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The Cat Stairs February 13, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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We edged around from the Cat Stairs to look at this cliff. That's ice running down the middle.

I’ve never been on a hike quite like this, that had lengthy sections punctuated with all kinds of interesting sound effects from our group: laughter, curses, cries of exhilaration, shouts of warning, and screams of horror. I kept wishing I could make an audio recording as well as a photographic record.

We met at the Greenbrier Ranger Station. The Park Service recording on road conditions said that the road between there and our starting point was closed. Despite that information, fourteen people optimistically showed up, only to find that the road was, indeed, closed and gated. Perhaps it was because of the sheer force of our numbers—the ranger must have been looking nervously out his window at all of these vehicles—but after our front leader, Greg Hoover, knocked on the door and explained our important mission, the ranger emerged and opened the gate. Hurray!

Our route followed an old unmaintained trail that goes from the Ramsey Prong road to the old Barnes homesite and then (much fainter from this point on) up the steep rocky ridge of the Cat Stairs to the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle. You can see the route on this 1931 map.

The Barnes homesite is located where the trail turns north toward Little Bird Branch

The lower part of the route follows a sturdily constructed wall along an obvious path.

Old wall

We moved along quickly to the homesite, turning left at the old rusty can stuck up in a tree and right at the long log on the ground that had no bark. Greg, being a sociology professor, gave us a sociological explanation why he’d been going so fast: “Peer pressure.”

We looked at the very sad graves of the three small children of John and Isabelle Maples Barnes.

Barnes graves

The first of the Barnes children, Delia, died at the age of 14 months on Christmas Day. The Barneses did have other children who survived—at least, for a period of more than a year or so.

Delia's grave

We looked at the chimney of the old Barnes house.

Barnes chimney

Then it was time to tackle the main business of the day—the Cat Stairs. As we climbed and the ridge steepened, the snow did not seem to get much deeper, it only seemed to get much more slippery.

Pausing on the ridge

Greg had a very flashy-looking, conspicuous, fluorescent green compass dangling from his neck, along with a GPS. However, he confided to us that he never uses his compass. It didn’t matter. He led us along the way with such gusto that we would have followed him just about anywhere. (And in fact, we did.)

Fluorescent green compass

We made some side trips to look at the cliffs that we were just barely bypassing.

Working back around from the cliff shown at top

It was around this point that the sound effects of our group started to become interesting. We reached a slightly tricky spot.

Adam and Amanda tackle the tricky spot

We grunted and exclaimed our way to the top, doing quite a bit of backsliding on the slippery snow, and reached the lookout spot located 0.4 miles below the old firetower site. The trail that formerly connected from the Ramsey Prong trail up to the tower hasn’t been maintained since the 80s and is getting pretty overgrown now. I believe the Park Service let it go partly because the tower was taken down and partly because this is a nesting area for peregrine falcons (duck hawks).

View from old Pinnacle trail

Now it was time to get off this mountain. We descended via the old phone line route, which drops extremely steeply in its upper section. At first the rhodo and laurel were quite thick, providing good handholds, though your feet would still shoot out from under you in the snow, leaving you dangling from a branch. (I have sore arm muscles today.) We did a short side trip to visit two outcrops that Greg called his Happy Spots. You will notice that I didn’t go all the way out to the end to get the best photo from this spot (a pine obscures the cliff view). I had on my microspikes, which made me feel unsteady on the jutting rock.

Taken from one of Greg's Happy Spots

Although I am normally a big fan of microspikes, I feel that on this day they didn’t help me that much on the snow, either, since it lay atop thick layers of leaves.

Soon we came to a very interesting spot where each person had to butt-slide down maybe eight feet between two snow-covered boulders. The boulders were smooth, and there was really no way to control your speed. I raced down the chute and landed with my feet against two fallen logs that prevented me from plummeting over a dropoff. It was quite something. After I got down, the best part was listening to the cries, shrieks, and miscellaneous shouts of each of our group as they did the joy ride.

There must have been times when the phone crew would have needed to repair the line in the winter. I’m impressed.

Piece of phone line with ceramic insulator

We continued to plummet noisily down the steep valley, zigging and zagging to avoid frozen waterfalls and the like. At last the gradient lessened.

It finally started to get tame in the lower valley

It was a wonderful adventure. I got to meet some great people and have lots of good conversation. I truly enjoyed the experience.

Leaders Greg Hoover and Craig Hutto at right

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Comments»

1. Amanda Beal - February 13, 2011

It truly was a wonderful adventure. I know I contributed my fair share of the sound effects. Adam and I were discussing earlier how many treacherous spots we navigated and how irreverent everyone seemed to be about the danger involved. We thought that made the trek easier – mentally at least.

Jenny - February 13, 2011

I’m glad you feel that way. After I put this piece up on my blog, I started worrying that people would think we were being irresponsible. The trip involved some risks, but they were calculated risks, and the outing continued a longstanding tradition of real adventure within the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Anyone who reads Harvey Broome’s Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies can see that. Greg is a careful and competent leader—I know he scouted the trip more than once in the past month or so and has been on that route many times—and despite my joke about his flashy compass, he certainly knows how to use it—he just hardly ever needs to. I look forward to seeing you again on future outings.

2. brian - February 13, 2011

Wow. As someone with long experience in convincing people to get in over their heads outdoors I can’t believe Hoover got a group to go down the phone line. In the snow! The old school club people would have been impressed by that one. That was one of the first few hikes I did in the Smokies after I got my driver’s license in high school. I was attracted by the skinny countour lines. Seneca was with me and we thought it was crazy steep. We had no idea what the wire was at the time or why there appeared to be a trail going up Bird Creek. Where did you all go down relative to the overlook on the old tower road?

I always find the Barnes place depressing. Not just the little girls but also how marginal the site was for a farm. It’s such a high elevation and a small area of level ground. Must have been tough to scratch a living there. Shows you how crowded it was getting in the Smokies then. I think for subsistence farming the area was on the verge of having overpopulation problems if modern life had not come along.

Jenny - February 13, 2011

Well, the funny thing was, going down the phone line route was part of the program ahead of time, not something that was decided on the spot. And 12 people read that in the newsletter and decided to join the 2 leaders in doing it! The route is actually an SMHC classic. I did it with the club in the 80s—though it was in summer. Hey, I know what the trouble is! Greg called it the “cable route,” and the club always used to call it the “phone line route,” so people thought it was something totally different… or not.

We went down very close to the overlook.

3. kaslkaos - February 25, 2011

Feeling almost, not quite jealous, reading your adventures, and thinking those Happy Spots might be dizzy spots for me. And come to think of it, just looking at the topographic map of the cat stairs had my stomach do a flip flop.
Alas, I am a flatlander.

Jenny - February 26, 2011

Maybe so, but you are apparently quite skilled at reading contour lines! At any rate, I think there are many different reasons people like to explore the outdoors and many, many different approaches to the experience. None right or wrong. As someone said once, “Hike your own hike.” Simple, maybe, but true.

4. Chris Fox - August 8, 2011

I’m so fascinated with this route lately, due to the history and stories, and how the land is just littered with the remnants. Copeland/Cable is a really good combination.

5. Randy Opie Taylor - September 4, 2011

I see where we missed the trail from the picture on this article Chris. We went straight to the rock face instead of far left and then up from the point. Fun trip!

Chris Fox - September 5, 2011

Agreed. I realized it once I had time to think about what we did.


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