jump to navigation

Panther Stairs via Toms Creek December 21, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , ,
8 comments
Jenny climbing up Panther Stairs. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Jenny climbing up Panther Stairs. Photo by Clayton Carver.

My hiking friend Clayton and I had been talking about a few options lately, ranging from Big (involving Lester Prong) to Small (off-trail to Chimneys). For various reasons over the past few weeks things haven’t worked out. But we decided December 21 would be a good day, despite football conflicts (more about that later).

We were still thinking about the Lester option, but the weather didn’t look great. It wasn’t even that the weather would be bad, it was that the forecasts were full of annoying uncertainty. The whole thing about doing anything in the central Smokies in winter is,will the Park Service shut down Hwy. 441 (Newfound Gap Road) because of snow at the higher elevations? I kept monitoring my usual weather websites (more than one, which clearly marks me as a weather geek), and I finally threw up my hands after the latest shift in prediction. I emailed Clayton and said, “Let’s go up the Panther Stairs.” That is in the Cosby area of the Park, away from this zone of uncertainty.

He agreed, and we started off on an absolutely beautiful winter day, not too cold and brimming with sunshine. We took the Lower Cammerer trail for a short distance and then went up the left branch of Toms Creek, following an old settlers’ road that you can barely make out.

You can see the path of the road, but there is quite a bit of rhodo along it. We left the road at around 2900′ to angle up to a ridge that connects with the main ridge of Rich Butt (that is the wonderful name you see on the map), where the Panther Stairs are found.

Clayton bounded along, and at this particular place I definitely had a tough time keeping up with him. He is always faster than me, but here I thought, “Geez, I am really going to slow him down.” Well, I maintained the role of the older slower person (I am 32 years older than him), but as things went on we kept a closer distance.

Once we got on the ridgecrest, we ran into a lot of briers. They kind of came and went, as if some mischievous god of mountains was saying, “Now you see it, now you don’t.”

I don't know how well you can see that there is a solid wall of briers just ahead of us.

I don’t know how well you can see that there is a solid wall of briers just ahead.

We found bear paths (with occasional large deposits of bear poop) and every now and then we found what seemed more like human paths (fortunately without large deposits of poop). After a long flat stretch on the ridge, we started tackling the Stairs. Here is the base of one of the lower Stairs.

At base of a Stair.

At base of a Stair.

We had the kind of view that makes you want to yodel (fortunately neither one of us did that), or at least shout, “Yo-Ho!”

Looking down from the top of the biggest Stair.

Looking down from the top of the biggest Stair.

Clouds were streaming over the stateline ridge.

Clouds were streaming over the stateline ridge.

We worked around some of the obstacles and tackled others directly. Below I work along what has become a very clear human herd path.

I climb around some of the smaller rock formations. Photo by Clayton Carver.

I climb around some of the smaller rock formations. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Finally we popped out on the side-trail to Cammerer, thinking someone might be walking by. Nope. In fact, we did not see a single other person at the Cammerer tower or all the way down the A.T. and Low Gap Trails. The Sunday before Christmas is an excellent time to go hiking!

Any time you get close to civilized areas the weekend before Christmas, you are dealing with stressed-out, aggravated individuals who are rushing about buying presents, making cookies, coming back from ritual holiday visits, trying to squeeze everything in. Then, all of a sudden, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, we are supposed to be suddenly harmonious and go into a “spiritual” mode. This will probably annoy some people, but I don’t care: I am so happy that I participate in very little of this stuff.

Clayton and I reached the side-trail to Cammerer and made the short trip over to the lookout tower. We walked around the tower and looked at the different views.

View to the northeast from the tower.

View to the northeast from the tower.

It is a beautiful construction.

It is a beautiful construction.

We headed on down without much delay. Clayton is a fan of the Cowboys, and there was an important game at 4:25. I am a fan of the Patriots, but I knew I could see their game on my “NFL Rewind” streaming app. I will say to you who think professional sports is insignificant: I truly believe sports has more reality to it. It is a contest between real human beings which, in the end, just can’t be faked. You either have it or you don’t, and the game will ultimately reveal that. That’s more than you can say about anything in the commercial, political, or academic worlds.

Falls on Cosby Creek.

Falls on Cosby Creek.

Advertisements

Rocky Face Mountain December 14, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , ,
5 comments
Rocky Face Mountain is located near Cosby Campground.

Rocky Face Mountain is located near Cosby Campground.

I was looking at maps trying to get new ideas for destinations. Suddenly I noticed the interesting name of Rocky Face Mountain. The first thing that jumped out at me is that it’s not actually a mountain at all. It’s a ridge. The second thing is that I’ve never heard anyone even mention it, let alone climb it, even though it’s just across the Toms Creek valley from the Panther Stairs, a popular destination.

I did find in the old Smoky Mountains Hiking Club handbooks that the club went to the high point of the ridge from the Toms Creek drainage, back in the 50s and 60s, but did not traverse the ridge.

It’s a bit too far away from Mt. Cammerer to make a convenient route to that mountaintop. You come out on the A.T. not far from Low Gap. Of course it’s still possible to trundle over to see the lookout tower, depending on time and inclination.

I have pictures only from the first part of the trip because… the classic idiotic thing… my battery died. The night before, I looked at the little squares that show how much battery life is left. They were all black. Great! Somehow, I reversed the indication in my thinking. WHITE indicates a fully charged battery, not BLACK. When I took the first photo of the hike, I saw the black squares, and this time my brain worked properly. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the battery will last out the trip.” It didn’t.

The weather was strange that day. It was sunny and clear when I left home, and still sunny as I approached Cosby. But the sky over the mountain was overcast. From the ridge, I made out sunny valleys not far away.

From the junction of the Low Gap and Lower Cammerer trails, I could see the ridge easily. It wouldn’t be quite so obvious in times of leafed out canopy. I simply angled over to the start of the ridge where it is broad and gradual. I passed through an area of dense vines.

This stretch was thick but not as hard to get through as rhodo or greenbriers.

This stretch was thick but not as hard to get through as rhodo or greenbriers.

The ridge steepened and narrowed. There were patches of greenbriers woven together in mats, but usually I could bypass them.

Looking toward Toms Creek valley.

Looking toward Toms Creek valley.

The map seems to show contour lines fairly evenly spaced over much of the ridge except for a nearly level part before a steeper cone-shaped knob in the middle. But in reality the ridge had a series of stairsteps. On the steeper parts I encountered bluffs. Oddly enough, the rock is different from the large smooth boulders of the Panther Stairs. This rock had many narrow strata that made for  good handholds. The only problem was that a few of these strata were loose and pulled out in my hand. So I had to test them before trusting them to bear my weight.

A couple of places were difficult and I  had to drop down a bit on the Toms Creek side and come back up. The other side is more or less a cliff.

There were some nice views. When I reached the A.T., I felt as though I’d had a good enough adventure for the  day and didn’t go over to Cammerer.

The photo below, a little study of galax and laurel, is the last one I took, before I reached the bluffs.

Taken at about 3400'.

Taken at about 3400′.

 

Whiterock Ridge to Cammerer—SMHC hike October 19, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments
The first open view from the ridge.

The first open view from the ridge.

This was a wonderful hike. There were only four of us, but that was a nice size for a challenging off-trail adventure. I was the substitute leader on this Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing, as the designated leader had a conflict come up with his work schedule. I’d done this route before, so I was happy to fill in.

My companions were Steve, Ken, and Clayton.

We met at the Cosby hiker parking lot because it’s a little hard for folks to find where the actual starting point for the hike is, along the twists and turns of Hwy. 32. So I drove us over in my car to the start of the Groundhog Ridge manway. Our route was to take Groundhog Ridge to the Lower Cammerer Trail, do a short jog to the west, and then go up Whiterock Ridge nearly to the top. At about 4600′ (300′ short of the summit), you run into a big sandstone bluff. So that’s where we jogged a very short distance around the bluff and reconnected with Groundhog Ridge manway for the last stiff grunt to the top.

The weather forecast called for clear, sunny skies. Well, for most of the day we were in fog. There was so much moisture in the trees and brush that whenever a wind gust shook the leaves, it almost felt like it was raining.

Whiterock Ridge, which is sort of a half-ridge that doesn’t really start until above the Lower Cammerer Trail, isn’t too bad in terms of brush, when you compare it with its neighbor to the west, Rowdy Ridge. There are patches of rhodo but they don’t go on very long, and there’s some aggressive greenbrier that you have to just force your way through. It helps to have gloves and long sleeves.

As you continue up the ridge and it starts getting steeper and steeper, you start running into small rock bluffs. Anyone who’s spent time bushwhacking in the Smokies knows this pattern.  It’s one of those fun rock-scrambling challenges where you step onto rhodo or rock and pull yourself up.

I remembered from the time I did it before that there was a Tricky Spot. You go up into this narrow slot between vertical rock. I actually had problems with it on the last trip. Well, this time I had it “sandbagged,” as rock climbers call it. I knew that I had to put my right foot in a certain spot, put my left foot onto a really narrow piece of rock, and hold onto the one available rhodo branch for stability.

I’m going to pat myself on the back here, because that was the “elegant” solution to the climbing problem. Two of the three guys with me used a different approach using a longer reach (being taller than me) and more upper body strength. (Clayton did a variation of what I did.)  My solution to the puzzle did not involve strength, only intelligent placement of hands and feet. Sorry, guys!

This photo shows you what the upper ridge was like.

It's a bearway with a lot of greenbrier.

It’s a bearway with a lot of greenbrier.

We reached the big sandstone bluff. Having seen me get up the lower bluffs, the guys with me teased me about how we should just go up it. Well, I’m sure it’s possible to do that, but it ‘s much easier to go around to the left and hit the upper Groundhog Ridge manway. So that’s what we did.

Big sandstone bluff.

Big sandstone bluff.

Lots of polypody ferns grow there. I think they’re beautiful.

A garden of ferns.

A garden of ferns.

So we went up the manway and before long got onto the open rocks where you have a view of the tower.

Most people approach the tower from the opposite side.

Most people approach the tower from the opposite side.

We had nice views into the valley of Big Creek.

This is the divide between Chestnut Branch and Big Creek.

This is the divide between Chestnut Branch and Big Creek.

When we reached the top of Cammerer, it was damp and windy. We retreated to the inside of the tower. Many other folks had the same idea. I have never seen so many people inside the tower!

Every square foot in the tower was taken up with hikers.

Every square foot in the tower was taken up with hikers.

I expected to see the other SMHC hikers, the ones who came up by trail, but we only met one person from that group, who was puzzled about what happened to the others. Funny that they would get lost instead of us folks who bushwhacked up to the top!

I was ambivalent about descending Groundhog Ridge manway and suggested a trail descent. There is a certain section in the middle of the manway that has become a slippery, slimy mudslide. I don’t like going down that kind of crap, and there’s also an environmental rationale to avoid making those places worse by further use. However, the rest of my group wanted to go down that way, so that’s the way we went.

There’s one open spot on the manway which has nice views.

Clayton at the open spot.

Clayton at the open spot.

It was a great day with a wonderful small group of people. This is the sort of outing I really love.

Looking back up to the summit.

Looking back up to the summit.