Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sugar Fingers (Part 4 of 4)




On our July hike up the largest of the Sugar Fingers on Sugarland Mountain, Greg Harrell stayed ahead of me, as he usually does, but not too far ahead because he knew that I was really struggling, possibly because he may have heard a little whining from me at some point during the day. Sometimes he was close enough that I didn’t even have to think about what route to take up and over the cliffs and outcrops. I’d just follow his route. Other times, he was far enough ahead that I didn’t know what route he had taken, which was fine. Blazing one’s own path is a fun part of these sorts of trips, if you don’t allow yourself to get spooked by the uncertainty of the challenge. This was one of those trips in which you couldn’t possibly get lost, but you could run into a dead-end every now and then by scrambling up a steep rock face maybe ten or fifteen feet high, only to realize that you can’t finish the last ten feet due to lack of handholds and footholds. You also can’t go easily back down because you can’t see the footholds that you used on your way up. In those moments, you aren’t stuck between a rock and a hard place; you are stuck between a rock and open air… which is just as bad, or maybe worse. It should go without saying that we try to avoid such places. It should also go without saying that those places can’t always be avoided.



This trip was also an adventure because this was all new territory. For the last two or three years, most of my off-trail hiking had been on old, favorite routes – Drinkwater Pool, Trout Branch, Styx Branch, Cat Stairs. Some of these routes are ones that we discovered and created from scratch. Others were old routes from previous generations that were passed on to us, like a torch, which we would pass on to others. I love those standard, familiar trips, but it was good to experience the excitement and uncertainty of terra incognita again, helping to create new paths out of thin air, rock, and dirt.



At the end of our nine-hour day we looked like a couple of coal miners at the end of a long day underground, or maybe chimney sweeps emerging from the fireplace… plus an acre of waist-deep stinging nettle at the end of the trip. My day was miserable. I vowed never to hike again. But now that a few days have passed and it appears that I may live, I’m reconsidering my vow. I may be getting too old for this stuff, but I’ll probably revisit a few of the other Sugar Fingers this fall, when temperatures are friendlier, and I have less grass to cut, and the yellow jackets have died the slow, lingering death they deserve.



And if I find that I’m too old or tired or beaten up to hike up from the valley again, my ace in the hole will be that all these ridges are also accessible from the top, from the Sugarland Mountain trail. I’m sure there are no worn paths yet because this is all too new. But a few hardy souls may find the spots where these side ribs meet the spine, and they’ll wander down as far as their sense of adventure will allow. And maybe I’ll be one of them. Or maybe you.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sugar Fingers (Part 3 of 4)




On a recent July Saturday, Greg Harrell and I hiked up one of the recently-exposed Sugar Fingers of Sugarland Mountain. Within ten minutes I knew that I had made a big mistake. I had just returned from a week-long fishing trip in which we normally got to sleep about 4am and awakened about 10am, or 11am on a good day. So I wasn’t well rested. It was a hot, humid, summer day on an exposed, sunny ridge – and I don’t do well on hot days, probably due to touch of heat stroke in my younger days. I also felt nauseated for some unknown reason, perhaps related to cheeseburgers and copious amounts of white cheddar popcorn. I had spent three hours pushing a lawn mower the day before, so I was lethargic and had a few yellow jacket stings as mementos of my day in the yard. And last but not least, I was only a day away from turning 62, so, well, you know.

To make a long story short, I spent the whole day wishing I’d either get well, or just die and get it over with. Unfortunately, I survived, but just barely, which was the worst of all possible outcomes. I had to stop for a five-minute rest stop every couple of minutes. So I managed to transform our four or five-hour frolic into a nine-hour death march. I had brought enough water for a five-hour hike, so I ran out of water about half way through the day. So let’s add dehydration and leg and arm cramps to my list of woes. It’s possible that I may have done a little whining.

I spent the whole day talking to the mountain, begging it to kill me or revive me. I told it “It’s not you, it’s me,” but neither of us believed it. I hated the mountain and it hated me. I try not to use profanity in my day to day routine, but sometimes it’s necessary to make the point, and today was one of those days. On several occasions I told the mountain what I thought of it in no uncertain terms. It responded like a parent who has run out of patience with his irresponsible son, determined to make me suffer the consequences of my poor choices. A therapist might call this an “asymmetrical relationship” in which one person has all the power and the other has none. As I may have already mentioned, there may have been some whining on my part.  

Even though I didn’t think so at the time, the mountain was also fabulous. This Sugar Finger ridge was open and rocky and scary and dirty and sooty. There were burned trees and rocks and ground everywhere. There were rocky outcrops, some of which were scary, maybe even deadly in a few places. The dominant colors were brown, gray, and black, with only an occasional hint of green.

And, as always, the views up and down the Sugarlands valley were magnificent. Not only did we have an unmatched view of the Chimney Tops, the other Sugar Finger ridges were wild and rough, as were the cliffs and canyons between them. We spent a few minutes watching a peregrine falcon chasing a raven. A sure sign that you are in a wild, rocky place is a territorial falcon who has laid his claim and is willing to defend it. [To be continued]

Monday, August 7, 2017

Sugar Fingers: The Little Sisters of the Chimney Tops (Part 2 of 4)



Viewing the Smokies’ newest topographic addition – the Sugar Fingers -- is very, very easy. The several scenic, parking pullouts on the road between the Chimney Tops Picnic Area and the Chimney Tops trailhead are directly across the valley from these newly-exposed ridges. Before December, 2016, looking south across this valley was pleasant enough. You’d see the slopes of Sugarland Mountain, green and a bit lumpy in a few places. Steep in some spots and gently sloping in others. Nothing special.

As the fire jumped across the face of Sugarland Mountain, blowing toward Gatlinburg, it torched several rocky, side ridges running along the slope of the main ridgecrest, like ribs attached to a spine. The change was dramatic. Before, these ridges looked like gentle, green, elongated humps running up the side of Sugarland Mountain. They were barely noticeable. In fact, my only off-trail trip up Sugarland Mountain a few years ago had focused on the ravines and cliffs between these ridges. The ridges were just those green, tree-covered things on either side of us as we worked our way up the steep slope of Sugarland Mountain. The thought never occurred to us to explore those ridges.

The fire changed all that. Those formerly uninteresting side ridges are now the most enticing parts of Sugarland Mountain. In fact, now that those four or five side ridges (that is, the Sugar Fingers) are exposed, it is very obvious what they are. They are, essentially, the little sisters of the Chimney Tops ridge.

On a Saturday not long ago, Greg Harrell and I stood in one of the parking pullouts just below the (closed) Chimney Tops trailhead and looked across the valley at the newly-exposed, rocky side ridges of Sugarland Mountain, deciding which one we would spend the day ascending. They all looked dangerously inviting, so we picked the largest, longest one because, well, you’ve gotta start somewhere.

As we looked up and across the valley, my paradigm shifted, and I saw these ridges and the Chimney Tops in a new way, through new eyes. It became obvious that the Chimney Tops were not a separate thing, a separate mountain. No, the Chimney Tops are two prominent peaks on a side ridge of Sugarland Mountain. That’s why there’s an old, obscure side trail from the Sugarland Mountain trail down to the Chimney Tops. That unofficial, side trail follows the crest of the side ridge that culminates at the Chimney Tops.

Now I could see that the new Sugar Fingers were similar side ridges, not very different from the Chimney Tops side ridge. All of these side ridges (including the Chimney Tops) are roughly parallel with each other, forming ribs which connect with the main spine of Sugarland Mountain. The Chimney Tops ridge is the highest, largest, and most dramatic. It is, in a sense, the original Sugar Finger. The Mother of All Sugar Fingers. It’s been open and bare and visible for…  well… nobody knows how long. Centuries probably. The Cherokee referred to them as “the antlers.” So, they were probably bare when the local Cherokees were naming things.

Now, the rest of the Sugar Fingers have been exposed for all of us to see. And explore.

So, on a July Saturday, Greg Harrell and I hopped on the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, then turned roughly left at the point where the trail’s loop starts. And thus began the worst day of hiking I’ve ever had. [To be continued]

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Sugar Fingers (Part 1 of 4)



The Smoky Mountains have a new addition – the Sugar Fingers. That’s not the official name, but it’s what some online, hiker groups are calling them. They were added to the park recently, not through a donation or purchase of new land. They were created in the past few months by fire and rain.

If you are familiar with the topography of the Smoky Mountains, then you are aware of the string of small, scenic pullouts along the road as you travel up from Gatlinburg toward Newfound Gap. Specifically, between the Chimney Tops Picnic Area and the parking lot of the Chimney Tops trail, there are several pullouts along the right side of the road. When you stop at these pullouts, your eyes are drawn east toward the Chimney Tops, those two rocky spires that are among the most heavily-visited sites in the park. Looking south across the valley gives a pleasant view of the slope of Sugarland Mountain, the long ridge that borders the road from Sugarlands Visitor Center (near Gatlinburg) to the Chimney Tops. In other words, as you drive up this road, just look to your right – you are looking at the slopes of Sugarland Mountain.

In spite of its prominent location, Sugarland Mountain is not very well-known. It’s not the highest or prettiest or “most” anything. Walking the Sugarland Mountain trail along its ridgecrest gives fabulous views of Mt. Le Conte, but Sugarland Mountain itself is kind of plain. Its most outstanding feature is the Chimney Tops; although, most of us think of the Chimney Tops as a separate thing – we don’t usually think of them as an appendage of Sugarland Mountain. Sugarland Mountain is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Smokies. No respect.

But all that has changed in the last few months.

You may also be familiar with Charlies Bunion, that wonderfully epic, rocky outcrop on the AT, four miles northeast of Newfound Gap. If you’ve visited the Bunion then you may also have read a bit of its history. Charlies Bunion (and the other rocky ridges in this part of the park) were created in the 1920s by a fire that swept through this area, burning away the flora and soil. Heavy rains over the subsequent years swept away the rest of the soil, leaving bare, rocky ridges that have only partially recovered over the past 90 years.

That same process is now at work on the slopes of Sugarland Mountain. The Chimneys fire of 2016 burned the upper sections of the Chimney Tops, leaving some burned and bare rocky ridges, then it skipped and jumped its way to Gatlinburg. The fire left most of Sugarland Mountain untouched or lightly-touched. However, the parts of Sugarland Mountain that were heavily burned – and washed bare by winter and spring rains – are the several side ridges that have become the Sugar Fingers.

(Note: I wrote about another “new” site in the park – the Third Chimney – in an earlier article.)

 [To be continued]