Mt LeConte Lodge, GSMNP - April 13-15, 1998

 
We convened at Skip’s house on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, April 12th to begin "The Great Mt LeConte Adventure". I was to drive the Rodeo so we could all ride together. We loaded up and departed around 3:00 pm headed for Gatlinburg. This trip had been in the works for 6 months and I think all of us were looking forward to it. We spent the night in Gatlinburg.

After breakfast at McDonald’s and a quick stop by the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center, we headed for the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead, arriving a little after 9:00 am and began hiking at 9:35. The weather was cool and dry and I opted to hike in only a long-sleeved CoolMax shirt which proved to be a good choice. Also, I decided not to wear my knee braces for the hike up. I had not been wearing them on my training hikes and had done fine so far. I did have them with me though so I could wear them on the way down. My pack weighed about 35 pounds. I had been carrying 57 pounds on my hikes training for Rainier and this lighter pack was riding easy on my back by comparison.

We took our time progressing up the trail and upon reaching Arch Rock, spent about 45 minutes photographing and videoing the area.

We reached Alum Cave Bluff right at noon and this was the site we had chosen for a lunch break. We spent about an hour here eating and then photographing and videoing some more. In retrospect, we decided it wasn’t such a great place to eat after all because of the dust stirred up with every movement. However, it seems to be quite popular for that purpose as there were several people here eating who were headed up to the lodge as well. This is likely because it is conveniently located almost exactly halfway thorough the hike to the top of Mt LeConte.

The second half of the trail is a little steeper than the first. At one point, there are even some wooden ladder-type steps in the ground. As the trail progresses on, you come to some sections that are much like a narrow ledge along a bluff. At most of these places, there are steel cables attached to the bluff wall for hand holds. I thought these were the neatest sections of the trail and could see where the cable would come in handy if the trail was icy. Speaking of trail conditions, as we neared the top, we began to see patches of snow. At one point, just before reaching the lodge area, there was a section of trail that was almost like a tunnel because of overhanging trees. Here, the ground was pretty well covered with snow. We arrived at the lodge at 4:00 pm. The weather was sunny, cool and a windy 43. I had enjoyed the hike up.

Upon checking in we learned one reason why it is so hard to get reservations here. Skip was handed a piece of paper and was told "here’s your preferred reservation form". It seems that once you get a reservation, you get those same days the next year and from now on if you choose to keep them. That’s why we would later hear people saying it was their 5th, 7th, or 10th trip up here.

After checking in we were shown to our cabin, number 5. This was classified as a 5-man cabin. It measured 10 by 14 feet and contained a set of full-sized bunk beds, a single twin-sized bed, a small table and one chair. On the wall hung a small mirror, a metal kettle, a wash pan and the ever-popular key to the bathroom. On the floor was a kerosene heater, which our host went ahead and lit for us while he was there. There was an oil lamp, metal bucket and five coffee mugs sitting on the table. The bucket was for hauling our water from the one faucet that served as a water source for the guests. The kettle we could set atop the heater to warm water for whatever purpose we desired. There were two small windows that swung open into the room and they were covered on the outside with a wire fence to serve as a bear deterrent.

We discussed the bedding situation and finally ended up with Owen on the twin bed, Skip and Kyle together on the bottom bunk, and me on the top bunk. We began to unpack and settle in.

Dinner was served daily at 6:00 pm and about 10 or 15 minutes before we got a reminder knock at our door. The first night’s dinner started off with a bowl of cabbage beef soup and cornbread, then the main course consisted of roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans and baked apples. We drank water, hot chocolate or coffee and there was a basket of chocolate-chip cookies on the table for dessert.

After dinner, we went back to the cabin and readied ourselves for the short trip up to Cliff Tops where everyone goes to watch the sunset. It was pretty breezy down where we were and on the trail up, but as we neared the top you could hear the wind blowing really strong and see the trees being whipped about by it. When you topped out on the ridge, the wind hit you in the face with great force. It was possibly the strongest wind I have ever felt for an extended time. A couple of times it almost caused me to fall while walking. Owen and I had our hat straps cinched down so tightly that they hurt our throats, but anything that wasn’t tied down would surely have blown away. I did some video and then found a place to sit and took a few shots of the sun setting. There were several people there but the crowd quickly dispersed after the sun went down. The wind continued to blow furiously.

We made our way back to the cabin and put our equipment away. Then we each grabbed our mug from the room and went to the dining hall and had them filled with hot chocolate. We then wandered over to the building that serves as the office and "community center" and sat around talking and enjoying the chocolate. On the table where we were sitting there was a large black binder with the words "1000 Hikes to Mount LeConte" written on the cover. It was a journal of Ed Wright, who makes the hike up LeConte about 3 times a week. He had been there this day. We noticed on the sign-in roster that it was his 1091st trip. We figured out that he had spoken with us on his way down, passing us at Alum Cave Bluff. He asked where we were from and commented that we had "mighty big packs to be going to the lodge". Of course, we didn’t know who he was at the time.

Back in the cabin, we began to shut down around 10:00 pm. I climbed up in my bunk and made a last field note entry by flashlight. It ends with "I have had a good day!" , and I had.

I can’t say I enjoyed the night as much. I had brought my fleece bag to sleep in, in case the wool blankets and I didn’t get along, it was just about right for the temperature inside the cabin. However, the bed was too short, but I remedied that by sleeping diagonally. The wind gusted throughout the night and at times even shook the cabin, and it began to rain. Also, the kettle of water setting atop the heater began to boil and make a noise that sounded like water dripping down a gutter. In my sleepy state, I actually thought that was what it was until I realized "Hey, there are no gutters".

About 7:45 am came our reminder knock for breakfast which was served at 8:00. We entered the dining hall and were seated at the same table with the same two guys from Georgia we had dinner with the night before. First came the platter of pancakes. After that, eggs and Canadian bacon, grits and a basket of biscuits. There was apple butter or honey for the biscuits.

This morning was very foggy and rainy. When we first got up visibility was just about 50 feet or so, but by the time we’d finished eating, it had improved some so Skip and I decided we’d head out for Myrtle Point. Owen’s right knee was bothering him so he didn’t want to do anymore walking than he had to, and Kyle just didn’t want to go. We headed up the trail and first came to the Mt LeConte trail shelter. I quietly walked up to it and peeked between the pieces of plastic that were hanging on the outside fence to block the wind. I could see two people in there all buried up in their sleeping bags. We moved on up the trail and shortly came to an area that offered an overlook. The clouds were whisking by and swirling around in the valley below. It was an impressive sight. As we moved along further we soon came to High Top, the true summit of Mt LeConte at 6, 593 feet. A four foot cairn marks the spot. Then on to Myrtle Point. Upon arriving I was disappointed to see that there were no views to be had due to the cloud cover. But, you could tell this would be a great overlook because it’s pretty much open on three sides. This is the spot where some folks come from the lodge to watch the sun rise. After a few minutes and a couple of photographs, we headed back.

Upon arriving back at the cabin, we discovered there were some deer grazing around the complex. Of course, out came the cameras for pictures and video. It seems they come through a couple of times a day. There were three of them and the staff had named them.

All of the people who stayed only one night were gone now. It was just us and the two guys from Georgia. It was kinda neat, sort of a "ghost town" effect. As the staff busied themselves cleaning and readying the cabins for the next nights arrivals, we took the opportunity to have free run of the place and took several photos.

At breakfast, we had been asked if we wanted a sack lunch or to eat in. Considering the weather, we had all chosen to eat in. It was now lunch time and we made our way down to the dining hall. We were seated at a different table this time, one with better lighting. Soon lunch was before us and it consisted of Campbell’s alphabet soup, chicken salad for sandwiches on fresh-baked bread and the ever-present basket of chocolate-chip cookies. There was also a bowl of peanut butter which some spread on the cookies. The usual water, hot chocolate or coffee were the beverages offered.

After eating, I wandered up to Cliff Tops by myself while the others uh, "rested" in the cabin. It was quite nice up there alone. There was still not much of a view, but being on the edge of the bluff like that still gave the sensation of being up high, overlooking the surrounding mountains. Occasionally, a hole would form in the clouds and you could see through, but it would just as quickly close again. I somewhat lamented not bringing the video camera with me to capture the cloud activity, but then just enjoyed watching it for a while before returning to the cabin.

Around three o’clock, the skies began to clear and I grabbed the video camera and went out to look around some more. I returned to Cliff Tops for a little while and met a fellow named John from Florida up there. He was doing some writing. Then I headed back up the trail toward Myrtle Point and thought I’d get some video of the shelter. Upon approaching it I discovered there was a guy in there. I asked if he minded if I videoed the inside of the shelter to show the folks back home. He said he didn’t mind, but asked that I wait until he finished changing pants. He had just arrived and said he was putting on his long johns. I waited until he was through then did my taping. He was quite talkative, asking about the lodge and what it was like. He was here for a week from Pennsylvania. I walked a little further up the trail and shot some video of Newfound Gap from the same place I had taped the clouds that morning. I regretted not having enough time to go back out to Myrtle Point but it was nearing dinner time so I headed back.

We were seated back at our original table this time with Roy and Terry (the guys from Georgia) and were also joined by two ladies from North Carolina. Dinner tonight started again with soup and cornbread, then was followed by chicken and dumplings, corn, whole carrots, baked apples and those good ol’ cookies.

Again we headed to Cliff Tops for the sunset. This evening was much calmer and the sunset even better than the day before.

Back at the cabin, we took still more photos. I had some black and white film I was wanting to use up and took a shot of each of us lit only by the oil lamp. Then we went to the office and Kyle, Skip and I played a few rounds of Uno while Owen walked around and read some of the stuff on the walls. After gathering our food and placing it in the metal garbage cans in the office (they ask you to not keep any food in your cabin to deter rats and squirrels from trying to get in) we bedded down around 10:30.

I slept much better this night, except for being awaken by the smoke alarm going off in the cabin next to ours around 4:00 am. But I think I went right back to sleep.

It was now Wednesday. Breakfast was the same as the day before, plenty to eat. After eating I videoed some claw marks made by a bear on the outside corner of the dining hall. One of the staff members told us how a bear had climbed up the corner, got on the roof and tried to get in through the skylight over the kitchen.

We packed up and headed out around 10:00 am, after deciding not to wait for the llama train which should have been there around lunch time we were told. The trip down was uneventful. We stopped at a point just below Alum Cave Bluff for a lunch break, eating our left-over snacks, and got back to the car at 2:15.

The temperatures as recorded by Skip’s indoor/outdoor thermometer while we were at the lodge were as follows: Minimum outdoors - 36.5 maximum outdoors - 57.6. Minimum indoors - 52.7 maximum indoors - 66.2

After returning to our hotel and cleaning up, we headed for Bennett’s Barbecue in Gatlinburg for the traditional celebratory dinner, then walked around town for a few hours, then back to mine and Owen’s room to review the videos.

Thursday morning we had time to kill and visited some of the outlet malls in the area before lunch, then headed out to Smoky Mountain Knife Works and then on to Chattanooga to catch the six o’clock showing of the IMAX movie "Everest" at the Chattanooga aquarium. I was finally home at 10:00 pm.

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Copyright Ron Burkett 1998 All rights reserved