The Bunion and my fear of heights July 16, 2009Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, memoir, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Charlies Bunion, Lester Prong, Porters Creek
This post is dedicated to my former husband, Christopher E. Hebb, who died of a brain tumor in 2004. We’d been out of touch a long time when he passed away—our marriage had ended amicably years before—but he left an indelible and positive impression on my life.
Chris and I moved to Knoxville in 1982 when he entered the clinical psychology program at the University of Tennessee. As soon as we arrived, we were doing a lot of hiking in the Smokies. Since we had done some technical climbing together—he was much better at it than I was—we soon started talking about climbing Charlies Bunion from the bottom, out of the Greenbrier.
As I have described in other posts, Porters Creek and Lester Prong in the Greenbrier form pathways for rockhoppers that lead to mysterious and difficult places. Depending on which fork of Lester Prong you follow through the giant trees and cascading streams of the Greenbrier, you end up on the “real” Bunion, the “tourist” Bunion, or the “Jump Off.” The “real” Bunion is what the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club calls the place labelled as Charlies Bunion on the far lefthand side of the USGS Mt. Guyot quad, and I have described that here. The “tourist” Bunion is the place with the little circular trail around the top, on the right side of the LeConte quad, the place most people think of as Charlies Bunion. That is the place Chris and I were talking about going, but not from the A.T.
Chris and I decided in the late summer of 1983 to climb the Bunion from the bottom. We’d do it as an overnight trip. I knew that for me it would be hard because of my fear of heights, but I still thought it was doable. We backpacked up the Dry Sluice Manway to the junction of Porters Creek and Lester Prong, and we followed the stream a short distance to the tributary we would take to climb the Bunion. It had been very dry in the weeks before our trip, so we were able to stay right in the stream.
We set up camp near the stream junction, and I thought about how streams form paths in wild places, how you have to pay attention where they diverge, because a junction may lead to destinations as different as night and day. It’s like the fairy tales of childhood where you watch the hero journey through treacherous places and you think, “Oh no! Don’t go that way!” because you know, and he doesn’t, what lies at the end of that path.
That evening we listened to the beautiful song of a bird high up in the trees. The notes dropped down from the branches like small silver balls. The green gloom thickened as we sat quietly beside our tent, surrounded by shadows. When I looked across the stream valley to the slope on the other side, I felt something like exhaustion to see so many rotting treetrunks that had been there for years, to look at the brush that would take hours to work a way through it.
We passed the night encapsuled in our small warm cocoon while the woods breathed the night air and animals rustled on the forest floor. The stream ran musically down its rocky course.
In the morning I awoke with an indigestible ball of apprehension in my stomach. I watched Chris as he boiled up the water for our oatmeal. He was wearing an orange t-shirt that said “Psycho-canoeists of the North,” a white floppy hat with a green brim that had been worn on our backpack up the Abol trail on Mt. Katahdin (!), and khaki pants from an army surplus store. I felt better when we started moving up Lester Prong. We left our backpacks behind and carried small daypacks—we would circle back around and pick up the larger packs on the way out.
After we turned up the tributary, the streambanks quickly steepened so that we were travelling up a narrow cut gouged by floodwaters. We soon arrived at our first obstacle, a small cliff that ran across the streambed from side to side, blocking the V-shaped draw. At its base lay a deep pool. But you could find a way to the side if you braced your feet and back against rocks and chimneyed your way up.
The streambed was choked with logs and brush that had been swept down in various floods, making for hard going. Chris suggested getting up onto the ridgecrest. I peered up at the slope to our right. It was very steep, and I had no idea what it would lead to. But I looked at it only a moment before I started to climb. Already I had reached a spellbound state. Even though I thought it possible something awful could happen, I’d made up my mind to do this climb. I was somehow able to shut off a whole level of thinking that involved weighing, worrying, and considering.
It was, to say the least, extremely steep. We sweated our way up a short distance, and suddenly it was not a matter of exertion any more, it was a question of choosing the right move. We found ourselves nose to nose with the Anakeesta’s familiar thin brittle layers. Unfortunately, we were moving in the same direction as the grain of the rock, which made for fewer handholds: the layers ran up and down as we climbed instead of across, so that we didn’t have steps, we had vertical grooves.
The place gave me a deep sense of uneasiness. I didn’t look down, I didn’t look up, I just moved from one section of rock to another, grabbing onto a handy bush here and there. Chris, on the other hand, refused to touch the vegetation, upholding the rockclimber’s ethical standard of “no vegetable holds.” And it really wasn’t necessary to use the bushes to pull myself up, it was just a form of security. My world right then was just vivid blue sky, brown rock, green shrubs, and the scrabbling of my boots as I felt for a foothold.
Finally we reached the ridgecrest, a pleasant place covered with blooming rhodo. All at once everything felt much more secure, as if something that had been upside down had just been turned rightside up. I wasn’t struggling any more to keep from sliding or falling, I was standing surrounded by high rhodo that gave me a sense of being protected.
We were standing on the back of a whale in an ocean of trees. Then we turned and looked at what we still had to climb. The ridge stayed brushy for a while but steadily narrowed, steepened, and turned to bare rock. I actually looked away, feeling the menace of the place.
We started up the humpbacked ridge. The rhododendron made an arbor that let in a cool, speckled light. Most of the time we had to bend over or crawl to squeeze under the arching branches. It was a secure, enclosed little world surrounded by gaping space. Every now and then we came to small bits of exposed rock that gave us a taste of what was to come.
I continued to work my way over these short rock pitches in my spellbound state, completely absorbed in what I was doing. Each obstacle flowed toward me, towered over me, then receded behind me as I overcame it and moved on to the next one.
At the open spaces we had an increasingly detailed view of what stood between us and the top. We were getting closer now to the stone staircase that climbed straight up the shadowy mountainside. The bright morning sky glowed behind the jagged ridges, behind the fortress that lay ahead.
We came out onto open rock. Everything was changing again. Just as when we reached the crest of the ridge, we were turning a page, entering a new landscape in which the giant physical shapes around us had shifted. The proportion of air to rock here was high. As I climbed, I sensed a fear that hovered nearby, but there was an interesting sense of detachment between me and the fear.
Somehow I was able to think about what was there, the support the rocks offered, instead of what was not there. I would continue to have three or four points of contact with the rock. My fingers felt for the thin horizontal ledges, for now we were climbing across the grain of the rock rather than parallel to it. I was amazed to realize that I felt happy. How many chances do we have to be surrounded by sky? To be in this place was like having a vision that kept getting deeper with each step.
All around us, ridges and ravines showed sharp edges in morning shadow and light. We climbed up the warm rock, past the small scrubby myrtle that grew here and there, toward the final hump that has the tourist path around it. We reached the path and met a family perched on the rock. Of course they asked us where we’d come from. “From the bottom,” we said, crossing the path and continuing up the other side until we reached the very highest point, where we stopped to have lunch. I had been afraid, but it hadn’t stopped me.