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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.

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.

Panther Stairs January 28, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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One of the "stairs" that has to be negotiated.

Today I did a solo bushwhack up Rich Butt to Cammerer. Rich Butt is labeled as a mountain on the USGS Hartford quad, and it does kind of look like a mountain if you view it from the Toms Creek valley, but it is actually a ridge that hits the 5000′ high point on the Cammerer side trail (a point that is higher than the point where the lookout tower is located). People often call it the Panther Stairs—bigger stairs than the Cat Stairs over on Greenbrier Pinnacle.

I climbed it once before, in 1997 on a visit to the Smokies from my then-home of Massachusetts. That was a Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing led by Fred Kitts and Charlie Klabunde in October when the colors were blazing. Nothing was blazing today, but I found that I enjoyed the eerie fog that shrouded the upper ridge.

The fog came in on panther feet.

When I arrived at the Cosby parking area, I discovered that I had left something at home on my kitchen counter next to the door—my map! Details, details! But since I had been studying it the evening before, I felt that I remembered it well enough. The crucial thing was identifying the point to leave the Lower Cammerer trail and head up the left fork of Toms Creek. But I remembered that Toms Creek was the first creek encountered along the trail that had two branches very close together. I figured that as long as I trended east, the very worst that could happen was that I’d hit the stateline ridge at some other point along the upper bowl of Toms Creek.

Toms Creek

Toms Creek was running high after all the rain of the past week, but I didn’t need to rockhop it. I found a faintly visible old road along it that worked out great.

I hit Rich Butt just fine, following the side ridge that parallels Panther Branch. The next time I do this hike, I will stay longer with the branch and hit the top ridge further along (but still below the “stairs”). The main problem along the ridge was greenbrier.

Briers!

A minor annoyance, but nothing compared with the briers of Huggins Hell.

The ridge stays almost level for a while, then starts climbing more and more steeply, and that is where you encounter the “stairs.”

The first major stair.

I had thought I might encounter some old ice from last week’s cold temps, but there was none. I had brought my ice axe, my microspikes, and my crampons. I needed none of these. The ice axe ended up seriously getting in my way—it was an experiment for me, the first time I’ve used it in the Smokies. (I used it fairly often in northern New England.) I have a leash on it to prevent it from sliding away down a steep slope, and I found myself dragging it behind me in places I needed to use both hands. Of course it kept getting snagged on the brush.

My ice axe.

It’s a long mountaineering axe (30″) rather than an ice climber’s axe, so attaching it to my pack wasn’t an option, as the spike would stick up and constantly get hung up in the brush.

The fog closed in as I climbed. I could see that it was brighter down in the valley.

Looking into the Toms Creek valley and beyond.

I liked the view down the ridge.

Down the ridge.

The laurel near the top was denser than I’d remembered, but finally I popped out on the Cammerer side trail. I didn’t even bother going over to the lookout tower, because I knew it was completely socked in—the fog had thickened beyond what’s pictured above and erased any visibility.

I’d thought of dropping down off-trail into Panther Branch, but I decided not to because at that moment I was tired of dealing with the laurel. So I headed out to the A.T. to go to Low Gap and then down to Cosby campground. Not far along the A.T., I encountered two park rangers.

They asked me if I’d seen any other people and where I had been—I got the impression they were looking for a missing person. I told them I’d come up Rich Butt, and they didn’t know where that was. I don’t hold it against them—they said they were both new to the park. “Please educate us about that,” one of them said. They were very pleasant and didn’t get on my case about bushwhacking solo.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I must have looked kind of scary. I had a big brier scratch on my face, and my right earlobe was completely bloody. Plus I had the ice axe! Reminds me of the time I was in L.A. for a business conference and did some winter hiking on Mt. Cucamonga. On my way back from the hike I had to return my rental car and get a cab into town for some logistical reason I don’t recall. I was standing next to palm trees near the L.A. airport, waiting for a cab, and none of them would stop—no doubt because I was standing there with the axe!

My trip back via trail was uneventful. Below 4000′, I left the fog behind. A good outing. And my bum knee held up really well.

The hallways of the Fog King.