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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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8 comments
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.

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