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A sweaty day on Mt. Winnesoka May 23, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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The north ridge to Lookout Rock was loaded with laurel

This turned out to be a very difficult hike. It’s hard to say how much of that was due to the terrain and how much was due to problems of dehydration. The sweat dripping into our eyes supported the dehydration theory while making it hard to even see how difficult the terrain was—which might have been just as well.

I had intended this to be a pleasant off-trail experience for Amanda and Adam, who are just getting into bushwhacking. I hope they won’t be discouraged from giving off-trail another try. The trip was a variation of one I’ve done before, when I ventured up Long Branch to Long Branch Gap and then headed over to Lookout Rock before following game trails down Potato Ridge past Turkey Rock. This time we would start on the Grapeyard Ridge trail and follow the steep, narrow ridge on the north side of Winnesoka that hits Lookout Rock from the other side. The narrowness of the ridge in its upper section made it look intriguing to me.

I’d seen on one of the forums that people have gone up or down one or another of the three main north ridges. It seemed steep but doable. This morning I went back and looked at that forum discussion again. While the middle ridge has been done, people sounded more enthusiastic about the west one that hits Round Top and the east one that hits Turkey Rock. I think I know why now.

Our day started with a three-mile walk along the Grapeyard Ridge trail. It was already warm and muggy as we headed up toward  Injun Creek and the old steam engine that lies in the stream, where it tumbled over the edge in an accident in the 1920s. As we approached Injun Creek, Adam spotted something else interesting—what he described as a “gray ghost” of a giant stump that was still standing upright just off the trail. He thought it looked like a chestnut, and I think he was probably right.

We think this was an old chestnut stump

Around the corner, we came to the old Nichols-Shephard No. 4246 engine lying on its side in the creek.

The engineer jumped clear in time to avoid injury

There was a wheel lying nearby that made a lovely planter for some ferns.

I could picture this as a garden ornament

The bottom of our intended ridge (which is actually Grapeyard Ridge proper) could be approached from a number of directions. We simply walked along until we found a slope of open woods (mainly, unfortunately, dead hemlocks) and started clambering up. We followed some old fence posts for quite a ways.

We found old fence posts under the trees

We started seeing beautiful laurel in great abundance.

I love the shapes of laurel blossoms, so unusual in their pentagonal formation

The vibrant colors of flame azalea mixed in.

A touch of burning color amid the greenery

Some of the laurel was quite pink in color.

Pink laurel, blue sky

It was around this time, at about 3300 feet, that we began to realize that we were in trouble as far as water supply was concerned. The hot afternoon sun beamed down, the open woods had given way to dense brush, and the steepest part of the ridge towered above us. Our progress became slower and slower. Adam and Amanda had already nearly depleted their supply, and while I had most of a second quart remaining, that didn’t matter, because I hadn’t been drinking enough all day, and I probably would have needed to drink that whole quart pretty soon and then start working on a third quart. My problem: I was dehydrated already when I started the hike, due to drinking caffeinated beverages and no water on the way over.

My legs started cramping up continuously, and Adam said he was having muscle cramps as well. I felt weak and lightheaded. We adopted a routine of stopping to rest, pushing forward another couple hundred vertical feet, stopping again. As the ridge grew steeper, we encountered sandstone bluffs. They were not dangerous, but they were encircled with rhodo limbs that made the climbing quite effortful. In between we found sections of heath through which we had to crawl on hands and knees. After a while I started to experience arm cramps as well as leg cramps—even hand cramps. I rationed myself out water bit by bit.

It was at this point that the expedition turned into a “death thrash.” That’s what I’ll call this off-trail that became an ordeal (comparable to a “death march” of a trail hike). We finally dragged ourselves up to the top. I found Lookout Rock and took in the restricted views. Adam and Amanda did not even want to work through the brush to get there—I don’t blame them.

This zoom shows the heath on Brushy Mountain from Lookout Rock

Our urgent need was to find water as soon as possible. We angled southeast to try to hit a tributary of Long Branch as high up as we could. The brush wasn’t quite as bad as sections of the ridge where we’d had to crawl, but it was slow, and we were tired. At last we found a seep of water in a draw, and then—flowing water! Hurray!

We still had a lot of work ahead of us. A nice flat stretch next to Long Branch that was knee-deep in black cohosh (cimicifuga) gave way to a tortuous rhodo hell as I mistakenly led us into its maw in search of an old footpath. We had to retreat into the creek bed, slipping and sliding down a steep slope to get there. At last we reached the open stream bank of the lower section, as a thunderstorm rumbled over our heads. On and on we went, amidst raindrops and flashes of lightning, until at last we reached the Brushy Mountain trail.

Quite an experience.

Occasional catawba rhododendron in bloom helped brighten the way. (I mistakenly told Amanda and Adam it was rosebay.)