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Panther Stairs via Robinson Creek March 9, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Jim tackles one of the Stairs.

Jim tackles a Step of the Stairs.

I’d done this climb twice before, most recently a year ago going solo in somber, overcast conditions. My hiking buddy Chris suggested doing it again—the one time he’d gone there, it was completely socked in, so he wanted to experience the Panther Stairs in better conditions. Boy, did we ever hit it right this time!

For those of you not familiar with the Panther Stairs, the official name is Rich Butt, the westernmost of the steep ridge approaches to Cammerer, and one of the best for the lovely open rock approach. The name is sort of a takeoff on the Cat Stairs of Greenbrier Pinnacle.

Both times I’d gone before, I’d used the Toms Creek route, starting at Cosby Campground. Chris suggested hitting Rich Butt from the other side via Robinson Creek. I hadn’t realized that an old road makes for an easy approach from Cosby’s good old twisty Route 32. So between the “Official Mike Knies Shortcut” from the Hartford exit on I-40 and Chris’s memory of the Robinson Creek location, we had it made.

Chris somehow talked his friend Jim into coming along on this adventure. I’m surprised that Jim ever agreed to do another hike with Chris and me, after our trip through dense fog up Styx Branch last year. Jim must have forgotten the relevant details of that outing, so he let himself in for another typical Smokies off-trail experience ranging from greenbrier around the neck to slithering up and down over layers of slushy snow and vertical rock.

We found the old road without any problem, not far from where the Mike Knies Shortcut hits 32 on a combination of Lindsey Gap Road and Groundhog Road. (This is of no advantage for Tennessee hikers, but it is of great use for people traveling on I-40 from the Asheville direction.)

We hiked along the Robinson Creek roadway without any problem. It is similar to the lower Groundhog Ridge manway.

Lower Robinson Creek road.

Lower Robinson Creek road.

We crossed the Lower Cammerer Trail and followed the ridge that merges into Rich Butt around the 4200′ elevation point. Things were frosty up there.

Crispy galax.

Crispy galax.

We got glimpses of nearby ridges touched with hoar frost. But with the warm temperatures, everything was rapidly melting.

View to Leadmine Ridge in hoar frost.

View to Leadmine Ridge in hoar frost.

We got up into the Realm of Frost ourselves.

Crossing over that magical frontier of the freezing point.

Crossing over that magical frontier of the freezing point.

We wrestled with an odd combination of snow and greenbrier vines, plus other gratuitous vegetation.

Jim deals with snow-rhodo combo.

Jim deals with snow-rhodo combo.

Our ridge merged onto Rich Butt (no turn signals necessary), and we pushed along the level stretch of the ridge.

Chris seems to be having a good time.

Chris seems to be having a good time.

We got up into the zone of the red spruce. This has become an odd preoccupation of mine, noticing where I encounter the lowest spruce, usually somewhere around 4500′. The thin, dense needles of the spruce make the perfect support for frost.

Frosty spruce towers above rhodo jungle. Contrasts of the Smokies!

Frosty spruce towers above rhodo jungle. Contrasts of the Smokies!

Finally we got up onto the steep rocky section—the Stairs.

I think Chris is being theatrical with his ice axe.

I think Chris is being theatrical with his ice axe.

As we climbed, we saw wonderful expanses opening up below. A jubilant experience!

Looking down the Panther Stairs.

Looking down the Panther Stairs.

In the photo below, if you look closely, you see Chris’s arm gripping the rock.

An arm in an orange sleeve grips the rock.

An arm in an orange sleeve grips the rock.

Here Chris appears to be downclimbing. I think it was when he was going back down to retrieve the hiking poles Jim had accidentally dropped.

Chris seems to be downclimbing.

Chris seems to be downclimbing.

We finally reached the Cammerer side trail, and there we had to make a decision. Would we go back to our starting point via trails (about 8 miles total), or would we go down the Groundhog Ridge Manway? We climbed to the tower.

View southeast from tower catwalk.

View southeast from tower catwalk.

And there we decided to go down Groundhog Ridge. You might wonder why we even hesitated about using this unmaintained trail, but Chris and I agree that it has become a real nuisance, a slippery muddy trough that’s been overused.

However, we found that in the six inches or so of snow, Groundhog Ridge was a real delight. The snow made a kind of styrofoam texture that you could sink your heels into and progress down steep slopes very pleasantly. There is a certain pitch below the first open spot on the ridge that I think of as the “Awkward Pitch,” but in snow we did a delightful butt-glissade downward with the frosty white stuff acting as the perfect cushion. Lower down, the thin layer of slush on the manway was more of a hindrance than a help, but in the upper sections it was just what we needed. And so we descended to the Lower Cammerer Trail and followed it back to the Robinson Creek road. And it was a wonderful day.

The route of the manway wasn't obvious, but we followed bobcat tracks and did just fine.

The route of the manway wasn’t obvious under snow, but we followed bobcat tracks and did just fine.

Comments»

1. T E Stazyk - March 9, 2013

Stairs?? Looks like a fantastic outing. The pics made me think of late winter early spring in the old days. Thanks!

Jenny - March 9, 2013

It’s been a very snowy March so far, for this part of the country. I’m hoping it’ll transition to spring pretty soon!

2. Al - March 11, 2013

I found the area you hiked in on mapper.acme.com. Was Robinson Creek Road right by the creek or up a ways ? The snow in the pictures was beautiful.

Jenny - March 11, 2013

If you go to the highest level of magnification on Acme, you’ll see the road. It is not right next to the creek but in between a ridge and the creek. It crosses the creek not far below Lower Cammerer, at about 2600′.

Al - March 11, 2013

Thanks, thats the way it looked.


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