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The crag in fog March 26, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The ridge was a tapestry of rock, myrtle, and fog

My good hiking buddy Chris and I decided to visit what is called by some the “Real Bunion” and by others “Rocky Crag.” The Real Bunion designation comes from looking at the USGS Mt. Guyot quad, which puts the “Charlies Bunion” label squarely on a ridge that practically no one ever goes to, in contrast to the destination of that name that is visited by many people.

Taken on a different day, obviously. Profile of the ridge we climbed.

We picked a date. The forecast called for 30% chance of rain showers. In one sense we lucked out—it was raining hard on the drive over, but the rain stopped before we met at Newfound Gap. In another sense, we didn’t luck out at all—we were shrouded in dense fog throughout most of our hike except where we dipped down below about 4500′.

Our original plan was to go out on the A.T. to Porters Gap and drop down the East Fork of Porters. But the unfavorable conditions and the likelihood of slow going in streams running high led us to opt for a shorter route via the Dry Sluice manway. The steep upper slopes were decorated with white foaming rivulets everywhere.

Water plunged down everywhere on the steep slope.

The footing on the upper manway is never easy, and the wetness made it extra slippery. But we descended without incident, as the expression goes. (“Incident” always means something negative, for some reason.)

Chris on the upper manway.

Once we reached Porters Creek, we walked through carpets of wildflowers: up at this elevation just getting going, so down at Porters Flats the blooms must be going crazy.

Dutchman's breeches.

I didn’t succeed in keeping my feet dry doing the rockhop up Lester Prong.

Distinctive cairn beside Lester Prong.

We turned up our tributary and reached the beautiful cascade not far above the junction.

The cascade was looking its best in the high water conditions.

The rock beside the cascade makes a lovely staircase for climbing. I apologize for the blurry photos—my fingers were frozen and I had a hard time holding the camera steady.

Chris climbs beside the cascade.

Just above the cascade, we followed a nifty corridor of open woods between big communities of rhodo. We reached the ridgetop and followed it over its lumps and bumps.

The first knob along the ridge.

What’s great about the ridge is that despite the steepness and the exposure, you always have friendly Anakeesta handholds or convenient vegetation to hold onto.

Typical ridge section.

We worked our way steadily toward the prominent crag.

Looking back down the ridge.

We will come back on a sunny day when the myrtle is blooming.

Chris has some great photos of the outing here.


Chris relaxes on the crag.

Lincoln Highway: Utah March 20, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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Driving across the hypnotic Salt Flats

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. Go here for an introduction.

Among Lincoln Highway states, Utah has the distinction of being the only one in which a major chunk of the former Highway route is now off-limits to the public. The original alignment passed through what is now the Dugway Proving Ground, part of a complex of top-secret military testing areas.

For instance, Dugway is adjacent to the Utah Test and Training Range, which is the “largest overland contiguous block of supersonic authorized restricted airspace in the continental US,” according to the Wikipedia article. That is quite a mouthful.

These areas are used for training exercises, disposal of explosive ordnance, and testing of experimental equipment. Dugway is known for the “sheep kill incident” of 1968, in which quantities of a nerve gas called VX were released in open-air operations and drifted over to Skull Valley, where more than 6,000 sheep were killed.

Dugway sheep kill, 1968

A classified report, produced in 1970, stated that VX was found in snow and grass samples recovered from the area three weeks after the incident. The report was not made public until 1998 (through the efforts of a newspaper reporter), and even then the Army did not admit responsibility. However, back in the days of general outrage against military use of chemicals—think napalm in Vietnam—the incident contributed to President Nixon’s 1969 decision to ban all open-air chemical weapon testing.

Things were a bit different in the early Lincoln Highway days, when travelers were advised that if they had a breakdown near Fish Springs—now in the off-limits area—they should build a sagebrush fire. “Mr. Thomas will come with a team. He can see you 20 miles off,” said the Lincoln Highway Association’s 1916 Official Road Guide.

In earlier posts we’ve met Effie Gladding, author of the 1914 Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway. Driving across the western Utah desert, Effie and her husband made their way from ranch to ranch, stopping for meals and overnight accommodations. They must have offered some compensation to the ranch owners, though her book doesn’t say. Here is a bit of her description of the Fish Springs Ranch, where they stopped for lunch.

Our host was a tall and powerfully built elderly ranchman in a blue jumper [presumably the Mr. Thomas of the LHA Guide]. A younger man lived with him and the two did their cooking and eating in a little log and stone house, near the main ranch house. He explained that he kept the little house because it was once a station on the Wells Fargo stage route…. We had fried eggs, potatoes, pickles, cheese, bread, butter, and tea, and an appetizing cup cake cut in square pieces…. As we left him he warned us that we were now entering the “Great American Desert” and that we should have sixty miles with very little undergrowth and with no water. [He told them to build a fire if they got into trouble.] “I’ll see you with my glasses and drive to your rescue with gasoline and water.”

From Effie Gladding's book: 1. American Baptist Home Touring Wagon; 2. Fish Springs Ranch

Drivers wishing to travel the route of the Highway must now stick close to I-80, passing on a straight east-west line north of the Dugway area, where the Highway’s alignment had followed the trail of the Pony Express and the Central Overland Route. The latter was used for transport of passengers, mail, and freight in the 1860s, up until the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed.

But back to our usual east-to-west sequence. Entering Utah from Evanston, Wyoming, the route passes through Echo, a railroad junction town on the Union Pacific line, which passed through Echo Canyon. Locomotives loaded up on coal there before heading up the canyon’s steep grade. After steam power was replaced by diesel, the town’s location at the junction of two major highways kept it going for a while, until I-80 turned it into a minor exit.

Church in Echo, Utah

We pass through Coalville, where Effie Gladding noticed not coal but many old-fashioned yellow rosebushes in bloom, and cross the megalopolis of Salt Lake City.

The Mormon temple in Salt Lake City

As the temple is considered sacred by the church of the Latter Day Saints, ordinary visitors cannot enter but must content themselves with a tour of the grounds.

Just west of Salt Lake City, the original route of the Highway goes through Magna, entering property of Kennecott Corp. It’s possible to visit the Kennecott Copper Mine, said to be the deepest open-pit mine in the world. In production since 1906, it is now 0.75 miles deep, 2.5 miles wide, and covers 1,900 acres.

Kennecott Copper Mine

South of I-80 at Grantsville, travelers can visit the Donner Reed Museum. It was in Utah that the party of 87 pioneers started to run into serious trouble on their way from Missouri to California in 1846. They opted to take a route across Utah and Nevada known as the Hastings Cutoff for the man who proposed it—a man who had never taken the route with wagons. The museum’s website states that the trail left by the wagon wheels across the salt desert is still easily detected. The pioneers lost their oxen to exhaustion and thirst, they cast off many possessions and abandoned wagons, and they had many conflicts before they eventually became mired in deep snow in the Sierras. The Donner Party is mainly remembered now for the way the survivors pulled through—by cannibalism. We will return to the subject at Donner Pass in California.

James and Margaret Reed, two of the 48 survivors

West of Grantsville, the interstate passes through a virtually unpopulated desert for about 80 miles, staying within a corridor between the military zones. The highway passes Skull Valley and crosses the Cedar Mountains.

Cedar Mountain Wilderness

It’s possible to visit the town of Gold Hill, formerly a mining center but now nearly uninhabited. It lay on the original route of the Highway, but it now can only be entered from across the state line in Nevada, along roads that stay outside the boundaries of the military testing areas.

Gold Hill, Utah

The interstate exits Utah at Wendover to enter Nevada near the Silver Island Mountains—a nice name.

Mountains near Great Salt Lake

Yosemite versus Vegemite March 18, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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I don't mean this...

This post is not about that terrible stuff that Australians spread on their toast. You pronounce “Vegemite” to rhyme with “Yosemite,” as in the national park. “Veg-em-i-tee,” with the same emphasis as “hegemony.”

So what on earth is this word I’ve invented? It’s a rating system for mountain travel where vegetation is the main obstacle. It runs parallel to the Yosemite rating system, which is concerned with rock more than vegetation.

Here is the Yosemite System:

Class 1 is walking on a maintained trail.
Class 2 is travel over a difficult trail or off-trail where minor scrambling is required.
Class 3 is scrambling where the use of hands is necessary for upward progression.
Class 4 is climbing where handholds and footholds are abundant but if you fall you might die. A rope may be used for safety.
Class 5.0 – 5.13b is technical climbing with increasingly minute holds where most people would use a rope.

Translating to vegetation, I would think the Vegemite System might go like this:
Class 1 is walking where there is no vegetative obstruction.
Class 2 is walking where branches need to be pushed out of the way and blowdowns need to be climbed over.
Class 3 is pushing through continuous vegetation but still standing up most of the time.
Class 4 is crawling on hands and knees through vegetation.
Class 5 is crawling on stomach through vegetation.

The rhodo I pushed through to get to this log is Class 3.5 in the Vegemite System.

Vegetation is not always the enemy in places like the Smokies. Sometimes it can be your friend, as Seth discovered in the gully pictured below.

And this gully points out the need for yet another rating system, one that deals with the usefulness of vegetation for handholds. Of course, real rock climbers scorn the use of “vegetable holds.”

Thoughts, anyone?

The vegetation here was a help rather than a hindrance.