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Playing the Styx Branch game May 11, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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The sand myrtle is near peak bloom.

Warning: Tedious navigational details ahead.

We didn’t quite achieve our objective of coming out right at Myrtle Point, but we came close. We hit the spur trail to the Point maybe 20 feet away. This has become sort of a game.

For those who haven’t followed descriptions of earlier expeditions, I’m talking about following Styx Branch through the area called Huggins Hell to get to the top of LeConte.

The first time, I went with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club on a trip that was supposed to go up the left fork but accidentally went up the right fork. We landed way to the east of Myrtle Point on the Boulevard ridge. The second time, I went with Seth O’ Shields and Dave Landreth up what I thought was the left fork but now believe was a variation of the right fork, staying on a course of about 17 degrees and following a small split in the stream instead of bending east with the right fork. We hit the Boulevard ridge much closer to Myrtle Point, but still to the east of it. The third time, I went with Chris Sass, Seth, and a friend of Seth’s. We started up the same route as the previous time but landed further away from Myrtle Point. This last time, we finally went up the left fork…

My current best guess as to the ways I’ve gone.

The forks split, and split, and split again. What looks at first glance on the map to be a simple stream valley proves to have small indentations that diverge from it—side valleys that don’t carry enough water to rate blue lines on the map. But one of the odd things about Styx is that often those upper valleys have more water flowing through them than the main stem, where the water flows invisibly deep underneath stacks of geological rubble that have been carried down over the years in mighty floods.

The other thing that makes Styx a challenge is that the critical junction, the one at 4700′ between the left and right forks, lies close to several other draws that come in nearby. In fact, the junction is fairly obvious, but I’d been outsmarting myself by deciding that was not the correct one. It was partly because the left fork takes a course of 350 degrees up to above 5000′, but right at the very start it’s more like 320 degrees, and the right fork seems at first to run closer to the correct course.

I know, all you GPS users are laughing!

On our recent outing, we walked up and down around the junction, checked out different possibilities, and once we angled over to the left fork from one of the little draws, we actually walked back down it to confirm its appearance at the main stream.

The left fork is worth the trouble to follow. Above 5000′, it tumbles down over a series of lovely cascades. There is a great split at 5700′. We went to the right, working around the steep base of a giant unclimbable bulge, slithering on shards of loose Anakeesta. We then climbed steeply through different bands of vegetation offered up like flavors on a menu: grass mixed with blackberries that you could use to pull yourself up, groves of spindly spruce, great spongy swathes of moss, carpets of perennial wildflowers not yet in bloom, and finally—what told us we were zeroing in on Myrtle Point—aromatic Rhodendron minus that grew in a dense interlocking barrier. At one point close to the top, I watched Chris working through it on his back, his legs pushing against the tangled branches to propel himself forward.

Our goodnatured companion Jim uttered a few curses as he fought through the barrier, but he emerged victorious and seemed satisfied to have conquered Myrtle Point. It was his first climb of LeConte.

Jim was a good sport about the whole experience!

We climbed in drizzle and fog the whole way up, and none of us took pictures along the way. It was chilly on Myrtle Point. After stopping for something to eat, we headed over to the lodge for some hot chocolate. As we sat in front of the heater in the lodge, Chris and Jim shared hilarious stories about some of their associates on the faculty of Young Harris College.

This is the second hike in recent months where I’ve had serious problems with my fingers. My gloves get saturated, the activated charcoal handwarmers I carry don’t work when they’re wet, and my problem with Reynaud’s Syndrome becomes apparent. I’ve finally learned the lesson that even in temperatures above 50 degrees I need to have waterproof gloves available. My fingers stayed so stiff even all the way down that I could unlock my car only by pressing the key between my palms and turning it with my whole hands.

But as we descended the Alum Cave trail, the clouds thinned and all of the intricate, green, furry ridges emerged from the gloom, those distinctive places like Big Duck Hawk and Anakeesta Ridge. There’s no other place like this.

A beautiful plant.


1. mmbowden60 - May 11, 2012

Nice bushwhack. I ran into Seth about a year ago. He showed me the trailhead of Fork Ridge Trail at Shining Rock Wilderness and led me through overgrown upper part of trail.

Jenny - May 11, 2012

Yes, Seth knows his way around an awful lot of places!

2. Thomas Stazyk - May 11, 2012

Reminds me of my days Orienteering. My brain doesn’t do contour maps!

Jenny - May 11, 2012

Oh, contour maps are lovely. It’s just connecting them with the real world that can be problematic…

3. brian - May 12, 2012

Yeah, that watershed is hard to get straight in my mind for some reason. I’ve only done it downhill except for following Dave and Seth up once so I really don’t remember well what fork is where. We took the other direction at the “unclimbable bulge” but I ran over to check it out and there seemed to be one spot towards the left where you could get up the crumbly rock.

4. Gary - May 13, 2012

glad to see you’re “back in the saddle” doing some hard hikes. Suspect I would have been totally exhausted enough not to get up this one in one day. Also doesn’t sound like a good day for

5. TWL - May 19, 2012

I enjoy readings your posts about such outrageously difficult hikes. I guess it gives me a vicarious pleasure.

But I would love to see a Jenny write-up in this manner with maps of an off-trail hikes for normal human beings and non-Olympian hikers. For example, how about a reprise of one of your hikes of the porter creek manway, with maps and images?

Jenny - May 21, 2012

Tom, thanks for your comment. I’m going to try to include maps in my posts more often.

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