K2 of the Smokies
This was my first true mountain climb. I’ve been up Clingmans Dome, Kings Mountain, and a few others but they were short walks with paved trails. Granted I reached the top but I really didn’t “climb” the mountain. Mt. Le Conte was to be the first mountain I had ever climbed.
I call it the K2 of the Smokies because not only is it the second highest mountain in the Smokies (as K2 is the second highest in the world) but it is also one of the more difficult mountains in the Smokies (as K2 is often called the hardest mountain in the world). I came with my Dad and we took the Alum Cave Bluffs trail, which, I believe, is 5.1 miles long. I’m 16 and play basketball so I was in relatively good shape for the climb, though I should have trained quite a bit harder. The following is a timed (to the best of my recollection anyway, I didn’t have a watch) report of our climb.
9:15 a.m.- We pulled into the parking lot and Dad sent me to make sure we were at the trailhead. I sprinted all the way to the trailhead sign and all the way back to the car. I was extremely pumped; I couldn’t wait for the realization that I had climbed my first mountain.
Before we even started on the trail we pulled out our Swiss rain ponchos and put them on. It was only a light mist, but dad drilled into my head the dangers of being on a mountain; one of them being that you do not want to be cold and wet while you’re on it.
Dad said his pack weighed somewhere near eighteen to twenty-three pounds, and I’m pretty sure mine weighed somewhere between eighteen to twenty pounds. It was an extremely nice Swiss army pack though, which made the weight a lot easier to bear. I know I’m referring to equipment a lot, but I was surprised at how essential it was to the climb. We learned from some climbers we met that a man had died on the very trail we were on. He had gone up with no pack whatsoever and had been completely unprepared. After this climb I really understood what climber Robert Hunter meant when he said,” Just tell yourself that if you go up there, you can die. Mountaineering is serious business, even on an easy mountain…”
So after a few minutes of preparation Dad and me, clad in giant ponchos, began our ascent of Mt. Le Conte. After crossing a few bridges we hiked about a mile and a half with a wonderful mountain stream to our right. I probably could have appreciated it quite a bit more if the trail had not been so wet. We crossed over two very thin and very unique looking log bridges; the first or second of which crosses over the stream. Then we hit our first landmark. Arch Rock.
10:50 a.m.- We reached Arch Rock, which is really a sight to see. Arch Rock is a giant boulder that has been bored through with steep stone steps carved in. That was really the first part of the trail that got seriously steep, and it wasn’t just the stairs but also most of the trail after that.
Right after we got through arch rock we started on Anakeesta Ridge, with some exposure to our left. We would have gotten a wonderful view if it hadn’t been so overcast that day. Instead all we saw were whitish gray clouds. Anakeesta ridge takes you up to Peregrine peak at 5,260 feet above sea level. To me that was the first truly gorgeous view on the trail. There was no marking to tell us we were at the peak; we had just looked it up on the Internet before our climb. While we were there we saw 2 or 3 of the funniest little squirrels we had ever seen. They were nowhere near the size of a normal forest squirrel; in fact you could probably hold one in the palm of your hand. They came within a foot of us, maybe even closer, and then stood up on their hind legs with inquisitive looks on their faces waiting for food. We had about three of them around us when some hikers came noisily down the trail and scared them away. Since the squirrels had disappeared we asked the climbers how close we were to Alum Caves and they said maybe twenty minutes to half an hour. With that we continued our hike with the views becoming increasingly more beautiful since we were going above the cumulus cloud level. Then we reached the highlight of the trail. The Alum Cave Bluffs.
11:20 a.m.- It’s a place like Alum Cave Bluffs that makes me wonder how anyone could question the existence of God. I can’t give you a full explanation in words of what Alum Caves is like. The caves are about two miles in and even if you have no intention of reaching the summit the hike to the caves is worth it. It looks as if someone took a huge axe and chopped into the side of the mountain. The cave is in a < shape. There is about a hundred foot scramble to the center and then sixty foot rock walls that would make a rock climber drool shoot out over the top.
Be careful not to plan your lunch stop at Alum Caves unless you’re social, while we were there people were everywhere. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like in the summer.
11:40 a.m.- After we left the Bluffs the serious climbing began. By that time we had packed our ponchos and it was a good thing too, the climbing was so steep we would have been tripping over them. The exposure is pretty bad on the third and fourth miles. The exposure was bad enough to where if you fell you were hurt very badly or dead. We were on the difficult third mile and it was pretty hard. Cords had been permanently installed in several different places and we used them. As difficult as that mile was we passed four or five beautiful little waterfalls that made the climb more pleasant.
The fourth mile was slightly better than the third and it definitely gave better scenery since we were getting even higher. The exposure was pretty bad here too.
During those two miles I had some very interesting talks with my Dad and even if this is the only mountain we ever climb I’ll remember it. Don’t ever pass up time with your parents, this was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my whole life.
Towards the end of the fourth mile we hit the fur lane. The fir lane was a part of the trail that got very dark due to the immense amount of fir trees surrounding us. The lane went on for maybe a quarter of a mile and then we hit the famous Le Conte lodges. Right after the Le Conte Lodges ended so did our trail and we followed wood signs to the final mark before the summit. The LeConte Shelter.
1:15 p.m.- We recognized the LeConte shelter but there was one problem. There were no more signs to the summit, just a trail. It had gotten cold and rainy and we had put our ponchos back on again. To top all that off we were both starved and ready to eat. However there were a ton of signs up in the shelter asking you not to cook so you don’t attract bears.
We were in a pickle.
So to speak.
After a moments thought I told dad that we should get our radio’s out and I would hike on ahead to see what there was. Dad agreed and I started up the trail. I had a gut feeling that the trail I was on would lead to the summit; it just kept going up. After a few minutes of hiking up dense forest I came to a small clearing of maybe fifteen yards. The view was absolutely breathtaking. I radioed Dad and told him he had to come see it. The clouds swam through the mountains never stopping. Sometimes the clouds would clear making the view that much more spectacular. After a moment dad caught up and was as amazed by the view as I was. We kept hiking up the trail confident we would reach the summit. After a moment we did. We could tell because the summit has a pile of rocks called High Top. The pile had to have been seven feet tall. We turned on our radios and let out a big holler to my grandparents who were by the Bluffs. I then looked at dad and mimicking Marv in Home Alone 2 said, “Harry, I’ve reached the top!”
We took several pictures and I placed a huge stone on the top of the pile for good luck. The summit is 6,593 feet but I climbed the rock pile and I’m positive I was 6,600 feet above sea level.
It’s a great feeling being at the summit.
We made our way back down to the clearing and ate lunch. My dad had bagged his fifth mountain. This was my first. And I loved it.
We ate lunch and accidentally took too long. We needed to get back down pretty quick. That was another rule dad had taught me; unless you’re planning on it don’t be on a mountain at night. We weren’t planning on it.
We went by cliff tops on our way back and aside from Niagara falls I saw the most beautiful piece of natural scenery I’d ever seen in my life. From a giant rock ledge high In the Smokies I looked out at an ocean of clouds - not a couple, not a few, but an ocean. Every now and then a peak got brave enough to raise its head above the white sea of clouds. It’s the most wonderful image of unspeakable beauty I’ve ever seen in my life.
Though we ended up using our headlamps we got down the mountain all right but exhausted. I looked up at the mountain that oversaw Gatlinburg and silently whispered to it “ I beat you.”
I had a great fun on that mountain. NOW BRING ON THE NEXT ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!