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Down the Horseshoe slide and up the Jumpoff August 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The Jumpoff shows up as a steep rocky scar in this photo (click for zoom)

Once again, I have no photos of my own from a hike—the ones you see here were either taken on previous occasions or borrowed from Seneca, one of our party. I blame it all on Brian Reed. I’ve hiked with him twice, and each time the camera I had with me was destroyed by water. You’d think I’d learn a lesson here.

The conquerers of the Jumpoff (I am joking, of course---no one conquers a place like this)

I thank Seneca for this photo of the three of us added on—taken at the top of the Jumpoff.

The forecast called for the same we’ve had for weeks now: warm and muggy with afternoon thundershowers. It turned out completely different—cool temps with continuous solid rain from when we started hiking at 8:00 from Newfound Gap until the early afternoon. The rain created a magical world of tumbling cascades and surging streams up in the very wild headwaters of Lester Prong.

Our party of adventurers consisted of Seneca Pressley, Brian Reed, and myself.

We followed the A.T. to the junction with the Boulevard trail and took that to where it bears west at the 5600′ elevation point. There we left the trail in a northeasterly line to locate the ridge of Horseshoe Mountain.  The narrow ridge dropped off steeply through thick brush, but we followed a faint footway created by bears and a few eccentric humans. We had hoped for views over to the Bunion and its neighboring crags from the saddle on Horseshoe, but our only views consisted of dense, silvery clouds. However, we did find a nice blueberry patch in the saddle that boasted both the regular variety and a deluxe variety with berries that looked almost black. (Yes, they were definitely blueberries!)

As we climbed out of the saddle to the summit of Horseshoe Mountain (5288′), the woods opened up a bit. We got our first glimpse of our intended route down, a long slide that runs from the summit all the way down to Lester Prong. Some friends of mine have been down the slide, which has an interesting quartz boulder in it near the top. But we could not see the boulder, because it was submerged in a giant cascade of tumbling water.

You can just make out the very top of the slide below the high point on Horseshoe Mountain. Taken from Tourist Bunion.

It did not look feasible to go down the upper slide in this heavy flow of water, so we descended a few hundred vertical feet through woods beside it until the grade lessened enough to make it doable. We waded down ankle- and sometimes knee-deep water along this wonderful secret passageway that can only be seen from a few spots (the best spot to see it is from the “real Bunion,” but I didn’t take a picture of it from there, darn it!). Walls of thriving green vegetation hemmed us in.

Long before we reached the valley of Lester Prong, we could hear it rampaging along. When we finally reached the valley floor, we hunted around for walking sticks to help us keep our footing as we waded up the stream—for it would definitely be a wade. The conditions reminded me of the descent of a tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong that I did with Brian and three others last fall, coming off the south side of Woolly Tops (this is where the other camera was submerged).

Brian contemplates the stream. Taken last fall in tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong.

This time we were going upstream rather than downstream. It was the first time I’d been up past the second tributary of Lester Prong since an SMHC outing in the 80s. We’d hiked it the day after a notable flash flood that scoured out the nearby valley of the east fork of Porters Creek. But on that trip, we had still been able to rockhop rather than wade. This time, there was no alternative to wading. We stayed to the shallower water and the edges wherever we could, but at times had to wade through waist-deep water.

It was an enthralling adventure, fighting our way up this remarkable stream, clambering over wet, mossy boulders, stepping into rushing water without being able to tell ahead of time how deep it was going to be. The whole upper stream looked different to me from the way I’d remembered it from the SMHC trip, both because of the high water and because this is a steep-sided valley that is constantly rearranged by violent rainstorms that deposit massive logjams and piles of boulders in ever-changing patterns.

At last we reached a critical junction at 4600′. To the right lay the main flow of Lester Prong that leads up to the junction of the Horseshoe and Boulevard leads. To the left lay a side stream that leads directly to the steepest part of the Jumpoff. Both of these branches make long cascades at this point as they tumble down over very steep Anakeesta rock, the lefthand cascade being the taller and more impressive from this viewpoint. From here to the top of the Jumpoff, it is a climb of 1400 vertical feet in a distance of well under half a mile.

A friend who has done more exploring here than anyone else I know describes the righthand route as the “February Route” (named for the first time he did it) and the lefthand route as the “Direct Ascent.” He describes the “Direct Ascent” as “opening up the door of the wardrobe into the scary places of Narnia.” I had shared this description with Brian and Seneca—and they wanted to go that way. I did not want to, myself—I had also heard the words “very precarious” applied to this route. So, with my blessing, Brian and Seneca set forth to do what they called the “Narnia Route” while I went on my own up the “February Route.”

Brian on a cascade

I climbed up next to the more southwesterly cascade and continued up the draw nearly to the Horseshoe/Boulevard junction, and here I made a mistake based on what must have been an incorrect recollection from the SMHC trip. I angled to the right and ran into a cliff band between 5200 and 5400 feet. It took me a while to find the weak points in the bluffs and to pull myself up using branches of rhodo for the most part, which were fortunately fairly plentiful. But I made it to the top, and I reached the Jumpoff overlook about ten minutes before Brian and Seneca did.

They came up what I now estimate to be less than 50 feet north of the steepest point of the overlook. Brian had enjoyed it, while Seneca looked a bit pale from the experience, but he had made it. In the last, nearly vertical 100 feet or so, they had used a widely spaced series of five young spruce trees to create the links in their route. Brian said that if even one of those five spruces had not been there, they couldn’t have done it. They lunged upward for each one in turn and did huge pullups to get their bodies up to that tree, and then on to the next one and up the face.

Brian e-mailed me later to say that he thought there was another route that was more doable—he felt that by making a traverse further to the right (north), I could consider it feasible for doing myself. I do know that I never would have made it by their route, which certainly went into wilds of Narnia!

We watched an interesting swath of cloud streaming over the back of the stateline ridge, cloaking the crags and ridges of the Bunion area. Then we headed back out by trail and got out to Newfound Gap just about twelve hours after we started. Of that total time, it took us two hours to do six miles by trail and ten hours to do no more than two miles off-trail.

Here is a beautiful photo from Seneca that shows the clouds flowing over the stateline ridge.

Clouds over stateline ridge. Photo by Seneca.

And below is another photo from last fall’s venture down Eagle Rocks Prong. I am including this only so that people will understand what these streams are like.

Also from Eagle Rocks Prong---Peter Barr and myself in the stream--just to give a feel for these high-water conditions

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Of lopping and stone waterbars June 6, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Our crew pauses between Icewater and the Bunion

Yesterday was National Trails Day. I’d decided to get out there and lend one more set of arms and legs to the effort. The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, the Park Service, and Friends of the Smokies had organized the effort in GSMNP in which an army of 100 volunteers descended upon the A.T. between Indian Gap and Dry Sluice Gap to generally pound, prune, and groom the trail into submission.

I was part of a five-person crew headed by Dick Ketelle, who has been giving much of his time to A.T. maintenance for many years. He is master of all the tools that can possibly be used, from pulaski and pick-mattock to swingblade and loppers, sledgehammer and pry bar, chainsaw and even good old-fashioned cross-cut.

There was quite a long and complicated assembly at Sugarlands before we all carpooled up to Newfound Gap. We heard from park superintendent Dale Ditmanson, although what seemed to be on his mind this morning was not so much trail maintenance as the very unfortunate recent episode in which a tourist-habituated bear bit a stupid, ignorant person who got too close, and the bear had to be euthanized. The Park Service came under a huge amount of emotional attack and intense local press coverage for killing the bear, and Ditmanson gave us his side of the story. The whole bear episode had been a lose-lose situation.

So we could understand the superintendent’s slight obsession with the subject. At any rate, we eventually got up to Newfound Gap and set off to do our work. I grabbed up a swingblade and a surprisingly heavy pick-mattock and headed up the trail as Dick led us along at a fairly blistering pace. I soon began to regret that I hadn’t fueled up with the free donuts at Sugarlands, and I found myself, with a tool in each hand, unable to wipe the sweat from my brow. I did not regret that we got bogged down for a bit among other, slower-moving crews who were stopping to do sections closer to the Gap.

By Icewater Spring we had left all but one group of the others behind. That group went on to Dry Sluice Gap. After we passed the shelter we started working on building up some old defunct stone waterbars. We scraped out the uphill side to create a better outflow trench and found some nice flat, sharp-edged rocks to raise the height of the waterbar.

The flat rocks were placed end-up across the trail

It gets a little crowded with people swinging sharp tools in close quarters, so two of us went ahead and dug out a few more waterbars. As the trail leveled off somewhat and transitioned from sidehill to ridgetop, the number of waterbars decreased, and we turned our attention to lopping.

We, and quite a few random hikers, reached the Bunion at a good time for lunch. I hadn’t been out there via the A.T. for years, and I gazed around at the places in the Porters Creek and Lester Prong valleys where I have had some great off-trail adventures. My friend Brian is talking about doing a climb up a slide on the side of Horseshoe Mountain, and I could see the top of the slide across the Lester Prong valley. If you look closely in the photo, you can see the very top just below the high point on the Horseshoe ridge. (You can click on the photo to enlarge it.)

Looking across to Horseshoe Mountain

You also get a good view of the Jumpoff.

The Jumpoff is the rocky scar

This is an incredible place.

We headed back toward Newfound Gap to do “more of the same.” I have to admit that my talents lie more in lopping than stonework, so I was glad to take over the main lopping responsibilities.

Eventually we worked our way back past Icewater and started running into the other crews. We stopped to help a group between the Boulevard and Sweat Heifer junctions with installing a beautiful new stone step.

The stone was lovingly placed into a carefully created hole

By the time we finished with that, it was getting toward 4:00—time to head out. A picnic was scheduled for Metcalf Bottoms, but I, as the odd North Carolinian amongst a gaggle of Tennesseans, opted to head directly toward home. The picknickers may have had to deal with a bit of moisture, as the heavens opened about that time, dispensing a generous quantity of what someone I know calls “hydrological head poo.” But a fine day nonetheless.

Peter crosses a state line April 11, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Peter at Newfound Gap

(…actually, I should say that he continues along a state line for quite a while!)

This is going to be short and sweet.  A group of Peter’s friends met him at Newfound Gap today as he continued along his thru-hike of the A.T. Typically enough, Peter did not want to do the shortest distance between two points, but rather made the side trip to the top of LeConte, which was absolutely a beautiful place to be today.   We did the spur trail to the Jumpoff and gazed into those steep places in the headwaters of Lester Prong that I feel are so important.  Then  we continued on the Boulevard Trail to the summit of LeConte, encountering actually a few fairly difficult spots on slippery ice along the sidehilling parts of the trail.  Then we said goodbye to Peter at LeConte Lodge and wished him the fleetest of feet along the trail.   Good luck to you, Peter!