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Lovely wildflowers and a total screw-up April 13, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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We hit the fringed phacelia at Porters Flat at its peak.

We hit the fringed phacelia at Porters Flats at its peak.

Mark Shipley came up with the idea. He wanted to go through the Porters Flats area when the wildflowers there neared their peak. We succeeded in that part.

We didn’t succeed in the other part of our quest, and it was my fault. He wanted to continue up the Porters Creek manway, turn up Lester Prong, and climb the Tourist Bunion from the bottom. On the map below, I have put a giant “X” through the words Charlies Bunion because that is not the place everyone thinks of as Charlies Bunion. Long story.

This gives you an overview. To get to the Tourist Bunion, we needed to climb up the second tributary of Lester Prong and then jog left onto the ridge on the west side of the stream.

This gives you an overview. To get to the Tourist Bunion, we needed to climb up the second tributary of Lester Prong and then jog to our right onto the ridge on the west side of the stream.

I’ve climbed the Tourist Bunion from the bottom two times. The first time was somewhere around 30 years ago, with my former husband, Chris Hebb.

Here I am somewhere in the mid-80s on one of the more interesting parts of the climb.

Here I am somewhere in the mid-80s on one of the more interesting parts of the climb.

The second time was much more recently, on a climb I did with Chris Sass where we went down Middle Crag and up the Bunion Crag (Tourist Bunion). I took this picture of Chris going up the ridge.

Chris tackles another "interesting" part.

Chris tackles another “interesting” part.

Mark invited the “usual suspects” of hard-core bushwhacking to do this hike with him. Everyone had conflicts except me. I thought it would make it more fun to have someone else along, and I invited several other people. Everyone said they couldn’t do it, except for Clayton Carver.

Clayton is a young guy who’s just getting really interested in off-trail exploring. He’s done some challenging stuff on his own like Big Duck Hawk Ridge, Trout Branch Scar, and Anakeesta Ridge. On an impulse I invited him to join us, and I think he was a bit startled, but he agreed to come.

I appreciate this even more now that I know he was apprehensive about climbing the Bunion. I totally understand that—I think anyone sane would be apprehensive about it, and I am apprehensive about it myself—it’s just that I’ve got this little trick of “mind over matter” figured out. There’s lots of handholds and footholds—it just happens there’s a lot of air around it, too. So it becomes an exercise in positive thinking. In other words, focus on what’s there instead of what’s not there.

So we met at the Porters Creek trailhead at 8:00. Soon we were surrounded in flowers—practically smothered in them.

Yellow trillium.

Yellow trillium.

Sweet White trillium.

Sweet White trillium.

Phacelia growing on top of a boulder.

Phacelia growing on top of a boulder.

Squirrel corn.

Squirrel corn.

 

Longspur violets growing on log.

Longspur violets growing on log.

So we arrived at Campsite 31, which makes a great place to stop for a break and have some food and water. We continued on to the Porters Creek manway. Right at the start there is a new, large hemlock blowdown that makes it difficult to follow, and these days it’s not all that easy to follow anyway. Back in the 80s it was just about like following a regular trail. Not that way anymore! But we sorted things out, found the manway where it continued beyond the blowdown, and made the stream crossings until we reached Lester Prong. We turned up Lester and headed for Tributary #2, which would take us to the Tourist Bunion.

Clayton  (L) and Mark (R) rockhop up Lester.

Clayton (L) and Mark (R) rockhop up Lester.

Typical spot on Lester.

Typical spot on Lester.

Mark kept saying, “This is a beautiful stream!” It is, and I think Clayton felt the same way. Mark has done a ton of bushwhacking but hadn’t been up Lester before. Clayton is just getting started with the famous streams of the Smokies.

Slanting Anakeesta strata along the stream.

Slanting Anakeesta strata along the stream.

Since I was sorta the old-timer on this route, I stopped the group at various points, explaining their importance. I made them stop at the first tributary on Lester and told them about how that leads up to “Rocky Crag” or the “Real Bunion” or the “USGS Bunion” or however you want to call it. I pointed out the little stream on the right that comes down from the summit of Horseshoe Mountain.

So we continued on, and we passed a small gully on the left. It carried no water at all. It seemed to be too low in elevation for the second tributary. Mark pointed it out, but I carelessly dismissed it. We kept going. Turns out that’s where we should have gone.

We reached another tributary, which had a good supply of water flowing down it, and I announced that was our route.  We clambered up some cascades, and before long I thought I recognized the route Chris Sass and I had used a year and a half ago. He and I hadn’t approached from the bottom of the tributary, we’d come down from the adjacent ridge (to the east)—that’s my only excuse for not correctly perceiving the side stream. I said we should now climb up to the ridgecrest. I thought it looked familiar, but in reality I’d never been there, and it turned out to be much brushier than I remembered, of course. To put it bluntly, between the blowdowns, the loose rock on the side of the ridge, and the rhodo, it was totally crappy.

Somehow I ended up going one way, while Mark and Clayton went another.  Finally we reconnected. I was on the ridgecrest, thinking, “Geez, this has got to open up into that nice rock I remembered pretty soon.” They were a little bit down on the left (east) side of the ridge.

Mark said to me something like, “Hey, look at all those little people climbing around up on that next ridge. Sure looks like the Tourist Bunion.”

He was absolutely right. We were on the wrong ridge.

We’d expended a huge amount of energy going through the brush on the incorrect ridge. We talked about our options. Mark would have been willing to go back down to the draw, climb up to the Tourist spine, and do the intended hike. I unfortunately knew I didn’t have enough energy to do that. Well, what about just continuing up this ridge? As far as we could tell, there was no reason to believe things would get better. It was brutal. I’d looked down this ridge before, the one immediately west of the Tourist Bunion, and I remembered no open rock. It was solid brush, and ridiculously steep at the top to boot.

So we dropped back down to the draw (quite a job even to do that), and headed back down to Lester. The Tourist Bunion would have to wait for another day.

Mark and Clayton were great sports about my screw-up. We followed Lester back to the Porters Creek manway.

Clayton on Porters manway.

Clayton on Porters manway.

Once we got back to the maintained trail, we saw lots of beautiful flowers. And lots of people, too.

Phlox.

Phlox.

It was a lovely wildflower walk.

P1020951

 

 

Point 5520′ March 27, 2014

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Looking down into the valley of Kephart Prong.

Looking down into the valley of Kephart Prong.

The original idea was to go to Rocky Crag, starting at the Kephart Prong trail. But once I got above the Kephart Prong/Grassy Branch side of the mountain and up to the stateline ridge, I got blasted by cold blustery winds. It was just too darn cold to go sit on the most exposed point in the Smokies.

Point 5520′ made a good consolation prize. It is the high point between Rocky Crag and the A.T. The map below should clarify things. Just don’t let the words “Charlies Bunion” confuse you into thinking we’re at the Tourist Bunion. I’ve discussed this too many times to go into it here.

Ignore the words "Charlies Bunion."

Ignore the words “Charlies Bunion.”

Here is a profile view of the ridge taken on another occasion (from the Tourist Bunion).

The "tooth" on the ridge is Rocky Crag.

The “tooth” on the ridge is Rocky Crag. Point 5520′ is out of sight to the right.

As I expected, the weather today changed dramatically partway through. I was just a bit off on my guess about when the new weather system would move in (the preview for tomorrow’s warm rain) and the old weather system would move out (which gave LeConte a low of zero degrees, night before last). I was probably up top three or four hours too early. I bet it’s comfy up there now, at 6:30 in the evening.

So I started up the boring old Kephart Prong trail. I always smile at the four footlog bridges. The first one is so beautifully made, wide and flat and solid, as if to lure in the unsuspecting hiker. The second one is not so nice, the third one worse, and the fourth one crappy, with a tilted, wobbly handrail. Of course, this morning the fourth one was the one that had the most ice.

But I persevered, and started running into snow on the shadier sections of trail.

Is it really late March?

Is it really late March?

Everything was crispy and crunchy. It was definitely below freezing at this point.

Tender green plants huddle beneath big icicles.

Tender green plants huddle beneath big icicles.

I got up to what the Park Service calls the Dry Sluice Gap trail and achieved the day’s high point of 5700′. The trail then drops 300′ to where it meets the A.T. By the way, total elevation gain for this hike is around 3400′, distance about 12.5 miles.

The wind was roaring out of the north. It was cold, and the A.T. was icy. I walked the short distance to the unmaintained side path and climbed up.

Heading up to 5520'.

Heading up to 5520′.

I stopped below the very top in a sheltered spot and put on my down jacket and my mittens. Brrr!

Then I climbed up the slabs to get views.

Anakeesta slabs.

Anakeesta slabs.

Horseshoe Mountain and its scar.

Horseshoe Mountain and its scar.

Looking down into Lester Prong valley.

Looking down into Lester Prong valley.

Middle Crag in foreground, Jumpoff in background.

Middle Crag in foreground, Jumpoff in background.

The view of the Tourist Bunion was blocked by Middle Crag.

The photo below shows the divide between Shutts Prong and Boulevard Prong, where I had one of my best adventures last year.

Telephoto view. LeConte looms in the background.

Telephoto view. LeConte looms in the background.

I climbed up to the actual high point and got views toward Porters Mountain.

Sawteeth in foreground, Porters Mtn. in background.

Sawteeth in foreground, Porters Mtn. in background.

Looking down valley of Porters Creek.

Looking down valley of Porters Creek.

I peered down the rabbit hole that forms the start of the traverse to Rocky Crag. It was full of snow. It didn’t look very inviting. So I turned back toward the south and descended to the A.T., enjoying the big cushions of myrtle and the wind-sculpted spruces.

By the time I got to the lower elevations, a big thaw was underway. The footlogs had lost their snow and ice, and tons of people were wandering up the trail.

It was an enjoyable day.

Micro-garden with a bonsai balsam, myrtle, and Rhodo minus.

Micro-garden with a bonsai balsam, myrtle, and Rhodo minus.

 

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.