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Cammerer via Whiterock Ridge December 16, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Hoar frost on upper Whiterock Ridge

Hoar frost on upper Whiterock Ridge.

You won’t find Whiterock Ridge on the map. But I’ll be nice and show you where it is.

It's the half-ridge between Groundhog Ridge and Rowdy Ridge.

It’s the half-ridge between Groundhog Ridge and Rowdy Ridge.

I have to give credit to Greg Harrell for pioneering this route.

I started out with my hiking buddies Chris Sass and Cindy McJunkin. We were fueled by muffins provided by Chris’s wife Bethann—sweet potato muffins with crystallized ginger and chocolate chips, if I am remembering the details right.

Actually, our original plan (pioneered by me) was to explore the upper left fork of Shutts Prong starting from Newfound Gap, going down to the stream from the Boulevard trail and then following the stream up to the Horseshoe Lead. But the Newfound Gap Road had been closed for more than a day and we couldn’t take a chance on wondering when the road would re-open today. So we shifted plans.

It was an utterly beautiful hike that entailed all the different degrees of frost with their distinctive patterns as we climbed from the no-frost elevation up to thin snow and beyond that to the hoar frost zone. It was a day of a luminous blue sky and crystal formations in the trees.

Even in the lower elevations we could see the patterns of frost and wind on the trees and the understory vegetation.

This is what the forest looked like in the lower elevations.

This is what the forest looked like in the lower elevations.

Even individual rhodo leaves had the windblown frost.

I like the way you see the action of the wind in the frost.

I like the way you see the action of the wind in the frost.

We decided to go up to the ridgecrest directly from the Lower Cammerer trail. The ridge was inhabited by a fair amount of vegetation, but it was manageable.

Chris grapples with the brush.

Chris grapples with the brush.

We climbed up steeply and reached the junction of two worlds.

Here to there---is connection possible?

Here to there—is connection possible?

We tackled a series of rock bluffs, the last of which was the most difficult, leading up into a rock slot with one handy laurel to aid the way to the top. It led us to a viewpoint where we had open views of worlds of frost.

We saw the view over the glowing ridgeline shown at top, and we could also see up past some serious cliffs to the tower. If you look very closely at the photo below, you’ll see the famous tower.

The tower is visible as a faint shape on the horizon. Note the cliffs directly below.

The tower is visible as a faint shape on the horizon. Note the cliffs directly below.

Above this viewpoint, we gradually merged with the Groundhog Ridge manway, with a few points of uncertainty, but it didn’t matter, because all we had to do was continue upward. Eventually we got up above the forest and onto the open rocks close to the summit.

Cindy climbs last boulders to the tower.

Cindy climbs last boulders to the tower.

It was an incredible day. The one strange thing was that I managed to get my eye injured early on the way up even though I always wear glasses. Somehow a branch stabbed me from the side. It was the kind of injury that looks a lot worse than it really is, the eye swelling and saturated with blood. I saw a doctor this evening and, after examination, she told me it’s not a big problem—my eye will just look “impressibly horrible” for a week or so.

Mt. Cammerer via Miner’s Stairs October 19, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Blake tackles one of the Stairs.

Blake tackles one of the Stairs.

Today the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club made its annual assault on Cammerer via an off-trail route. Each year the club offers one trail hike and one bushwhack on the same day in October to this mountain that is always a favorite.

Three years ago the SMHC climbed up Leadmine Ridge to Cammerer. That is one of several parallel ridges on the north side of the mountain. This year’s offering overlapped with that route to a certain extent, but we climbed up Rowdy Creek (the stream just east of the ridge) past the waterfall before getting up onto the ridgecrest.

Despite having been up both Rowdy Ridge and Leadmine Ridge, I’d never been up Rowdy Creek. The waterfall is pretty, though in the current dry conditions it wasn’t spectacular.

We approach the waterfall.

We approach the waterfall.

We found a route to the left of the falls that used a narrow seam between chunks of bedrock. The route would have been easy except for the peculiar quality of the soil in these parts, a very slippery dark brown substance that I always think of as “chocolate pudding.” It is exactly the same soil that has made the Groundhog Ridge manway such a mess. I think the first person climbing has the advantage, because that person’s footprints turn into chocolate slime, and for each person after that it gets progressively slipperier. So it becomes a matter of finding a rock here and there for a foothold and a branch here and there that can serve as a handhold, if it doesn’t come off in your hand.

We passed through a beautiful boulderfield where each boulder sported a wig of rock polypody fern.

It was really neat how each rock had this crown of ferns.

It was really neat how each rock had this crown of ferns.

We encountered a tree that had the slimiest, most repulsive fungus that I’d ever seen.

Yum! Just the thing to put in your omelet!

Yum! Just the thing to put in your omelet!

Ed Fleming, our leader, had determined what he felt was the best elevation to leave the creek and get through the rhodo that guarded the ridgecrest. We had 15 or 20 minutes of pushing through fairly dense laurel and rhodo before we reached the Stairs. Speaking of Stairs, we had a nice view over to the Panther Stairs, the next ridge over.

Even though the sky was overcast, aren't the colors wonderful?

Even though the sky is overcast, aren’t the colors wonderful?

We climbed the Stairs up the ridge.

Going up the ridge.

Going up the ridge.

Every now and then I’d look over my shoulder and enjoy the colors.

I feel so fortunate to have views like this.

I feel so fortunate to have views like this.

As soon as we reached the Cammerer side trail, the clouds moved in—we were lucky that didn’t happen earlier. We had lunch at the tower and serenaded David with Happy Birthday, as he had just turned eighteen.

We descended the Groundhog Ridge manway, which becomes more and more annoying every year. The “chocolate slime” gets worse and worse, and quite a few new blowdowns have added to the mess. Still, it remains the best way to descend Cammerer from any of these other great off-trail routes on the north side of the mountain. A fine day with good hiking companions.

The clouds move in.

The clouds move in.

Panther Stairs via Robinson Creek March 9, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Jim tackles one of the Stairs.

Jim tackles a Step of the Stairs.

I’d done this climb twice before, most recently a year ago going solo in somber, overcast conditions. My hiking buddy Chris suggested doing it again—the one time he’d gone there, it was completely socked in, so he wanted to experience the Panther Stairs in better conditions. Boy, did we ever hit it right this time!

For those of you not familiar with the Panther Stairs, the official name is Rich Butt, the westernmost of the steep ridge approaches to Cammerer, and one of the best for the lovely open rock approach. The name is sort of a takeoff on the Cat Stairs of Greenbrier Pinnacle.

Both times I’d gone before, I’d used the Toms Creek route, starting at Cosby Campground. Chris suggested hitting Rich Butt from the other side via Robinson Creek. I hadn’t realized that an old road makes for an easy approach from Cosby’s good old twisty Route 32. So between the “Official Mike Knies Shortcut” from the Hartford exit on I-40 and Chris’s memory of the Robinson Creek location, we had it made.

Chris somehow talked his friend Jim into coming along on this adventure. I’m surprised that Jim ever agreed to do another hike with Chris and me, after our trip through dense fog up Styx Branch last year. Jim must have forgotten the relevant details of that outing, so he let himself in for another typical Smokies off-trail experience ranging from greenbrier around the neck to slithering up and down over layers of slushy snow and vertical rock.

We found the old road without any problem, not far from where the Mike Knies Shortcut hits 32 on a combination of Lindsey Gap Road and Groundhog Road. (This is of no advantage for Tennessee hikers, but it is of great use for people traveling on I-40 from the Asheville direction.)

We hiked along the Robinson Creek roadway without any problem. It is similar to the lower Groundhog Ridge manway.

Lower Robinson Creek road.

Lower Robinson Creek road.

We crossed the Lower Cammerer Trail and followed the ridge that merges into Rich Butt around the 4200′ elevation point. Things were frosty up there.

Crispy galax.

Crispy galax.

We got glimpses of nearby ridges touched with hoar frost. But with the warm temperatures, everything was rapidly melting.

View to Leadmine Ridge in hoar frost.

View to Leadmine Ridge in hoar frost.

We got up into the Realm of Frost ourselves.

Crossing over that magical frontier of the freezing point.

Crossing over that magical frontier of the freezing point.

We wrestled with an odd combination of snow and greenbrier vines, plus other gratuitous vegetation.

Jim deals with snow-rhodo combo.

Jim deals with snow-rhodo combo.

Our ridge merged onto Rich Butt (no turn signals necessary), and we pushed along the level stretch of the ridge.

Chris seems to be having a good time.

Chris seems to be having a good time.

We got up into the zone of the red spruce. This has become an odd preoccupation of mine, noticing where I encounter the lowest spruce, usually somewhere around 4500′. The thin, dense needles of the spruce make the perfect support for frost.

Frosty spruce towers above rhodo jungle. Contrasts of the Smokies!

Frosty spruce towers above rhodo jungle. Contrasts of the Smokies!

Finally we got up onto the steep rocky section—the Stairs.

I think Chris is being theatrical with his ice axe.

I think Chris is being theatrical with his ice axe.

As we climbed, we saw wonderful expanses opening up below. A jubilant experience!

Looking down the Panther Stairs.

Looking down the Panther Stairs.

In the photo below, if you look closely, you see Chris’s arm gripping the rock.

An arm in an orange sleeve grips the rock.

An arm in an orange sleeve grips the rock.

Here Chris appears to be downclimbing. I think it was when he was going back down to retrieve the hiking poles Jim had accidentally dropped.

Chris seems to be downclimbing.

Chris seems to be downclimbing.

We finally reached the Cammerer side trail, and there we had to make a decision. Would we go back to our starting point via trails (about 8 miles total), or would we go down the Groundhog Ridge Manway? We climbed to the tower.

View southeast from tower catwalk.

View southeast from tower catwalk.

And there we decided to go down Groundhog Ridge. You might wonder why we even hesitated about using this unmaintained trail, but Chris and I agree that it has become a real nuisance, a slippery muddy trough that’s been overused.

However, we found that in the six inches or so of snow, Groundhog Ridge was a real delight. The snow made a kind of styrofoam texture that you could sink your heels into and progress down steep slopes very pleasantly. There is a certain pitch below the first open spot on the ridge that I think of as the “Awkward Pitch,” but in snow we did a delightful butt-glissade downward with the frosty white stuff acting as the perfect cushion. Lower down, the thin layer of slush on the manway was more of a hindrance than a help, but in the upper sections it was just what we needed. And so we descended to the Lower Cammerer Trail and followed it back to the Robinson Creek road. And it was a wonderful day.

The route of the manway wasn't obvious, but we followed bobcat tracks and did just fine.

The route of the manway wasn’t obvious under snow, but we followed bobcat tracks and did just fine.