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Rocky Crag via Pyramid side-ridge October 28, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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I could have pretended I took this photo yesterday. In fact, it was taken on the ridge last March under identical conditions.

I took no photos at all yesterday. Partly because it was foggy and drizzly all day and partly because the pocket I usually carry my camera in developed a huge rip in it early on in the trip—I think it happened when I stepped on a slippery rock in Porters Creek and landed butt-first in the water.

I am not successfully maintaining my dignity these days. It seems every time I go on a hike I develop new problems with holes and rips in my clothing, which my dear companions don’t hesitate to point out. Hah! They are not exactly models of immaculate apparel themselves.

This time I was part of a group of six which briefly expanded to seven when the elusive, much-sought-after Greg Hoover graced us with his presence for a short while, having come out from Newfound Gap and descended the top part of the Rocky Crag ridge to join us on The Tooth. He would have done the whole trip except that he was in the throes of a head cold.

Chris Sass and I were out for more punishment after climbing the Bunion last week. We joined a group led by Greg Harrell whose main goal was to introduce a couple of long-time serious off-trail hikers, Ed Fleming and Hiram Rogers, to the adventure of The Crags. Charlie Roth also joined us.

The map below gives you the basic idea. The red line represents yesterday’s route. We started in the Greenbrier, went up the Porters Creek trail, followed the Porters Creek manway to Lester Prong, took the first tributary of Lester (which is near the boundary of the map), and left the Lester tributary to climb a side-ridge up to a rocky prominence called by some Pyramid Point.

The blue line represents the route that Chris and I took last week.

The red line started and ended at the Porters Creek trailhead. The blue line started and ended at Newfound Gap.

The Pyramid side-ridge is steep with some sections of rock scrambling, but it presents no serious obstacles. We arrived on the top and enjoyed being swaddled in fog, then proceeded up the main ridge to the top of The Tooth, where we met with the beaming countenance of Hoover.

After once again enjoying the fog for a while, we continued to the top of the ridge and dropped down to the A.T. There, Ed, Hiram, and Hoover turned toward Newfound Gap (where they had vehicles waiting) and Harrell, Chris, Charlie, and I descended the Dry Sluice manway and exited via Porters Creek.

Despite the lack of views, it was a fine day, shared with a good group of off-trail eccentrics. But then, people who do this kind of stuff are eccentric by definition.

Photo added at reader’s request. Jenny near top of Pyramid Point. Photo by Greg Harrell.

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East Fork of Porters and its side valleys September 17, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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4 comments

East Fork, April 1987

The photo above shows the East Fork of Porters Creek as it looked nearly three years following a massive washout that occurred July 1984. (If you click on the photo for the zoom, you’ll see the hikers descending it and get a better idea of the scale.) By sheer chance, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club had descended the East Fork the day after the washout occurred, after climbing the Jumpoff via Lester Prong, and I was fortunate to be on that outing, as well as the one pictured above a few years later, when we came down after going up the USGS Bunion.

Yesterday I went up the East Fork. This is what it looks like now at a comparable elevation. I’m sorry the pictures are blurry. I have my new camera, but I obviously need to change the way I hold it when I take pictures! (Maybe something to do with it being a lot smaller than my old one.)

Looking down the East Fork 26 years later

The regenerative power of the Smokies is pretty amazing! You’ll notice the spindly trees that are growing in along the banks. The photo below, taken lower down, gives a better sense of the young tree growth.

Spindly young trees along the creek

But my main reason for exploring up the East Fork was to see if I could find a certain side valley that I’d mentioned in my hiking journal back in the 80s. In April 1985 the SMHC went up the stream to look at the washout, and my entry described a place where the washout forked and five people went to the left and the rest of the group went to the right. The five who went to the left were Matt Kelleher, Rob Hawk, Brian Worley, Andy Zenick, and myself. I’d described a very exciting climb up a steep rocky draw with some interesting scrambling. But when I looked at the map, I couldn’t figure it out at all. It looks like all the steep terrain is to the southeast, going up to the Sawteeth. The north side of the stream is a flank of Porters Mountain, not as steep—and no clear side valley is shown.

Map showing East Fork with side routes drawn in (the one I did is to the north, other interesting-looking ones to the south)

So I went up the Dry Sluice manway, following the famous cairns, and stayed to the east where the manway follows the South Fork of Porters.

Not all the cairns are as obvious as this one!

It’s been a long time since I’ve been up the manway past the Lester Prong junction, and I was struck by how much slower it is than it used to be in the 80s, partly because it is much more overgrown and partly because at many stream crossings you have to hunt around a bit to see where it goes. I remember it as having been nearly as easy to follow as a maintained trail.

I climbed up the draw, pushing through quite a bit of nettles, blackberry, and witch hobble. At around 4600′, I passed a side valley on the left that looked as though it might be the bottom of the route described in my journal.

Side valley leading northeast from East Fork

I wasn’t sure if that was it, so I continued on. I came to some blowdowns that presented serious obstructions.

This was lots of fun to get around

And this was even more fun!

And so I worked my way up to Porters Gap. I am thinking that this route is not quite so much of a bargain as it used to be as an alternative descent route to the Dry Sluice manway.

At any rate, I did not see any other side valleys that looked like possible candidates. So now that I know where it is, I plan to go back and climb up it. From the map above, you would think it would be a totally wimpy route. Here is how I described the upper section in my journal: “I climbed up the steep chute that must have been a turbulent watercourse during the flash flood. All around, I saw rocks in different sizes and shapes, no plants, nothing green. When I arrived at the top of this chute, I saw an ugly brown scar that fanned out above me. We were climbing up bare plates of exposed rock, inching our way upward like flies on a wall. I found myself on a massive slab tilted at an uncomfortably vertical angle…” And so we climbed to the ridgecrest, which was actually the upper ridge of Porters Mountain, reaching it close to the A.T.

But still, I find myself gazing curiously at the extremely rugged terrain of the Sawteeth. I think the first ridge on the right after the forking of Porters looks doable, and maybe some of the draws further east—I saw yesterday where that valley comes in at around 4200 (it forks further up). The valley below the “BM” on the map looks too steep, but the others look not too bad, or maybe you could escape to one of the neighboring ridges if it got too steep (as the easternmost one does at the top). Something to think about!

So many places to explore…

Cardinal flower (red lobelia) seen on lower Porters Creek trail

A visit to Dry Sluice manway May 5, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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headwaters1This is a piece I wrote a few years after I moved away from Knoxville.  I returned to the Smokies for a visit and one day went up the Dry Sluice manway.

I lost my way going up.  Strange—I’d been up and down the manway countless times.  I could even see the spot where the trouble started.  I retraced my steps to the last cairn, remembering that here the unmaintained path left the streambed and slabbed its way across the slope.  But for some reason, on this particular day, I could not find the place.  After stopping for a bite to eat, I continued up the watercourse.  After all, there was just one thing to do—go up.  The top couldn’t be that far away.

I even asked myself why the mysterious cairn-builders of the manway (prehistoric beings?) had chosen a route off to the left instead of straight.  The answer came quickly, when I found myself peering up at a high bluff.  Water trickled down through the hanging garden of rock and plush green moss.  It resembled a thousand places in the Smokies, a thousand headwaters of high streams, places that always seem to get better somehow as you approach the source.

I believed I could find plenty of handholds and footholds to get up the bluff.  Hitching my pants at the knees so they wouldn’t bind, I lifted my right foot up as high as I could, found something to step on, pulled myself up.   My fingers sank deep into tufts of damp moss, touching the cold streamwater sliding down over the rock.  Up another step, another reach.  Over my shoulder the valley opened up below me, a vast green blanket of forest split by the stream.  A hawk sliced the air overhead.

I reached the top of the bluff by the usual casting of arms and legs into odd positions.  Pieces of dirt and moss attached themselves to me, wanting to claim me and overrun me, it seemed.  A second bluff appeared above, then a third: like color plates in an illustrated book.  The plot always seems to quicken at the end, and the stream always steepens (at least, the stream always does here, where the slope of the stateline ridge has a certain typical profile). Soon the streambed had dwindled to a slight indentation that barely took on the shape of a draw.  Here was the magical place where gravity pulls the water right out of the ground.  I looked up the slope at a mass of deep, snarled (maybe even snarling) vegetation interspersed with decorative boulders and rotting treetrunks.  The mountain wasn’t going to yield without a fight.

This part at least felt safer, since the brush had such a tight grip on me that falling down the mountain was impossible.  But even placing my foot on the ground was a bit of a challenge.  I extended my toe toward a disorganized jumble, probing to make sure a bottomless hole wasn’t lurking.  Working along, I pushed aside briers and scooted over a slimy log.  But this was actually sort of fun.  I could imagine a simulation of this obstacle course in a children’s amusement park—a tamer version, minus thorns—next to the rooms full of plastic balls for them to crawl through and hanging ropes to climb on.

At last, the jungle spat me out onto the A.T.  No one was there to congratulate me or marvel at my disheveled appearance.  I strolled along to the “real” Bunion for lunch, thinking about how sometimes it is best to adventure alone.  You come more under the spell of things.  But at the same time, at least on that particular day, it seemed a bit lonely, maybe because I had often been there with other people.

Eating my sandwich and my apple, I gazed over at the human ants swarming on the  “tourist” Bunion and admired the Class 3 route that I had climbed with Chris, seen here in spiky profile.  After a drowsy hour, the warm sun beaming down on my head, it was time to pick myself up and walk back down the A.T. to the jumping-off point for the east fork of Porters Creek.  This was where by pure chance the hiking club had come down the day after a tremendous washout.  It is always a bit hard even for a dedicated bushwhacker to take those first few steps off the comfort of the trail, a task somewhat harder to do on my own, but off I went.

Down through the steep open hardwoods, footfalls crashing between trees, boulders, vines.  Down and down and down.  After a bit I saw below me the brightness twinkling between the trees, the openness of the washout.

When I came to the edge of the scar, I was amazed to see how much the place had changed over the course of seven years or so.  The vegetation had grown up dramatically.  The marks of the flood could still be seen—the chiseled sides of the draw, the heaps of broken rock.  But it no longer looked like a wasteland.  The green genius of the plant world had been hard at work.

I began to pick my way down the rubble.  And then, as I entered the new growth, something pricked my arm, and I realized it was solid blackberries.  What the hell!  Oh well, at least it was something living and growing.