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Above LeConte February 5, 2013

Posted by Jenny in nature, Smoky Mountains.
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Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon

In dim swirls of sleep I dreamed I saw the top of Mt. LeConte from high above. In the way that dreams unfold without a pause or question, I knew I was a peregrine. I could hear the air flow evenly beneath my wings as I dipped to circle toward the mountain.

Sharp early-morning sunlight cast sheet-metal shadows.  Every tree-furred valley folded neatly into place. Now I saw the streams that glimmered in the pouring light, the pools and waterfalls. I could see the water glide beneath the branching architecture of the trees.

As I banked and turned at Myrtle Point, I passed the glint of Cannon Creek. I saw its source quite clearly: tiny droplets percolating one by one from damp moss cushions in a balsam’s dark-blue shadow. I counted off LeConte’s twelve streams, turned sharp, and rode the air that flowed across the backs of mountains.

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Little Duck Hawk, a nesting place for peregrines on Mt. LeConte

Little Duck Hawk, a nesting place for peregrines on Mt. LeConte

Blue jeans on Cannon Creek February 21, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The summit of LeConte.  This is not why we climbed it.

The summit of LeConte. I guess we may have touched this point on our Cannon Creek hike.

From my notes after the hike, July 11, 1988.  The climb was 4400 vertical feet from the Porters Creek trailhead, going off-trail up Cannon Creek on the Greenbrier side of LeConte.  We came down via the Trillium Gap trail.

As we rockhop our way steadily up the very long watercourse of Cannon Creek, the group has divided into two parts.  One hiker was stung by yellow jackets early on, and the front leader accompanied him back to Knoxville because of a possible need for medical attention.  Charlie Klabunde is the substitute front leader with a group of 6, and Ray Payne is shepherding a group of 4 somewhere behind us.  It isn’t raining, but all of us are pretty much soaking wet because of damp brush, humidity, splashing into the stream, and sweat.  At one point Al Watson deliberately splashes water on me with a triumphant laugh.  Who cares at this point?

In the flux of people floundering their way up the creek, I find myself with Brian Worley and Tom, a friend of his.  The friend has never been on one of these rock-hops before.  He is holding up remarkably well, considering.  But he has made one serious error—in dressing for the hike, he chose to wear tight blue jeans.  The jeans have become wet, and they are clinging to his knees, imprisoning him.   It is time for emergency surgery.

The three of us sit down on a large boulder.  I take out my Swiss Army knife, open out the scissor attachment, and hand it to Tom.  He cuts off the pants legs just above the knees.  It takes a while, but he is finally a free man.  He stows the amputated legs in his pack, and we continue onward.  I notice that Brian is laughing, which is not unusual.  He propels himself up these creeks by force of mirth.

We should come to the waterfall before long.  We have put in hours of serious rockhopping, ticking off sections of stream foot by vertical foot.  This is the “working” section of climbing a stream, when you are chipping away at the vertical dimension at a workmanlike pace.  Higher up, the amount of effort is so high in proportion to the distance climbed that it seems haphazard and creative, accomplished by inspiration rather than technique.

We move through the gloom of the woods, under the canopy of dark, giant trees.  Now, at 4250′, I see a sudden contrast: the water is flowing down from high above us.  We gaze up at a dark, massive bluff perhaps 100 feet high.  The water cascades down about half the distance until it reaches a ledge, then slides over the ledge and tumbles down in a ghostly spray.   The living, moving stream is beautiful, but it also poses a problem: how do we get up around it?  The fall is hemmed in with the usual snarly, tangled rhododendron.  We decide to go for the left side, and begin to haul ourselves up.  It is the usual ridiculous kind of place.  The dirt is so rich, and dark, and soft, that it showers down when the toe of a boot is stuck into it.  You interweave your arms and legs with the rhododendron and crawl under, climb over, crawl under.  The plant seems to have been designed by a diabolical mind.  It’s an extra touch of genius that its flowers are actually beautiful during the one week each year that they bloom.

So we pull, slither, and tug our way up.  Eventually we reach the level of the middle ledge of the waterfall.  It is not strictly necessary to walk across it, but we’ve heard that others have done so.  Jean Bangham once told me she even sat down on the ledge and ate lunch—it must have been a drier year.  The ledge looks a bit treacherous, but we carefully make our way across water that’s about an inch deep.  At the very middle, I pause.  I feel that I’ve gone into the heart of the stream.

When we reach the far side we have more rhodo-pulling to do.  I watch as the person in front of me feeds himself into an aggressive rhodo bush.  I follow as best as I can and emerge with dirt on my hands and leaves down the back of my neck.  Not much further up, we encounter Charlie, sitting on a rock and eating lunch.  We tell him about crossing the ledge, and somehow it seems that he certifies the accomplishment by hearing about it—he is the best qualified to appreciate it.  Although Charlie is a stickler for doing things properly, sometimes that means taking a deliberate risk.  He is disappointed if a valuable experience is avoided.  He would say of some interesting obstacle, “You mean you went around that instead of over it?  But all you have to do is go right up the middle!”

It is mid-afternoon before we cross the geological divide between Thunderhead sandstone and Anakeesta slate.  Our pace slows as we negotiate steep, mossy slabs of streambed up into the balsam zone.  There’s one difficult pitch of steep rubble where I watch Charlie churning up through the rock shards, but he keeps swimming upward and then muscles his way into the thick ferns and blackberries above.  We are almost at the top—must be about 6300′—and one enormous blowdown stands in our way.  There’s a steep drop to the left, a huge complication of sharp branches to the right, and the massive trunk is head-high and impossible to climb over.  So we worm our way underneath.  As I pull myself out the other side, I see a cluster of pink turtleheads blooming.  “Places like this are great!” I say, and the others just start laughing.