Left fork of Styx Branch August 20, 2011Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Huggins Hell, Mt. LeConte, Myrtle Point, off-trail navigation, Styx Branch
For more photos and another perspective on the outing, go to Dave’s trip report.
A year ago, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club set off to climb the left fork of Styx to the top of LeConte but accidentally climbed the right fork instead. Yesterday three of us succeeded in climbing the left fork. It does involve paying close attention at the junction, which is located not by looking at separating watercourses in this complicated, braided stream, but by observing the shape of the valleys.
So I returned to the area on the south slopes of LeConte known as Huggins Hell and to the appropriately named stream that runs through it.
My companions were Seth O’Shields and Dave Landreth, who proved to have the right combination of determination, strength, and insanity to pursue this quest.
The first time I saw Seth’s orange shirt, I said, “But it’s not hunting season!” However, Seth just likes that shirt, and Dave points out that it makes him easy to spot in the underbrush and also makes him stand out clearly in photos.
We relied on my altimeter to identify the elevation (4750′) where we should look for the junction. The going in the lower part of the stream was easy, as the streambed held very little water and we were able to rockhop along at good speed. After a brief false move going up a dead-end side draw, we rejoined the main stream and recognized the junction. The lower Left Fork was clogged with rhodo, which made it even more obscure, but we wrestled our way through this section and emerged onto a nifty stone staircase. The rock seemed like a combination of sandstone and Anakeesta—fairly large solid blocks mixed with the sharp-edged slaty pieces that make for great handholds.
The rock got slimier as we got higher, making for some tricky spots.
It was a beautiful, wild place, a ribbon of rock and trickling water that led into the steep, mysterious, sometimes dangerous fastnesses below Myrtle Point.
Eventually, around 5800′, the stream disappeared and we found ourselves working through worlds of lush vegetation: wildflowers of all kinds, blackberries, and cushions of deep moss so plush you could kneel comfortably in it and feel yourself sinking in without any discernable bottom.
We weren’t sure exactly where we were going to come out—we hoped somewhere in the vicinity of Myrtle Point. As we approached the top, we ran into steep cliff bands. I reached a spot where I could not manage to go straight up, so I did an interesting traverse making use of some good handholds. Dave took this picture of me—what it doesn’t show is the dropoff below my feet. He called it “the crux.”
On the far side of the traverse stood a tangled mess of rhodo and laurel, incredibly dense. I fought for a few minutes and got nowhere, but then noticed a little slot through the growth that led to the right. I crawled through it and found myself on a narrow ridgecrest with a view down to the Boulevard. We were just a short distance east of Myrtle Point. We’d expected to encounter a large slide, but it turned out we came up a little to the right of it.
Bears had traveled back and forth on this ridge, making for a decent path where you could almost stand up straight. There was just one point where the bears, probably chuckling to themselves, led the way up a steep outcrop that could only be descended by crawling down a blowdown. Before long we came out on a herd path made by curious humans investigating out from Myrtle Point.
I love the interwoven vegetation there, the mounded cushions of myrtle mixed with ferns and dense masses of wind-sculpted Rhododendron minus with its aromatic leaves. From this understory rise scattered mountain ash and spruce. In the distance, a crazed jumble of jagged green ridges. Two peregrines soared high above as we watched, seemingly playing with each other.
We stopped at the lodge and met some of the friends Seth has there—he has frequently stayed there for a few days at a time, doing chores in exchange for room and board. After relaxing for a while, we wended our way down the Alum Cave trail. We saw beautiful flowers.
This was one of those journeys that touches my imagination in a certain way and makes me long to return quickly to those difficult, hidden, beautiful places.
Mt. LeConte via Styx Branch July 26, 2010Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Alum Cave Trail, Chimney Tops, Mt. LeConte, Myrtle Point, off-trail navigation, Styx Branch
Seven people went on this outing of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Our goal was to climb the left fork of Styx Branch to Myrtle Point. But in fact we climbed the right fork of Styx Branch to a side ridge east of Myrtle Point—even better!
Styx Branch is not only a nice little stream, it may also be the only stream in the Smokies that bears a name from Greek mythology. The area through which it flows is known as Huggins Hell, and its name is very appropriately borrowed from the River Styx, by which sinners and evildoers of all stripes enter their new residence for eternity. It joins Alum Cave Creek below Arch Rock.
We left the trail for the creek at the bridged crossing just above Arch Rock. The rockhopping was so easy due to the low water levels that it almost felt like cheating.
The only real navigational challenge of this outing was to follow the correct fork at the split around 4800 feet. Our leaders, Ed Fleming and Mark Shipley, had scouted the hike in April and found the left fork without any problem. We stopped at the approximate elevation and turned to the left where another small flow of water came in on the right. It must have been a minor side branch. I’ve made that kind of mistake myself. As we continued along, Ed and Mark commented that the way looked unfamiliar—a sandstone cliff ran along the right side, and they didn’t recall having seen that before. Then, when the stream made a distinct turn to the east, we had the proof that we were in the righthand fork.
No problem. After a while we got up on a ridge to the right that looked like good going, and on the other side of that we could see an open slide area. We climbed up the slide for a bit.
We reached a grassy area above the slide.
Eventually we topped out on a ridge that runs parallel to and just south of the Boulevard trail. We could see how far we would need to travel along the ridge to get to Myrtle Point.
Eventually we decided to drop down to the trail, which runs very close to the ridge. The way down was steep and rough. Just as we came out on the path, Jim Quick came along. He was the rear leader of another bunch of SMHC hikers who were going up LeConte via the trail.
Soon we arrived at Myrtle Point and met the rest of the trail hikers. We relaxed and had lunch.
From there we descended by the Alum Cave trail. But my day was not over. I headed over to the Chimneys trail and climbed up to the top to meet some friends who were coming up off-trail from the Chimneys picnic area.
Not long after I got to the top of the first chimney, I heard some animated voices coming through the underbrush and caught the sound of a strangely familiar, slightly maniacal laugh. Soon I saw Greg Harrell, Keith Oakes, and Greg Hoover striding purposefully over the rocks to the outer chimney, and then they made their way up to the first chimney. They wolfed down some large meaty sandwiches (I had no appetite whatsoever myself) and got into a discussion about whether there is any point in putting healthy items such as raisin bran into a trail mix. It appeared that there was in fact no point, since Hoover was tossing flakes of raisin bran into the underbrush and gulping down the M&Ms.
We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, all soft and hazy in the warm humid air, and the full moon popped over the top of Mt. Mingus and beamed at us radiantly. Mt. LeConte had a cap of cloud draped just over the very top (just large enough to cause irritation to sunset viewers at the Lodge). Tufts of fleecy cloud floated close to the moon. We explored the “window” below the chimney, and some students of Hoover’s joined us up there for a little while. We stayed until about 9:30 and descended with headlamps.
The place we can’t go anymore March 30, 2009Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: bushwhacking, Little Duck Hawk, off-trail navigation, Smoky Mountains
Before I say anything else, I want to say that I agree that we shouldn’t traverse Little Duck Hawk anymore. That is a place where peregrine falcons live, and it is wrong to invade their homes. This post is partly about how a sense of adventure can collide with environmental responsibility.
The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club used to go up and down, backwards, forwards, and sideways on this ridge. It was a standard hiking club thing to do. Looking through the old SMHC handbooks, I found one from the 1960s that spoke of how the ridge had formerly been the haunt of the peregrines, but because of DDT, they were no longer to be found in that area. This would have been a few years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But now, thank goodness, the peregrines are back. And the hikers are gone—at least, the ones who care about these things are gone, or those who obey the current National Park Service restriction that forbids people from climbing the ridge.
For me, Little Duck Hawk was always a test of my ability to master my fear of heights. At its narrowest point, the ridge was little more than a foot wide with sheer dropoffs on both sides. Before I ever climbed it, I saw a picture in a slide show that captured the spectacle of a whole line of maybe 12 or 15 people going up the hand-over-hand section into the thin air, progressing one by one in steady unstoppable fashion, conquering the ridge in something approaching military indomitability. I recognized some of the people in that line. I won’t name any names, but I knew that some of them were real chickens when it came to things like difficult rockhopping. I decided then and there that if they could make it up Little Duck Hawk, I could make it up Little Duck Hawk.
The first time I did it, it was not on an SMHC hike but with my former husband Chris. He was always much less afraid of heights than I was. We dropped down from the trail into the unofficial territory, maneuvering over slabs of Anakeesta shale that were like giant layers of strudel. This was a good warmup. Before long we had completed the initial descent, and we were looking up at the “crux”—a rock staircase with an extreme amount of exposure. I don’t remember who went up first, me or Chris, but after stopping for a moment to focus and take a deep breath, I simply maintained my forward progress and systematically climbed up the staircase, reaching up and grabbing the Anakeesta layers with my hands and stepping up with my feet. I remember that the rock was nice and toasty in the afternoon sun.
Soon we were up on the narrowest part, the section that has the hole underneath that forces of nature have drilled all the way through the rock. The narrowest part of the ridge is about 18″ wide and continues for about six feet. Walking forward was no more difficult than walking across the living room as long as you didn’t think about what would happen if you stubbed your toe or stepped on your shoelace. Before long the ridge had widened and we were working our way down into the dense rhodo that surrounds the ridge.
The interesting thing for me, something I still don’t fully understand, is that my fear of heights has never bothered me in the Smokies anywhere near as much as it has in some other places, like the Rockies or the Sierras. In fact, I have climbed in some pretty preposterous places in the Smokies. There is something about the Smoky Mountains that seems to nourish me and take away any fear that I might have.
Sometime in the mid-1990s I brought Bob down to the Smokies and took him across Little Duck Hawk. Bob said at the time that it was the scariest place he had ever hiked, but he made it.
I have done it by myself, going up and going down, just to see what it felt like to do it alone. It’s easier to do it from the top down. If you start from the bottom, you have to angle through a jungle of rhodo and keep the faith that you’re going to get past all that rubbery vegetation and up onto solid rock. Going from the bottom, it also means that you downclimb the trickiest part. It meets the definition of Class 3 scrambling: you have to face the rock to go down. It would probably meet another definition of Class 3 that I read somewhere: your dog wouldn’t be able to do it.
The hiking club hasn’t done it for a very long time. I don’t know exactly when the Park Service said you couldn’t go there any more. I understand there are signs now on the rough herd path that tell you not to go any further. I suspect that some people will probably criticize me for even writing about this place. But for me, trying to understand and describe experiences is the most important thing that I do in my life, and I’ll take whatever lumps come my way. And I will also say that there are other places you can go that are just as interesting and challenging. You just have to study the maps.
It was nice while it lasted.