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Solo bushwhack to Balsam Point on LeConte September 22, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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It's the point in the back. You go up one of those draws.

It's the point in the back. You go up one of those shady draws.

This is a fairly tough off-trail hike in the neighborhood of LeConte.  You start at what is now called the Carlos Campbell overlook on the Newfound Gap road, cross the West Prong, and follow Big Branch until you hit the Bullhead trail.  If you study the photo above, you see that the valley of Big Branch climbs only moderately for quite a long way, and then it hits a wall.  You climb the last 800 vertical feet to the trail in a quarter of a mile.  Then you have the option of climbing another 1000 feet to the top of Balsam Point, which is a useless sort of blackberry-ridden place.

I carried my map, compass, and altimeter, as usual, but this hike does not really pose a navigational challenge.  It leans toward other sorts of challenge.  It was not hard to follow the West Prong to the junction with Big Branch and turn up the branch and climb past the foundation of an old stone house.  The trick was to find the best route to take along the stream, for the water was far too high to rockhop it.

Since the stone house stood on the right bank, I continued climbing for a while on that side.  But I found that the small ridge I was walking on rose higher and higher above the stream.  When I checked my map, I saw that the other side was going to stay flatter along the branch, so I decided to switch sides.  I meant to angle gradually back to the water to preserve my elevation, but some bluffs forced me straight down a muddy chute into an indescribably awkward place where I was trapped between slimy logs and the edge of the creek.  I found myself teetering on unstable stones, pushing brush out of my eyes, and trying to get my toe unjammed from between two logs.  Finally I flailed my way onto a treetrunk and got over to the other bank.

The fast stream roared beside me as I climbed in the sunshine.  It sang with the voices of all of the tricklings of water that ran into it as it tumbled down the mountainside.  I worked my way along, either close to the water or only within hearing distance of it, depending on the terrain.  I would ride up on the back of the ridge until the brush beat me back to the boulders and the singing water.

Eventually the stream got small enough that I could stay in it.  When it began to get really steep I stopped beside a waterfall for a snack before the last big push.

The sunlight that day shone pure and brilliant.  The light turned the fringes of spruce and balsam into glowing lace.  I sat in a little pocket of shadow and gazed up at the light flooding the treetops.  The waterfall poured faithfully down into a dark green basin lined with moss.

It was time to move on again, and I had to scramble over the heaped-up boulders to get around the waterfall.  It was more or less the same ingredients the rest of the way up.  The water had gouged much of the soil away,  so that I was scrambling up layers of bedrock over which the stream dropped in shining strands of cascades.  It was like a staircase in which each step stood two or three feet high and the treads were only a hand’s width deep.  Brush growing here and there made for some good handholds.  But my toes were slipping on the slimy rock, and the damp moss was drenching me, so once more I moved away from the creek.

For no reason that I can explain, I enjoyed the steepest part.  It was vertical enough to use all fours to get up, it was brushy, and it was crisscrossed by little bluffs that had to be worked around methodically.  I was working hard but barely noticing the effort.  If your legs are strong, you have the satisfaction of applying good tools to the task at hand, like using sharp scissors to cut through thick paper.

I picked my way through the brush, squirmed under blowdowns, and circumvented a boulder as big as a house.  A pleasing little chute led up a bluff.  One by one I took on the obstacles, kept moving, sweating, climbing.

Ahead stood another bluff.  It stood as high as I am tall, and it was quite vertical, but there was no stopping me now.  I grasped a projecting stone and began to pull myself up, noticing out of the corner of my eye a rusting iron stake jammed between two rocks.  How did that get there?  Grabbing onto a small tree and heaving myself over the top, I suddenly realized that I had just climbed up a retaining wall and now stood on the Bullhead trail at 4800 feet.

Return was via the ridge that leads toward Ramp Creek.  I later co-led this hike for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club.  I can’t remember exactly why it was that I was doing this scouting by myself.



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