Don’t underestimate Cole Creek June 26, 2014Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Bear Pen Hollow, Cole Creek, Mt. LeConte
No photos—it was raining when my friend Chris and I started, and what with my track record of taking fogged-up pictures, I decided to leave the camera behind.
Anyone who’s read my novel The Twelve Streams of LeConte knows that Cole Creek is one of the twelve streams that drain the slopes of Mt. LeConte. I have climbed all of those streams, but I hadn’t climbed Cole Creek for a very long time and didn’t re-climb it for the book. I remembered it as a lot of work going through the rhodo without a lot of payoff.
I’m going to revise that impression. The rhodo was even worse than I remembered, but the stream really does have some beautiful features. In particular, there is a whole series of lovely cascades flowing over sandstone bluffs. In one section of the stream, it is almost like giant stairsteps of stone with water gliding over them.
Although the rain tapered off, all the rocks were slick—just about as slick as ice. This hike would be a lot easier in dry conditions, when you could just march up any low-angled block of sandstone. That was out of the question yesterday. And each time we reached one of these cascades, we had to figure out a way to go around to the sides. That involved fighting through ferocious rhodo.
We got into trouble just below the junction of the left and right forks. To get around a good-sized waterfall, we headed into the brush to the right and climbed steeply. We figured we could go up a ways and then contour over to hit the right fork, which leads to West Point, a sub-summit of LeConte.
Well, we should have stayed closer to the stream. Once we got above it, we couldn’t get back down to it. Why on earth not? Because the rhodo was up around 10 on the one-to-ten difficulty scale, and then we realized there were bluffs between us and the stream. We struggled, and fought, and wrestled the rhodo, and we were going practically nowhere. We finally decided to follow the path of least resistance up to the ridge that’s the divide between Cole Creek and Bear Pen Hollow.
We made it up there and looked at the map. We were at about 4700′. It was a long, long way to get to West Point! And the ridgecrest had greenbriers as well as rhodo.
We decided to cut our losses, drop down to Bear Pen, head downstream, and call it a day. We made decent progress—as in, we weren’t crawling the whole time—and finally spotted a gully that led to Bear Pen. The last 20 yards to the gully took about 15 minutes. It was a strange combination of rhodo and blackberry over blowdowns with deep holes underneath. I found this the hardest stretch of the whole trip.
We worked our way down the gully and after a while finally caught a break. We found open woods to the right and were able to walk comfortably through them. We popped out on the Newfound Gap Road between the Bear Pen and Cole bridges—absolutely filthy and wet. It had taken us six and a half hours to go about a mile and a half.
We’ll go back, and next time stay closer to the stream.