Panther Stairs via Robinson Creek March 9, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Mt. Cammerer, Panther Stairs, Rich Butt, Robinson Creek
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.
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.
We got glimpses of nearby ridges touched with hoar frost. But with the warm temperatures, everything was rapidly melting.
We got up into the Realm of Frost ourselves.
We wrestled with an odd combination of snow and greenbrier vines, plus other gratuitous vegetation.
Our ridge merged onto Rich Butt (no turn signals necessary), and we pushed along the level stretch of the ridge.
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.
Finally we got up onto the steep rocky section—the Stairs.
As we climbed, we saw wonderful expanses opening up below. A jubilant experience!
In the photo below, if you look closely, you see Chris’s arm gripping 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.
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.
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.
Panther Stairs January 28, 2012Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Mt. Cammerer, Panther Stairs, Rich Butt, Toms Creek
Today I did a solo bushwhack up Rich Butt to Cammerer. Rich Butt is labeled as a mountain on the USGS Hartford quad, and it does kind of look like a mountain if you view it from the Toms Creek valley, but it is actually a ridge that hits the 5000′ high point on the Cammerer side trail (a point that is higher than the point where the lookout tower is located). People often call it the Panther Stairs—bigger stairs than the Cat Stairs over on Greenbrier Pinnacle.
I climbed it once before, in 1997 on a visit to the Smokies from my then-home of Massachusetts. That was a Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing led by Fred Kitts and Charlie Klabunde in October when the colors were blazing. Nothing was blazing today, but I found that I enjoyed the eerie fog that shrouded the upper ridge.
When I arrived at the Cosby parking area, I discovered that I had left something at home on my kitchen counter next to the door—my map! Details, details! But since I had been studying it the evening before, I felt that I remembered it well enough. The crucial thing was identifying the point to leave the Lower Cammerer trail and head up the left fork of Toms Creek. But I remembered that Toms Creek was the first creek encountered along the trail that had two branches very close together. I figured that as long as I trended east, the very worst that could happen was that I’d hit the stateline ridge at some other point along the upper bowl of Toms Creek.
Toms Creek was running high after all the rain of the past week, but I didn’t need to rockhop it. I found a faintly visible old road along it that worked out great.
I hit Rich Butt just fine, following the side ridge that parallels Panther Branch. The next time I do this hike, I will stay longer with the branch and hit the top ridge further along (but still below the “stairs”). The main problem along the ridge was greenbrier.
A minor annoyance, but nothing compared with the briers of Huggins Hell.
The ridge stays almost level for a while, then starts climbing more and more steeply, and that is where you encounter the “stairs.”
I had thought I might encounter some old ice from last week’s cold temps, but there was none. I had brought my ice axe, my microspikes, and my crampons. I needed none of these. The ice axe ended up seriously getting in my way—it was an experiment for me, the first time I’ve used it in the Smokies. (I used it fairly often in northern New England.) I have a leash on it to prevent it from sliding away down a steep slope, and I found myself dragging it behind me in places I needed to use both hands. Of course it kept getting snagged on the brush.
It’s a long mountaineering axe (30″) rather than an ice climber’s axe, so attaching it to my pack wasn’t an option, as the spike would stick up and constantly get hung up in the brush.
The fog closed in as I climbed. I could see that it was brighter down in the valley.
I liked the view down the ridge.
The laurel near the top was denser than I’d remembered, but finally I popped out on the Cammerer side trail. I didn’t even bother going over to the lookout tower, because I knew it was completely socked in—the fog had thickened beyond what’s pictured above and erased any visibility.
I’d thought of dropping down off-trail into Panther Branch, but I decided not to because at that moment I was tired of dealing with the laurel. So I headed out to the A.T. to go to Low Gap and then down to Cosby campground. Not far along the A.T., I encountered two park rangers.
They asked me if I’d seen any other people and where I had been—I got the impression they were looking for a missing person. I told them I’d come up Rich Butt, and they didn’t know where that was. I don’t hold it against them—they said they were both new to the park. “Please educate us about that,” one of them said. They were very pleasant and didn’t get on my case about bushwhacking solo.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I must have looked kind of scary. I had a big brier scratch on my face, and my right earlobe was completely bloody. Plus I had the ice axe! Reminds me of the time I was in L.A. for a business conference and did some winter hiking on Mt. Cucamonga. On my way back from the hike I had to return my rental car and get a cab into town for some logistical reason I don’t recall. I was standing next to palm trees near the L.A. airport, waiting for a cab, and none of them would stop—no doubt because I was standing there with the axe!
My trip back via trail was uneventful. Below 4000′, I left the fog behind. A good outing. And my bum knee held up really well.
Chestnut Branch to Cammerer (again) December 18, 2011Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Chestnut Branch, Mt. Cammerer, Pigeon River
I’d done the Chestnut Branch/Cammerer hike this past January. Since I’ve been holding off on bushwhacking the past six weeks because of my knee problem, I was looking for a really good trail hike—and this is one that brought back good memories, so why not try it again? There aren’t that many places to get in a decent amount of vertical on a trail dayhike in the Smokies, but this one gives you 3500′ or so, 12 miles roundtrip.
Starting out in the upper 20s, the morning was about five degrees warmer than the last time—no old snow today, but a few spots of ice—with brilliant, luminous sunshine. But the really great thing today was that I discovered that, after weeks of physical therapy, I have legs of steel! (No matter that I also have brain of silly putty.) I will never underestimate strength training again.
I averaged 2.75 mph over the whole distance. All those hours of lunging, squatting, stepping, hopping, and balancing seem to be paying off. In early January I will find out what the doctor has to say, and I hope very much to get back to off-trail. Something short would seem appropriate—like one of the routes on the north side of Cammerer.
You may be surprised that I took no pictures from the summit of Cammerer despite the crystal clear visibility. All I can say is that some photos can be beautiful and boring at the same time. The first picture I took was on the way back down, of some frost needles pushing up through the soil.
At around 4500′, the giant spruce trees loomed overhead. This is my favorite kind of forest. The only problem for photographers is that it’s nearly impossible to get tall trees into the lens.
I emerged from the pleasant gloom of the evergreens at a switchback where a dramatic rock outcrop leads down, down, down into the complicated stream valleys. Pines—I believe they were pitch pines—grew along the spine of the rocks.
Looking south, I noticed the same ridge I’d observed on my January hike. This time, just below the heath I’d noticed before, I spotted tall green healthy evergreens above a forest of brown hardwoods, with probably dead hemlocks mixed in.
Just past the outcrop, I passed a beautiful wall constructed by the CCC crew—obviously the same hands were at work here as at the Cammerer lookout.
On the way up, a seemingly infinite series of log steps on the trail had caused me some annoyance. They weren’t quite as irritating on the way down, but they still seemed gratuitous. For some reason, trail maintenance crews installed these dozens and dozens of steps on the section of the A.T. between the Lower Cammerer junction and the upper Mt. Cammerer turnoff. They are not waterbars—they are definite steps, placed along a very moderate grade where the footing is not difficult. The result, for a hiker climbing upward, is a constant little burst of extra effort every few feet—not so bad for a dayhiker, but I think probably pretty aggravating for someone with a full pack. On one of the Smokies hiking forums, I recently came across a comment that the Chestnut Branch/A.T. approach to Cammerer was strangely tiring. I believe this is the reason why.
I enjoyed the music of Chestnut Branch as I descended into the lower portion of the valley, listening to the water resounding over all the little cascades and pools. The water was descending to Big Creek and then to the Pigeon River. I leave you with a few photos I took at the Pigeon, down by the Waterville hydro plant, in the morning shortly before I started my hike.
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