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Chimney Rock on Defeat Ridge January 19, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Thunderhead Mtn. from Bote Mtn. road. Photo by Brian Stansberry

I wrote this account 20 years ago or so.  It is about a portion of the Defeat Ridge manway, which leads from the valley of the Middle Prong of the Little River to the summit of Thunderhead Mountain in the Smokies.

Chimney Rock is located on the section of the Defeat Ridge manway that rides along the crest of the ridge, after the manway has climbed up out of the Middle Prong valley but before it leaves the crest to work its way through the rhododendron hell on the slope of Thunderhead Mountain.  Its elevation is  about 4000′.

On a day in late summer, we started our journey at the abandoned logging grade beside Sams Creek.  These grades crisscross the whole Middle Prong valley, an area that was heavily logged before the days of the Park.  As you walk through the thriving second growth forest, you can pick up pieces of coal that were thrown off by the logging locomotives.  You can imagine men shouting as they sawed down the giant trees.

But the deep green woods are quiet now.  We followed the grade to a small chasm once crossed by a trestle, rockhopped across the stream, and scrambled up the bank on the other side.  Cutting across a switchback, we  pursued the weedy grade as it chugged its way up along Thunderhead Prong.

We wrestled our way through a place where dense grapevine had overrun the woods.  Every now and then we would come out into the sun, poke our heads around, and see how the vine had poured itself over everything, turning trees into shapeless green lumps.  Under the warm summer sky, it smelled like a pasture run to weed.

Once past the vines, we crossed Thunderhead Prong on a disintegrating bridge to start the climb up to Defeat Ridge.  For the first time, we left logging grades to follow a trail that had been created as a footpath.  This path had long since been abandoned, but we had no trouble following it through the thick debris of the woods as it snaked up the side of the ridge.

On the ridgetop, the manway swings around and climbs slowly southward, staying a little below the crest so that you walk along the side of a steep slope with the spacious woods below.  You approach the crest gradually, reaching it at an intersection of abandoned paths.  There is something pleasing about standing in the center of this junction that is hidden away in the wild woods, which no one knows about any more.

You continue straight ahead on the manway, carpeted here softly with pine needles.  The rhododendron that you’ve noticed here and there gets thicker, closes in.  Its wiry brown arms bend over the path, which has become a child’s path or a troll’s path, not high enough for you to stand up straight.  You tunnel under the arching branches.  Dwarf pines grow on both sides.  And upward you climb, the ridge dropping off to your left and to your right.

You don’t have to go far beyond the junction to reach Chimney Rock.  You notice a mass of stone just off to the left.  You climb up out of the trough of the path and find yourself at the base of a large gray lichen-covered rock.  You grasp its cool knobs and haul yourself up on top of it, your toes scrabbling for a foothold.

And suddenly the great blue valley opens up before you.  The dense pines and rhododendron that roofed over the world for so long have subsided into green waves lapping at your feet.  You see that you are sitting on top of a wart on a broad fold of mountain.  This hump stretches up to the very top of Thunderhead.  Ahead, Davis Ridge rises up to the giant Smokies crest, and across the vast bowl you see Blanket Mountain and beyond that mountains behind mountains.

We reached this spot at midday.  The sky had gone a light pearly gray.  We ate the sandwiches and cheese and apples we’d brought, dropping our crumbs into the treetops.

And then we saw the hawks.  There were two of them, riding the air currents over the valley.  They made fast silent tracks through the substance that was invisible to us, but which flowed thickly under their wings.  They were not performing for us.  But they stayed overhead, wheeling to slice back over the ridge, to soar, turn, dive, turn.  I asked myself what they saw, how they thought.

We climbed down from the rock, swallowed up again by the forest.  We had left behind the realm of the sky.

Another time when I was there, with six or eight people, one man stayed behind on the rock to yodel into the valley.  We waited on the path and listened.  When he stopped, we cheered and laughed and clapped.  We couldn’t have explained why we were so happy.

Thunderhead Prong. Photo by Brian Stansberry

40,000 headmen on Mt. Davis May 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, White Mountains.
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The east side of Mt. Davis is carpeted with moss

The east side of Mt. Davis is carpeted with moss

It was my birthday hike in 2007.  Bob and I had a tradition that I would get to pick the destination for an outing sometime around August 25 each year (since his birthday is December 23, he always got shortchanged in that department).  I had decreed that we would climb Mt. Davis, a 3840-ft. elevation point on the Davis Path that is considered a shoulder of Mt. Isolation because it doesn’t have the required 200-foot prominence.  No one climbs Mt. Davis as a destination, though it is sometimes passed along the Davis Path by backpackers.  Yet the AMC guide says it has “perhaps the finest view of Montalban Ridge and one of the best in the mountains.”

The route: Rocky Branch trail from Rt. 16 to where it makes a right-angle turn and the Isolation trail comes in.  There we would leave the trail and bushwhack on a course close to due west toward the summit.

As we drove to the trailhead, we were listening to a “Best of Traffic” CD.  The song “40,000 Headmen” was playing as we pulled into the parking lot.  It tells a peculiar dreamlike story:

Forty thousand headmen couldn’t make me change my mind
If I had to take the choice between the deafman and the blind
I know just where my feet should go and that’s enough for me
I turned around and knocked them down and walked across the sea

Hadn’t traveled very far when suddenly I saw
Three small ships a-sailing out towards a distant shore
So lighting up a cigarette I followed in pursuit
And found a secret cave where they obviously stashed their loot….

The song was still going through my head as we started our climb up the Rocky Branch trail.  The air felt a bit soupy, but the sky gleamed like a polished piece of metal and the temperature was not too warm.  As we crossed over the height-of-land on Engine Hill, we passed by large numbers of white turtleheads in bloom, a wildflower I’ve seen often in the Smokies but rarely in the Whites.  Asters were interwoven with the turtleheads in shades of pale blue and pale purple.

We rockhopped the crossing at Rocky Branch with no difficulty, and soon we left the trail and plunged into our off-trail assault on the majestic peak of Mt. Davis.  We moved easily through open moss-covered forest, working around small boggy areas that fit together like pieces of a puzzle.  Above 3300 feet the climb grew steeper and we got into some spindly spruce and fir, but the going wasn’t too bad.  We aimed to hit the ridge a little to the south of the summit so that by turning to the right when we reached the Davis Path we would be sure to hit the spur trail to the top.

When we crested the ridge, the altimeter showed us by our exact elevation that we were indeed south of the top.  So now all we had to do was drop down less than 200 vertical feet to the Davis Path.  But as soon as we broke through to  the windward side of the ridge, the going got predictably much worse through wind-carved scrub evergreens.  I had a slight alarm when a stubby branch knocked my glasses off and sent them sailing into the brush.  Luckily, I found them in a minute.

We felt as though we could have been miles from any trail, but we kept telling ourselves the Davis Path had to be very close, and we finally touched the ground on the trail.  We had been bouncing from branch to branch for about 15 minutes.  Then it was only a short stroll up the path to the spur trail and the summit.  We gazed into the vastness of the Dry River valley and up past the bump of Mt. Isolation to Mt. Washington, which looks like a monarch from this subsidiary ridge to the south.  The sky had a glimmering, pearly look.  The song was still going through my head, following the adventure of the mysterious loot-seeker:

… Filling up my pockets, even stuffed it up my nose
I must have weighed a hundred tons between my head and toes
I ventured forth before the dawn had time to change its mind
And soaring high above the clouds I found a golden shrine…..

After taking a leisurely break at our tiny rock outcrop surrounded by oceans of wilderness, we continued on to the north for a return via Mt. Isolation and the Isolation trail.  As usual, we found the headwater area along the upper Isolation trail to be meandery and slightly confusing, but we got down into the stream valley, made the multiple stream crossings, and took a last look at the glittering waters of Rocky Branch before steeling ourselves for the climb back up and over the height-of-land.

It was as we approached the broad saddle that the 40,000 headmen started coming after us.  We could hear thunder rumbling off to the west, but it sounded distant.  Then it started to sound closer.  And closer.  The headmen were right on our heels.

We had just begun the descent when the heavens opened with a mighty crash of thunder and a sizzle of lightning.  It seemed as though the air itself had turned into water.  A quick stop to put on raingear, but that was a pathetic gesture.  We were going to get nailed.

The lightning was so close that I could smell the electricity.  With a lot of melodramatic banging and rumbling, the dense  raincloud lingered overhead, emptying its full contents directly on our heads. It poured, and poured, and poured.  And finally the worst of the storm passed.  By that time the sun was starting to go down, for it had been a very long day.   The trees grew larger, and darker, and eerier, and the forest grew slimy and slippery.  We got out our headlamps.  Following the tiny white lightbeams through the drizzly air, we stumbled along.  Without the headlamps, I have no doubt we would have been forced to spend the night in the very black woods.

We made it out to tell the tale—and truly, it was a great adventure.  Time to get back on the road and find something to eat.

Laying down my treasure before the iron gate
Quickly rang the bell hoping I hadn’t come too late
But someone came along and told me not to waste my time
And when I asked him who he was he said, ‘Just look behind’

So I turned around and forty thousand headmen bit the dirt
Firing twenty shotguns each and man, it really hurt
But luckily for me they had to stop and then reload
And by the time they’d done that I was heading down the road

The place we can’t go anymore March 30, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , ,
This is why

This is why

Before I say anything else, I want to say that I agree that we shouldn’t traverse Little Duck Hawk anymore.  That is a place where peregrine falcons live, and it is wrong to invade their homes.  This post is partly about how a sense of adventure can collide with environmental responsibility.

Matt Kelleher starts the approach to the ridge

The approach to the ridge

The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club used to go up and down, backwards, forwards, and sideways on this ridge.  It was a standard hiking club thing to do.  Looking through the old SMHC handbooks, I found one from the 1960s that spoke of how the ridge had formerly been the haunt of the peregrines, but because of DDT, they were no longer to be found in that area.  This would have been a few years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  But now, thank goodness, the peregrines are back.  And the hikers are gone—at least, the ones who care about these things are gone, or those who obey the current National Park Service restriction that forbids people from climbing the ridge.

For me, Little Duck Hawk was always a test of my ability to master my fear of heights.  At its narrowest point, the ridge was little more than a foot wide with sheer dropoffs on both sides.  Before I ever climbed it, I saw a picture in a slide show that captured the spectacle of a whole line of maybe 12 or 15 people going up the hand-over-hand section into the thin air, progressing one by one in steady unstoppable fashion, conquering the ridge in something approaching military indomitability.  I recognized some of the people in that line.  I won’t name any names, but I knew that some of them were real chickens when it came to things like difficult rockhopping.  I decided then and there that if they could make it up Little Duck Hawk, I could make it up Little Duck Hawk.

The first time I did it, it was not on an SMHC hike but with my former husband Chris.  He was always much less afraid of heights than I was.  We dropped down from the trail into the unofficial territory, maneuvering over slabs of Anakeesta shale that were like giant layers of strudel.  This was a good warmup.  Before long we had completed the initial descent, and we were looking up at the “crux”—a rock staircase with an extreme amount of exposure.  I don’t remember who went up first, me or Chris, but after stopping for a moment to focus and take a deep breath, I simply maintained my forward progress and systematically climbed up the staircase, reaching up and grabbing the Anakeesta layers with my hands and stepping up with my feet.  I remember that the rock was nice and toasty in the afternoon sun.

Soon we were up on the narrowest part, the section that has the hole underneath that forces of nature have drilled all the way through the rock.  The narrowest part of the ridge is about 18″ wide and continues for about six feet.  Walking forward was no more difficult than walking across the living room as long as you didn’t think about what would happen if you stubbed your toe or stepped on your shoelace.  Before long the ridge had widened and we were working our way down into the dense rhodo that surrounds the ridge.

The interesting thing for me, something I still don’t fully understand, is that my fear of heights has never bothered me in the Smokies anywhere near as much as it has in some other places, like the Rockies or the Sierras.  In fact, I have climbed in some pretty preposterous places in the Smokies.  There is something about the Smoky Mountains that seems to nourish me and take away any fear that I might have.

Sometime in the mid-1990s I brought Bob down to the Smokies and took him across Little Duck Hawk.  Bob said at the time that it was the scariest place he had ever hiked, but he made it.

I have done it by myself, going up and going down, just to see what it felt like to do it alone.  It’s easier to do it from the top down.  If you start from the bottom, you have to angle through a jungle of rhodo and keep the faith that you’re going to get past all that rubbery vegetation and up onto solid rock.  Going from the bottom, it also means that you downclimb the trickiest part.  It meets the definition of Class 3 scrambling: you have to face the rock to go down.  It would probably meet another definition of Class 3 that I read somewhere: your dog wouldn’t be able to do it.

The hiking club hasn’t done it for a very long time.  I don’t know exactly when the Park Service said you couldn’t go there any more.  I understand there are signs now on the rough herd path that tell you not to go any further.  I suspect that some people will probably criticize me for even writing about this place.  But for me, trying to understand and describe experiences is the most important thing that I do in my life, and I’ll take whatever lumps come my way.  And I will also say that there are other places you can go that are just as interesting and challenging.  You just have to study the maps.

It was nice while it lasted.

Little Duck Hawk seen from Big Duck Hawk (you can't go there either)

Little Duck Hawk seen from Big Duck Hawk