Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mt. LeConte Shared and Magnified!

On Wednesday of this past week, I took probably my favorite trip to the summit of Mt. LeConte because I shared that experience with 25 teenagers, many of whom had never hiked at all. LeConte has been one of my favorite spots on Earth for a year and a half now, since I first hiked to the top in May of 2011 via Alum Cave Bluff Trail. I went again this spring with a larger group of ladies this time via the Boulevard Trail. On the first trip, the weather was perfect with crystal clear blue skies and visibility that stretched literally for miles. The second trip was less stellar for a couple of reasons, but was enjoyable nonetheless. This trip, however, I do believe was my very favorite because I shared this special place with my students.

We loaded the bus at 5:30 a.m. in the parking lot of our high school. Believe me, that's early for 16 and 17 year olds! They complained of having to get up so early, but I noticed they were smiling and even a little giddy with excitement. Armed with pillows and blankets in addition to their hiking gear, the kids piled on the bus and promptly went to sleep. We arrived at Sugarlands Nature Center for our final "real" bathroom break a little before 7:00 a.m. At that time, I also divvied up the supplies that I had brought for all of them. I've already mentioned in a previous post that Blue Ridge Mountain Sports in Knoxville, TN donated 44 Clif Bars for the students. Our local Food City donated bananas for everyone to have during a break on the trail. I always find that bananas can give me that little extra shot of energy when I begin to drag a bit. Also, Earth Fare provided 48 bottles of water for us to distribute to the kids. Most of them did not have a water bladder for their packs and I wanted to be sure they carried enough water with them to the top. These supplies were greatly appreciated and made for a much more enjoyable hike for these students.

Once I distributed the supplies and handed out homemade blueberry and/or pumpkin muffins made by a fellow teacher and one of the chaperones as one last bit of nourishment, the bus took us our last little distance up to the trailhead. I was simply thrilled to be ready to head up the trail just after daylight at approximately 7:30 a.m. The kids were so cute getting all their gear on. We talked about expected behaviors and trail etiquette, and then we embarked on what would be an almost perfect day.

The morning was brisk, and most everyone started out in fuzzy fleece jackets, sweatshirts, or even heavier coats. After about a mile it was time for a stop to shed some layers. We were definitely warming up, making gloves and jackets unnecessary. I was really surprised at how quickly we arrived at Arch Rock. We were making good time, but this hike was never supposed to be about speed. I loved overhearing the kids when we would come to a river crossing. They didn't quite know what to think about those footbridges made of a log and one handrail. They crossed tentatively and nervously, but they crossed! At one point along the trail, one student said, "What's that smell?" One of the other chaperones replied, "Nature!" I got a little thrill knowing that this student had never been in the Smokies before and that all of this wonderful natural world that I take for granted was a totally new experience for her. Numerous times that day, students would remark about something beautiful or unexpected and my heart did little flips. It made the 5-mile walk up there almost effortless. The students did a great job. Even though I was in the back with the group of girls who were the slowest hikers, they did not complain. They got tired, and I let them take lots of breaks, but when I told them we needed to get moving again (because we were getting cold), they got up and hit the trail again. They didn't ask me how much further more than maybe 20-30 times. :)

As long as we kept hiking, our temperature was fine even though you could tell it was getting much colder as we gained in elevation. At about 9:00 a.m. we stopped to regroup at Alum Cave Bluff and take a snack break. I wanted to be sure the students stopped long enough to get some good nourishment (the bananas and Clif Bars) and drink plenty of water. If you know teenagers, you know how they will cave in to peer pressure--even the peer pressure to walk faster than they need to without taking breaks. This rest and refuel break was mandatory and it was good to get to see everyone in the group together and assess our condition at the half way point. It appeared that everyone was still in good spirits and most were ready to finish the deed soon after stopping to rest. We didn't stay too long because we were beginning to get cool again, and we were soon making the climb along the rock walls where cables bolted into the mountain walls provided my students with handholds and me with peace of mind.

We had gotten some great photo ops on the cliffs just before the Bluff, but shortly after leaving the Bluff, we ascended literally into the clouds and that's where we remained for the rest of the day. It never did rain on us, but my hair sure looked and felt like it had. It was soaking wet from the condensation within the clouds. I was disappointed that the views were obscured, but the girls in my group were fascinated with the fact that they were INSIDE a cloud!

The mile and a half or so above Alum Cave Bluff is the most difficult part of the hike and some of these kids were struggling a bit at this point. I never really worried about them not being able to make it, and they still weren't complaining. But the breaks became more frequent and once one of them complained of being lightheaded. After another break, this time with some more food and water, she felt better and we continued on. Soon we arrived at the point in the trail where the ecosystem changes dramatically and you just know you are nearing the top. Many of my students said that last part of the forest right before you get to the lodge area was their favorite part of the whole trip.

I have a feeling though, that for most of them, the favorite part was the lodge itself where they could sit by the fire, rest, and drink some of the most delicious hot chocolate found anywhere on the planet! That $3 is the best money I've ever spent, even the third time around! While we were resting and relishing the fact that yes, we had indeed climbed Mt. LeConte, we were met by Tim Line, the man who runs the LeConte Lodge. He had agreed to talk with my students about the precautions that the lodge and the Park Service are taking in light of the hantavirus outbreak in Yosemite, which was (at least in part) the reason we had made this trek. We moved into the "office" area where the shirts are sold. My kids gathered around the fireplace in the center of the room while Tim told us all about the deer mice that are a part of the LeConte experience and what his staff and the Park Service are doing to keep visitors safe. There has never been a case of hantavirus in the Smokies; apparently this is attributed to the moist and humid environment in our area as compared to the dry region in and around Yosemite. This humidity keeps the feces and urine particles from becoming airborne which is how they are transferred to humans. We were also joined by a Park Ranger who apparently made his way up to LeConte just because he knew we were coming to learn about the risks and preventions of hantavirus in the Smokies. He, too, did a marvelous job explaining the Park Service's position and policies relevant to hantavirus here in our own backyard. Both of these gentlemen gave my students plenty to think about and investigate further. They also treated the kids respectfully and took their questions seriously. We also received an email the next day expressing interest in any findings or proposals the students may develop as a result of their investigations and research. After meeting with these two gentlemen, we made our way up the trail a quarter mile or so to the LeConte Shelter so the kids could see what a backcountry shelter looks like considering that they, too, are visited regularly by the deer mice that may be infected by the hantavirus.

These students will continue to work on the scientific research behind our trip to the summit of Mt. LeConte in the coming month, and will put together presentations and proposals to share with the Park Service and perhaps the Friends of the Smokies, but I, and hopefully they, will forever cherish our time on the mountain. I know that this mountain will always hold a special place in my heart because of this experience. Someone once said, "Joy shared is joy magnified." The same thing definitely holds true for this magical mountain.


  1. Congratulations on the success of your trip. Sounds like the kids had a wonderful time.

  2. Awesome. I love Le Conte and Alum Cave Bluff Trail. In the spring 2013, my wife and I will be staying at the Le Conte Lodge for a few nights. We were thrilled when Le Conte send us our lodge confirmation. It can be difficult to get on the reservation list.

  3. You are lucky! It is hard to get on the reservation list. Sometimes the wait is a year in length. Enjoy your stay. They have several feet of snow up there right now, but hopefully you'll have great weather when you are there.