Saturday, October 04, 2008

March 5, 2005

On March 5, 2005 I hiked almost a vertical mile from a point near Gatlinburg TN to the summit of Mount LeConte. It's not the highest mountain in the east, but LeConte is the tallest. That is, from its base to its summit, it's the only peak in the eastern USA that's over one mile "tall".

On that day in 2005 I hiked to the summit, via the Rainbow Falls Trail with Sam Baucom. Sam is one guy I cannot keep up with while hiking. He's a marathon runner and puts in many miles of running every single day. What you do when hiking with Sam is hope he allows you to stay within eyesight.

This was a unique hike in that we started the climb with temperatures in the mid-50s with partly cloudy skies, and walked the equivalent of many hundreds of miles north into sub-freezing temperatures and very deep snow. In fact, the peak had just received a 17-inch snowfall the day before, and we walked through intermittent flurries as we reached the top.

Following is a brief photo journal of the hike:

We begin the hike in a typical cove hardwood and hemlock forest. I haven't hiked this trail since, but I assume that most of these trees--hemlocks--have now died.

Rocks. The common denominator of the trails of Appalachia.

We looked up, and there above us, beckoning, were the first ramparts of the high ridges.

Sam, as usual, waits for me.

The remains of old forest giants along the trail. Nursery logs for their progeny. In this case, alas, merely a graveyard for stillborn hemlocks.

A pair of trailside giants waiting as they're slowly starved by tiny pale vampires from Japan.
We round a bend in the trail, and discover the lower ebb of Winter's touch.

Above us, and to the left of the trail is a side path leading up to Rainbow Falls...

...which merely trickles and offers up frozen sheets and a frosty stare as we gaze up at her.

We press on, climbing into that rarest of thing in the South: true high country.

Stark ridges, like the ash-dusted fins of some gigantic reptile rising up from the hard loam of Tennessee.

These funky little snow donuts were funny. These were kind of small...about half a foot across. But some were really big--maybe two feet across. You could follow the trails and see how they formed: dollops of snow would fall from evergreen limbs on steep slopes and start rolling, eventually becoming something like tires until gravity or lack of slope would topple them over.

The clouds began rolling in on the big mile-high peaks above us. It began to get really cold. Even the rhododendrons bowed their branches and curled their green leaves inward, huddling against the chilled winds.

The snow got deeper and deeper. Someone had preceded us on their way down the peak after the previous night's snowfall. But we saw no one.

We entered what is called "the Canadian Zone". Well named, at that. A bit of the far north preserved in the form of a mountaintop island, an ecological niche. How long before global warming squeezes it dead?

LeConte Lodge, shuttered for the winter. We happened upon the young man hired to house sit the property during the cold months. I will envy him forever.

I look down from Myrtle Point, seeing the ragged waves of Earth spilling out into the distance, having crested 200 million years before, ebbing now into the great gravity well. But defiant and beatiful for all that. Standing tall, adamant, frozen in the grip of a late winter storm. Beauty.

I stand on the summit. The wind whips; my face and hands are ruddy with the bite of the cold. My lungs are filled with the sharp blades of winter frost. My feet are deep in snow, the flakes dance around my head and slash at my lips. All around me, the high country is frigid and pale and silent but for the howl of the gales that lash the black-green spruce and balsam. I am very happy to be here.

Rime ice plays tricks on my eyes, makes an illusion of motion, imparting the kinetic and chemical madness of its physical creation like a magic trick wrought by some majestic sleight of hand. I nod approval and turn my back on this cold and ancient summit.

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