Mt. LeConte, 2017

Trail:  Alum Cave

Trip # 27 – November 9 – 22, 2017

  • Trail: Alum Cave Trail
  • Hiking Time Going Up: 3 hours 7 minutes
  • Hiking Time Coming Down: 2 hours 15 minutes

This year we decided to hike up and down Alum Cave Trail. Due to trail closures, we haven’t gotten to hike this trail many times in the past few years. We got on the trail a little later than usual (around 11 am). It was very foggy with a heavy mist — just enough to get soaked.

Hurricane Irma had come through the Smokys a few weeks earlier and we found a lot of damage. There were lots of trees that had been blown over and these trees snapped other trees as they fell. Just from what we could see from the trail, there must have been over 30 downed trees. Crews had done a great job, however, on getting the trees cut away and the trail reopened.

Our hike up was a steady slog through the mist. There were no views through the fog.

At the top, our cabin was warm from the lp heater and we quickly changed into dry clothes and went to the dinning hall to get coffee and hot chocolate.

Friday was a beautiful day. We had breakfast and then walked out to Myrtle Point. It was warm on the rocks and a bit out of the wind. We also walked down Rainbow Falls trail to the Bullhead Junction. Our goal was to see if we could get part of the way down the Bullhead to see the fire damage from last year but we couldn’t get past the trail junction. Then, we hiked the loop to Chimney Tops.  It was beginning to get crowded on the rock face so we didn’t stay for the sunset.

We got on the trail early Saturday. It was game day after all. We made it home in plenty of time before the 3:30 kickoff of the Clemson game.

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Mt. LeConte 2016

Mt. LeConte

Newfound Gap Parking Lot

Newfound Gap Parking Lot

This year, it was just me and Phil. We left Thursday morning around 8:45 and drove through Maggie Valley, cut the corner on the parkway to the Oconoluftee Ranger Station going into the GSMNP. Wildfires were burning all around, but most of the s moke stayed below and south of us. You can see the smoke from the Newfound Gap Parking Lot.

Thursday, November 10
8.1 miles, 2466′ elev. gain
Duration: 3:55

It was a very dry hike in. We hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Boulevard Trail to the Lodge at the top of the mountain. It is officially 8.1 miles and is the longest trail to the top. It is our favorite trail and although it is the longest trail, it doesn’t have the elevation gain you get on Rainbow Falls or the Bullhead.

Anakeesta Ridge

Anakeesta Ridge Switchback

We took a lunch break 5.3 miles in at Anakeesta Ridge. Note Important Information … this is the elbow of a switchback and has huge fallen trees on the outside of the elbow that allow for a lady friendly bathroom break. Behind the fallen trees is totally sheltered from any approaching hikers.

So, from there, you just keep going till you get to the top.

We didn’t have to deal with the smoke from all of the wildfires much on the way up. But, 2 days later, the smoke had increased and we walked into it about a mile from the top of the trail.

It was quiet on top of the mountain this year. There were no midnight rescues, no injuries, and no bear incidences.

The drought there had been bad, though.  Their water collection tanks were dangerously low and the flush toilets were shut down. Then, the next morning, they shut down the outside water pumps and the hot water facet on the outside of the dining room.  If anyone needed to fill a water bottle, they had to ask the staff to do it and this was for paying guests only. Day hikers were on their own or they could buy a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. The crew had not had showers in 3 days.

Friday, November 11
2 Hikes – Top of Alum Cave Trail and Myrtle Point
4.2 miles – 987′ elev. gain

The “Trails Forever” repair crews had completed the work on Alum Cave Trail. We haven’t been able to to hike it yet, so we walked down from the top to the top of the upper staircase. The trail had been extensively chiseled out giving a bit wider sections next to the cables. The log was removed on Monotony Ridge and with stairs chiseled into the rocks. The crews chiseled stairs everywhere. Impressive! Great job guys.

We didn’t go that far, but the bluffs had well over 100 steps cut into the rock. That was long needed. It had been a slip and slide area since I had been going there in the mid 1990’s.

At dinner that night, we found out that the crew would be allowed to shower. FINALLY!!! They seemed a lot more chipper after the news.

Saturday, November 12
LeConte Lodge to Newfound Gap
8.1 miles, 1272′ elev. gain
Duration: 3:36

We got up and rushed through breakfast. We had over 8 miles to hike out before the Clemson game started at 3:30!  So, we got off the mountain at 8:45 and made it home with over an hour to spare. It was a great trip.

Mt LeConte 2014

It was time for our official 2014 trek up Mt. LeConte. Phil’s brother-in-law was our guest this year. We chose to hike Alum Cave Trail. It was reportedly in the best shape and we hoped that it had minimal icy spots.

The Thursday hike up was great. It was a warm sunny day in the low 40’s. Our hike time was 2 hours and 53 minutes. We reached the top around noon long before most of the other guests arrived. There were only 29 guests on Thursday, but over 50 guests were there for Friday night.

It was interesting that on Thursday night, we were served Salmon Casserole for our meal. That has never been on the menu. Our guess was that their food stores were running low as the llamas had not been up the mountain for 2 weeks due to ice on the trails.

It was a frigid 8 degrees when we woke up on Friday.

Friday, Phil and I walked out to Myrtle Point. The trail runs the ridge of the mountain and you can see Newfound Gap and the ridges of the Boulevard Trail. The sun had already burned off the frost up high, but down in the folds, the Rhine Ice covered all of the trees. Clouds were hanging low in the valleys. We got a few good pictures of the views.

Friday night, we ate the usual beef stew, green beans and mashed potatoes. We were glad. It was a lot better than the dry salmon.

The crew looked tired. They had performed several midnight rescues in the past 4 weeks and a few of them were life and death situations. I think they were looking forward to the end of the season in “11 days, 4 hours, and 15 minutes.”

The hike down was a little slow because of all of the ice, but nothing we couldn’t manage if taken slow. We passed 10 or 12 British Airborne servicemen on our way down. Nice guys … they hadn’t even broken a sweat and were skipping right up the steep trail. After the drama of our Halloween trip, it was nice to have a quiet, restful, uneventful trip this time.

 

Howling Halloween

Our hike to the lodge at Mt. LeConte TN was one for the record books and will go down in Mt. LeConte Lore to be talked about for years to come.

Phil and I have a standing yearly reservation for the Thursday and Friday nights the week of Veterans day in November. However, this was not our yearly trip. We were guests of our dear friends, Scott and Jennifer and their 2 children. There were 11 people in our group and we shared one of the larger lodges at the top of the mountain. Bear in mind that there are 3 “rooms” and each room has double bunk beds that sleep 4. Find out more by going to their blog here: http://www.highonleconte.com

The plan was for everyone to meet at the top of the mountain. Phil and I had planned to hike up the Boulevard trail (8 miles) and hike down Alum Cave with the rest of the group on Saturday. We would then have to be shuttled by a friend back up to Newfound Gap parking lot to get our car.

Snow was in the forecast for later that night, so Phil has the presence of mind to stop at the rangers station. The ranger there told us that in the event that the road was closed, they would only allow cars to travel from the Alum Cave parking lot OUT of the park. Not wanting to be stranded in Gatlinburg without a car, we decided the safest bet would be to hike up Alum Cave trail (5.5 miles) ourselves.

Friday was a beautiful Halloween day. The trail was dry and the sun was shining. We made it up the mountain in 2 hours and 55 minutes.  Not bad for two grandparents.

The Llamas

The llamas were up and eating their lunch when we arrived. They make the trip up Trillium Trail 3 times every week during the season to re-stock the dining room, bring clean sheets and take down the dirty laundry. The llamas have the most amazing eyes and eye lashes. Although, they can be quite surly at times.

The rest of our group didn’t make it up before the llamas had to start back down the trail. I felt bad for the kids in our group because they had never seen llamas before.

Our group consisted of friends and co-workers and 2 “virgin” LeConte visitors. Some of us had not seen each other in years. It was great to be together and catch up. Our host’s children were troopers. The little boy was 7 (almost) and the little girl was celebrating her 10th birthday.

Halloween Pumpkins and Dinner

The nightly dinner was festive and the workers had carved pumpkins (brought up by the llamas). The themes for the 5 entrants were (left to right) “Winter is Coming” – “Bear” – “Ghost” – flashing”Tinker Bell” – and a scene depicting the guy from the 1920’s that carried his mom on his back up to the top of the mountain tied to a ladder back chair. We voted on “best of show” and the worker that carved the winning pumpkin would not have breakfast duty the next morning. There were approximately 45-50 hikers up for the night. Everyone in the dinning hall sang “Happy Birthday” to our newly minted 10 year old. Dinner was a success as usual.

Meanwhile, it had already begun to snow. By the time we finished dinner, the snow was beginning to pile up. It was DARK.

We all congregated in the main lodge around the gas stove and told war stories. Around 9 pm it was time to go to our cabin and climb in the bunks … hopefully with someone that didn’t smell too badly. The snow was already several inches and the visibility could be measured in the single digits. That is when 3 hikers showed up covered in snow, frozen, tired and confused.

Hikers in Peril

The hikers had hiked up Alum Cave starting around 4:30. They said it was raining at the bottom of the trail.  I think they were hours in before they ran into snow. They had reservations to sleep in the shelter. The LeConte crew hiked with them the rest of the way to the shelter to make sure they could find it in such bad conditions.  There were already 15 people crammed into the 12 sleeping spots of the shelter.  Obviously several campers that had expected to camp under the stars that night “crashed” there without reservations leaving no room for these guys. So, the crew brought our 3 tired guys back to the lodge and let them sleep on the lodge floor.  One of these guys wore low top tennis shoes and wasn’t equipped for the extreme conditions. I am not sure what happened to them on Saturday.

And the Winner Is …

We woke the next morning to about 17″ of snow. It was 14 degrees and the winds were gusting 25-40 mph. The drifts were 2-5 feet and the snow was still coming down. It was cold and gray. Going the 200 yards to the outside bathroom was shockingly brisk in knee deep snow. At breakfast we learned that the winner of the pumpkin contest was the last one on the right … the picture from LeConte lore … appropriately.  Personally, I voted for the cute little bear.

Staff Suggestions …

The crew had been in contact with the forest service and we found that all access roads to the trailheads were closed. The crew suggested that the only trails that we should consider going down on were Alum Cave or Rainbow Falls. The windchill at the top of the mountain was zero or below and Alum Cave was shorter, our group had the most experience on that trail, and the deciding factor for Phil and I … our cars were parked at the trailhead. Alum Cave trail was on the leeward side of the mountain and was over 2.5 miles shorter than Rainbow Falls trail. There was a lot of buzz and several groups decided to stay on the top of the mountain another night. They had closed the roads to all trails, so there would be no hikers up that day. The lodge said they would accommodate anyone free of charge that wanted to spend another night. Whatever was decided, they wanted a head count of hikers, their chosen trail and how many cars were associated to our group.

In the end, there would be 2 groups of hikers that day. One group on Alum Cave and the other going down Rainbow Falls. We were counted and our cars were identified. The staff suggested each group stay together, get started early and check in with forest rangers when we get to the bottom.

The Hike Down Alum

17 hikers including the 11 in our group chose to hike down Alum Cave trail. We were lead by 3 young men in the late 20’s or early 30’s at their prime physical condition who took turns breaking trail. In hindsight, we wouldn’t have been able to get through the snow without them. They went ahead of us and literally plowed the way. They had to first FIND the trail without falling off the many cliffs. They dug out the cable hand holds in sections where the rock trail was 12″ inches wide on the side of a steep cliff.

Some of the snow drifts were armpit high. They used the hands and arms in a swimming motion as they shuffled their feet pushing their bodies through the snow. And … it was heavy snow—not that fluffy light stuff you get out west. The next group of 3 hikers then helped by stomping down more of the snow.

Our group followed behind them led by Phil and I (Alum Cave trail veterans). I wore FIVE layers of various articles of clothing.  We have all of our adults lined up with the 2 children and their parents at the back of the line. We wanted as many boot prints as possible in front of those 2 little ones. The children were thoroughly enjoying the trip since their “favorite uncle” was right there with them. Uncle John helped the children from the leading edge and parents encouraged and guided each child with painstaking care. Bear in mind that there are numerous cliff edges, log creek crossings and steep rocky areas on this trail.

It was exhausting work for the young men that plowed their way out for over 6 hours. The only words they spoke to us during the grueling experience was “how are the little ones?” — God bless them.

So, it took 6 hours and 15 minutes. Our leaders laid down in the parking lot. The children still had enough energy to make and throw snow balls. We followed all of the rules, were well equipped and we all made it none the worse for the wear.

Note about pictures.  It was difficult to deal with pictures during the most difficult sections of this hike.  Personally, I did not want to risk dropping my iPhone into 4 feet of snow.  We did manage to take a few shots during the easier sections, however.

Smoky Mountain National Forest Service Escort

The forest service was expecting us. Rangers were waiting in the parking lot on our arrival. They counted us and our count matched their count. I think they actually counted us several times just to make sure.

They had plowed Hwy 441 (which was closed). They had plowed the 2 parking lots at the trail head … AND they had dug out from around our cars. The rangers were there still working when we arrived. They helped us get loaded up, started up, and lined up all of our cars to wait on the snow plow to come back around. We all drove out behind the plow with the rangers in the last truck. A ranger was a the gate waiting to let us out of the closed section of 441 at the Sugarlands Visitor’s Station outside of Gatlinburg. It was a very impressive show of support by the park service. We were so very thankful.

There were rangers and snow plows at the Rainbow Falls trailhead waiting on those hikers too. That was over 15 miles away on a different road, so we don’t know their story.

The big lessons that should be gleaned from this experience are:

  • If the weather is real bad … stay home!
  • Tell someone else your hiking schedule
  • If you are 1/4 way in and it is too hard … GO BACK!
  • If the weather is good when you start out, make sure you carry gear in case it gets bad.
  • If caught in it …
    • come to a consensus and make a plan
    • stick to the plan
    • assume less than 1 mile per hour in bad conditions for good hikers
    • assume 1/2 mile per hour in bad conditions for weak hikers
    • start early
    • stay together in a group
    • go slow
    • stronger hikers in front
    • weakest hiker in rear
    • carry water (our water froze on us)
    • rest when you get tired
    • let someone know when you succeed … they may still have people out looking for you.
Mt. LeConte, TN

Alum Cave

 

20131020-112510.jpgMy ankle has improved so much, that we decided to put it to the test by day hiking Alum Cave Trail all the way to LeConte Lodge and back. The total distance hiked was 11 miles. Total elevation gain is approximately 2560′. It gets a little steep in places. I would rate this trail moderate to strenuous.

We thoroughly enjoyed the hike up, stopping at the bluffs for about 10 minutes. I logged a ” personal best” hiking time to the lodge of exactly 2 1/2 hours! We weren’t very winded either.

Mt. LeConte

The annual trip to Mt. LeConte is logged into memory! Our guests this year included Bo and Kim! It was Kim’s first trip up the mountain and to the Smokies! This trip was full of “firsts!”

We hiked up on Trillium. We ran into snow about 2.5 miles in. The higher we got, the deeper the snow. The snow was about 2 feet deep at the top. Hiking in snow is exhausting. I wasn’t quite sure I was going to make it. The view of the sunset at the top was worth it, though.

The big storm had wreaked havoc with the trails. The llamas come up Trillium 2-3 times a week, but had been grounded since before “Sandy” had come through and knocked down trees and dumped several feet of snow. To get needed supplies and shuttle laundry up and down, the lodge had to hire a chopper service.  It was so much fun to watch it land, help unload and reload it.

Hiking with Friends

Trillium Trail

It was my first time to hike Trillium.  It’s a big closed in so the views are as great, but the creeks are pretty and the trail is nice. A juvenile bear made his presence known and had become quite a nuisance.  The staff set a trap for him and we heard the trap trip during breakfast.  Then, the bear started yelling wanting out.  The park superintendent rode his horse up Trillium to get the bear and relocate him.