Panther Stairs via Robinson Creek March 9, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Mt. Cammerer, Panther Stairs, Rich Butt, Robinson Creek
I’d done this climb twice before, most recently a year ago going solo in somber, overcast conditions. My hiking buddy Chris suggested doing it again—the one time he’d gone there, it was completely socked in, so he wanted to experience the Panther Stairs in better conditions. Boy, did we ever hit it right this time!
For those of you not familiar with the Panther Stairs, the official name is Rich Butt, the westernmost of the steep ridge approaches to Cammerer, and one of the best for the lovely open rock approach. The name is sort of a takeoff on the Cat Stairs of Greenbrier Pinnacle.
Both times I’d gone before, I’d used the Toms Creek route, starting at Cosby Campground. Chris suggested hitting Rich Butt from the other side via Robinson Creek. I hadn’t realized that an old road makes for an easy approach from Cosby’s good old twisty Route 32. So between the “Official Mike Knies Shortcut” from the Hartford exit on I-40 and Chris’s memory of the Robinson Creek location, we had it made.
Chris somehow talked his friend Jim into coming along on this adventure. I’m surprised that Jim ever agreed to do another hike with Chris and me, after our trip through dense fog up Styx Branch last year. Jim must have forgotten the relevant details of that outing, so he let himself in for another typical Smokies off-trail experience ranging from greenbrier around the neck to slithering up and down over layers of slushy snow and vertical rock.
We found the old road without any problem, not far from where the Mike Knies Shortcut hits 32 on a combination of Lindsey Gap Road and Groundhog Road. (This is of no advantage for Tennessee hikers, but it is of great use for people traveling on I-40 from the Asheville direction.)
We hiked along the Robinson Creek roadway without any problem. It is similar to the lower Groundhog Ridge manway.
We crossed the Lower Cammerer Trail and followed the ridge that merges into Rich Butt around the 4200′ elevation point. Things were frosty up there.
We got glimpses of nearby ridges touched with hoar frost. But with the warm temperatures, everything was rapidly melting.
We got up into the Realm of Frost ourselves.
We wrestled with an odd combination of snow and greenbrier vines, plus other gratuitous vegetation.
Our ridge merged onto Rich Butt (no turn signals necessary), and we pushed along the level stretch of the ridge.
We got up into the zone of the red spruce. This has become an odd preoccupation of mine, noticing where I encounter the lowest spruce, usually somewhere around 4500′. The thin, dense needles of the spruce make the perfect support for frost.
Finally we got up onto the steep rocky section—the Stairs.
As we climbed, we saw wonderful expanses opening up below. A jubilant experience!
In the photo below, if you look closely, you see Chris’s arm gripping the rock.
Here Chris appears to be downclimbing. I think it was when he was going back down to retrieve the hiking poles Jim had accidentally dropped.
We finally reached the Cammerer side trail, and there we had to make a decision. Would we go back to our starting point via trails (about 8 miles total), or would we go down the Groundhog Ridge Manway? We climbed to the tower.
And there we decided to go down Groundhog Ridge. You might wonder why we even hesitated about using this unmaintained trail, but Chris and I agree that it has become a real nuisance, a slippery muddy trough that’s been overused.
However, we found that in the six inches or so of snow, Groundhog Ridge was a real delight. The snow made a kind of styrofoam texture that you could sink your heels into and progress down steep slopes very pleasantly. There is a certain pitch below the first open spot on the ridge that I think of as the “Awkward Pitch,” but in snow we did a delightful butt-glissade downward with the frosty white stuff acting as the perfect cushion. Lower down, the thin layer of slush on the manway was more of a hindrance than a help, but in the upper sections it was just what we needed. And so we descended to the Lower Cammerer Trail and followed it back to the Robinson Creek road. And it was a wonderful day.