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Don’t underestimate Cole Creek June 26, 2014

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

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.



1. Clyde - June 26, 2014

Jenny, it has been a while since I have done Cole. I didn’t remember it as being bad. Lower part was bad rhodo, then it seemed to open up. Albeit steep. I do remember we went the wrong way at the top and got too far left at West Point and got in a mess of laurel. We also did it on a wet day. Rhodo must have gotten worse or something. We didn’t get out of the creek till after the rhodo ran out.

Jenny - June 26, 2014

Well, Clyde, I’m glad to hear you had an easier time than we did. Actually, I had an easier time, too, when I did it before. We were up on West Point for lunch. I do think the rhodo has gotten worse, because when we had to go through it back then to bypass obstacles it was work but not the kind of thrashing we had to do yesterday. And as I said, we made a mistake in getting too far away from and above the stream when we bypassed a waterfall near the junction. Chris and I never got to the point where it steepens and opens up.

2. Al - June 26, 2014

I think Cole Creek was my first OT to LeConte. I remember Paul Therlkeld being on that SMHC trip and we went over the top and down to the Bullhead trail. Then up to the lodge.

Jenny - June 26, 2014

Al, I remember your being on that trip. You were wearing the red hat. Ray Payne and I led it for the SMHC. We came down via Little Duck Hawk. When Ray and I scouted it, we went over West Point. But when the club did it, Charlie talked us into skipping West Point and dropping down to the Bullhead trail. For some reason I still remember him demonstrating his technique for going down steep slopes (that stretch down to Bullhead is quite steep). He pretty much scooted down on his butt! I am sure the rhodo is worse now than it was then, because I remember seeing all of us working through the rhodo at various points, and we were standing—not crawling. I’ve talked to Dick Ketelle about his recollection of various places in the 70s, and there were places he remembers as open that I experienced as having bad rhodo. My only explanation is that possibly these were places that were cleared in the past that have grown up over the years.

norman medford - June 27, 2014

sounds logical to me, enjoyed the read!

3. Brian Reed - June 27, 2014

I’m convinced the Rhodo-Blob is slowly but relentlessly swallowing everything. There are studies tying its expansion to the decline of Chestnuts and more recently Hemlocks. I’m guessing the Balsam decline had the same effect as well. Given sufficient moisture, more light just makes it grow thicker and suffocate any new competition.

I’m worried it’s just biding its time until we start hearing about mysterious bushwhacker disappearances.

Clyde - June 27, 2014

No doubt in my mind that off-trail gets more difficult every passing year. I recently did one I hadn’t done in about ten years and was amazed how much more difficult it was.

Jenny - June 28, 2014

Yes, that’s been my experience. I used to think it was just the hemlock and balsam blowdowns, but the rhodo really has gotten worse. Harvey Broome and his pals had it quite a bit easier, though they did some tough off-trail backpacks with old-fashioned equipment (packs without hip belts, for instance).

Jenny - June 28, 2014


4. Chris Sass - June 27, 2014

I didn’t take many pictures, but here are a few (I’ve decided to call it a “scout” trip since it didn’t go as planned . . .):

Clyde - June 27, 2014

Thanks Chris, great photos.

Brian Reed - June 28, 2014

I’ve done a lot of “scout” trips. Why does the color of that log in the first picture look like that?

Chris Sass - June 28, 2014

I think the color is due to “polishing” by floods and flood debris. I’ve seen several logs like that in the log jam at the bottom of the 1000-foot scar in Trout Branch.

Jenny - June 28, 2014

Beautiful photos, Chris! I especially like the second one—the moss on the sandstone is so green.

5. Clyde - June 27, 2014

Ps, I need to remember that, “scout trip” better than some of my excuses.

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