Tag Archives: LeConte24

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

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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

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Alum Cave Bluff at dusk

Shawn approaching Arch Rock carefully in the dark

Shawn approaching Arch Rock carefully in the dark