Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Greg Harrell and I parked at the Alum Cave trailhead and walked quickly along the first 1.5 miles of Alum Cave trail. This first section of the trail is heavily shaded by rhododendron, so the snow from previous snowfalls was still on the trail. I put my pair of micro-spikes on my boots, so I was able to walk on the thin layer of ice and snow with complete confidence, even reckless abandon. Although, the phrase “reckless abandon” doesn’t quite fit my walking style. More than once Greg has told me that if I accumulated any more hikers lined up behind me, I’d have to apply for a parade permit.
About 100 yards past Arch Rock the trail makes a sharp left turn on a small foot bridge over a small stream – Styx Branch. This is the spot where Greg and I left the trail and began picking our way up the creek, stepping carefully on the rocks and gravel beds of this modest stream. Later in the winter these river rocks would be covered in ice and snow, so we would leave our spikes on, but we were still in mid-December and the heavy snows and deep freezes of January and February hadn’t filled in all the wet nooks and crannies with ice. So I removed my spikes and never put them on again until the end of the day when we hiked back to the car from the top of Mount LeConte via Alum Cave trail.
After just a few minutes of hiking and rock-hopping, the Styx Branch valley began to open up and became an open avenue that was steep and rocky, but easy to maneuver. The rhododendron was not squeezing and filling in every unoccupied square inch of ground, which was a nice change of pace. There’s probably some sort of topographical or botanical or historical reason why some valleys and slopes are full of rhody and other are not, but I’ve never been able to figure out why. But I’ll gladly accept the breathing room as a brief respite from the usual onslaught.
Less than an hour after we left the trail, we came to our main decision point of the day at 4,700’ – left or right? Either route leads to its own wonderland, so there’s no wrong choice here. We went right simply because… well, I don’t know. I guess one of us said, “Let’s go right” and the other one said, “Okay.” No debate. No drama. It’s easy to make the right decision when there are no wrong options.
As we worked our way up to 48… 49… 50… 5100’ there were several small tributaries feeding into Styx’s main flow. Most of these small tributaries flow down from the right, so we tend to bear left at these junctions as we hug the east side of the ridge that splits the Right Branch from the Left Branch of Styx. These creek junctions can be frustrating because each one is a “fork in the road” where you have to decide whether to go left or right, and the right choice is not always obvious. On the other hand, these junctions can be liberating for exactly the same reason. After all, if your goal is to explore the wilderness, then there are no wrong choices, and “getting lost” is just another way of saying that you’ve explored new territory.
The main feature of the upper reaches of this east fork of Styx Branch is the Climbing Wall – a long, steep cliff/cascade that is simply a scar where at some time in the past a heavy rain created a quick flush of water which scoured rocks, shrubs, and trees from the cascading creekbed, exposing the bare rock that we now call the Climbing Wall. And, of course, to ascend the Climbing Wall, you climb… using hands and feet and a modest dose of good judgment. As is the case with many of these exposed rock cascades, there are some places you can go and some places that you can’t. But the complicating factor is that just because you can climb up a section of the cliff doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Knowing the difference between can and should is the key, which makes climbing a wet, rocky cascade in the Smokies exactly like daily life – just because you can doesn’t mean you should -- one of those times when frolicking in the wilderness is a perfect metaphor for living a happy, meaningful life. [To be continued]