The Jumpoff via Lester Prong January 30, 2009Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Charlies Bunion, hiking, Jumpoff, Lester Prong, Mt. LeConte, off-trail navigation, Porters Creek, Smoky Mountains
Certain places in the Smokies can only be reached by long, hard work. And because it takes so much effort to reach them, they lose their connection with the outside world. When you finally get there, you have shed all your everyday thoughts. You stay for a while, you journey back. And by the time you return to the road, the wilds have closed up again, sealing these places inside. —From my notes after the hike
The Jumpoff is a spectacular viewpoint normally reached by a spur trail from the Boulevard Trail, which connects the Appalachian Trail with the summit of LeConte. On August 11, 1984, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club climbed it from the bottom, out of the heart of the Greenbrier, working around to the side of just enough of the steepest parts that the route didn’t get technical.
We followed the Porters Creek Trail to where it ends four miles up. From there the well-known but unmaintained Dry Sluice manway continues, crossing the stream many times as it passes through a garden of rhododendrons, tulip poplars, and hemlocks. When the manway reaches the junction of Porters Creek and Lester Prong, the manway leads to the left to continue up Porters Creek along a faint cairned path, while our group went to the right.
Each tributary of Lester Prong leads to a different adventure. The first one leads to the “real” Charlies Bunion. The second leads to the “tourist” Bunion, the one with the little footpath off the A.T. (People may not understand what I mean when I say “leads to the Bunion.” I mean, leads to the bottom of it. Then you climb up the rock spine.) The third tributary—I’ve never been up it, but it would put you between the tourist Bunion and a series of nameless dragon’s-back ridges. On this trip, we stayed with the main stream at all of these junctions until we got to the bottom of the Jumpoff.
Charlie Klabunde and Matt Kelleher were the fearless leaders of our group of 12. Charlie’s newsletter writeup said: “There it is: towering over 1300 ft. above us, only 1/4 mile away by the map and a like distance vertically. Awesome! No, we don’t attempt a head-on approach, but even staying with the main Lester Prong valley all the way to its source at the intersection of the Boulevard and Horseshoe lead ridges, then turning left along the crest, is still plenty steep and barely half a mile…. Since we don’t use ropes or other aids we’ll stick to a reasonably safe route.”
It happened that we did this hike after a deluge the night before. (I know, sounds like Raven Fork.) We had to wade the manway’s crossings of Porter’s Creek—most of us just went barefoot between the numerous fords. As we progressed up Lester Prong past the 4200 or 4300 foot elevation point, the stream changed its character and became a sluiceway that gouged its way between solid rock walls. We had to do some interesting sidewall maneuvers, looking for toeholds and going sideways. We were now climbing steeply. Around a turn, we came to a giant logjam created by floods. We clambered over, under, and between the heaped-up trees.
At the top of the logjam, we could see the stream descending in a series of silver cascades, one after another. We climbed up beside the gliding water, feeling the mist in our faces. Then we angled toward the right and began our 1300 foot climb up a slope upholstered with moss and ferns and pink turtleheads. This was the kind of steepness that somehow I don’t mind because it is so engrossing, where I’m using my hands almost as much as feet and I’m working my way methodically step by step. At some point partway up I saw Charlie sitting under a tree, waiting for his flock to come through, looking like a wise man of the mountains.
Clouds had silently swaddled the mountain before we reached the top. We didn’t care about views. We were all hungry. I watched with fascination as one boy opened a can of cold beans and ate out of it with a spoon. Most of us were tired enough that we could have eaten almost anything.
Our hike was half over. We still had to descend back into the Greenbrier by a new route that Charlie had scouted on the east fork of the east branch of Porters Creek. We ended up coming down a stream valley that had been completely scoured out by a flash flood just the night before. I’m going to save that description for another post.
That night, back at home, I kept thinking about those high cascades, quietly flowing in their secret valley. Flowing right then, as I thought about them.