Climbing Mt. LeConte: Up!
October, 2012 – Applied for reservations for LeConte Lodge & got them!
April, 2013 – We drove the 5 hours to Gatlinburg from our home in a rainstorm. Our plan was to start for the summit early the next morning because we had no idea how long it would take us to reach the top; the trail guide says 5 hours is average. All evening we watched television weather channels, checked radar, waited, hoped the rain would stop. It did not & the local weather forecast was for possible thunderstorms the next morning.
7:20 AM – After breakfast at the Hampton Inn we loaded the car with our backpacks & began the drive to the Trillium Gap Trailhead. Entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I had to turn off the car headlights – the fog was so thick the lights were reflecting back in my eyes making it impossible to see the road. The last rise into the parking lot, “Stop!” I came to an abrupt halt! A large tree limb had fallen across the road during the windy, stormy night. DH could not move the limb by himself, so I got out of the car & we managed to push & shove & roll & drag it to the side of the road. Of course, I had stowed my camera in my backpack in the trunk, so no photo. Rats!
Car parked – it’s still raining, but not quite a hard, we pull our ponchos from our backpacks, shrug on the packs, don the ponchos, lock the car, zip the keys into DH’s pack & we’re off.
The initial climb was to Grotto Falls & not strenuous, just a nice stretch of the legs. However, the water level of the falls had been rising with the rain & the falls roared as we passed behind it.
The farther we climbed, the more the trail became a stream & the streams became rivers. There was no way to pass the streams “dry” by stepping on rocks because all the stream rocks were covered by ankle-deep water at least. I was beginning to regret my decision to climb in my Merrell workout shoes with Smart-wool socks rather than buying water-proof boots.
There were no birds singing, or if there were, we couldn’t hear them for the pattering of rain on our covered heads. We did see a red salamander slowly crossing our path enjoying the rain – a salamander with 4 legs & 1 tail. (This is a reference to Joel Salantin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal observation that pesticide-laden farms & streams are producing 3-legged varieties regularly.) No other animals were seen, though we did pass a couple of community bathrooms for the bears – scat all over the trail & difficult to avoid.
The turn to Mt. LeConte was the 3-mile mark which we made in 1 hour 50 minutes. 35-minute miles, not bad with all the rain. We had high hopes for making the summit with energy to spare & enjoy the lunch we had packed. We were curious that no one else was on this trail with us.
The trail became more steep from here. Large rocks, streams of water pouring down the trail, nowhere to get away from the rain when stopping to catch our breath & drink water. It was getting tough. The temperature was dropping as we ascended, too, which for one with soaking wet feet, this was not good news. Not being familiar with this trail, we were disappointed that there were no further markers to tell us where we were, how much farther we had to go. We just kept walking uphill.
This is a trillium – the reason this trail is named Trillium Gap Trail, also the last photo I took on the trail on the climb up!
As we ascended, there were giant trees down from winter storms. I had read the LeConte Lodge blog since October & remembered comments about this trail being closed due to downed trees, but I had no idea how many there would be. I guess the llamas hauled up the chainsaws used to clear the trail.
Clouds kept the light fairly low helped by overhanging trees so we had to keep a sharp eye to our footing. DH slipped only once on slick rocks catching himself with his ski pole before falling face down in a stream. I caught my trailing foot on a hidden root in a very steep section falling hard on my right knee causing a sharp “ouchie” but nothing serious. When the trail narrowed, the walking was more difficult – not as much room to firmly plant a foot, particularly one as large as DH’s.
We passed a family & an older couple climbing down from their overnight stay at the Lodge. They said we were not far – encouraging words. Not far is a relative term, I now know, because we had entered the steepest part of the climb; the final 1 mile, though we did not know it at the time.
Rain increased. Temperature decreased. Stops to catch our breath more frequent. At every turn we hoped to see the cabins, a sign, anything! But no – just more uphill trail. At this point I had lost the feeling in my feet due to the cold & the wet, making my steps difficult – I couldn’t plant my feet securely; I was very grateful for the ski pole which added stability. I remembered DH’s Dad talking about having frost bite on his feet during World War 2 & wondered how quickly permanent damage set in. I also had been in deep conversation with the Lord about perseverance, as spoken of in Revelation 1, 2, 3, 13 & 14…no other distractions around – He had my full attention.
A sign! I see a wooden sign! Could this be it? Could this be the end of the trail? No! It was a sign denoting where to park one’s horse. Horse! You mean I could have ridden up here & missed all the muddy, wet fun? Nope! Horses are no longer allowed on the trail due to the damage they were causing. But at least it’s a sign that we must be close! I hope…
Another turn. Another up. “I see a wooden roof!” DH called out from behind me. I didn’t see anything. Maybe he’s hallucinating! “See it? Over to the right!”
Yes! There almost obscured by the clouds & fog, a wooden roof, 2, more! We had made it! 6.7 miles in 4 1/2 hours!