Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Favorite Mountain

I have to say that I rarely visit my favorite mountain anymore. I've hiked it so many times over the years that I've reached a point where I'm (almost) tired of going there. In addition, there are so many other great peaks that I've never hiked and I need to see those before I get too old to hike up the steep slopes. So while I love my favorite peaks, there are always new mountains to be climbed. It's been about four years since I've climbed its slopes. So I'm overdue for a visit.

In the distance, the South's only vertical mile--LeConte--5,300+ feet from base to summit.

However, that said, my all-time favorite mountain is, and pretty much always has been, Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Tennessee (western) side. One of the most unique things about LeConte is that it is the only mountain in the eastern USA where it's possible to climb a vertical mile from the base of the peak to the summit. A few other eastern peaks come close, but none can make that claim, save for Mount LeConte.

Mount LeConte, taken October 10, 2004.

I've climbed LeConte in all seasons and in all kinds of weather. At 6,593 feet above sea level, it never really gets hot up there (the highest recorded temperature of the summit is less than 80 degrees), but it certainly gets extremely cold up there. A hike from the base, in Gatlinburg, to the peak will take you through several vegetation zones that is like taking a walk from Georgia to southern Canada. Along the way you go from a pine and hardwood forest to one dominated by northern species such as spruce, balsam, and birch. But there's something about climbing LeConte that I have never been quite able to define. I get a really wonderful feeling when I'm up there. It can't be the rarefied air, because the elevation is scarcely enough to make a big difference in atmospheric pressure (although there is a difference on that count--just not a major one). There's something else that is, so far, indefinable for me. Perhaps it's just being on one of the top ten highest peaks in the eastern USA. Maybe it's being on the only mountain in the east that stands a vertical mile above its base. Perhaps it's being well inside one of the finest National Parks that we have in this country. As with so many of the things that I love (or hate), I can't really say precisely why this is so.

LeConte Lodge, on the summit.

But LeConte remains my very favorite mountain. I've hiked to the tops of many peaks in the eastern USA. Katahdin in Maine. Washington in New Hampshire. And hundreds of peaks all over the southeastern USA from Alabama to West Virginia. LeConte is special. There are mountains that come close to it in grandeur, and mountains that equal it in the sheer diversity of the plants and animals that call it home, and mountains that are more spectacular in the way of exposed summits and high cliffs. But LeConte remains a unique experience for me.

No matter how many times I climb it, and no matter which route I take to the top, I always get a thrill out of the climb.
I'll go back, of course. For there is one thing left that has so far escaped me. In all my years of hiking the peak, from 1974 until today, I have yet to stay overnight at LeConte Lodge, the only lodge that remains inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Perhaps I'll finally scratch that one off my list this year. I can hope to do so.

We'll see.

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