The Cat Stairs February 13, 2011Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Barnes graves, Barnes homesite, Cat Stairs, Greenbrier Pinnacle
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 lower part of the route follows a sturdily constructed wall along an obvious path.
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.
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.
We looked at the chimney of the old Barnes house.
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.
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.)
We made some side trips to look at the cliffs that we were just barely bypassing.
It was around this point that the sound effects of our group started to become interesting. We reached a slightly 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).
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.
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.
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 was a wonderful adventure. I got to meet some great people and have lots of good conversation. I truly enjoyed the experience.