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Pyramid route to Rocky Crag October 26, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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17 comments
The most beautiful stream in the world. Do you notice that the water is gold?

The most beautiful stream in the world. Do you notice that the water is gold?

Yesterday Clayton and I set forth (I like that old-fashioned expression of “set forth”)  to climb the ridge of Rocky Crag (also known as Real Bunion or USGS Bunion) via the Pyramid side ridge.

I had climbed up via that route two years ago, but I was careless, following a group and not paying much attention to the exact point where we had to leave that first tributary of Lester Prong to get up to that exact spot.

So now someone had studied the pictures and wanted to go up that route. I had to get it right!

Clayton and I started around 7:45 and made good progress up the 3.6 miles of trail, hitting the backcountry campsite on Porters in less than an hour and a half. Throughout the whole trip I kept insisting on stopping for water and snacks, partly just because I am getting to be a tired old soul—but not too old and tired to do this kind of adventure!

So we followed the lower Porters Creek manway. As I said to Clayton, I think it’ll be totally gone in five or so years. It used to be almost like a maintained trail. But the blowdowns and the growth of vegetation around have made it harder and harder to follow. Plus, we had to deal with autumn leaves that obscured the footway.

We got to the Lester Prong junction, and we rockhopped up the stream pretty easily to the first tributary. That’s where I took the photo above. I calibrated my altimeter carefully here because I knew we’d have to hit the side ridge to Pyramid Point pretty precisely.

We hit the first big cascade on the tributary pretty soon.

 

It's more vertical than it looks in this photo. You climb hand over foot.

It’s more vertical than it looks in this photo. You climb hand over foot.

The wonderful, enjoyable thing about this whole area is that you get into really steep stuff but there are always handholds and footholds.

Climbing the tributary. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Climbing the tributary. Photo by Clayton Carver.

We continued up the first tributary of Lester Prong until we reached a ridge that I thought was the correct side ridge. If you approach it from the left side there are cliffs. We went on a bit further up more of the wonderful mossy cascades of the tributary and finally picked a spot. I wasn’t actually 100% sure we were in the right spot but it turned out I was right. We climbed steeply through brush at the bottom but soon found ourselves on a footway that could have been made by bears or possibly certain eccentric humans that I know.

 

Climbing Pyramid Point. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Climbing Pyramid Point. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Clayton climbing up the side ridge.

Clayton climbing up the side ridge.

We topped out on the ridge and had wonderful views to all the steep ridges in the Lester Prong drainage. We could hear the idiotic voices of tourists on what most people call Charlies Bunion, but actually that didn’t bother me, it only reinforced the difference of our situation.

View to Middle Crag and Bunion Crag. Familiar places to me.

View to Middle Crag and Bunion Crag. Familiar places to me.

So from Pyramid you have to climb up the “Tooth,” as my Jefferson City friends call it. Clayton is a stronger hiker than me but he opted to have me lead the way up the Tooth. We got there and looked back down at the route we’d climbed.

We climbed the rocky bump you see up another rocky bump. Hard to describe.

We climbed the rocky bump you see and up another rocky bump. Hard to describe.

So we continued up the ridge, following the footway that I strongly suspect is mainly created by those terrible Jefferson City folks, and got up eventually to the top. Right about that time a nice innocent family arrived at the same spot, the father sure that this was an obscure spot no-one knew about. There we were, dirty and sweaty. He said, “I never see anyone else here!” We explained that we had come up from the bottom.

He didn’t understand—of course, no one understands.

A wonderful day.

Looking down Porters Creek valley.

Looking down Porters Creek valley.

Here, by popular request, is a map of the upper section of our climb.

OK, Al, here you go! Just shows the upper section, but if you ain't smart enough to get to the first tributary of Lester, you shouldn't be there.

OK, Al, here you go! Just shows the upper section, but if you ain’t smart enough to get to the first tributary of Lester, you shouldn’t be there anyway! And you know that area quite well.

 

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Lovely wildflowers and a total screw-up April 13, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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We hit the fringed phacelia at Porters Flat at its peak.

We hit the fringed phacelia at Porters Flats at its peak.

Mark Shipley came up with the idea. He wanted to go through the Porters Flats area when the wildflowers there neared their peak. We succeeded in that part.

We didn’t succeed in the other part of our quest, and it was my fault. He wanted to continue up the Porters Creek manway, turn up Lester Prong, and climb the Tourist Bunion from the bottom. On the map below, I have put a giant “X” through the words Charlies Bunion because that is not the place everyone thinks of as Charlies Bunion. Long story.

This gives you an overview. To get to the Tourist Bunion, we needed to climb up the second tributary of Lester Prong and then jog left onto the ridge on the west side of the stream.

This gives you an overview. To get to the Tourist Bunion, we needed to climb up the second tributary of Lester Prong and then jog to our right onto the ridge on the west side of the stream.

I’ve climbed the Tourist Bunion from the bottom two times. The first time was somewhere around 30 years ago, with my former husband, Chris Hebb.

Here I am somewhere in the mid-80s on one of the more interesting parts of the climb.

Here I am somewhere in the mid-80s on one of the more interesting parts of the climb.

The second time was much more recently, on a climb I did with Chris Sass where we went down Middle Crag and up the Bunion Crag (Tourist Bunion). I took this picture of Chris going up the ridge.

Chris tackles another "interesting" part.

Chris tackles another “interesting” part.

Mark invited the “usual suspects” of hard-core bushwhacking to do this hike with him. Everyone had conflicts except me. I thought it would make it more fun to have someone else along, and I invited several other people. Everyone said they couldn’t do it, except for Clayton Carver.

Clayton is a young guy who’s just getting really interested in off-trail exploring. He’s done some challenging stuff on his own like Big Duck Hawk Ridge, Trout Branch Scar, and Anakeesta Ridge. On an impulse I invited him to join us, and I think he was a bit startled, but he agreed to come.

I appreciate this even more now that I know he was apprehensive about climbing the Bunion. I totally understand that—I think anyone sane would be apprehensive about it, and I am apprehensive about it myself—it’s just that I’ve got this little trick of “mind over matter” figured out. There’s lots of handholds and footholds—it just happens there’s a lot of air around it, too. So it becomes an exercise in positive thinking. In other words, focus on what’s there instead of what’s not there.

So we met at the Porters Creek trailhead at 8:00. Soon we were surrounded in flowers—practically smothered in them.

Yellow trillium.

Yellow trillium.

Sweet White trillium.

Sweet White trillium.

Phacelia growing on top of a boulder.

Phacelia growing on top of a boulder.

Squirrel corn.

Squirrel corn.

 

Longspur violets growing on log.

Longspur violets growing on log.

So we arrived at Campsite 31, which makes a great place to stop for a break and have some food and water. We continued on to the Porters Creek manway. Right at the start there is a new, large hemlock blowdown that makes it difficult to follow, and these days it’s not all that easy to follow anyway. Back in the 80s it was just about like following a regular trail. Not that way anymore! But we sorted things out, found the manway where it continued beyond the blowdown, and made the stream crossings until we reached Lester Prong. We turned up Lester and headed for Tributary #2, which would take us to the Tourist Bunion.

Clayton  (L) and Mark (R) rockhop up Lester.

Clayton (L) and Mark (R) rockhop up Lester.

Typical spot on Lester.

Typical spot on Lester.

Mark kept saying, “This is a beautiful stream!” It is, and I think Clayton felt the same way. Mark has done a ton of bushwhacking but hadn’t been up Lester before. Clayton is just getting started with the famous streams of the Smokies.

Slanting Anakeesta strata along the stream.

Slanting Anakeesta strata along the stream.

Since I was sorta the old-timer on this route, I stopped the group at various points, explaining their importance. I made them stop at the first tributary on Lester and told them about how that leads up to “Rocky Crag” or the “Real Bunion” or the “USGS Bunion” or however you want to call it. I pointed out the little stream on the right that comes down from the summit of Horseshoe Mountain.

So we continued on, and we passed a small gully on the left. It carried no water at all. It seemed to be too low in elevation for the second tributary. Mark pointed it out, but I carelessly dismissed it. We kept going. Turns out that’s where we should have gone.

We reached another tributary, which had a good supply of water flowing down it, and I announced that was our route.  We clambered up some cascades, and before long I thought I recognized the route Chris Sass and I had used a year and a half ago. He and I hadn’t approached from the bottom of the tributary, we’d come down from the adjacent ridge (to the east)—that’s my only excuse for not correctly perceiving the side stream. I said we should now climb up to the ridgecrest. I thought it looked familiar, but in reality I’d never been there, and it turned out to be much brushier than I remembered, of course. To put it bluntly, between the blowdowns, the loose rock on the side of the ridge, and the rhodo, it was totally crappy.

Somehow I ended up going one way, while Mark and Clayton went another.  Finally we reconnected. I was on the ridgecrest, thinking, “Geez, this has got to open up into that nice rock I remembered pretty soon.” They were a little bit down on the left (east) side of the ridge.

Mark said to me something like, “Hey, look at all those little people climbing around up on that next ridge. Sure looks like the Tourist Bunion.”

He was absolutely right. We were on the wrong ridge.

We’d expended a huge amount of energy going through the brush on the incorrect ridge. We talked about our options. Mark would have been willing to go back down to the draw, climb up to the Tourist spine, and do the intended hike. I unfortunately knew I didn’t have enough energy to do that. Well, what about just continuing up this ridge? As far as we could tell, there was no reason to believe things would get better. It was brutal. I’d looked down this ridge before, the one immediately west of the Tourist Bunion, and I remembered no open rock. It was solid brush, and ridiculously steep at the top to boot.

So we dropped back down to the draw (quite a job even to do that), and headed back down to Lester. The Tourist Bunion would have to wait for another day.

Mark and Clayton were great sports about my screw-up. We followed Lester back to the Porters Creek manway.

Clayton on Porters manway.

Clayton on Porters manway.

Once we got back to the maintained trail, we saw lots of beautiful flowers. And lots of people, too.

Phlox.

Phlox.

It was a lovely wildflower walk.

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Horseshoe Mountain—made it! November 21, 2013

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