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Panther Stairs January 28, 2012

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

One of the "stairs" that has to be negotiated.

Today I did a solo bushwhack up Rich Butt to Cammerer. Rich Butt is labeled as a mountain on the USGS Hartford quad, and it does kind of look like a mountain if you view it from the Toms Creek valley, but it is actually a ridge that hits the 5000′ high point on the Cammerer side trail (a point that is higher than the point where the lookout tower is located). People often call it the Panther Stairs—bigger stairs than the Cat Stairs over on Greenbrier Pinnacle.

I climbed it once before, in 1997 on a visit to the Smokies from my then-home of Massachusetts. That was a Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing led by Fred Kitts and Charlie Klabunde in October when the colors were blazing. Nothing was blazing today, but I found that I enjoyed the eerie fog that shrouded the upper ridge.

The fog came in on panther feet.

When I arrived at the Cosby parking area, I discovered that I had left something at home on my kitchen counter next to the door—my map! Details, details! But since I had been studying it the evening before, I felt that I remembered it well enough. The crucial thing was identifying the point to leave the Lower Cammerer trail and head up the left fork of Toms Creek. But I remembered that Toms Creek was the first creek encountered along the trail that had two branches very close together. I figured that as long as I trended east, the very worst that could happen was that I’d hit the stateline ridge at some other point along the upper bowl of Toms Creek.

Toms Creek

Toms Creek was running high after all the rain of the past week, but I didn’t need to rockhop it. I found a faintly visible old road along it that worked out great.

I hit Rich Butt just fine, following the side ridge that parallels Panther Branch. The next time I do this hike, I will stay longer with the branch and hit the top ridge further along (but still below the “stairs”). The main problem along the ridge was greenbrier.


A minor annoyance, but nothing compared with the briers of Huggins Hell.

The ridge stays almost level for a while, then starts climbing more and more steeply, and that is where you encounter the “stairs.”

The first major stair.

I had thought I might encounter some old ice from last week’s cold temps, but there was none. I had brought my ice axe, my microspikes, and my crampons. I needed none of these. The ice axe ended up seriously getting in my way—it was an experiment for me, the first time I’ve used it in the Smokies. (I used it fairly often in northern New England.) I have a leash on it to prevent it from sliding away down a steep slope, and I found myself dragging it behind me in places I needed to use both hands. Of course it kept getting snagged on the brush.

My ice axe.

It’s a long mountaineering axe (30″) rather than an ice climber’s axe, so attaching it to my pack wasn’t an option, as the spike would stick up and constantly get hung up in the brush.

The fog closed in as I climbed. I could see that it was brighter down in the valley.

Looking into the Toms Creek valley and beyond.

I liked the view down the ridge.

Down the ridge.

The laurel near the top was denser than I’d remembered, but finally I popped out on the Cammerer side trail. I didn’t even bother going over to the lookout tower, because I knew it was completely socked in—the fog had thickened beyond what’s pictured above and erased any visibility.

I’d thought of dropping down off-trail into Panther Branch, but I decided not to because at that moment I was tired of dealing with the laurel. So I headed out to the A.T. to go to Low Gap and then down to Cosby campground. Not far along the A.T., I encountered two park rangers.

They asked me if I’d seen any other people and where I had been—I got the impression they were looking for a missing person. I told them I’d come up Rich Butt, and they didn’t know where that was. I don’t hold it against them—they said they were both new to the park. “Please educate us about that,” one of them said. They were very pleasant and didn’t get on my case about bushwhacking solo.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I must have looked kind of scary. I had a big brier scratch on my face, and my right earlobe was completely bloody. Plus I had the ice axe! Reminds me of the time I was in L.A. for a business conference and did some winter hiking on Mt. Cucamonga. On my way back from the hike I had to return my rental car and get a cab into town for some logistical reason I don’t recall. I was standing next to palm trees near the L.A. airport, waiting for a cab, and none of them would stop—no doubt because I was standing there with the axe!

My trip back via trail was uneventful. Below 4000′, I left the fog behind. A good outing. And my bum knee held up really well.

The hallways of the Fog King.


1. Charlotte Germane/DaffodilPlanter - January 28, 2012

Should the subtitle be: “In which I frighten two park rangers”?

Jenny - January 29, 2012

They should have been frightened, but they didn’t seem to be!

2. Gary - February 2, 2012

Sounds a great adventure .. this Sunday I managed to find the next leg of the Mountains to Sea Trail (previously I’d failed and ended up on a fishing trail .. which of course petered out. Drizzling without a compass so had to stay within shouting distance of the river. That was all quite flat. Scared up a turkey. Large and close).

Am snuffling now .. a conference the week after. Would you like a more or less strong back to help move ?

Jenny - February 3, 2012

I guess the MST has sections in that part of NC where it’s fairly obscure. I’m sure the mountainous WNC sections must get much higher use… Thanks for the offer about helping me move. It won’t be until the end of March, and I’ll be hiring movers—I’ve got some really heavy furniture.

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