Monday, May 14, 2012

Mt. LeConte--Second Time Around--Up, Up in the Clouds!

Cloud cover began to clear as we were coming down Alum Cave Bluff Trail

Early on Saturday morning, my hiking group began our second trip up to Mt. LeConte.  This time we began at Newfound Gap, stepping out on the Appalachian Trail, walking literally along the Tennessee/North Carolina border under low cloud cover.  Some of my companions had never been on the AT before, so they learned first-hand the mystique of the white blazes.  They also learned that the AT is a little different than most of the trails we have been on in the Smoky Mountains--a little more challenging. The thing I love the most about the AT is that much of the part that I've covered tracks along the ridges.  I love to be walking along those ridges with nothing but "down" on either side!  Even though we were only on the AT for 2.7 miles, there was enough ridge-walking to give my hiking buddies a little bit of the feel that I cherish.

The views from those ridges on Saturday, though, were severely limited due to the low cloud cover.  In fact, once we reached the Boulevard Trail and quickly covered the next .3 miles, we found ourselves at the turning point to go to the Jump Off but decided to save that side trip for another day.  There just wasn't going to be anything to see.  It made me sad, but it was probably a good thing after all.

Loose rocks "pave" much of the Boulevard Trail
The Boulevard Trail was deceptively mild at the beginning, except for the loose rocks that lined much of the trail.  The trail began as primarily a descent, but soon began a fairly mild climb toward the back side of Mt. LeConte.  We were passed by a couple of older men who had apparently hiked LeConte numerous times.  One of them told us Boulevard was his favorite way to the top; we were appropriately encouraged.

We continued to make our way up and around the mountain and the clouds continued to restrict our view.  There were many places along the way where I would step over to what should have been exquisite views of the valleys below only to see nothing but clouds and fog.  I think that's part of what made the hike begin to be more difficult as we began to tire.  I remember on our previous trip, the views were so spectacular that they were energizing in and of themselves!  We got no such encouragement as we made our way higher and higher up on the slopes of LeConte on this day. 

I simply wasn't prepared for the difficulty of the last mile or mile and a half of this trail.  The guidebooks that I use gave no warning, so I'm thinking it must have been the combination of the loose rocky footing, the additional length of the trail compared to Alum Cave Bluffs trail we traveled last year, and my lack of serious conditioning.  I remember thinking we were probably getting very close to the top as we were seeing many skeletons of hemlock trees on the nearby slopes.  It just seemed like we were almost to the top.  Then, suddenly we rounded one bend in the trail, looked ahead and saw a tremendous incline above us--a slope we knew we still had to climb.  My spirits tumbled and from there as the footing deteriorated, so did my spirits.  I'm thankful that I knew it was a shorter distance to the bottom if I just kept going than it would have been if I had turned around.  I don't think I would have given up and turned around, but I might have been tempted.  From there on, it was an act of sheer will to keep going.  We were more than tired.  We joked about putting one foot in front of the other and don't look up!

Part of that last, grueling mile.  Doesn't seem very steep, but we were really tired!
This picture shows the area of the mountain where one face of the slope simply slid down into the valley after a deluge many years ago.  It left more loose rock and unsure footing for us with what should have been an excellent view opportunity had it not been for the clouds.  We pressed on.  Finally, we reached the turn off to Myrtle Point.  The mountain was still shrouded in dense clouds, and tired as we were, we decided not to even go the .2 miles it would have taken for us to experience Myrtle Point.  Had we not been socked in, we would have gone no matter how tired we were.  Somewhat discouraged, we continued on after a short rest.

We made it to High Top!

Our first point of rejuvenation occurred when we made it to High Top.  We knew that this little pile of rocks was the attempt by hikers to make Mt. LeConte higher than Clingman's Dome. It shows the love that hikers have for Mt. LeConte--the determination that this difficult to reach summit should outshine the slightly higher summit of Clingman's Dome with its paved path that presents no challenge for the typical hiking enthusiast.  We began to smile again in appreciation of that fact and because, honestly, the trail could ONLY go down from here--something we were ready for!  With renewed spirits and a burst of energy, we began the short trek to LeConte Lodge from High Top.

Soon, we encountered the trail intersection where the Rainbow Falls Trail, the Boulevard Trail, and Trillium Gap trail come together.  A solo hiker we had befriended at High Top told us that this is one of only 13 places in the park where three trails come together.  I'm not sure how accurate his information was, but it sounded pretty cool at the time.

Within just a few short minutes now, we finally saw the cabins that populate the area around Mt. LeConte Lodge, a welcome sight to say the least.  We had done it!  We had made what had proven to be a more difficult journey than had been expected and had beaten back discouragement and disappointment to press on until we had achieved our goal.  Exhausted, but encouraged, we made our way into the dining room where we had reservations for lunch.  Lunch consisted of vegetable soup and a chicken salad sandwich on homemade bread.  The best part, according to my hiking buddies who inhaled theirs, was the cow paddy cookie!  I don't know--I was really too tired to eat.  To me, though, I'd have paid the $9.00 for just the hot chocolate!  It was fabulous and helped beat back some of the cold that had chilled my hands on the way up.

Again, we decided not to hike out to Cliff Tops where I had taken such awe-inspiring pictures last year.  We rested for our hike down.  We had taken longer than expected to climb LeConte--a solid 5 hours, so we were feeling a little rushed to get off the mountain by dark.  However, we did take time to purchase our "I HIKED IT" shirts in the office before we left.  Thankfully, though, just as we were preparing to leave, the clouds began to part and I was able to get a few nice shots.

The beginning of clearing skies--better late than never!

Our descent was via Alum Cave Bluffs Trail.  Even with a companion who had hurt her knee near the top, we made the hike down in less than four hours and about an hour before dark.  We will hike Mt. LeConte again, but I'm going to really work on conditioning between now and then.  Even hiking 10-12 miles every other weekend had not prepared me for this hike.  We are tentatively planning on doing it again in the fall, hopefully on a day where the colors are vibrant and the skies are clear.  There's just something about that mountain!  As much as I felt it had beaten me on Saturday, I am drawn to ascend it once again.

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