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Pyramid route to Rocky Crag October 26, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The most beautiful stream in the world. Do you notice that the water is gold?

The most beautiful stream in the world. Do you notice that the water is gold?

Yesterday Clayton and I set forth (I like that old-fashioned expression of “set forth”)  to climb the ridge of Rocky Crag (also known as Real Bunion or USGS Bunion) via the Pyramid side ridge.

I had climbed up via that route two years ago, but I was careless, following a group and not paying much attention to the exact point where we had to leave that first tributary of Lester Prong to get up to that exact spot.

So now someone had studied the pictures and wanted to go up that route. I had to get it right!

Clayton and I started around 7:45 and made good progress up the 3.6 miles of trail, hitting the backcountry campsite on Porters in less than an hour and a half. Throughout the whole trip I kept insisting on stopping for water and snacks, partly just because I am getting to be a tired old soul—but not too old and tired to do this kind of adventure!

So we followed the lower Porters Creek manway. As I said to Clayton, I think it’ll be totally gone in five or so years. It used to be almost like a maintained trail. But the blowdowns and the growth of vegetation around have made it harder and harder to follow. Plus, we had to deal with autumn leaves that obscured the footway.

We got to the Lester Prong junction, and we rockhopped up the stream pretty easily to the first tributary. That’s where I took the photo above. I calibrated my altimeter carefully here because I knew we’d have to hit the side ridge to Pyramid Point pretty precisely.

We hit the first big cascade on the tributary pretty soon.


It's more vertical than it looks in this photo. You climb hand over foot.

It’s more vertical than it looks in this photo. You climb hand over foot.

The wonderful, enjoyable thing about this whole area is that you get into really steep stuff but there are always handholds and footholds.

Climbing the tributary. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Climbing the tributary. Photo by Clayton Carver.

We continued up the first tributary of Lester Prong until we reached a ridge that I thought was the correct side ridge. If you approach it from the left side there are cliffs. We went on a bit further up more of the wonderful mossy cascades of the tributary and finally picked a spot. I wasn’t actually 100% sure we were in the right spot but it turned out I was right. We climbed steeply through brush at the bottom but soon found ourselves on a footway that could have been made by bears or possibly certain eccentric humans that I know.


Climbing Pyramid Point. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Climbing Pyramid Point. Photo by Clayton Carver.

Clayton climbing up the side ridge.

Clayton climbing up the side ridge.

We topped out on the ridge and had wonderful views to all the steep ridges in the Lester Prong drainage. We could hear the idiotic voices of tourists on what most people call Charlies Bunion, but actually that didn’t bother me, it only reinforced the difference of our situation.

View to Middle Crag and Bunion Crag. Familiar places to me.

View to Middle Crag and Bunion Crag. Familiar places to me.

So from Pyramid you have to climb up the “Tooth,” as my Jefferson City friends call it. Clayton is a stronger hiker than me but he opted to have me lead the way up the Tooth. We got there and looked back down at the route we’d climbed.

We climbed the rocky bump you see up another rocky bump. Hard to describe.

We climbed the rocky bump you see and up another rocky bump. Hard to describe.

So we continued up the ridge, following the footway that I strongly suspect is mainly created by those terrible Jefferson City folks, and got up eventually to the top. Right about that time a nice innocent family arrived at the same spot, the father sure that this was an obscure spot no-one knew about. There we were, dirty and sweaty. He said, “I never see anyone else here!” We explained that we had come up from the bottom.

He didn’t understand—of course, no one understands.

A wonderful day.

Looking down Porters Creek valley.

Looking down Porters Creek valley.

Here, by popular request, is a map of the upper section of our climb.

OK, Al, here you go! Just shows the upper section, but if you ain't smart enough to get to the first tributary of Lester, you shouldn't be there.

OK, Al, here you go! Just shows the upper section, but if you ain’t smart enough to get to the first tributary of Lester, you shouldn’t be there anyway! And you know that area quite well.


Rocky Crag via Pyramid side-ridge October 28, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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I could have pretended I took this photo yesterday. In fact, it was taken on the ridge last March under identical conditions.

I took no photos at all yesterday. Partly because it was foggy and drizzly all day and partly because the pocket I usually carry my camera in developed a huge rip in it early on in the trip—I think it happened when I stepped on a slippery rock in Porters Creek and landed butt-first in the water.

I am not successfully maintaining my dignity these days. It seems every time I go on a hike I develop new problems with holes and rips in my clothing, which my dear companions don’t hesitate to point out. Hah! They are not exactly models of immaculate apparel themselves.

This time I was part of a group of six which briefly expanded to seven when the elusive, much-sought-after Greg Hoover graced us with his presence for a short while, having come out from Newfound Gap and descended the top part of the Rocky Crag ridge to join us on The Tooth. He would have done the whole trip except that he was in the throes of a head cold.

Chris Sass and I were out for more punishment after climbing the Bunion last week. We joined a group led by Greg Harrell whose main goal was to introduce a couple of long-time serious off-trail hikers, Ed Fleming and Hiram Rogers, to the adventure of The Crags. Charlie Roth also joined us.

The map below gives you the basic idea. The red line represents yesterday’s route. We started in the Greenbrier, went up the Porters Creek trail, followed the Porters Creek manway to Lester Prong, took the first tributary of Lester (which is near the boundary of the map), and left the Lester tributary to climb a side-ridge up to a rocky prominence called by some Pyramid Point.

The blue line represents the route that Chris and I took last week.

The red line started and ended at the Porters Creek trailhead. The blue line started and ended at Newfound Gap.

The Pyramid side-ridge is steep with some sections of rock scrambling, but it presents no serious obstacles. We arrived on the top and enjoyed being swaddled in fog, then proceeded up the main ridge to the top of The Tooth, where we met with the beaming countenance of Hoover.

After once again enjoying the fog for a while, we continued to the top of the ridge and dropped down to the A.T. There, Ed, Hiram, and Hoover turned toward Newfound Gap (where they had vehicles waiting) and Harrell, Chris, Charlie, and I descended the Dry Sluice manway and exited via Porters Creek.

Despite the lack of views, it was a fine day, shared with a good group of off-trail eccentrics. But then, people who do this kind of stuff are eccentric by definition.

Photo added at reader’s request. Jenny near top of Pyramid Point. Photo by Greg Harrell.

Climbing the Bunion October 22, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Chris contemplates the next obstacle.

I had climbed the Bunion before…way back in 1983. My bragging rights had long since expired. Perhaps I had become too wimpy over the years to do it again. I thought it conceivable that I would run away in fear.

The Bunion—it’s called variously Charlie’s Bunion, the Tourist Bunion, or Bunion Crag. I have now adopted the names invented by a certain genius of nomenclature: Bunion Crag, Middle Crag (just to the east), and Rocky Crag (to the east of that). The photo below, taken from the tourist overlook,  shows Middle and Rocky Crags.

The rock in the lower left corner is part of the tourist overlook. The next ridge over is Middle Crag, and the ridge past that with the hump on it is Rocky Crag.

Looking the other way, from Rocky Crag: Middle Crag, then Bunion Crag. Obviously, you can tell from the seasons that both photos were taken on other days.

My good hiking buddy Chris Sass had been wanting to do Bunion Crag for a while. And as readers of this blog know, I’ve had unsuccessful experiences with Middle Crag this year. Chris came up with a plan: we’d go down Middle, come back up Bunion.

We set off from Newfound Gap amidst throngs of tourists and made it to the tourist sidetrail quickly. At my request, however, we did not make the short side trip to the overlook. I had two reasons: first, I wanted to save that view for last, and secondly, I knew that from the overlook the climb looks impossible, and I didn’t want to set that image into my mind.

So we walked just past the overlook to the place where Middle Crag joins the stateline ridge and headed down. Oddly enough, it was not far along, in the very upper sections, that I found myself doing my only whimpering of the trip. Upper Middle boasts a series of short bluffs. Coming down from the top, it is quite hard to determine what is solid ground and what is a cushion of myrtle or spruce hanging out over the dropoffs on both sides—and it also requires more dexterity to downclimb the Anakeesta slabs than to upclimb. I said to Chris in a voice that must have showed my fear, “Maybe we should try a different route.” He suggested going a bit further, and I agreed to that, and before long I knew I could do it. But if you try this, do be careful!

One of the short bluffs on Middle Crag.

Much of Middle Crag consists of tunnels like this.

Outlook from swathes of myrtle on Middle.

We had great views over to the gullies of Rocky Crag.

At 4400′ we started angling down to the draw between Middle and Bunion. We hit the stream exactly at the boulder called Harrell’s Rock, named for our fearless companion, who unfortunately could not be with us this day. He has done the Bunion upwards and downwards, backwards and forwards.

After taking a break, we made the stiff climb up to the ridgecrest. I had told Chris that when I’d done the Bunion years back, we had gone too far up the draw and ended up climbing on uncomfortably steep Anakeesta which, due to the grain of the rock, felt insecure. So we left the stream at 4200′ rather than around 4500′ as on the earlier trip.

Approach to the ridge taken on 1983 trip.

Because we climbed more of the ridge and less of the stream, we had more vegetation to go through.  It was slow in places as we crawled through laurel and rhodo. I didn’t recognize the exact place where I’d hit the ridge in the 1983 trip, but I came to realize that the vegetation had grown up quite a bit in those nearly 30 years—no big surprise. After all, the ridge had been entirely bare after the great fire of the 1920s, and things are always in flux. We passed through a rather peculiar zone of dead rhododendron surrounded by tall spruces and finally started coming out onto open rock.

Chris looks over toward the Horseshoe Mountain ridge.

One of many stairstep ledges.

I found myself doing the same thing I’d done years back, which was to focus on the immediate problem before me, figuring out where to place hands and feet. By narrowing my vision, I was able to think about “what is there”—the ample handholds and footholds offered by the ridge—rather than “what is not there”—all the great gaping space that lay just off to the sides. Doing this climb consists of positive thinking in the most literal, concrete sense.

Chris tackles one of the bluffs.

Looking back down the ridge.

At last we heard the voices of tourists, and we arrived at the top. As has happened on other similar occasions, the folks sitting on the rock did not immediately understand where we’d come from—they seemed to assume we’d just been doing a little scrambling a bit below. When one of them spoke of the tough hike out from Newfound Gap, my immature side came out and I couldn’t resist telling them that we’d come from the bottom. We explained how we’d gone down Middle—pointing over to that ridge—and come up just below. I knew, however, that they could not possibly understand. “Was there a path?” one of them asked.

No, there was not a path.

(Here is a link to some photos by Chris: https://picasaweb.google.com/100286297450199092349/MiddleCragAndBunionCrag )

Chris has reached the tourist overlook.