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Horseshoe Mountain—made it! November 21, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The tiny summit of Horseshoe Mountain.

The tiny summit of Horseshoe Mountain.

After two attempts, I finally succeeded in my quest to climb Horseshoe Mountain via Horseshoe Branch. The map below shows my route—up the branch, down a draw that leads to a waterfall above the second tributary of Lester Prong. Then down Lester to the Porters Creek manway to return to the maintained trail. (I drew the manway as a straight line on the map, but as you probably know, it crisscrosses the stream).

My route on Horseshoe.

My route on Horseshoe.

This hike offers nothing spectacular. It is for people who like the idea of getting up into a remote stream valley that feels secluded and hidden away because of the two arms of the “horseshoe,” the east and west ridge, that reach around it protectively. I suspect some folks would feel it wasn’t worth the trouble. There’s a lot of vegetation to deal with. But for me, it was definitely worth it.

Heavy rains three days earlier were still affecting the streams, making the rockhopping more difficult than when I tried two weeks ago and went up to the east ridge.

Porters Creek looking downstream from Horseshoe junction.

Porters Creek looking downstream from Horseshoe junction.

Soon after I started up the stream, I passed evidence of a very hardworking pileated woodpecker.

Shavings from woodpecker.

Shavings from woodpecker.

All the little cascades were pretty because of the higher water. This time, I wasn’t able to keep my feet dry. The stream is so hemmed in by rhodo that if you don’t step in the water you’ll spend too much time working around the pools.

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On my trip two weeks ago I passed a waterfall a little below 3800′ that I had seen on Tom Dunigan’s great website. The same thing happened both trips—I went into open woods to the right and climbed a little ways up a hillside, then saw the falls off to the side. For what it’s worth, here’s a zoom photo of the falls partly obstructed by brush. It has two drops.

Maybe 25 feet from top to bottom.

Maybe 25 feet from top to bottom.

Speaking of Tom Dunigan’s website, I’ve gotten addicted to one of his links, to the CalTopo maps with slope angle shading. Click on any location in the Smokies and go to CalTopo, and you can see more easily than by the contour lines alone exactly where the steepest parts are. The flattest areas are shown as pale yellow (27-29 degrees) and the steepest ones as violet (46-50 degrees).  (There’s a blue, 51-59 degrees, but you only see that at the Jumpoff.) Turned out the only violet terrain I encountered on this trip was at the bottom of the draw I followed down to Lester. More about that in a moment.

I passed the side valley I went up on the earlier trip and encountered a Zone of Uncertainty at 4000′. The map shows the main stem of Horseshoe Branch going nearly due south and a side draw with no permanent water angling south-southwest. When I got to the split, I found no water at all in the supposed main stem, a little bit of water in the side draw, and water seeping out of the ground in the middle.

A very pretty spot in between the two draws where water seeps out of the ground.

A very pretty spot in between the two draws where water seeps out of the ground.

On my earlier trip in lower water conditions, the stream had disappeared for a bit and re-emerged higher up, as some of the streams do around LeConte—Styx Branch being a prime example. Thinking the water might reemerge, I continued straight south, following a shallow depression that had no water and looked like it practically never carried water. It was full of rhodo. There was a flat area to the right that made for slightly easier going, so I did that for a while. The photo below shows what, believe it or not, was the easier place to go.

I used the hemlock blowdowns as pathways where I could.

I used the hemlock blowdowns as pathways where I could.

I include this blurry photo to show you what the dry streambed looked like when it wasn’t completely swallowed in rhodo.

A rhodo-free stretch of dry streambed.

A rhodo-free stretch of dry streambed.

The water did come back very briefly, and I refilled a water bottle there. As I climbed more steeply, I hit a stretch of open woods, but it didn’t last.

A welcome patch of open woods.

A welcome patch of open woods.

At 4800′ I encountered slimy sandstone bluffs and worked my way around them. I didn’t encounter much Anakeesta in this valley.

Looking back toward lower west ridge.

Looking back toward lower west ridge.

Can you imagine what it will be like when all those dead hemlocks come down? I fear that bushwhacking in five or ten years will become terribly arduous.

I hit the summit area a little to the west of the high point. There’s room at the very top for just a few people to stand under the laurels. The ground showed signs of hiker traffic. Those would be, I guess, people using the Horseshoe slide and people following Peter Barr’s example and climbing 5000-footers. I’m willing to bet practically all—probably all—of those hikers came from the direction of the Boulevard or from Lester Prong, not up Horseshoe Branch

Looking toward Shutts Prong drainage.

Looking toward Shutts Prong drainage.

Looking toward Charlies Bunion and companion ridges.

Looking toward Charlies Bunion and companion ridges.

Now I had to get off the mountain. I looked at the big slide that runs down the east side. The top is colored violet on the slope angle map.

Slide on Horseshoe. Photo taken October from Charlies Bunion.

Slide on Horseshoe. Photo taken October from Charlies Bunion.

I have to be honest. Even though I went down the slide three years ago with a couple of friends, fear came into my heart. I could climb up it, and I’d planned to do that in September but didn’t get that far. But not down it,  not by myself. I just couldn’t get myself to drop down onto that very steep place. I’ve run into this sort of thing before. It’s a matter of psychology and perception.

I decided I would explore the draw that hits Lester Prong above the second tributary (the one you use to climb the Bunion). I don’t recommend this route. It turned out to be okay in the upper section, bad in the middle, and scary at the bottom. I slid down the upper part on my butt. Since rhodo branches have a way of pointing downhill on steep slopes, you’re going with the grain instead of against it, and you just hold onto the branches to control your speed.

In the middle I ran into greenbrier mixed into the rhodo. That was miserable. The briers finally thinned out, but when I got to about 4200′ I suddenly realized I was just above a cliff. Below me and a little to the side I saw a waterfall, very pretty with the recent rain. The rhodo was so dense that I couldn’t see what was solid ground and what was a dropoff. I decided to traverse away from the waterfall. Danger lurked just below. I cautiously made my way across the slope and saw a spot below that looked doable. I lowered myself down carefully, holding onto branches. Now I saw a series of short little drops. I clung to a branch of witch hobble, slid down—now I had come to the end of the witch hobble branch. I let go and dropped. Fortunately I got down to the bottom without injury. It shook me up a bit, and I didn’t think to take a picture of the nice waterfall. I sat and rested and had something to eat before I was ready to go on.

Once I went on down the stream, I saw that if I had gone a little bit further I would have reached a very manageable slope, but the rhodo was so dense I hadn’t seen that. Looking downslope in dense vegetation is tricky. I continued down Lester Prong, passing the second tributary, the small stream that starts at the Horseshoe slide, and the first tributary. Those tributaries on the east side of Lester are the gateways to the steep crags around the Bunion.

I reached the manway and continued on to the backcountry campsite. It was quite an adventure.

Lester Prong near first tributary.

Lester Prong near first tributary.

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Horseshoe Branch and Horseshoe East Ridge November 7, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Looking down ridge.

Looking down ridge.

I still didn’t make it to the top of Horseshoe Mountain from Porters Creek. But I explored!

At least I made more progress than I did in September, when I couldn’t even find the mouth of Horseshoe Branch, tried to reverse the direction of my trip by going up Lester Prong and up Horseshoe from that direction, and came up short.

The mouth of Horseshoe is not very obvious, especially in low water. A big rhodo branch grows across it. Still, I should have seen it.

Mouth of Horseshoe Branch.

Mouth of Horseshoe Branch.

Porters Creek near Horseshoe junction.

Porters Creek near Horseshoe junction.

On this trip, I decided I would climb Horseshoe Branch as far as its junction with a draw at 3800′ shown as not having a permanent water flow and then climb to the crest of the easterly of the two ridges that curve around the watershed in a horseshoe shape. I’d heard that this ridge was used as a route in the old days. Then I would climb the ridge to the top. It didn’t work out that way.

The lower section of Horseshoe Branch is overhung with rhodo. It would be very tough to keep feet dry in higher water conditions, but in this dry weather, I was able to keep my boots out of the water.

We are looking straight up the stream.

It seems we’re looking off to the side, but no, we are looking straight up the stream.

Pretty little cascade.

Pretty little cascade.

Part of the challenge of keeping feet dry was all the newly fallen leaves floating on shallow water, making it hard to tell what was ground and what was water.

Leaves on rock.

Leaves on rock.

Logjam.

Logjam.

I left the stream and climbed up the side of the ridge. It was very tough, full of bluffs and rhodo and greenbrier.

Typical rhodo section.

Typical rhodo section.

Up top I encountered a lovely section of myrtle.

One of my favorite plants.

One of my favorite plants.

In places, deep spongy mounds of myrtle were blended with reindeer moss (not a true moss, a lichen). I had never seen this before. It was wonderful.

A dead pine amidst pillows of myrtle and reindeer moss.

A dead pine amidst pillows of myrtle and reindeer moss.

But this pleasant scenario did not last. The laurel grew thicker, though I was able to follow a bearway, crawling on hands and knees in places.

This wasn't hard going.

This wasn’t hard going.

Then I ran into a zone of severe wind damage (see photo at bottom)—and the rhodo came back. (It always does.) I persevered for a while, but I was making such slow progress that I wasn’t sure I could make it to Horseshoe Mountain and back down without running out of daylight.

I bailed out to the northeast to hit the Porters Creek valley. I’m not sure I made the right decision. The conditions going down were horrific—solid rhodo mixed with hemlock blowdowns, punctuated by bluffs. But if the wind damage had continued on the ridge, it would have been bad news.

It was a very tough hike.

Terrible wind damage.

Terrible wind damage.

Unlucky Horseshoe September 10, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Area of Horseshoe Mountain.

Area of Horseshoe Mountain.

For the past month, I have been haunted by the memory of my adventure going up Shutts Prong. I wanted to venture again into those wild streams. And so it was that I came up with the idea of visiting Horseshoe Mountain. I decided I would follow Horseshoe Branch from Porters Creek to the summit and descend via the stream that runs down Horseshoe’s east side into Lester Prong.

I descended that east-side stream, which forms a slide in its upper section, on a trip three years ago, going down the slide and climbing up the Jumpoff. I was accompanied by Brian Reed and Seneca Pressley on that trip.

I set out on a beautiful cool, clear September day. The first challenge I faced was to locate the junction of Horseshoe Branch and Porters. That shouldn’t be a problem, I figured. After all, I’d located the Shutts junction with no trouble at all. Also, you can see Horseshoe Mountain from the trail.

The USGS map shows the junction at just above 3200′.  Just to make sure of the location, I also printed out a copy of a Google map from Tom Dunigan’s Tennessee Landforms website, since it shows a GPS track of a person following the trail. Hmmm—the GPS track looks quite different from the dotted line of the trail on the USGS version.

To make sure I didn’t miss the junction, I left the trail below 3200′ and went to the stream through a wide swath of rhodo, then started rockhopping up Porters. Even though water levels are low these days, Porters is still a large enough creek that working upstream isn’t all that easy. I went from pool to giant boulder to blowdown, on and on, and didn’t see the junction. I went all the way up to 3400′ before heading back to the trail. I came out at the backcountry campsite—obviously past the junction.

“I must’ve just missed it,” I said to myself. “I need to go back and start lower down.”

I went down to 3050′ just to make sure, and once again proceeded upstream. After much work, I saw a wet footprint on a boulder—my own. It’s interesting how long it takes a footprint to evaporate.

I had already been concerned about time. “Okay, time to cut my losses. I’ll reverse the trip, go up the slide and down Horseshoe Branch.”

So along I went to the familiar Porters Creek manway. The stream crossings were all easy with the low water levels.

First crossing on Porters Creek manway.

First crossing on Porters Creek manway.

The manway is becoming more and more obscure with its many blowdowns. The first stretch, just past the backcountry campsite, is one of the hardest to follow. The trick is to look past each blowdown to see traces of foot travel on the ground. When you get to the stream crossings, you have the friendly cairns.

This cairn must have been here quite a while.

This cairn must have been here quite a while.

A cairn with a special shape marks the junction with Lester Prong.

Cairn at Lester junction.

Cairn at Lester junction.

Lester nearly disappeared in places with the low water, the way Styx Branch disappears and reappears.

Hardly any water in this stretch---but it reappeared.

Hardly any water in this stretch—but it reappeared.

I approached the first tributary on the left, the one I have followed many times to reach Rocky Crag (the “Real Bunion”). Distinctive cascades mark this spot.

Near first tributary of  Lester Prong.

Near first tributary of Lester Prong.

This is where you are starting to get past freestone and into bedrock.

This is where you are starting to get past freestone and into bedrock.

The mouth of the first tributary had so little water in it that, if I hadn’t been  familiar with it and hadn’t paid attention at that moment, I could have gone past it without noticing it.

“The mouth of Horseshoe Branch might have been hard to see,” I said to myself. I still don’t know. Perhaps it is located where I passed by on the other side of an island, or where I was struggling with some blowdown/boulder combo and just didn’t pay enough attention right then.

The bottom of the east-side Horseshoe stream was nearly invisible.

Good thing I knew where to look for it.

Good thing I knew where to look for it.

I climbed a pleasant jungle-gym array of rocks, punctuated with blowdown. Trouble with these narrow draws is, all sorts of debris rolls down into them. At times I left the draw to climb along the side.

Snakeroot growing to side of draw.

Snakeroot growing to side of draw.

I got into the bedrock section.

Up around 4700'.

Up around 4700′.

At around this point, I went to the side into open woods, put my hand down on a fallen log, and disturbed a wasp’s nest. I got three good stings near the elbow (I had my long sleeves pushed up). Youch! I could feel my arm stiffening up—it was pretty painful.

“This may not be the day for this hike.” I was already somewhat concerned about the amount of time it would take to descend Horseshoe Branch—especially since going down is harder than going up.

I turned around.

Ferns on the way down.

Ferns on the way down.

Finally I got back down to Lester.

Recent blowdown on Lester.

Recent blowdown on Lester.

I reached the Porters manway. Hard to believe that 25 years ago it was almost like a maintained trail.

Obstacles on Porters manway.

Obstacles on Porters manway.

Berries of witch hobble (viburnum).

Berries of witch hobble (viburnum).

Red fungus.

Red fungus.

As I went back down Porters Creek trail, the light had shifted, and I could see the northern ridges of Horseshoe Mountain more clearly—those are the ridges that give it the horseshoe shape it is named for. The trick is to find the tail of the more easterly of the two ridges, for that is exactly where Horseshoe Branch comes in.

“I will be back.”

Cardinal flower.

Cardinal flower.