Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Sometimes November just hangs around for two or three extra weeks, all the way up to Christmas, giving us a few, delicious weeks of sharp, blue skies and mild temps for cutting one more rick of firewood, raking the last of the leaves, or taking a glorious stroll in the mountains. While cutting wood and raking leaves are pleasant enough activities, they are both “work” by any reasonable definition, so I opted for the mountains, which can be work, but only in the very best sense of the word. And besides, I’d been acting like a well-adjusted grown-up for several weeks in a row, and I’d had just about all I could stand.
One benefit of a November hike – especially if it happens in mid-December – is the deep, deep blue sky. I imagine folks who live in the Rockies are used to those blue skies that are so crisp they look like they could shatter because there’s not much humidity to muddy up the atmosphere and the views, but here in the East we have to wait for fall and winter for our sky to change from white to blue.
An added benefit of a cold weather hike is that if you can spend the day on a south-facing slope, you can add 10 or even 20 degrees to the temperature… as long as you stay in the sunshine. For example, much of Alum Cave trail is on the south-facing slope of Mount LeConte, but there’s also a lot of deep shade. So you can stroll pleasantly along in the warmth of the sun on an ice-free trail, only to walk into the shade of a spruce grove and find yourself slipping and sliding on an icy patch 10 or 20 or 100 feet long. If you do this enough, you get used to it and take it for granted. But then the day comes when a friend of yours is looking at the pictures of your December LeConte hike, and they innocently ask why you are wearing spikes on your boots but only a T shirt with no jacket. The incongruity of spikes and a T shirt has never occurred to you, but it really is an odd combination that makes sense only to those who hike on south-facing slopes in the late fall. (Of course, you’ll explain to your friend that the top of LeConte is cold and windy and your jacket is in your day pack. You’ll definitely need it when you get to the top.)
So as our schedules opened up in mid-December, Greg Harrell and I decided to do an off-trail trip up Styx Branch on the south-facing slope of Mount LeConte. We love the name Styx because it gives the impression of a dangerous, deadly, one-way journey filled with dragons, demons, fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. To make things even better, the general area where Styx Branch flows is called Huggins Hell. Names like that are like a flashing neon sign begging us to visit.
For purposes of full disclosure, I might as well admit up front that the names Styx and Hell are creative hyperbole generated by an over-active imagination, or something like that. The story goes that a guy named Huggins got lost in the thick rhododendron hell in this Styx Branch watershed. One version of the story says he emerged three days later, exhausted and near-death. The other version says he never emerged and was never found. I just can’t bring myself to believe any of it. The only person who could truly get lost up there is a delicate city-slicker who has no idea what he’s doing. If Huggins was a local resident who got lost, all he needed to do was find a ravine with some trickling water, and follow it down to the main river, which led to the homes and farms of Sugarlands and eventually to Gatlinburg. The whole process of getting from the rhododendron-infested slopes of LeConte to Sugarlands would take 3 or 4 hours. I suppose Huggins could have slipped on a rock and broken his leg or neck, in which case he died not because he was lost but because he was clumsy, or just plain unlucky. [To be continued]