Playing the Styx Branch game May 11, 2012Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Huggins Hell, Mt. LeConte, Myrtle Point, Styx Branch
Warning: Tedious navigational details ahead.
We didn’t quite achieve our objective of coming out right at Myrtle Point, but we came close. We hit the spur trail to the Point maybe 20 feet away. This has become sort of a game.
For those who haven’t followed descriptions of earlier expeditions, I’m talking about following Styx Branch through the area called Huggins Hell to get to the top of LeConte.
The first time, I went with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club on a trip that was supposed to go up the left fork but accidentally went up the right fork. We landed way to the east of Myrtle Point on the Boulevard ridge. The second time, I went with Seth O’ Shields and Dave Landreth up what I thought was the left fork but now believe was a variation of the right fork, staying on a course of about 17 degrees and following a small split in the stream instead of bending east with the right fork. We hit the Boulevard ridge much closer to Myrtle Point, but still to the east of it. The third time, I went with Chris Sass, Seth, and a friend of Seth’s. We started up the same route as the previous time but landed further away from Myrtle Point. This last time, we finally went up the left fork…
The forks split, and split, and split again. What looks at first glance on the map to be a simple stream valley proves to have small indentations that diverge from it—side valleys that don’t carry enough water to rate blue lines on the map. But one of the odd things about Styx is that often those upper valleys have more water flowing through them than the main stem, where the water flows invisibly deep underneath stacks of geological rubble that have been carried down over the years in mighty floods.
The other thing that makes Styx a challenge is that the critical junction, the one at 4700′ between the left and right forks, lies close to several other draws that come in nearby. In fact, the junction is fairly obvious, but I’d been outsmarting myself by deciding that was not the correct one. It was partly because the left fork takes a course of 350 degrees up to above 5000′, but right at the very start it’s more like 320 degrees, and the right fork seems at first to run closer to the correct course.
I know, all you GPS users are laughing!
On our recent outing, we walked up and down around the junction, checked out different possibilities, and once we angled over to the left fork from one of the little draws, we actually walked back down it to confirm its appearance at the main stream.
The left fork is worth the trouble to follow. Above 5000′, it tumbles down over a series of lovely cascades. There is a great split at 5700′. We went to the right, working around the steep base of a giant unclimbable bulge, slithering on shards of loose Anakeesta. We then climbed steeply through different bands of vegetation offered up like flavors on a menu: grass mixed with blackberries that you could use to pull yourself up, groves of spindly spruce, great spongy swathes of moss, carpets of perennial wildflowers not yet in bloom, and finally—what told us we were zeroing in on Myrtle Point—aromatic Rhodendron minus that grew in a dense interlocking barrier. At one point close to the top, I watched Chris working through it on his back, his legs pushing against the tangled branches to propel himself forward.
Our goodnatured companion Jim uttered a few curses as he fought through the barrier, but he emerged victorious and seemed satisfied to have conquered Myrtle Point. It was his first climb of LeConte.
We climbed in drizzle and fog the whole way up, and none of us took pictures along the way. It was chilly on Myrtle Point. After stopping for something to eat, we headed over to the lodge for some hot chocolate. As we sat in front of the heater in the lodge, Chris and Jim shared hilarious stories about some of their associates on the faculty of Young Harris College.
This is the second hike in recent months where I’ve had serious problems with my fingers. My gloves get saturated, the activated charcoal handwarmers I carry don’t work when they’re wet, and my problem with Reynaud’s Syndrome becomes apparent. I’ve finally learned the lesson that even in temperatures above 50 degrees I need to have waterproof gloves available. My fingers stayed so stiff even all the way down that I could unlock my car only by pressing the key between my palms and turning it with my whole hands.
But as we descended the Alum Cave trail, the clouds thinned and all of the intricate, green, furry ridges emerged from the gloom, those distinctive places like Big Duck Hawk and Anakeesta Ridge. There’s no other place like this.
Styx Branch and Spruce Flats Branch back-to-back February 26, 2012Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: High Top slide, Lynn Camp Prong, Meigs Mountain road, Mt. LeConte, Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, Spruce Flats Branch, Styx Branch, Tremont
This was a study in contrasts. Up Styx Branch on LeConte in fog and sleet one day, up Spruce Flats Branch at Tremont in blustery sunshine the next.
Styx was an aborted mission for me. Yes, it happened again, for the first time since early November—my knee popped out of joint. I was wearing the brace, but I’d gotten lazy about it and hadn’t tightened it as much as it should have been, not liking the constricted feeling it can give me.
Therefore I’m not as discouraged about it as I might be, because I believe that if I use the brace properly, this will not keep happening.
Dave and Seth and I were following a small tributary of Styx that hits the Alum Cave trail at about 5600′, just below where the trail makes a sharp switchback and heads over to the drainage of Trout Branch. Dave has developed a route that goes to the switchback (which he calls the Devil’s Elbow) and then, after a very short stretch on the trail, departs to climb a slide up to High Top. The tributary might be given the unfortunate name of “Toilet Roll Creek,” because the helicopter that supplies the Lodge miscalculated the drop point and managed to drop two large cases of toilet rolls into the streambed. Other than that minor detail, it is a nice, exhilarating example of high creek climbs in the Huggins Hell area.
After my knee popped out, we decided the smartest thing was to angle to the left to hit the trail at the closest point. We climbed up a steep rubbly slope covered with moss, blackberries, and witch hobble.
I’ve found that I can actually use blackberry canes to pull myself up in places like this. As long as I don’t give them an abrupt tug, they don’t come out by the roots.
These photos may give the impression of ugly conditions, but as I watched streamers of mist flowing up the valleys, I felt it was actually beautiful. Streams and mist, fog and water in all its forms, are the essence of the Smokies.
At the trail I turned to descend, while Dave and Seth continued on to the High Top slide. I walked down slowly, feeling my knee starting to stiffen. At Inspiration Point the mist briefly turned over to sleet. A family of Floridians was there, marvelling at the “hail.” Three teenage boys in the group wore only t-shirts and weren’t carrying any extra layers.
The next day I was scheduled to co-lead a hike for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club with Michael Vaughn over in the Tremont area. That part of the Smokies is such a haul from Asheville that I’d figured I’d spend the night at a motel in Townsend. However, since I got down from the Styx hike by mid-afternoon, I decided I might as well go back home.
I felt that, as far as my knee was concerned, one way or another I would meet my commitment with the group. Went home, got to bed early, set the alarm for 4:30, and headed over through the dark, empty Pigeon River Gorge.
It worked out fine. My knee was stiff and I moved awkwardly, but I wasn’t in pain at all. We had 20 people turn out for the outing on this chilly but mostly sunny day. The route was from the Tremont Institute to Spruce Flats Falls, up the well-defined manway along Spruce Flats Branch to Buckhorn Gap, over to Upper Buckhorn Gap, and down the old overgrown Meigs Mountain road.
We opted not to ford Lynn Camp Prong at the end—water levels were somewhat high, and it would have been a foot-numbing experience. So instead we dropped steeply off Wilkinson Ridge along a route kindly marked for us with a cairn by Gretchen, a.k.a. Slowalk, who’d just been there with the “Thursday hikers.” This took us to a point just downstream of the bridge, in other words, to a place where the road was on the “right” side of the stream instead of the “wrong” side.
After reaching the falls, we went up the manway and saw many artifacts from logging operations of the Little River Company.
We crossed the stream many times.
A large grate called forth inconclusive speculation about its purpose.
Our group photographed and contemplated the grate.
We made the final steep ascent to Buckhorn Gap amidst slippery oak leaves and opted to have lunch in a more sheltered spot, as the wind was gusting through. We found a good patch of sunshine out of the wind and stopped there before moving on a short distance to Upper Buckhorn. The slightly confusing thing about the old Meigs Mountain road is that it does not descend down an obvious draw very close to the start point but actually climbs a short slope before making a long sidehilling descent. This had bamboozled me and Michael when we scouted it, but this day we found it with no problem—Michael had gone back to investigate.
I will say that when doing one of these unmaintained routes that sidehills a long time, either your left foot or your right foot takes a continuous beating because of the way the trail or road has started to slide off the mountain! But we were rewarded with some lovely views of scuttling clouds and shifting light and shadow.
I got to know some great people on this outing, and I declare that the day was a success.
No-Name Ridge October 24, 2011Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Alum Cave Creek, Anakeesta Ridge, Mt. LeConte, No-Name Ridge, Styx Branch
This started out as an open-ended exploration up Alum Cave Creek. Dave and I wanted to take a look up the creek to see if we could identify any good spots to take off toward a slide on Anakeesta Ridge. On an infamous hike last month, we’d attempted to reach the slide, only to find that we weren’t even on the right creek.
The challenge of ACC is that it is truly hemmed in with rhodo along both of its banks.
The stream does have some pretty pools and cascades.
It became clear that we would not find easy access to Anakeesta Ridge along the stretch where we’d hoped to miraculously discover a secret opening in the underbrush. When we got to around the 4600′ elevation mark, we saw open woods to our left and decided to abandon Plan A and give Plan B a try—why not, indeed? So we ended up climbing No-Name Ridge—a place I’d been thinking about going anyway.
The openness vanished in a couple hundred vertical feet. We ran into a ferocious mix of blowdown and brier.
We’d escape from the briers into the blowdown, then escape from the blowdown into the briers.
The briers in that whole Styx/ACC area are a special, extra-angry variety.
As we approached the ridgecrest, we crawled through a bearway. Dave took his pack off and pushed it along in front of him.
We arrived on top to discover that this is a magical place.
The rock slabs reminded me of the particular kind of Anakeesta that you find on the Chimneys, sufficiently eroded to be free of the loose stuff you find on slides more recent in geological time.
We picked up an obvious manway along the knife-edge ridge and climbed to the 5916′ point where it meets the Boulevard trail, then went out via Newfound Gap. At times on the ridge we had to dodge some obstacles, but the going wasn’t bad. We ran into a few patches of snow.
A friend has told me that he found a good way going up a slide to No-Name. I think there must be a better route starting a little further up ACC. But the advantage of our route was that we had a slightly longer stretch along the open ridgecrest. I would also like to try going up from the stream junction at 4300′.
A wonderful day.