Sunday, November 13, 2011

LeConte, Part Three

It was after midnight when Mother Nature sent a downpour to declare her authority. Jolted awake by the roar of raindrops on the tin roof, I rolled over in my sleeping bag and was soon met by another sound of authority: Wind. Its howl told me the gusts were packing enough power to blow a man down, and it was obvious there would be no uninterrupted sleep for the rest of the night.

Although it had stopped raining by the time day broke, there was no sun to be seen because a cloud was wrapped around the summit. It was 35 degrees; the air was the color of goose down; and this is what I saw looking out from my sleeping bag:

The thought of remaining in our bags and out of the cold was appealing, but we pushed it aside. Having covered more than five miles climbing to this spot the day before, and knowing we now faced an eight-mile hike out of the wilderness, we forced ourselves to get going.

First we donned our jackets and lowered our backpacks from the bear cables. Then we crammed our sleeping bags into their stuff sacks, and crammed those sacks into our packs. Then we shouldered the packs and headed away from LeConte Shelter on the Boulevard Trail.

Within a matter of minutes we came to High Top, the loftiest of Mount LeConte’s four peaks, and we were standing on the mountain’s true apex at an elevation of 6,593 feet. However, High Top happens to be the least “peak like” of the four because it is neither pointed nor a cantilever...and because its thick growth of conifers prevents you from seeing the kind of vistas you would expect from the tallest mountain this side of the Mississippi.

What High Top does provide in the way of sightseeing is the tall rock pile pictured below, which has been erected over the years by hikers adding stones when they arrive. Some say this has been done in an effort to make LeConte even taller, so that its elevation will surpass that of Clingman’s Dome. Others say it has been done to honor an ancient Cherokee custom which holds that people should add stones to rock piles they pass, in order to placate evil spirits.

Continuing on, we were only a third of a mile from the shelter when we reached the spot where the Boulevard Trail turns left and heads downhill, while a side path goes straight and uphill to another of LeConte’s peaks: Myrtle Point. And for the record, Myrtle Point is what you would expect of a peak -- narrow, rocky, and obviously high, to the point of being dizzying. If you ever spend a night on LeConte, you may want to know that Myrtle Point is known as the best place on the mountain to watch the sunrise.

Although we were still in a cloud, we could not turn down the opportunity to stand atop Myrtle Point after coming this far, so we set off on the side path and hoped the cloud would somehow blow away or burn off in the next few minutes. We found that the side path is not so much a path, but the actual rocky spur that forms the peak:

The cloud cover did not dissipate like we had hoped, but it did grow thinner and we were able to make out a faint but expansive view to the north:

Encouraged that the clouds seemed to be on their way out, we scrambled back down Myrtle Point to resume our course on the Boulevard Trail. Along the way we encountered a pair of ladies who had stayed at LeConte Lodge the previous night. One of them showed us a picture she had taken of a black bear that showed up at the lodge around dinner hour. As it turned out, the bear was featured on the lodge’s blog the very next day.

Back on the Boulevard Trail, we descended steadily down the eastern side of LeConte’s massif until we reached a ledge that juts out over a big drop. Here I am on it:

Standing there and looking back up whence we had come, it was obvious that we were leaving the cloud behind. Wisps of vapor drifted by just above us, raking through the trees, but below us were open skies. The trail continued a short ways to the following rock face, where we took advantage of one of those steel cables that are bolted into the mountainside at many places on LeConte:

After crossing the rock face and looking back, this is the view to which we were treated:

From that point forward we were walking not merely on the Boulevard Trail, but on The Boulevard itself: The 2½-mile ridgeline connecting Mount LeConte to Mount Kephart. It is a true knife-edge ridge, just wide enough for a person to walk on, seldom wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, offering up so many postcard views that shutterbugs won’t stop taking pictures until their camera batteries die. Here are a couple of those views:

This stretch was the most glorious of our whole trip. The skies were blue and the vistas boundless. The temperatures were cold and dry, not frigid and damp. And the walking, while not always level, was also not difficult because the ups and downs were wonderfully modest.

Unfortunately, however, all good things must come to an end. At some point the trail started ascending without leveling off. Suddenly we were trudging not merely upward, but continuously upward, and steeply upward, and having already traveled a long distance while lugging a lot of weight, my muscles screamed in protest.

For the next ¾ mile or so all we did was climb the northwestern flank of Mount Kephart, and my lungs, heart, legs, and back objected strenuously. At one point high on the mountain we passed this apparently unremarkable cascade:

Impressively, it is actually the beginning of Walker Camp Prong, the sizeable stream we had passed at the beginning of our hike the day before. What a difference 10 miles makes:

By the time the Boulevard Trail dead-ended at the Appalachian Trail, 4.7 miles from Myrtle Point, all I cared about was getting back to the car and drinking the Gatorade that was waiting for us…but first we had to hike another 2.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail.

Those 2.7 miles are the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, and are mostly downhill, but that does not mean they are easy. They make their way across many rocks and roots, which forced us to pay extra attention to where and how we stepped.

This proved to be the most technically demanding stretch of our entire adventure. We seemed to walk slower and slower and get shorter and shorter of breath, but when we started seeing casually dressed people with kids in tow, we knew we were nearing the parking lot at Newfound Gap. Finally it came into view, and I swear the sight of a parking lot has never felt so good. We sat down and guzzled Gatorade, feeling victorious and whipped all at the same time.

I went back over to the trailhead where we had emerged, and snapped a picture of the sign that greets everyone who steps into the woods at that point. Hiking aficionados will appreciate the last line item, which tells that from here it is 1,972 miles to the end of the Appalachian Trail.

Twenty minutes later we were driving to the town of Sylva, North Carolina, where Mill & Main Restaurant was waiting with craft beers and delectable food.

In closing, here is a picture of LeConte's massif, taken from the Appalachian Trail looking back to the north:


Betsy from Tennessee said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experience of visiting LeConte... Great set of photos...Sorry you couldn't see the sunrise at Myrtle Point though...

Do you want to go back again????

Anonymous said...

That was a great hike, and yes we want to go back!

Barb said...

Fabulous, John - I enjoyed your photos and description so much. I think the rain and mist just added to the ambiance! Aren't you glad you at least had the shelter when it started raining and blowing hard? I have felt the euphoria after a bone-tiring hike, pretty special. Glad you could do it with your good friends, which makes it even better. Your children will love reading this when they get a bit older. (Nice touch that you at least have proof of a bear in the vicinity!)

JDS said...

Betsy - I would love to go back again, and maybe stay at the lodge to increase Erika's chances of coming along. :)

Barb - Thank you very much for your comments. I am glad for the shelter because that was one storm I don't think my tent could have withstood. Plus, I agree about the rain and mist because there is something to be said for meeting a mountain on its own terms!

Diane AZ said...

Hi, I enjoyed reading about your hiking trip at LeConte. Sounds like a difficult hike, but those views were wonderful. Great pictures!

Debbie said...

wow....what a wonderful adventure, one i would love taking. i would prefer different accommodations though, nice cotton sheets and room service!! i climbed mount graylock once, many years ago. an amazing adventure i will never forget!!

your photo's are gorgeous!!

Frances Davis said...

My husband and I just completed this hike. We started at the Alum Cave Trailhead, went to the summit and then took the Boulevard Trail to the AT, where we stayed at Ice Water Shelter.

The next day we took the AT to Newfound Gap.

That first day was the hardest physical thing we have ever done, especially for our first hike!