauty of the Grass of Parnassus