Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reward is Worth the Risk!

Temperatures on Saturday, even in Gatlinburg, were supposed to be in the low 60s--a pleasant day in early March. After checking several sources to make sure Greenbrier Road had been opened, we decided to hike to Ramsey Cascades to see the snow melt from the snows that had fallen earlier in the week. I had never hiked to Ramsey, but had heard that it was a nice but difficult trail after you got past the first mile and a half or so. We expected there to be plenty of water coming over the falls as a result if the higher temps.

The first part of the trail was a wide, pleasant uphill grade on an old roadbed running parallel to the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The rise was fairly steep, but not really very difficult. It was an absolutely gorgeous day which was warming fairly quickly, so we stopped and shed layers a time or two along the way. Any snow that had fallen during the week had melted in this area leaving behind a little mud, but our footing was sure on the wide and rocky path.

At about 1.5 miles, we came to a turn-around circle which, I supposed, marked the end of the roadbed as the now more narrow path turned off to the left. Here we began to notice the first indications that there really had been significant snow in the area in the previous days. Snow remained on the banks near the river or in heavy shade under trees, but still the path remained clear.

After about another half mile though, things began to change. Snow became more prevalent and began to cover the trail. Somewhere probably about mile two we came to the first of two split-log footbridges spanning Ramsey Prong. Even from our first view of it, we knew it would not be a fun crossing. The footbridge was covered in snow and ice, making the walk over it a little disconcerting since we still don't have crampons or microspikes for traction. However, with careful foot placement and a little luck, we made our way over that bridge without too much difficulty. At this point, we never even thought of not continuing. The snow that covered the trail was still soft enough to not be too much of an encumbrance and our desire to see the falls in the melting snow runoff was strong. We pressed on.

Once we passed that footbridge though, the snow deepened and became more icy since on this side of the river there was almost no sun making its way onto the trail. I was extremely thankful for my Leki hiking poles because they provided tremendous additional traction. About this time we were met on the trail by a couple of young guys trail running coming down from the falls. They had on trail running shoes and were moving much faster than we were, so we figured we'd be fine. They also said the falls was frozen over and extremely beautiful, which only encouraged us further to press on.
Massive tulip poplars

Soon, we came to one of my favorite parts of the trail. At about 2.6 miles there stand some of the largest trees I've seen in the Park. We passed directly between two massive tulip poplars and stopped for a photo op. You can see how large they are compared to my hiking partner standing in between them for scale. They reminded me of the other massive tulip poplar we had seen on an earlier hike on Scott Mountain, an area since devastated by a tornado-like storm that passed through last spring. I still haven't been able to determine if that ancient tree survived that storm since the trail in that area is still closed. These two stately survivors and another even larger tulip poplar just up the trail suggested that perhaps even the loggers who ravaged the park decades before had not traveled this far up the now much steeper path we were traveling. I'm glad that somehow, they were able to avoid the greed and the saws that harvested so many other such beauties that once ruled these woods.

Beyond those trees, the path conditions continued to deteriorate and we came upon the second footbridge. We had only thought the first one was a treacherous crossing. Almost nowhere on this bridge could you plate boot tread on wood or even soft snow. This is the closest we came to turning around. Using our poles to chop ice up to gain footing, we slowly, deliberately made it across and continued on towards the falls. Again we were met by other hikers who had made it up and shared that it was definitely worth continuing to see. So, on we went.

The last half mile or so, we spent holding onto roots or rocks, pulling ourselves up steep, slippery pathways which wound between and over large boulders over which, thankfully, large roots grew which provided necessary handholds to pull yourself up on and keep from sliding backwards on the ice.

Very soon, we were rewarded with a view of Ramsey Cascades unlike anything I've ever seen in my life. Water raged over the falls, but the spray from the cascades had frozen on the surrounding rocks and ground creating a sparkling fantasyland around the waterfalls. Pictures cannot begin to capture the spectacle, one that a fellow hiker who had encouraged us not to turn back had described as "an OMG moment!" As I stood there admiring the grandeur of such a sight, I knew the way home would be more treacherous than the trip up. Descending along that icy footpath would be more tricky than the climb had been, and I was right. However, we returned safely to our waiting cars with no incidents other than a couple minor slips. Would I have done anything differently, other than having some traction devices for my boots? No way! I'm so glad we didn't give up! I may never see anything so extraordinarily beautiful again in my whole life. Occasionally the reward is worth the risk, and this was just such a moment!

Saturday, March 9, 2013