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A familiar place December 9, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The clouds and light were wonderful.

The clouds and light were wonderful.

I headed out today for an exercise hike starting on Kephart Prong. It’s a standard loop for hikers, 14 miles and about 3600′ total vertical with the ups and downs—K. Prong trail, Sweat Heifer, A.T., Dry Sluice (trail, not manway), Grassy Branch, back to K. Prong.

Only one spot along this loop is truly dramatic—you see the place I’m referring to above. As I approached the A.T., a dark, chilly fog swaddled the heights, and I thought I might even skip the Bunion. I figured it would be socked in. But as I got nearer, I saw that interesting things were happening in the sky.

From A.T. toward Horseshoe Mountain.

From A.T. toward Horseshoe Mountain.

From moment to moment the light shifted.

From moment to moment the light shifted.

Middle Crag and Rocky Crag from Bunion.

Middle Crag and Rocky Crag from Bunion.

The spruces seem to be marching up the ridges.

The spruces seemed to be marching up the ridges.

Looking across upper Middle Crag Gully.

Looking across upper Middle Crag gully.

The world up here is so very different from ordinary forest. It’s almost hard to believe that you can connect such varied places within a walk of a few hours—a leap of imagination is required. But that is one of the things I love about the Smokies. The photos below show where I started.

Oconoluftee River.

Oconoluftee River.

Water fountain from CCC camp that was here 1933-1942.

Water fountain from CCC camp that was near the Luftee-Kephart junction 1933-1942.

CCC chimney.

CCC chimney.

Something will always keep pulling me toward the crags for the kind of adventure I had in October.

Did I really climb up this spine in October?

Did I really climb up this spine from the bottom?

Climbing the Bunion October 22, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Chris contemplates the next obstacle.

I had climbed the Bunion before…way back in 1983. My bragging rights had long since expired. Perhaps I had become too wimpy over the years to do it again. I thought it conceivable that I would run away in fear.

The Bunion—it’s called variously Charlie’s Bunion, the Tourist Bunion, or Bunion Crag. I have now adopted the names invented by a certain genius of nomenclature: Bunion Crag, Middle Crag (just to the east), and Rocky Crag (to the east of that). The photo below, taken from the tourist overlook,  shows Middle and Rocky Crags.

The rock in the lower left corner is part of the tourist overlook. The next ridge over is Middle Crag, and the ridge past that with the hump on it is Rocky Crag.

Looking the other way, from Rocky Crag: Middle Crag, then Bunion Crag. Obviously, you can tell from the seasons that both photos were taken on other days.

My good hiking buddy Chris Sass had been wanting to do Bunion Crag for a while. And as readers of this blog know, I’ve had unsuccessful experiences with Middle Crag this year. Chris came up with a plan: we’d go down Middle, come back up Bunion.

We set off from Newfound Gap amidst throngs of tourists and made it to the tourist sidetrail quickly. At my request, however, we did not make the short side trip to the overlook. I had two reasons: first, I wanted to save that view for last, and secondly, I knew that from the overlook the climb looks impossible, and I didn’t want to set that image into my mind.

So we walked just past the overlook to the place where Middle Crag joins the stateline ridge and headed down. Oddly enough, it was not far along, in the very upper sections, that I found myself doing my only whimpering of the trip. Upper Middle boasts a series of short bluffs. Coming down from the top, it is quite hard to determine what is solid ground and what is a cushion of myrtle or spruce hanging out over the dropoffs on both sides—and it also requires more dexterity to downclimb the Anakeesta slabs than to upclimb. I said to Chris in a voice that must have showed my fear, “Maybe we should try a different route.” He suggested going a bit further, and I agreed to that, and before long I knew I could do it. But if you try this, do be careful!

One of the short bluffs on Middle Crag.

Much of Middle Crag consists of tunnels like this.

Outlook from swathes of myrtle on Middle.

We had great views over to the gullies of Rocky Crag.

At 4400′ we started angling down to the draw between Middle and Bunion. We hit the stream exactly at the boulder called Harrell’s Rock, named for our fearless companion, who unfortunately could not be with us this day. He has done the Bunion upwards and downwards, backwards and forwards.

After taking a break, we made the stiff climb up to the ridgecrest. I had told Chris that when I’d done the Bunion years back, we had gone too far up the draw and ended up climbing on uncomfortably steep Anakeesta which, due to the grain of the rock, felt insecure. So we left the stream at 4200′ rather than around 4500′ as on the earlier trip.

Approach to the ridge taken on 1983 trip.

Because we climbed more of the ridge and less of the stream, we had more vegetation to go through.  It was slow in places as we crawled through laurel and rhodo. I didn’t recognize the exact place where I’d hit the ridge in the 1983 trip, but I came to realize that the vegetation had grown up quite a bit in those nearly 30 years—no big surprise. After all, the ridge had been entirely bare after the great fire of the 1920s, and things are always in flux. We passed through a rather peculiar zone of dead rhododendron surrounded by tall spruces and finally started coming out onto open rock.

Chris looks over toward the Horseshoe Mountain ridge.

One of many stairstep ledges.

I found myself doing the same thing I’d done years back, which was to focus on the immediate problem before me, figuring out where to place hands and feet. By narrowing my vision, I was able to think about “what is there”—the ample handholds and footholds offered by the ridge—rather than “what is not there”—all the great gaping space that lay just off to the sides. Doing this climb consists of positive thinking in the most literal, concrete sense.

Chris tackles one of the bluffs.

Looking back down the ridge.

At last we heard the voices of tourists, and we arrived at the top. As has happened on other similar occasions, the folks sitting on the rock did not immediately understand where we’d come from—they seemed to assume we’d just been doing a little scrambling a bit below. When one of them spoke of the tough hike out from Newfound Gap, my immature side came out and I couldn’t resist telling them that we’d come from the bottom. We explained how we’d gone down Middle—pointing over to that ridge—and come up just below. I knew, however, that they could not possibly understand. “Was there a path?” one of them asked.

No, there was not a path.

(Here is a link to some photos by Chris: https://picasaweb.google.com/100286297450199092349/MiddleCragAndBunionCrag )

Chris has reached the tourist overlook.

Middle Crag doings August 20, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Life experience, Smoky Mountains.
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Middle Crag is the ridge seen here in profile

In late May, I went down one of the Middle Crag gullies (there is one on each side of the ridge) with a couple of friends. Toward the bottom, I had a recurrence of a knee problem (it pops out of joint) and ended up descending to the Greenbrier and hitchhiking around to Newfound Gap, where we had started. My two friends climbed up the crag and returned via the A.T. to Newfound.

You can see some wonderful pictures from that trip that my friend Chris took here.

Ever since then, it bugged me that I didn’t climb the crag. A week ago I returned by myself with the goal of repeating the route my friends had taken. I was not successful. But I did have an interesting experience.

It was a beautiful day as I hiked out from Newfound Gap. I stopped and took the picture you see above. Continuing around a crescent-shaped side path, I returned to the A.T. and went east a bit further to hit the top of the gully we’d gone down the other time. But I went too far east. I should have dropped into the gully immediately after hitting the A.T. past the side path.

On my way out the A.T., I saw some nice pink turtleheads.


And Joe Pye weed.

Joe Pye has been here

Leaving the A.T. to enter what I thought was the same gully we’d been down before, I passed through familiar-looking forest.

It dropped off steeply, as I expected.

Mossy cascade just above the precipitous section.

But things didn’t look quite right. The rock was a grayer color than the pink that had predominated in the other gully. I thought perhaps I simply wasn’t remembering things correctly. I worked my way down carefully from the starting point of around 5500′ to 4700′. And there I could see I’d gone distinctly wrong. The drop was much steeper than anything in the other gully—which had been steep enough that I’d slid down much of it on the seat of my pants.

Here, on the map, you can see the situation. The red line represents the route I took. The blue line represents the way we’d gone before. My ruler against the scale on the USGS quad shows me that the distance between the two at the top is 1/10 of a mile.

You see what happens in the red gully between 4800′ and 4600′. Obviously, I had to go down the left side of the draw rather than the right. It was steep sidehilling, but I worked my way along, making use of the rhodo and laurel for handholds. It was difficult for me. I looked up to my left to see if I could simply head up to the ridge, but it looked steeper than I wanted to attempt.

I wish I could think of some dramatic reason why I decided to turn around, climb back up, and call it a day—but I can’t. I simply lost heart. From the comfort of my living room, I can see that if I’d just been able to get down a couple of hundred feet lower, I could have gone up to the ridge—or I could have gone down to Lester Prong and around the base of the ridge to the second tributary (the bottom of the correct draw). I am sure this would not have been a problem for many other people.

It is very hard for me to be honest about this, but I must be. One of the things I’ve realized as a result of this experience is that I can do some kinds of bushwhacking solo, but some things I can’t. Oddly enough, I have climbed the adjacent ridge to the east by myself, which some would call harder than Middle Crag, but in that case I wasn’t dealing with going down a gully, I was climbing upward, which for some reason felt more comfortable to me.

Another thing I realize is that I can do things with other people that I can’t do by myself. This is hard for me to admit, because I’m an independent sort of individual. I have done the climb below with another person, but I don’t think I could do it by myself.

With the moral support of another person, I could do this.