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Panther Stairs via Toms Creek December 21, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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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.

Rocky Face Mountain December 14, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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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′.

 

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.