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Bear Pen Hollow with a bit of snow November 10, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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4 comments
Tackling a rock outcrop.

Tackling a rock outcrop. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Mt. LeConte got blasted by a snowstorm October 31 to November 1. The official measure of snow depth on the summit was 22 inches. Many of the surrounding areas received much less snow. For instance, where I live in Sylva, NC, just southeast of the Smokies, we only got a dusting.

My hiking buddy Clayton and I had plans to climb LeConte via Bear Pen Hollow on November 9. I studied the long-term forecast and saw there would be a lot of subfreezing temperatures at night time in the period leading up to that. Also, the forecast called for a chance of showers the night before our hike, and rain showers would be snow showers at the higher elevations. That meant the Newfound Gap Road might be closed when we wanted to start our hike.

As it turned out, the weather on Friday eliminated most of the snow. It was warm and rainy all day. I’ve learned that rain gets rid of snow even faster than sunshine. And, as we got closer to the 9th, the forecast changed from chance of showers to zero chance of precipitation. So there would be no problem with the road being closed.

So many times I’ve heard about people underestimating the conditions. In the past week there were three occasions when people got into trouble. The first involved a pair of backpackers aiming for the LeConte shelter the night of the storm who were wearing blue jeans and had no clothing suitable for the weather. The LeConte Lodge crew had to go out and help them. The second was a family going up the Bullhead trail who found themselves struggling through hip-deep drifts. The third was a guy on the Alum Cave Trail who slipped on ice and broke his ankle.

So I said to Clayton, “You have to get Microspikes! The road might be closed! The conditions are going to be messy with thawing and re-freezing!”  Turned out I was wrong on all counts. There was very little snow, it was a beautiful day, and Microspikes weren’t needed. But I’d rather be overprepared than underprepared.

I’ve done Bear Pen Hollow by several different routes, and it’s easiest to head up to the ridge on the right side of the creek. But I led us up to the ridge a little bit too low down. Well, as a result we got to climb a nifty rock outcrop that I’d never been on before (see photo at top).

There were patches of snow on the ground that made it a little bit harder to see the herd path where people had gone before.

 

Snow on the ridge.

Snow on the ridge.

We got up to an opening on the ridge with views over to Cliff Top.

What a day! You can see every shadow etched out clearly.

What a day! You can see every shadow etched out clearly.

There is one spot on the ridge where you have to do an awkward little jump-down. Well, we bypassed that, not really intentionally. Due to the snow and a blowdown on the ridgecrest, we dropped down just to the right and climbed up along the base of a big block of Anakeesta. By the time we got back up to the crest, we were past that tricky spot. From there it was a short climb to the top of West Point.

As we made that climb, I slipped on a patch of snow and my knee popped out of joint. That had been a big problem for me a couple of years ago, but after physical therapy the issue seemed to be resolved. Well, I still think it’s not going to get in the way of my hiking activities. At least, I hope not.

We’d planned on going down  Big Duck Hawk, but with my knee problem we opted to take Alum  Cave Trail all the way down. But first we went up to the Lodge, and we had great views from the porch in back of the dining hall. It was a good day.

View from the back porch of the dining hall.

View from the back porch of the dining hall.

 

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Don’t underestimate Cole Creek June 26, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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No photos—it was raining when my friend Chris and I started, and what with my track record of taking fogged-up pictures, I decided to leave the camera behind.

Anyone who’s read my novel The Twelve Streams of LeConte knows that Cole Creek is one of the twelve streams that drain the slopes of Mt. LeConte. I have climbed all of those streams, but I hadn’t climbed Cole Creek for a very long time and didn’t re-climb it for the book. I remembered it as a lot of work going through the rhodo without a lot of payoff.

I’m going to revise that impression. The rhodo was even worse than I remembered, but the stream really does have some beautiful features. In particular, there is a whole series of lovely cascades flowing over sandstone bluffs. In one section of the stream, it is almost like giant stairsteps of stone with water gliding over them.

Although the rain tapered off, all the rocks were slick—just about as slick as ice. This hike would be a lot easier in dry conditions, when you could just march up any low-angled block of sandstone. That was out of the question yesterday. And each time we reached one of these cascades, we had to figure out a way to go around to the sides. That involved fighting through ferocious rhodo.

We got into trouble just below the junction of the left and right forks. To get around a good-sized waterfall, we headed into the brush to the right and climbed steeply. We figured we could go up a ways and then contour over to hit the right fork, which leads to West Point, a sub-summit of LeConte.

Well, we should have stayed closer to the stream. Once we got above it, we couldn’t get back down to it. Why on earth not? Because the rhodo was up around 10 on the one-to-ten difficulty scale, and then we realized there were bluffs between us and the stream. We struggled, and fought, and wrestled the rhodo, and we were going practically nowhere. We finally decided to follow the path of least resistance up to the ridge that’s the divide between Cole Creek and Bear Pen Hollow.

We made it up there and looked at the map. We were at about 4700′. It was a long, long way to get to West Point! And the ridgecrest had greenbriers as well as rhodo.

We decided to cut our losses, drop down to Bear Pen, head downstream, and call it a day. We made decent progress—as in, we weren’t crawling the whole time—and finally spotted a gully that led to Bear Pen. The last 20 yards to the gully took about 15 minutes. It was a strange combination of rhodo and blackberry over blowdowns with deep holes underneath. I found this the hardest stretch of the whole trip.

We worked our way down the gully and after a while finally caught a break. We found open woods to the right and were able to walk comfortably through them. We popped out on the Newfound Gap Road between the Bear Pen and Cole bridges—absolutely filthy and wet. It had taken us six and a half hours to go about a mile and a half.

We’ll go back, and next time stay closer to the stream.

Styx Branch variation June 4, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Magical worlds of upper Styx.

Magical worlds of upper Styx.

I believe I’ve been up Styx Branch eight or nine times, sometimes with other people and sometimes on my own. It is a relatively easy off-trail approach to the top of Mt. LeConte—note that word relatively— although the lower part is an awful lot easier than the upper part.

Compared with the others of the Twelve Streams, it has a shorter distance and elevation gain. However, it has its own special difficulties. Today I was thinking about that, as I climbed up by myself. One thing about it is that in the upper sections you never know where you’re going to run into bluffs or simply very steep rock that might be tough to climb. Another is that you never know where you’re going to run into Rhodo minus. More about that later.

The weather’s been dry lately, and Styx carries very little water anyway, not because it’s a tiny stream but because the water runs in subterranean paths beneath huge amounts of Anakeesta rubble. The nearly-dry streambed of the lower parts is what makes that section so easy. It’s a delightful jungle-gym of jumbled rock with a dry surface that makes footing dependable.

 

This reddish boulder marks the entry way to lower Styx.

This reddish boulder marks the entry way to lower Styx.

The hike starts at the log bridge just above Arch Rock, and that very first part has the most water in it. The whole first section always has a dark, somber, maybe even foreboding feel to it, in keeping with its name. But soon it becomes very dry.

Dry streambed along lower Styx.

Dry streambed along lower Styx.

After I turned up the left fork, I ran into obstacles.

First of a whole bunch of blowdowns.

First of a whole bunch of blowdowns.

There are a couple of beautiful tall cascades on the left fork. If I am hiking with other people, I try to go up the rocks right next to the water. If I am hiking by myself, I am more conservative and go off to the side.

The first cascade.

The first cascade.

Pretty white violets growing in damp moss.

Pretty white violets growing in damp moss.

This was part of a whole section of blowdowns that took a lot of effort to get through.

This was part of a whole section of blowdowns that took a lot of effort to get through.

From the left fork, you can angle up different gullies or through different meadows to reach points along the whole range of LeConte’s summit between High Top and Myrtle Point. You may wonder why I don’t talk about the right fork. That’s because it leads mainly to a nasty stretch of heath along the Boulevard, southeast of Myrtle Point.

At any rate, I decided I would shoot for some place closer to Myrtle Point than the way I went up the last time I was there, with my friend Cindy McJunkin on New Year’s Day. I have missed hiking with Cindy. Circumstances have prevented her from doing strenuous off-trail hikes this year, but I’m sure she’ll be back to that soon.

My route bypassed a big overhanging bluff on the right, but I had views of the top of it.

You see the top of the bluff here. I've been past it on other hikes.

You see the top of the bluff here. I’ve been past it on other hikes.

I got into that special region of upper Styx, which alternates between steep-angled meadows and peninsulas of spruce and balsam.

A stand of tall spruce between open meadows.

A stand of tall spruce between steep open meadows.

I found a nice meadow to climb—until I saw a hideous wall looming up above me.

The darker foliage is an impenetrable belt of Rhodo minus.

The darker foliage is an impenetrable belt of Rhodo minus.

Rhodo minus is the small-leafed rhododendron that you find in high elevations, often in the same places as sand myrtle and steep Anakeesta rock. Myrtle Point is surrounded by Rhodo minus.

I tried to tunnel through it and found my passage completely blocked. I’ve done a fair amount of bushwhacking, and I will say that this is the first time that I’ve ever found myself utterly unable to move forward, to the left, or to the right. I tried taking my pack off and pushing it ahead of me. Still couldn’t do it. Some of the branches were narrow and brittle and could be snapped to get through, but there were quite a few thick, rigid limbs that simply could not be broken or pushed out of the way. I ended up backing out the way I came, praying that I wouldn’t have to drop way down to get around it. Thank goodness—I found a sort of narrow tunnel that I could follow, maybe a game trail. It still wasn’t great, but at least I could move. At last I got up to the Myrtle Point side trail.

The spot I popped out on the trail. Note the dense screen of brush in the background.

The spot I popped out on the trail. Note the dense screen of brush in the background.

I was just as glad no one passed by as I emerged. I was filthy from crawling on my stomach, I had leaves and branches in my hair, and I needed a moment to compose myself and brush myself off. I walked to Myrtle Point, and oddly enough no one showed up there the whole time I stopped for a rest. It was 1:00 in the afternoon.

The sand myrtle was beautiful.

Looking northeast from Myrtle Point.

Looking northeast from Myrtle Point.

Myrtle close-up.

Myrtle close-up.

I walked over to the Lodge and looked for Nathan, because I knew from the “High on LeConte” blog he was there at the moment. I think he’s a fantastic writer. We had a great chat.

Heading down Alum Cave Trail, I had a treat of Catawba rhodo and mountain laurel as I descended, especially around Alum Cave Bluff and Inspiration Point.

Catawba blossoms and laurel buds.

Catawba blossoms and laurel buds.

If you want to learn more about the Twelve Streams of LeConte, look at the post below this one or click on the image in the sidebar at right. Thank you for visiting my blog.

Laurel blossoms.

Laurel blossoms.