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Down the Horseshoe slide and up the Jumpoff August 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , ,

The Jumpoff shows up as a steep rocky scar in this photo (click for zoom)

Once again, I have no photos of my own from a hike—the ones you see here were either taken on previous occasions or borrowed from Seneca, one of our party. I blame it all on Brian Reed. I’ve hiked with him twice, and each time the camera I had with me was destroyed by water. You’d think I’d learn a lesson here.

The conquerers of the Jumpoff (I am joking, of course---no one conquers a place like this)

I thank Seneca for this photo of the three of us added on—taken at the top of the Jumpoff.

The forecast called for the same we’ve had for weeks now: warm and muggy with afternoon thundershowers. It turned out completely different—cool temps with continuous solid rain from when we started hiking at 8:00 from Newfound Gap until the early afternoon. The rain created a magical world of tumbling cascades and surging streams up in the very wild headwaters of Lester Prong.

Our party of adventurers consisted of Seneca Pressley, Brian Reed, and myself.

We followed the A.T. to the junction with the Boulevard trail and took that to where it bears west at the 5600′ elevation point. There we left the trail in a northeasterly line to locate the ridge of Horseshoe Mountain.  The narrow ridge dropped off steeply through thick brush, but we followed a faint footway created by bears and a few eccentric humans. We had hoped for views over to the Bunion and its neighboring crags from the saddle on Horseshoe, but our only views consisted of dense, silvery clouds. However, we did find a nice blueberry patch in the saddle that boasted both the regular variety and a deluxe variety with berries that looked almost black. (Yes, they were definitely blueberries!)

As we climbed out of the saddle to the summit of Horseshoe Mountain (5288′), the woods opened up a bit. We got our first glimpse of our intended route down, a long slide that runs from the summit all the way down to Lester Prong. Some friends of mine have been down the slide, which has an interesting quartz boulder in it near the top. But we could not see the boulder, because it was submerged in a giant cascade of tumbling water.

You can just make out the very top of the slide below the high point on Horseshoe Mountain. Taken from Tourist Bunion.

It did not look feasible to go down the upper slide in this heavy flow of water, so we descended a few hundred vertical feet through woods beside it until the grade lessened enough to make it doable. We waded down ankle- and sometimes knee-deep water along this wonderful secret passageway that can only be seen from a few spots (the best spot to see it is from the “real Bunion,” but I didn’t take a picture of it from there, darn it!). Walls of thriving green vegetation hemmed us in.

Long before we reached the valley of Lester Prong, we could hear it rampaging along. When we finally reached the valley floor, we hunted around for walking sticks to help us keep our footing as we waded up the stream—for it would definitely be a wade. The conditions reminded me of the descent of a tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong that I did with Brian and three others last fall, coming off the south side of Woolly Tops (this is where the other camera was submerged).

Brian contemplates the stream. Taken last fall in tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong.

This time we were going upstream rather than downstream. It was the first time I’d been up past the second tributary of Lester Prong since an SMHC outing in the 80s. We’d hiked it the day after a notable flash flood that scoured out the nearby valley of the east fork of Porters Creek. But on that trip, we had still been able to rockhop rather than wade. This time, there was no alternative to wading. We stayed to the shallower water and the edges wherever we could, but at times had to wade through waist-deep water.

It was an enthralling adventure, fighting our way up this remarkable stream, clambering over wet, mossy boulders, stepping into rushing water without being able to tell ahead of time how deep it was going to be. The whole upper stream looked different to me from the way I’d remembered it from the SMHC trip, both because of the high water and because this is a steep-sided valley that is constantly rearranged by violent rainstorms that deposit massive logjams and piles of boulders in ever-changing patterns.

At last we reached a critical junction at 4600′. To the right lay the main flow of Lester Prong that leads up to the junction of the Horseshoe and Boulevard leads. To the left lay a side stream that leads directly to the steepest part of the Jumpoff. Both of these branches make long cascades at this point as they tumble down over very steep Anakeesta rock, the lefthand cascade being the taller and more impressive from this viewpoint. From here to the top of the Jumpoff, it is a climb of 1400 vertical feet in a distance of well under half a mile.

A friend who has done more exploring here than anyone else I know describes the righthand route as the “February Route” (named for the first time he did it) and the lefthand route as the “Direct Ascent.” He describes the “Direct Ascent” as “opening up the door of the wardrobe into the scary places of Narnia.” I had shared this description with Brian and Seneca—and they wanted to go that way. I did not want to, myself—I had also heard the words “very precarious” applied to this route. So, with my blessing, Brian and Seneca set forth to do what they called the “Narnia Route” while I went on my own up the “February Route.”

Brian on a cascade

I climbed up next to the more southwesterly cascade and continued up the draw nearly to the Horseshoe/Boulevard junction, and here I made a mistake based on what must have been an incorrect recollection from the SMHC trip. I angled to the right and ran into a cliff band between 5200 and 5400 feet. It took me a while to find the weak points in the bluffs and to pull myself up using branches of rhodo for the most part, which were fortunately fairly plentiful. But I made it to the top, and I reached the Jumpoff overlook about ten minutes before Brian and Seneca did.

They came up what I now estimate to be less than 50 feet north of the steepest point of the overlook. Brian had enjoyed it, while Seneca looked a bit pale from the experience, but he had made it. In the last, nearly vertical 100 feet or so, they had used a widely spaced series of five young spruce trees to create the links in their route. Brian said that if even one of those five spruces had not been there, they couldn’t have done it. They lunged upward for each one in turn and did huge pullups to get their bodies up to that tree, and then on to the next one and up the face.

Brian e-mailed me later to say that he thought there was another route that was more doable—he felt that by making a traverse further to the right (north), I could consider it feasible for doing myself. I do know that I never would have made it by their route, which certainly went into wilds of Narnia!

We watched an interesting swath of cloud streaming over the back of the stateline ridge, cloaking the crags and ridges of the Bunion area. Then we headed back out by trail and got out to Newfound Gap just about twelve hours after we started. Of that total time, it took us two hours to do six miles by trail and ten hours to do no more than two miles off-trail.

Here is a beautiful photo from Seneca that shows the clouds flowing over the stateline ridge.

Clouds over stateline ridge. Photo by Seneca.

And below is another photo from last fall’s venture down Eagle Rocks Prong. I am including this only so that people will understand what these streams are like.

Also from Eagle Rocks Prong---Peter Barr and myself in the stream--just to give a feel for these high-water conditions


1. Gary - August 23, 2010

glad to hear you had a good adventure. Sorry
about your camera.

I settled for a couple hour run in the woods (ran
3 days in a row, knees feel okay ) Hot enough
to have an excuse to loaf, but not too bad.

Zach is back from Idaho.He was in the River of No Return
Wilderness (2 million acres). He weighs ten pounds
more. I think he had a good time.

Jenny - August 23, 2010

Those areas of wilderness in Idaho have always intrigued me. I would love to spend some time out there. But how on earth did Zach gain weight in a place like that?! Perhaps gorging himself on Fettucine Alfredo as he descended the river?

2. Thomas Stazyk - August 24, 2010

You are such a gifted writer you manage to make even something like this sound fun! But I’m much happier to read about it than do it.

Jenny - August 24, 2010

Thank you, Thomas. I very much appreciate your feedback about my writing. But you must be wrong about actually doing these kinds of things—surely you would love to claw your way up a steep slope of slippery rock!

3. tom lundberg - August 25, 2010

wow, jenny. i’ve prowled around that area enough to know just how precarious those routes are, and how unbelieveably steep the route that the guys took. great report, and nice supplementary shots as well!
i’m glad the weather gave you a break.

Jenny - August 26, 2010

Tom, you probably are as familiar with that area as anyone. I imagine you understand the fascination that it has–just an incredible place. I plan to go back there again.

4. Brian - August 28, 2010

“I blame it all on Brian Reed” Hahaha. I guess I should have told you I always do a rain dance the night before a waterfall hike. Hmm. Maybe we should go through Raven Fork gorge next time.

Jenny - August 29, 2010

Brian, my friend, given your evil influence on water levels, you are the very last person that I would want to go to Raven Fork Gorge with! : )

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