Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hiking Mount LeConte – A Summit Run

I had planned on hiking the ‘moderate’ Snow Falls in a county bordering middle and eastern Tennessee that weekend.  It was supposed to be a moderate terrain, moderate distance hike… you know… about 7 miles round trip.  An easy day, for the most part.  I’m not exactly sure what prompted it, but I ended up changing my mind on a Thursday night and opting to, instead, hike to the summit of Mount LeConte via the Rainbow Falls trail. 

Rainbow Falls, Mount Leconte, Smoky's
Let me give you a little of “what I knew” going into this hike.  I knew that LeConte was the tallest (from immediate base to summit) in the Eastern United States and (therefore) Tennessee (yes, I know Clingman’s is ‘higher’ but it’s not as much distance because the base is situated at a higher elevation).  Technically, LeConte (elev 6,593’) is the 3rd highest peak in the Smoky’s (behind Clingmans [6,643’] and Guyot [6,621’]).  Again, what made me think “Oh yah, that’s a good day hike” is kind of beyond me.   Well, that’s actually not true – it was a good idea for a 2-day hike, which was the original plan.  I made reservations for the LeConte shelter – which is free but does require some advance planning.  Funkdubie, however, was really not fond of my grand plan, though.  So, fully aware that Funkdubie didn’t want us staying overnight unless there was no other option, I made the choice to go ahead and pack for 2 full days of hiking and an overnight stay, erring on the side of caution, with the intent of making this a 1-day hike. 

Packs:  Jess doesn’t have a ‘real’ backpack, so I ended up with 2 sleeping bags, all the usual supplies, and enough food for 2 in my pack while Jess carried 3 extra liters of water and clothes that we discarded as we got warmer.  The good news for Jess was, as refilled my 3 liter water bladder, her bag got lighter!  The bad news for me is that the food we consumed at the summit and along the way wasn’t enough to make my bag any different (plus, the water from hers went to mine – so there was never a decrease in water weight). 

My Hike Experience:  I’ve got great legs; and no, I’m not being conceited.  What I simply mean is that I can handle 30-40 pounds of pack and the distance AND the uphill/incline pretty easily.  The terrain summary for the hike is moderate at best and very strenuous at it’s worst.  Parts of the trail are very loose rock, often accompanied by constant trickles of stream (that aren’t very forgiving after a rain – even if the rain isn’t directly over top of you).  The trail up to Rainbow Falls (the actual falls) and for a mile or so past that has some very gorgeous scenery as you actually follow a river/brook for quite some time.  While Bullhead Trail may offer more views, it’s also more exposed to sunlight for that same reason, so that helped in our decision to hike Rainbow. 

A view from the summit of LeConte's High Top
On the trek up, I had a distinct advantage over Jess (even though I had the pack) simply because I’ve trained for this kind of endurance.  My muscles barely ached.  I could still hold a conversation (and even whistled for a bit) and I never got winded.  Jess, who had this experience to mark her SECOND hike, wasn’t as conditioned and to say that she loathed the trek up is probably being mild.  On the way up I would gain quite a bit of ground on her and it felt quite leisurely to me as I would stop every few minutes and wait for her to catch up.  The trees – from pre-falls through the first 3 miles – were amazing to me.  A little further on, the trees weren’t quite as impressive but I loved looking through the treetops and seeing the mountains next to us, realizing how high I had travelled.  The last mile or two to the top was, on the way up, difficult because the incline was accompanied by precarious loose rocks, slick and narrow mud footings, or rock ridging.  After 6.5 hours we finally reached the shelter and opted to have a good, late lunch before going the last quarter mile to the summit.  We snacked on canned pastas, snack crackers, a bit of jerky, and some dried fruit – YUM!  We then trekked to the summit and did the “ooh, ahh” just as planned.  It felt like we were on top of the world.  The view is nothing short of inspiring and enchanting. 

Another view from the summit of LeConte's High Top
We hoofed it back to the shelter where, glancing at my watch, I noted that it was nearing 4 p.m.  I assumed that 6.5 hours up meant 5 hours on the way back. In the thick of the forest, darkness falls much more quickly than open fields or cities, so we knew we would have to really push it to make it out before nightfall, so 5 hours down wasn’t an option.  I hadn’t completely made up my mind if we were trekking back on the same day, but for a short stint about 6 miles up the mountain, you can get cell service and Funkdubie made it very clear that he wanted me safe at home that night.  Against my better judgment (and with some encouragement from Jess that down would be ‘way easier’ than up), I agreed that we should pack up and get moving.  We extended our trekking poles for a descent and pulled out of the shelter at 4 pm. 

Within an hour, while making good distance, my knees started to hurt and I ‘tweaked’ my ankles no less than three times each.  The loose rock coming up turned a precarious climb up into a treacherous climb down.  Within 2 hours, my knees were aching so badly that my pace was being affected.  Within 3 hours I was putting as much weight as I could on my poles and Jess was waiting on me like I had been waiting on her on the way up.  My knees were aching so badly that my ‘stride’ wasn’t even enough to put one foot in front of the other.  I was, quite literally, shuffling.  I tried to explain to Jess that jarring on joints with the added weight of my pack and at the rate we were (or had been) travelling was nothing short of physical ‘knee’ suicide.  We had made it past the falls again at this point and had, literally, about 1 mile left.  We sat on a log for a few minutes so I could take my pack off and rest my knees.  My legs were shaking so badly that Jess asked if I was going to make it.  I wanted nothing more at this point than to simply become a bear snack. I asked of her what I never thought I would ask: if she could trade packs for awhile.  She looked at my legs, shaking uncontrollably, and agreed.  She then shouldered the 35-ish pound pack and I told her to trek ahead and I would eventually catch up.  It took us just over 30 minutes to make the last mile because my knees and one ankle were shot.  We made it off the mountain in 3.5 hours. 

When we got to the car, I admit that I wanted to cry… but my motto (as it is with hockey) is that there’s no cryin’ in hikin’.  I took off my pants (yes, I had shorts on under; and my pants were drenched from trekking through creeks that were full of storm run off) and sat in my car wondering if I was going to be able to control my legs enough to drive home or make my daughter do that for me as well.  After about 5 minutes the shaking ebbed enough to help me decide I could drive it.  We started rolling at 7:45 and were home at 10:30. 

As stupid as it may sound to some, I’m anxious to try Alum Cave and Bullhead trails next!  Granted, I’ll take my pops along so that Funkdubie is cool with me spending the night. 

Facts and Figures

The hike up the mountain is ‘advertised’ as 6.6 miles each way via Rainbow Falls, but it’s worthy to note that that is NOT to the actual SUMMIT.  That’s to the lodge/shelter/Trillum Gap area.  The actual summit of High Top (the highest of the mountains 3 peaks) is 6.9 miles one way.  The trail retains a relatively steep incline throughout, averaging about 580 vertical feet per mile.  The entire hike up (via either  Rainbow or Bullhead) takes you through just shy of 4,000 feet. uses a ‘mathematical formula’ difficulty scale because they feel a ‘1 of 5’ or ‘1 of 10’ gives too much subjectivity.  I agree to some degree; experience, fitness level, and conditions of the terrain can change a rating quiet easily from person to person.  That being said, it’s worthy to note that their scale says “a difficulty rating of less than 5 is generally considered to be an easy hike. Between 5 and 10 is moderate and anything over 10 is considered to be strenuous.”  So, here’s how they rate the trails up LeConte:
Alum Cave: 16.53 (to the cave only is rated 6.65)
Trillium Gap: 20.70
Boulevard Trail: 21.60
Rainbow Falls: 21.79 (to the falls only is rated 8.77)
Bullhead: 22.39 (to the geological features is rated 9.11)

Nic’s Rating

If you’re an experienced hiker and carrying a light pack, this trip would be fine (albeit strenuous) as a 1-day hike.  If you are carrying a pack or aren’t an experienced hiker, I would really recommend this as a 2-day hike.  I would give this (out of 10):
To Rainbow Falls: 6-6.5
To and from the Summit: 9

Last thoughts:  I know hiking isn't for everyone... but if you love the outdoors, it's a great escape and a good time to just BE with yourself.  For this trip, my sense of accomplishment is epic.  I am so very, very satisfied with having the ability to say "I did that in a day".  (Granted, I have daft idiot tendencies from time to time!)

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