The Chimneys via a strange route December 10, 2008Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: bushwhacking, Chimney Tops, hiking, off-trail navigation, Smoky Mountains
Note: The route described here has been officially closed by the Park Service following a fatality.
The Chimney Tops are one of the best-known features of the Smokies. You see them as you drive up the Newfound Gap road, and thousands of hikers march up to them via a popular trail. One day in March 1983 I went up by a different route with my former husband, Chris.
We started at the Chimneys picnic area. Despite its name, the picnic area is not where the trail starts. That begins considerably further up the road at 3500 feet and takes 2 miles to climb 1300 vertical feet to the top. The picnic area is at 2800 feet, directly under the Chimneys, and we would climb 2000 feet in about three-quarters of a mile. The last 1000 vertical goes in about a quarter of a mile. (You do the math.) We had heard that certain members of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club had gone up this way at some point in the murky past. It is not always wise to repeat what the Hiking Club does.
We followed a ridge that lies between two branches of an unnamed tributary of the West Prong. (That’s the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, not to be confused with the West Prong of the Little River. People call both of them just “the West Prong.”) At the bottom, the ground was carpeted with early spring wildflowers. Soon we were squirming and clawing our way through tangles of rhododendron. It was hard to look at anything other than the limbs and leaves right before us, but when we stopped to catch our breath we raised our eyes to a quiet gray cliff just above, partly obscured by elegant twistings of rhododendron. We sidehilled until we came to an ingeniously sculpted mass of boulder and root and blackberry that provided a route we could take to the top, and then adjusted the size and shape of our bodies in order to squeeze around, between, and under in the appropriate places.
Things got a little easier until we came to another larger, steeper cliff. This is the place between 4300 and 4400 feet on the USGS map where there is no space between the contour lines. At first it looked impossible, but with a bit of imagination, you could connect the dots between footholds and roots that were available for hanging onto. I have to admit that I didn’t like the look of it, but Chris was braver than I, and he thought it could be done. And with various toe jams and by hauling and flailing our way up, we did indeed get up. I had dirt under my fingernails, dirt on my face, sweat in my eyes, and dirt down the back of my neck.
Before long, we emerged on the open Anakeesta* of the Chimneys, stepping onto the tilting layers of rock. We had come out on the outer Chimney, the one that you are not supposed to go over to from the other, officially sanctioned, Chimney. The weather had changed. Cold gray clouds were silently enclosing the Chimney Tops. We could see the lacy, delicate edges of cloud as it streamed over the rock backbone between the Chimneys, and we could sense the icy crystals that were packed up inside them. As we stopped for some food, the clouds swallowed up the further mountains, then nearby Mt. Mingus and Sugarland Mountain, and then the other Chimney, until we and the sand myrtle bushes right around us floated in a dense blank grayness. After putting on extra sweaters (this was the pre-fleece era), we started our descent. Now we found traces of the old unmaintained manway we’d heard about. As hard little pellets of sleet started pelting us, we followed the manway down, sometimes losing it, then re-finding it, until we lost it for good at the top of a ten- or fifteen-foot bluff. Chris turned himself around to face the bluff and downclimbed it in proper rock climbing style. Once again, I did not like the look of it, but then I noticed a small tree growing up against the bluff. I jumped outward several feet from the bluff, landed in the treetop, and scrambled down.
A bit lower, the woods a bit deeper, the sleet changing over to rain, another 15-foot cliff. This time I found a ladder of birch roots and started climbing down. Now Chris was the one to go airborne. Picking his way down a smoother, more difficult section, he suddenly fell. I cried out in alarm, but he somehow twisted around and found his own treetop to land in. The scrubby little sapling bent low from his weight, but it saved him from a nasty landing.
The way got less steep below that. More rhodo, followed by yet more rhodo, and then we followed the stream. We found a little glen filled with flowers—white phacelia. They completely overran the ground, like an idea that has turned into a daydream that has turned into a wild fantasy. We came down off the hillside ankle deep in flowers as rain came down harder and harder on our backs.
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*Anakeesta is a distinctive dark, slaty metamorphic rock found at higher elevations in the Smokies. It has many thin layers and can provide good footholds if the layers happen to run across your route rather than parallel with it. Anakeesta is found on the Chimneys, Charlies Bunion, the top of LeConte, and other places, usually above about the 4500 foot elevation mark.