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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 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.