Tag Archives: Great Smoky Mountain National Park

The Winds of Mt. Sterling

Mt.Sterling Loop

Date: May 21 – 22, 2018

Miles: 21.1       

Having completed the first loop of my backpacking trip, I enjoyed some lunch while catching glimpses of elk at the edge of the trees in Cataloochee Valley.  Plus, I had to dry out my shoes, not to mention my feet pickled by the miry swamp that was the Caldwell Fork Trail.  For this loop, there were three entry points depending on how much hiking I wanted to do the second half of the day.  I did a quick check of the mileage if I stayed in Cataloochee and started up Pretty Hollow Gap,  taking Little Cataloochee Trail to Long Bunk and then up Mt Sterling Trail.  With about 7 miles done in the morning, I figured another 10 or so would get me to the top of Mt. Sterling and CS# 38.  Not only did I miscalculate the mileage by about 4 miles short, I also failed to realize the magnitude of the 13.7 mile climb that was in store for me that afternoon.  Pretty Hollow Gap leaves Cataloochee Road at 2,717 feet and the day ended at the top of Mt. Sterling at 5,840.  Overall, it was a 21.4 mile day and a 3,823 ft. climb ending in a 12% grade up Mt. Sterling Trail.

But enough whining.

With after a lunch of summer sausage, Tillamook cheddar, pistachio nuts and a few granola bars, I started out on Pretty Hollow Gap Trail refreshed and dry of feet at about 12:45.  The trail is a gravel road for a quarter mile or so, passing the Cataloochee horse camp at 0.2 miles.  I took the right onto Little Cataloochee Trail and started a easy climb up toward NC 284.  There are a few rock-hopper stream crossings in the first mile and a half making for damp feet but the climb is moderate until you reach a switchback and a ridge crest a tenth of a mile ahead, where there is a nice clearing for a rest.  At about 2 miles, the trail bends at a rock fence typical of this area.  Not too far beyond the bend, the DSC01164trail arrives at the Dan Cook Cabin at 2.5 miles, which is a delightful setting with notched joints and a split rail fenced yard.  Across the trail from the cabin is a ruin of a rock walled building the guidebook called an apple house.  The trail becomes a gravel road past the cabin.  I noticed on this section there was fire damage on the right side down in the hollow, yet the fire did not jump the road as the upper left side was DSC01178pristine.  The Little Cataloochee Baptist Church appears at 3.2 miles with its large cemetery.  I did not spend time investigating either spot as I wanted to get the afternoon’s hiking done but I remember there being graves dating back to the civil war.

Continuing down the road, the fire damage picked back up just past the yard of the church.  I noted that whatever the fire event was, it burned right up to the edge of the church property and stopped.  Less than a mile past the church, a side trail leads to the DSC01185Hannah Cabin, which is unique for it’s brick chimney.  Just 0.2 miles past Hannah Cabin is the Long Bunk Trail intersection.  From there it’s a mile to NC 284.  I took a brief water and granola bar break at the road.  900 Miler purists will note that I did hike the mile out and then back to Long Bunk Trail rather than call it even, but that ethical decision added two of the miles I failed to calculate in the afternoon mileage.  This trailhead was the second choice for starting the loop and would have only required a 7.8 mile hike to Mt. Sterling.  In retrospect, it would have been a better choice for this loop.

The steady climbing continued on Long Bunk Trail.  It was 4:00 when that hike began and I was still over 6 miles from the end of the day.  The Hannah Cemetery is at 0.2 miles and there were fresh flowers on a couple of the graves.  Past the cemetery, the jeep track became a single track pathway.  There are a few shallow streams to cross over the next mile but with deft stepping, the feet can remain dry.  Long Bunk Trail is rather unremarkable in its features.  It is a steady climb on good trail and it terminates on the Mt. Sterling Trail about a half mile in from the road.  I completed the 3.7 miles in an hour and a half.

This time I dropped the pack to hike the half mile out to the road, which is the third option for starting the loop.  Touching the gate, I immediately turned around started the watch to count the miles on Mt. Sterling Trail.  Much of the trail is a primitive jeep track that serviced the fire tower on the summit.  The pack was waiting for me at 0.5 miles and I donned it for the last 2.2 miles of the day.  The switchback at 0.8 miles was a slap in the face because it began the more strenuous part of the trail that would continue to the top.  The climb was steady, not severely steep or rugged but on top of 20 miles, it was miserable going.  I didn’t make any voice recordings after the switchback at 1.6 miles but I remember going a tenth of a mile, catching my breath, then repeat.  The mind plays tricks on you when you are exhausted and still have a long way to go.  Actual mileage lengthens to fill the worst depths of your imagination.  You begin to notice damp rocks in the trail and wonder if you could get enough water to make camp right in the trail.  No energy in the legs and the heart only beats so fast at this point in the day.  There is nothing to do but keep plugging with an eye toward dinner.  The 2.7 miles took a pitiful hour and a half to get done and there was rejoicing when the trail broke the top of the ridge, leading 0.4 miles to the summit.

DSC00972The trail ends in a clearing that is the home of a fire tower standing watch over the far northeast end of the Park.  The views are spectacular and I couldn’t wait to summon the energy to grab some pictures before sunset.  But the first order of business was to get water for the night.  I was out and also dehydrated.  The water source is almost a half mile down the Baxter Creek Trail just past the fire tower and it IS steep.  The side trail leads 700 yards to a small piped spring that, at best, offers a trickle of clean cool water.  I dropped the pack, and stripped to my skivvies because everything was soaked and I figured it would be easier to dry off by moving around.  With the water bag filled, I climbed back up to the campsite, grabbed my fleece jacket and camera and climbed the tower to the landing just below the top.  Then I sat down.

The sun hung low in the evening sky but still lit up the clouds brilliantly.  I snapped a dozen or so shots with different f-stops and wide angles, hoping to get at least one good shot to capture the moment.  The wind was picking up and I was still pretty damp with body moisture.  Chills were setting in as the sun got low.

Sunset at Mt. Sterling

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I decided dinner was the next challenge to accomplish but before that, I hung the hammock among the evergreens that adorn the top of this beautiful ridge.  There was a bivy style tent in a spot nearby but there was no sign of another human being.  Despite the small tent, there was no pack or food bag hung on the bear cables.  I opted not to “knock on the door’ and introduce myself to the neighbor.  I was thankful for the quiet loneliness.  I had been looking forward to camping here for a long time and the peacefulness was a reward for the hard day’s work.

I got my stove ready for dinner, poured the cup of water to boil and opened the pouch to ready the ingredients.  There were two pouches; one obviously food and the other was a “heating element.”  Bewildered, I read the package to figure what exactly I had brought along for dinner.  It was a self-heating backpacking dinner.  Who knew?  There is a white package of some material, which you cover with water in the meal package and you dump in the other pouch of food, unopened of course.  The material spontaneously starts to “boil” the water, with steam and everything.  After 10 minutes, diner was warm enough to eat and it was pretty good, although one must adjust for the quality of food, accounting for camping after 22 miles of hiking uphill.  My shoes would probably have tasted pretty good at that point.

The setting sun was taking its light down with it and after a bit of clean up, I secured things for the night.  Anticipating a cool wind, I unrolled my thermal pad but I decided to try it uninflated.  The wind was picking up as I wiggled into my cocoon for the night.  I warmed up quickly and started to doze as darkness settled.  The wind rattled the fire tower and I heard the typical animal activity as I was drifting off.  Within a few minutes there were voices.,  Having ruled out a dream and being reasonably sure the voices were outside my head, it turned out to be a few late arrivals.  They must have been as exhausted as I was because after a couple tents were thrown up, they got quiet pretty quickly and we went back to the low roar of the wind to sing us to sleep.

Hammocks sleep cold.  My experiment proved to be a failure as the wind blew under and around every surface in contact with my backside.  While I wasn’t freezing, I was not warm either.  I finally inflated the thermal pad and I was immediately toasty and warm.  The final report: You gotta take some insulation with a hammock, even in the summertime.  Once I was warm, I slept soundly for the second night in a row.

I awoke early and set up for breakfast.  The owner of the bivy tent could still not be seen but I did meet one of my late arriving neighbors as I boiled water for my oatmeal and coffee.  The three of them had come up Baxter Creek Trail, which must have been a killer that late at night.  I offered the balance of my water so he wouldn’t have to negotiate the walk to the spring.  Packing up a hammock goes quickly and I was on the trail a little after 7:30 am.  Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail to Pretty Hollow Gap and out the trail named for the gap.  My arduous effort the day before would reward me with a 7 and a half mile hike back to the trailhead.

The details of this part of the hike are pretty sketchy.  I had brought a battery charging device for my watch but I failed to include the proper cable.  Furthermore, my phone battery was all but dead as well.  The features and fallacies of technology are a topic for another post, but here, let me say that it is amazing how much detail one forgets when not archiving it somehow.  Mt. Sterling Ridge is a steady downhill hike from its start at the Mt. Sterling Trail, following the ridge as it descends into Pretty Hollow Gap where there is a crossroad of trails.  To the right is Swallow Fork Trail, which leads down to Walnut Bottom, one of my favorite camping spots in the Park.  My path took me to the left down Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, which looses about 2,000 feet along its 5.6 miles.  In my anxiousness to finish, coupled with all my technology being dead, I remember very little of that hike except that I got to the bottom before 10:00.

The final tally was 38.9 miles in less than two full days of hiking.  I can’t speak for high altitude but I think I am in reasonably good shape for the JMT in a month.

HikerHead 2

Strider Out!

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Getting the Word Out

IMG_2393 Blogging without sharing is a diary.  There’s nothing wrong with a diary and journals are often published.  One is never sure if what he has to share is worth sharing but there is only one way to find out.  So it is with 900milerblog.com.  The site has been up a few months now and many of the kinks are straightened.  There is a flow and a bit of a routine and now there is enough content to prove to myself that this is more than a foggy idea.  Now it’s time to see if there’s anybody alive out there.

There is a growing community of those who desire to complete all the hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  I am 120 miles into my second tour and I created this website to capture the experience start-to-finish.  Hopefully it will serve as an online guidebook and offer insights on equipment, techniques and a bit of spiritual connection to creation and its Creator.

So with this social media debut, all the connections to Twitter and Facebook have been made and this is the maiden voyage.  (It’s really a test to see if it actually shows up anywhere).  If you manage to find it, give me a buzz and let me know what you think…

HikerHead 2  Shalom. Strider out…

Ramsay Cascades

Miles:  4.0 miles           Elevation Gain:   2,269↑         Elev./Mi:   567         Grade:  11%          

Difficulty:  Class HC    Hiking Time: 1:51       Pace:  2.16 mph        Avg. Temp.:   31        

Total Hike:  8 miles    Total Hike Time: 3:24         Avg. Pace:   1.8 mi./hr.

Total 900 Miler Miles:   57.7   Total Miles Hiked:   73.5

Ramsay Cascaeds

Ramsay Cascades Elevation

Ramsay Cascades is another crown jewel of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and like most good rewards, it has to be earned, if for no other reason than just getting there.  First, one must survive the madness that is Gatlinburg but if you are willing to get an early start, you can manage to miss the flood of humanity, both biped and automobiled, that engulf the streets.  The Greenbriar Park Entrance is located along US 321 about 6 miles northeast of Gatlinburg.  Less than  mile in, the paved Greenbriar road stops at the ranger station and becomes a gravel road, sometimes narrowing to a single lane.  Just past 3 miles in, the Ramsay Prong road turns left across a single lane bridge and continues for another mile and a half to a parking area at the trail head.  Those arriving early should find ample parking but beware a midday start.  This is a very popular trail and the small primitive parking area tends to fill up.

Middle Prong of the Little Tennessee at Ramsay Cascades Trail

Middle Prong of the Little Tennessee

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Boulder along Ramsay Cascades Trail

Having navigated a virtually empty Gatlinburg, we arrived at the trailhead about 8:45.  Ramsey Cascades Trail does not tie into any other trail section so it can only be hiked as an out-and-back.  We set off hiking at 8:53 with the thermometer reading 28 degrees.  Ramsay Cascades Trail welcomes you through a portal that is a footbridge over the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon river.  The trail begins along a nice gravel road and climbs steadily after you cross the bridge following Middle Prong.  Ramsay Cascades seems bigger than most trail experiences in the Smokies.  The rapids in the streams seem bigger.  The rocks and boulders seem bigger and there are old growth trees that don’t look like they belong here.  Then of course there is the waterfall that awaits you at the top.  Green moss and rhododendron exude a fairyland atmosphere, even in wintertime.  John Muir would ponder the rock formations of Yosemite, wondering how they got there and how they were formed.  Similar thoughts occur as you pass along huge boulders and witness giant rocks strewn haphazardly along Middle Prong and Ramsay Prong.  Just as Muir proposed how the rocks of Yosemite were living creatures, vital to the very foundation of creation, so too these rocks formations seem to have a personality and their creative placement along the way is shrouded in mystery.

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One of two large tuliptrees

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“Roman Columns”

Then there are the trees.  For some reason, in the lower section of the trail, several huge specimens of tulip poplars and locust trees were spared the harvest of the lumber companies prior to the establishment of the Park.  Even as they die and fall, the souls of these mighty tree people still command a presence you can feel as you pass through a cut out section in a blow-down.  At 2.6 miles, you pass between two huge, straight tulip trees that the guidebook describes as majestic Roman columns.  Although useful as a description, the grandeur of these trees cannot be captured in caparison to anything made by humans.  For one thing, they are centuries in the making and will probably be here long after our temples have crumbled.  Just a few hundred feet beyond the “Roman Columns”, there is a small clearing guarded by an even bigger tulip tree.  A quartet of hikers managed to barely reach around the tree by holding hands as they circled its huge base.  For me, the hike to this point was worth the effort, just to be in the presence of these living creatures that were here before humans were.

IMG_1667 The last mile tests the hiker’s resolve as you gain 969 feet for a grade 18%.  The trail is steep and narrow, often with steps to assist in the climb.  Although the trial follows Ramsay Prong much of the way, providing a musical chorus, suddenly, the chorus reaches a crescendo as the waterfall comes into view.  As we were scrambling over the few remaining boulders, I noticed an obvious footprint with 5 distinct toes.  My companion and I had been discussing earlier the art of barefoot running and that transpired to barefoot hiking.  I remarked that I had yet to see a hiker sporting the Vibram 5-Finger shoes, let alone a bare-footer.  My Scout Craft proved true as we soon met the owner of the 5-Finger shoes at the top.

 

 

 

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Rock Ledge at Ramsay Cascades

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Ramsay Cascades

At 10:45, we reached the rock ledge that provides a front row seat to a mighty rendition of water music.  The 90 ft. waterfall lands in pool atop a section of flat rock that, even despite the subfreezing temperature, beckons a refreshing dip.  To our fortune, we were the second pair to arrive, giving us the privilege of a private performance for more than 20 minutes.  On a summer day, you may find 30 or more people here, many of whom have ignored the sign warning of certain death should one loose control of one’s children, and availing themselves of the cool water in the pools below the falls.  Alas, the thermometer settled on 31 degrees as we donned more clothing and found our seats.  New to my gear list is a pair of insulated mittens and a down jacket.  These provided considerable warmth and comfort for the show that beset us.  The other pair in our small audience, having left, were soon were replaced by a trio who set about taking pictures and asking for our services as photographers.  Of course we complied but by then, we were ready to head back down.

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Wintertime Fairy Land

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Middle Prong on a Clear Day

The blessing of our early start was made more obvious by the number of people we passed on our descent.  Our timing had been near perfect.  The nice thing about an out-and-back hike, especially when you are in a cathedral of trees and among sacred statues of rocks and boulders, is you get to see it all again.  By now, the sun was above the ridges and the blue sky offered contrast to the green appointments of the moss and rhododendron.  We assured our fellow pilgrims headed up that the arduous climb was indeed worth it.

It was a few minutes after 1:00 when we arrived at the packed parking area.  In a moment recalling a miserable experience at a crowded shopping mall, a fellow pulled up and waited for me to exit my parking space.  He was polite but insistent nonetheless.  This merely foretold of the mob scene that hit us after our descent into Gatlinburg.  After a 20 minute journey to travel 3/4 mile, we celebrated the day with burgers at Smoky Mountain Brewery.  And good burgers they were.

My thanks to my hiking partner, Bryan Shuler, who provided company, conversation and modeling services for my photographs.

LeConte24 Part 4: Epilogue

“Anish Breaks the Appalachian Trail Unsupported Speed Record!” was the headline on the blog post: http://appalachiantrials.com/anish-breaks-the-appalachian-trail-unsupported-speed-record/

Anish is a woman some call “The Ghost” because she frequently hikes at night. Here’s the thing: Anish hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 54 days. She hiked the PCT in 60 days. That means she averaged 42 miles a day and 44 miles a day respectively. And, she did both “unsupported” meaning there were no hot meals waiting for her in camp and probably zero “zero days”. Not only does she “frequently” hike at night, she most likely hikes every night.

View from Alum Cave Trail

View from Alum Cave Trail

Here is the text Brian sent me: “This lady just did our hike… 54 days in a row!”.

This is the backdrop as I am writing this summary of our own epic hike.  Three days ago, a young woman completed 54 days of hiking that we barely survived through one day.

All this said, I can say most humbly:

WE DID IT!!!!!!!!!

I set this blog up to keep track of individual trails I have hiked and will hike on this 900 Miler.  A hike like LeConte24 gets a little tricky to document because there are approach trails that don’t count as official miles and there are several miles that overlap like repeating a section of Trillium Gap to reach Brushy Mtn..  In short, Brian and I hiked a total 46.4 miles in 19 hours and 32 minutes, averaging 2.4 miles per hour.  Here are the data:

  • Total Miles:                             46.4 miles
  • Official miles:                         39.4 miles
    1. Rainbow Falls    6.6
    2. Trillium Gap       8.9
    3. Bull Head           5.9
    4. Alum Cave         5.0
    5. AT                        2.7  (Newfound Gap to Boulevard)
    6. Boulevard          5.4
    7. Brushy Mtn.      4.9
  • Total Time:                              19:32
  • Average Pace:                         2.4 mph
  • Total Elevation Gain:             11,924 ft.
  • Temperature Range:             60 – 82 degrees
Bull Head Trail

Bull Head Trail

Brian kept much better records than me and his post on www.leconte24.com  has a lot of excellent detail.  Having done this hike 4 years ago, we have some comparisons to make.  The first hike was completed in 22 hours. Our justification for the original route was to hike down the longest climbs.  An hour and a half was spent in shuttling from Alum Cave to Greenbriar; a technicality we fixed this time by changing the route.  We also took much shorter breaks between segments; typically  30 minutes or less.  In fact, our shuttle from Alum Cave to Newfound Gap was only 30 minutes complete.

Another subtle difference is that this year, we went ahead and did the Brushy Mtn. summit, which is a 0.4 mile spur trail from the junction for Trillium Gap and Brushy Mtn.  We passed it the first time because it was not technically an approach trail up Mt. Leconte.  The ramification for me was that four years later I had to go back and hike it to complete my 900 miler; a twist that required an 18 mile hike to snag 0.4 miles.  Brian agreed to go ahead and grab this section with me.  The 0.8 mile roundtrip took about 22 minutes so if we adjust for that, the “official” LeConte24 – 2015 hike was 45.6 miles in 19:10, 2 hours and 50 minutes faster than 2011.

View from the summit of Brushy Mtn.

View from the summit of Brushy Mtn.

Final Observations

The route we took this year seems optimal:

  1. Up Rainbow Fall – Down Trillium Gap
  2. Up Bull Head – Down Alum Cave
  3. Shuttle to Newfound Gap
  4. Up AT to Boulevard – Down Trillium Gap/ Brushy Mtn.

It was the shortest possible shuttle time and it minimized the total elevation gain.  We did not seem to suffer from taking shorter breaks.  Usually we would stop at the top for 15 – 20 minutes to eat something.  At the bottom, we would eat our “lunches” which for me included peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and chocolate.  This strategy worked perfectly until the final segment.  We reached the top on the Boulevard Trail around midnight and we elected to continue on down Trillium Gap with no break and no food.  By that time, neither of us was very hungry.  In fact we both had bouts of nausea and stomach aches.  This proved fateful because we both hit the proverbial wall.  The last five miles were rather excruciating because we were both completely out of energy and the Advil no longer took the edge off our weary legs and feet.  We would have been much better off to force down some nutrition.  It will was pretty dumb because we were both carrying plenty of food in our packs.  I guess with the finish line in sight coupled with upset stomachs, we both decided to grind through it.  Despite all this, we still averaged 2.4 miles per hour at the end.

Shawn on the Rainbow Falls Trail

Shawn on the Rainbow Falls Trail

This hike is doable!  Brian and I are both above average in fitness level but we are not ultra marathoners (although Brian has recently completed a half Triathlon).  The key is steady hydration and plenty of calories throughout the hike.  We both carried hydration bladder packs which made it possible to drink constantly.  I estimate I consumed about 5 liters of water in addition to 24 oz of Gatorade at each meal.  Brian kept a great record of his calorie intake on leconte24.com.  If I were to guess, we should have each consumed about 600 more calories on the last segment.

I hike mostly solo but I have to say there was a profound benefit to hiking with a partner on this hike.  Having great company goes without saying.  Especially in the last segment, it was good to have someone to help with pace but more importantly, when you are physically and mentally drained and your vision is drastically curtailed, you stumble a lot (more than usual) and although neither of us had any dangerous moments, the potential to injure yourself in the middle of the night, miles from help is ever present.

It took us three vehicles to do this.  We left one at Greenbriar where we finished up and drove one to Rainbow Falls Trailhead where we started.  We arranged for Brian’s wife Tina to meet us at Alum Cave and shuttle us to Newfound Gap.

My Garmin fenix 2

My Garmin fenix 2

This was the first time I have used GPS based electronics.  Garmin and others now have pretty powerful GPS systems in a watch configuration.  The mapping functions are not as useful during the hike itself as the typical hiking data.  I always knew how many miles we were into the segment and the elevation at any given time.  This allowed us to manage our pace so we would not blow it all out early in the hike.  Both our watches drained completely of battery power before the end of the hike.  There are ways to better manage power usage.  The data from the watch can be uploaded to a web app and all kinds of data and graphs are available for analysis.

Mt. LeConte, at 6,593 ft., is the third highest peak in the Smokies and the 6th highest east of the Mississippi. It is the crown jewel of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and a prize one has to earn.  There are no roads or shuttles or ski lifts.  Only feet and horseback.  The trails are all well maintained and clearly marked with signs.  The ridge is lined with spruces and Douglas Firs giving the smell of Christmas all year long.  It is certainly worthy of an epic hike.

Thanks to my great friend and brother Brian Thomas who shared this time with me…twice!

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Mt Leconte from Clingmans Dome

Mt. LeConte seen from Clingmans Dome

LeConte24 Part 3: Inside my head…

Boulevard Trail

Miles:   8.8       Elevation:   3724 ↑       Grade: 8%          

Hiking Time: 3:15       Pace:  2.8 mph       Avg. Temp.:   60

Map Miles Completed:   8.8       Total Map Miles:  36.5       Total Miles Hiked:   36.5

Newfound Gap at the beginning of the end

Newfound Gap at the beginning of the end

9:00 is a better start time than midnight.  man i’m freezing.  it’s not that cold but i’m shivering.  pull out the fleece.  it’ll come off in 15 minutes but right now, i’m freezing.  let’s get this picture over with and get moving.  watch that guy in the broken down pickup truck.  looks a little suspicious.  oh, good, he’s leaving.  so glad that truck cranked.

“Brian, you ready to go?  I’d need to hit the head right quick.”

“Yep. I’m ready to warm up so let’s move.”

it’s amazing but I don’t feel that bad after hiking almost 30 miles.  advil helped a lot.  i should have eaten more dinner.  it’s all good cause i have plenty of trail food.

Shawn: “Make sure to thank Tina for me.  She really helped us out by shuttling us up here.”

Brian: “You bet.  I think we made the right decision on the routing.  It took a total of 30 minutes to transport, eat and load up for the next segment.  Last time it took 1:45 to go around to Greenbriar.”

“We’re going to break 5:30 am all to pieces.  Heck, we’re going to break 4:00.  Do you think we can hit 3:30?  That would take 3 hours off our time.”

“I feel pretty good right now.  I think it’s a good chance we can. look, there’s the AT blaze.”

“It’ll take you all the way to Maine…”

“wow, pretty quick time to the Boulevard Trail.  that was a fast 3 miles.  crazy that the Jump Off is not on the official map.  even more crazy that trails like the horse trail around Smokemont are. a mile of mud and horse poop.  it’s just as well, there wouldn’t be much to see tonight.”

“We’re going down now.  A lot!  I’ve already climbed this elevation! I don;t want to do it again.  Do you know how much we descend?”

“I think it’s about 1,000 overall.  We head down until about 6 miles in.  Then we have to climb back up to the ridge.”

gotta be really careful.  legs are tired.  every time i stumble, i head for the edge of the trail.  Trees and rocks.  my head.  broken ankle.  can’t see much.  nice and cool though.  the night is clear.  thought there’d  be more stars than this.

“There’s a sign.”

I think it’s for Myrtle Point.  Yep that’s it…”

High Point is just ahead.  I wonder if I can get a picture of it…”

there’s the shelter, those guys we met at the Alum Cave trail said they were staying there.  It’s midnight.  we should wake them up and ask how far it is to Rainbow Falls. we should probably be quiet…

Rock Pile at High Point at midnight

Rock Pile at High Point at midnight

Trillium Gap/Brushy Mtn. Trail

Miles:   9.1       Elevation:   4,564↓       Grade: 9.5%          

Hiking Time: 3:50       Pace:  2.4 mph       Avg. Temp.:   60

Map Miles Completed:   5.4       Total Map Miles:  41.9       Total Miles Hiked:   45.6

9.61 miles.  i wish we could have figured out how to skip the Trillium Gap trail and just do the Brushy Mtn. trail. we’ve already done it anyway.  i don’t know why we’re counting Brushy Mtn. anyway.  technically, it doesn’t go all the way to the top.

“Hey Brian, did Dave Worth hike all 6 trails?”

“Yep.”

dang it!  i guess we gotta do it.  it’s not like we can hitch around it now at 1:00 in the morning.  9.78 miles.  man, we’re going slow.  i’m not sure having this GPS watch is such a great thing.  i keep looking down and we’ve only covered a tenth of a mile.  maybe it’s better not to know.  that way you’re surprised when you’re done.  we finished Alum Cave sooner than i thought.  9.81 miles.  that’s the fourth time the “low battery” warning came up.  i don’t remember the rocks being so big the last time.  how can they make the llamas walk on this stuff?  9.83 miles.  CRAP! we’re going slow.  my legs hurt. my butt hurts.  EVERYTHING hurts.  these big step things they put in the trail don’t help a bit.  9.98 miles.  GREAT!

“10 miles in Brian.  We’ve descended about 1,200 feet”

Low battery again.  

“Hey Brian, my watch isn’t going to last much longer”

“Mine’s dead too.  Hopefully it saved the data.  Be a shame to lose the whole day.”

great!  spend $300 on a fancy watch that can tell you how many steps you take and it can’t last a whole day.  

Brushy Mtn. Trail Junction

Brushy Mtn. Trail Junction

FINALLY!  Brushy Mt. trail.  i love seeing those signs. 4.5 miles to Porters Creek.  i can make this. i hope we’re done with the rocks.  Brushy Mtn. trail is one of those old logging road beds right?  i don’t remember. 

Brian: “We did the right thing hiking the spur trail to the summit this afternoon.  I’m so glad we don’t have to do it in the dark.

Me: “It, would have been pointless.  We wouldn’t see much except the city lights would be cool”

the rocks are still here and now there’s overgrowth. at least there hasn’t been any blow downs to climb over. WAIT! don’t say that, we still have 4 miles to go.  don’t kill the mojo!  i thought the cicada’s or whatever these things are would be gone by now.  i guess it’s better than dead quiet.  i thought we would hear an owl or something.  at least there’s no motorcycles in the distance.  no bears today.  wonder what happens if we hear that loud huffing sound. 12.6 miles.

“Hey Brian, 4 miles to go and we’ve descended about 2,200 feet.”

“It’s 4 miles to Porter’s Creek.  We still have the gravel road.  It’s another mile.”

“Are you sure??!!!

“I’m sure”

CRAPPPPP!!!! now i’m playing mind games on myself.  5 miles to go and it hurts every step.

“Brian, how are you feeling?”

“OK”

he’s lying.  my whole body hurts.  we’re both slowing down.  i felt so good at Newfound Gap, even going uphill.  should have eaten something but my stomach hurts.  drink some water.  10.13 miles. “low battery” AGAIN!  i gotta sit down a second.  i’ll let Brian hike on ahead and i’ll catch up.  i could fall asleep right now.  just a little nap.  it wouldn’t hurt our time that much.  WHAT AM I SAYING???!!!!  get up slacker.  OOOOOO my legs hurt.  great, Brian waited on me.  

“Hey Brian.  I’m dead!

“You mean you or your watch?”

“Both”

now what am i going to do?  i can’t tell our progress.  that’s it.  it’s way better to know and keep looking.  now all i can do is suffer.  got nothing left to talk about.  can’t see anything.  those cricket things won’t shut up!  my headlamp is a lot brighter than Brian’s.  i should lead for a while but i need him to pace me now.  i could count steps.  no, that’s just stupid.  i could pull out my phone and check the time but then i’d have to hold it.  i could ask Brian to check the time, he’s got that belt pocket.  nah, just grind it out.  working through the pain sounded honorable at high school football practice but it just sounds stupid now.  at least the trail’s finally smoothed out.  it’s really flat here. we gotta be close to the road. there’s a switchback.  switchbacks are good.  change of direction. something’s different.

Brian: “It’s the gravel road”

Me:  “Finally. Do you think we can pick up the pace?

Brian: “I don’t have much left.”

Me: “Me either.  We’re almost there.”

i REALLY hope we were supposed to turn left.  Brian seems sure.  i should ask.  no i trust him.  i REALLY hope he’s right. maybe he’s almost delirious like me.  are you crazy if you know you’re going crazy?  wait, that’s a catch 22.  i can’t be crazy because i’m thinking about being crazy. i wonder where the other end of this goes.  what would we do if we turned the wrong way?  nah, Brian knows.  i should ask. no i trust him.  I REALLY hope he’s right.  we’re moving faster.  that’s good.  chocolate milk is waiting in the truck.  cold chocolate milk.  i REALLY love chocolate milk.

“There’s some sort of light ahead!  Was there a street light at the trail head?”

“Don’t think so.”

LeConte24 - 2015: THE END!

LeConte24 – 2015: THE END!

“Wait, it’s the reflectors on the gate.  WE”RE DONE!!!”

“4:05 am.  We cut an hour and a half off our planned time, which was two hours off our first time.  19 1/2 hours.  Plus we added the Brushy Mtn. summit. WE DID IT!!!!”

LeConte24 Part 2: Bull Head to Alum Cave

Bull Head Trail to Alum Cave Trail

Miles:   6.8       Elevation Gain:   3687↑       Grade:  12%          

Hiking Time: 2:47       Pace:  2.4 mph       Avg. Temp.:   80 – 64

Map Miles Completed:   6.8       Total Map Miles:   22.2       Total Miles Hiked:   22.2

Brian at the Bull Head Trailhead

Brian at the Bull Head Trailhead

At this point “Bull Head” is aptly named.  By now we have had a few interactions with other hikers, exchanging the typical pleasantries like:

“How far is the falls?”

“Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.”  (Everyone knows this is the standard answer , even if it’s really 900 yards)

“Where ya’ll from?”

“Knoxville and Sevierville.”

“Ya’ll stayin’ up on LeConte tonight?”

Now the answer to that question get’s tricky.  We could say “no” and move on.  But if we say “sort of”, then we have to explain that we will, in fact, be spending the night somewhere up on the mountain, but we won’t be sleeping.  Choosing which answer depends on several factors.  First, are we due for a break?  If so then we go with “sort of.”  If the inquisitor is wearing street shoes, we quickly reply with “no” and tell them the trailhead is about a mile, mile and a half.  On the other hand, if their pack looks cool and they’re not wearing bear spray on their hip belt, we usually engage.

Reactions are always mixed.  Some think we’re crazy while others are duly impressed. Once the conversation starts, we know we are headed for the question.  “To see if we can do it,” is the answer Brian and I have agreed on.  Now back to the aptly named Bull Head Trail.  I imagine most folks walk away with some analogous notion of the two of us being bullheaded.

Early Signs of Fall on Bull Head

Early Signs of Fall on Bull Head

The Smokies benefit from having four distinct seasons and each is beautiful.  Winter brings the wonderland of snow and frozen waterfalls.  Spring and early summer bring laurel, rhododendron and the incredible wild dogwoods.  Summer is green and lush, and the Fall….  we are on the verge of a wildfire of color and some of the trees have gotten an early start.  Bright crimson red and against a backdrop of lush green, all under a deep blue sky.  Only one Artist is capable of this quality of painting.

Bull Head is a steady climb and not very rugged compared to Trillium Gap.  Much of it was in the afternoon sun.  About 2 miles in, a trio of college guys passed us and seemed excited to tell us about the bees up ahead.  They gave us a pretty clear description of the trail with a stump on the left and the trail turning into direct sunlight.  We asked them about how far ahead it was and they said, “about a mile, mile and a half.” (Who did they think we were, street shoe people?)  Turns out they were right.  For some reason, Brian insisted that I take the lead on this section.  It was only fair because four years ago, on this very same trail, our quartet ran into a yellow jacket nest in a water bar log.  Everyone got stung but me.  We turned on a bend and saw trail that matched the description.  We walked carefully looking for tiny flying beasts.  It’s amazing how many flying insects you see when you’re looking for bees…  We made it past the stump and I thought we were clear and then BANG!  A yellow jacket hit me about six inches above my left heel.  Could have been worse i guess.  Brian, my buddy… my hiking comrade, my brother in arms simply said, “Well, now we’re even.”  (How did he know???!!!!!!)

From this point on, we were obligated to tell anyone we met about the hazard.  It became a bit.  We would say hello and Brian would look at me and say:

“Should we tell them about the bees?”

“Nah, they’ll find ’em”

Of course we would pass on the description and wish them well.

The sun was headed down by the time we got to the Alum Cave Trail junction.  We stopped for water and a few granola bars.  We left the trail head with 80 degree temperature but it was 64 by the time we got to the top of the ridge.

Halfway Point!


Alum Cave Trail

Miles:   5.5       Elevation:   2419 ↓       Grade: 9%          

Hiking Time: 1:56       Pace:  2.8 mph       Avg. Temp.:   66

Map Miles Completed:   5.5       Total Map Miles:  27.7       Total Miles Hiked:   27.7

Shawn making sure of the right path on Alum Cave

Shawn making sure of the right path on Alum Cave

The first LeConte24 hike ended up descending on the Alum Cave trail.  We caught a beautiful sunset and this segment would prove no different.  Having already hiked to the summit on the Rainbow Falls Trail,  we opted to take a quick right on Alum Cave.  This year, the great folks in the Park Service and the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club are renovating the Alum Cave Trail to improve erosion control, shore up some of the rockslide areas and generally beef up the trail to handle all the traffic.  This construction necessitates its closing on Monday through Thursday through November 2015.  Fortunately for us, it was Saturday, at least for a few more hours.  The main thing was the fact that darkness would catch us before we reached the trailhead but we were prepared with headlamps.  A lot of hiking equipment has gotten cheaper over the years but not so with headlamps.  My brand-new Black Diamond has a 200 lumen bright beam, a wide angle flood light and if you hold the button down just right, the red lights will turn on.  All for a cool $50 bucks.

One of the cliff-side sections of Alum Cave

One of the cliff-side sections of Alum Cave

The improvements on Alum Cave became apparent as we got down the trail a bit.  Sections were wider and there are a number of step constructions that smoothened out some of the more treacherous parts.  There are still those sections on the edge of cliff one should take care to cross, especially in the fading sunlight.  Fortunately, the trail was dry and safe.

The sun was really fading fast and yielded some incredible views while we were still on the upper section.  We wanted to stop and contemplate the moment but the clock was ticking on so we snapped a few pictures and kept moving.

Alum Cave is popular for several reasons.  It is the shortest route to the top of Mt. LeConte and the parking area is large and easily accessible.  While steep, it is not as rugged as some of the other routes.  It has some unique features like the cliffs, Arch Rock and the famous bluffs.  After the renovations are complete it will be one of the best hiking trails in the park.

Sunset on Alum Cave Trail

Sunset on Alum Cave Trail

IMG_1429

Alum Cave Bluff at dusk

Shawn approaching Arch Rock carefully in the dark

Shawn approaching Arch Rock carefully in the dark

Prelude

Every journey has a beginning and an ending.  Given that humans are creatures bound by time and space, we tend to measure our journeys with various milestones and devices including clocks and maps and events.  All this effort serves to provide the stuff we use to tell the stories of our adventures.

The AT Thru-hiker starts somewhere, usually Springer Mtn., GA and ends, usually on Mt. Katahdin, ME.  Thru hikers will count the days and in some cases the hours.  They may track dates and locations and miles covered.  Rituals mark the start and finish such as signing in at the ranger stations in Amicalola State Park and at Baxter State Park.  Packs are weighed.  Pictures are taken.  Good-byes are said.  Tears are shed.  Memories are forged.

I suspect with 900 Milers, many don’t mark the beginning of their 900 miler journeys; at least the first time.  With me it was an awareness of having hiked several trails and then reaching the point where I decided to start tracking the mileage and the dates of which trails were hiked.  As a consequence, the actual “beginning” of the journey is not marked by any ritual or celebration.

But the second map is different.  A second 900 Miler is deliberate.  One begins with an awareness of what is to come and the challenges ahead.  Such an undertaking should be marked with a worthy kickoff.  Some sort of event that is befitting a four-year project such as starting on an iconic mountain.  Perhaps a unique challenge that is difficult and memorable.  Perhaps it is an activity for which the answer to the question “Why?” is difficult for the casual observer. Perhaps the answer to that question is simply, “because I wanted to see if I could…”

Mt. LeConte – Sunset from the Lodge

So why not hike all the trails up Mt. Leconte?  In 24 hours?  It’s a 45.7 mile challenge and it’s doable.  I know this because I did it 4 years ago.  That hike was documented in detail at www.leconte24.com.  My original hiking partner for that hike was Brian Thomas and he is joining me again for this chapter. From what we learned the first time, Brian designed a route that minimizes altitude climbing and shuttling between trailheads.  With this new route, we hope to cut 2 hours off our original time of 22 hours and it will save about 900 feet of climbing.

Here is the new itinerary:

  1. Park at Rainbow Falls/ Bull Head Trail head
  2. Up Rainbow Falls (4,000 ft.) – Down Trillium Gap
  3. Up Bull Head (4,000 ft.) – Down Alum Cave
  4. Shuttle to Newfound Gap
  5. Up Boulevard (3,724 ft.) – Down Brushy Mtn.
  6. Car at Brushy Mtn. Trailhead in Greenbriar.

Date and time:  Saturday, September 19, 2015, 9:00 am EDT.

And so it begins…