Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hiking to the Highest Lodge in the Eastern United States-Mount LeConte Lodge

A few times in your life, you are offered a unique opportunity to do something. Many people do not realize this opportunity in their life and simply pass it by. Others say I don't have time, maybe another day or another time in my life. There are a few that say "hey, I am doing this at all cost! I may not have another opportunity!".  This is what fell my way recently with this trip and it will go down as another one that I will remember until the day I die. 
This is a story and an adventure trip about Mount LeConte Lodge in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee (USA). Pack your day pack up and go along with me. All you need is a change of clothes, some lunch on the trail, water, and a few toiletry items. Before we start, here is a background on this amazing place. It's impact on my wife, my friends, and myself will live with us forever. 
About 8 years ago, I went to my doctor and I was telling him about all the backpacking trips I had been on that year in the hopes he would tone down on chewing me out for high cholesterol (it didn't work). He replied with "my son and I just got back from Mount LeConte Lodge in the Smokies and had a great weekend". I told him I had never heard of this and he began to explain. I consider myself to know a lot about the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and he threw one over on me with this one. The ole "Google search tool" later on when I got home was the answer to a lot of questions he presented by telling me about this lodge. I became more curious and decided to get a group up and go. For 3 years, I fought to try and secure reservations at this amazing place and failed. I called and called, sent E-mails, and no luck. They either did not answer the reservation phone or never returned E-mails. My good camping friend Brett changed all of that this in 2011. He made it happen. How, I don't know but he made it happen. That is all that matters!
Mount LeConte, is one of the three tallest mountains in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It is right up there with Clingman's Dome (6,643 feet), Mount Guyot (6,621feet), and then Mount LeConte at 6,593 feet.  There is controversy over this mountain's name and which member of the LeConte family it was named for, so we will not go there. Paul Adams, an enthusiastic hiker and explorer that had moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in the early 1920's started out with tents up on the mountain to promote the beauty of the mountain to customers. He later built a lodge. The National Park Service took over the land where the lodge is located but contracts the use of the lodge out, continuing a tradition that was started many years ago. Mount LeConte lodge is now a series of buildings or cabins. The main office and lounge area were built in the 1960's, but the first lodge built still stands. On this trip, we got the honor of staying in this first cabin that was built. The first site was actually at a different spot, just a short piece back up the trail. The current lodge cabins can accommodate a total of about 50 people. The most amazing part of the lodge is that it is a trip back in time! Relics from the 20's are still up there. There is no power available, and only kerosene lamps light your way in the cabins.  The workers and all guests MUST hike to this place. Lamas are used twice a week to deliver supplies up the mountain. A helicopter changes out the propane tanks every so often. This practice has only been done the last 3-4 years. Prior to the propane tanks, they had used kerosene heaters since the 1920's. The lodge is open from March until November of each year, and some lonesome sole or soles have the duty of staying at the cabins all winter long to watch and care for this amazing place during it's closure of the winter months.  More about this place later on. For now, grab your pack and lets head out in the car to get to the trail head!

Sunday morning, November 6, 2011-We meet at a pancake house in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennesee for a large breakfast to start the hike out. The route we are taking up is one of about 5 trails available to reach the lodge. On this trip, we have picked the shortest (5.3 miles) but also the steepest! After eating, we drive on down to the Sugarlands Visitor Center of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park to meet all parties in the group. After we depart from there headed on up to Chimney Tops and Newfound Gap, we stop just past Chimney Tops on the left at Alum Cave Trailhead.  Being the "geek" that I am on electronics, I am constantly watching my altimeter watch as we climb higher and higher in altitude with our cars.  It is here at the Alum Cave Parking we get out all of our packs, hiking staffs, and mentally start preparing for the big challenge. My wife has been nervous about this part for some 2 months. I too, not having been hiking in a while have some visions of what lay ahead. It is a beautiful day. The high temperature in the low areas is in the mid 60's. The high at Mount LeConte is in the upper 50's. Lows are forecast in the mid to upper 30's, so not too bad with the cold (Interestingly enough, Mount LeConte has never recorded a temperature warmer than 80 degrees F due to it's high elevation). An almost full moon is scheduled to greet us in the night, so with almost no clouds, a spectacular sunset looks like it will play out for us tonight! At 9:18 a.m. we head out, with Brett, my camping buddy and friend leading the way with his wife. This will be his 5th trip up, and he knows this place well. Ask him and he will tell you 5 x50 is how many more times he will go and stay at this place. He loves it. I know now that if Brett loves it, I am sure I will too.  Steve and I have talked about this place for years. It just never seemed possible to actually get a reservation. We start out stopping at a sign not too far down the trail that says "Mount LeConte Lodge-5.0 miles". We snap pictures here to start out the epic journey (in our own little worlds). The normal rate for most folks to ascend to the top is 3-4 hours. It is never a race for anyone, at least you would think. I soon found out that it is for some. In our party, we had all skill levels of hikers, so Brett had told us that we can take our time. We have all day to get to the top. It is a good thing we did have all day, because that is about what it took. One of the members in our party had recently been diagnosed with only 60 percent of his lungs were working up to full and some others in the party had not had much hiking experience. For the first hour, we marched along at a fairly brisk pace, partly because we were refreshed and ready to go and second because the terrain was not that bad. After about an hour into the hike, it quickly became apparent that this will be a "mind game" to overcome the uphill forces of nature and gravity! I had warned my wife beforehand that hiking in this kind of terrain involves a lot of mind games. Your mind goes through waves of "I am not sure I can make this" to "Just a little bit further, I think I will make it just fine". People that do not hike very much and take on this trip don't know how to cope with this. I had some good hiking friends early on warn me about this. If you hike/walk/backpack long distances, your "mental drive" is just as important as your "physical drive".  If you allow your mind to tell you for 3 hours that you cannot make this trip then guess what, you probably won't make this trip because you quit. "Mind over body". Ever hear this expression? That is everything in hiking in remote wilderness areas. As we walk and walk and walk, making our way up the mountain, the beauty gets better and better. If you take your thoughts off the pains in your legs and focus on the beauty, it becomes a much better trip. The crowd of 3 couples and one individual on this trip (we will come back down with another couple that arrived a few days before us) starts to spread out as the hours go by. As you pause to catch your breath, you are stunned by the beauty around you. With the elevation, most all of the leaves are gone off of the trees, and so this yields to spectacular views looking across the mountains.  Around lunchtime, we stop at near the halfway point. It is Alum Cave. The smell of sulfur is clear in the air here. This was a key ingredient in the making of gun powder, and so I am sure this place has some historical stories to tell. It is a large bluff type shelter with the pungent odor of sulfur. We sit down, catch our breath, and grab some lunch. With such a steep angle of terrain, it makes for some really weird pictures (see attached of crew with packs and hiking staffs-Photo courtesy of Dewanna Jones). Around 2 p.m., the mental anguish kicks in with everyone except Brett and his wife, who have made this journey so many times. Brett informs us that we are about to encounter the worst part of the hike. It is the last mile and a half. We later named it the "torture mile". It is a very steep incline that just keeps going up and up and up with little to no flat areas. At times, the trail gets very narrow with cables secured into the rock to help you hang on and keep from slipping down the extremely steep ridges the trails are built on (see picture of trail area like this). The edge drops off hundreds of feet in places. If you are afraid of heights, just don't look off the edge and look straight up the trail and you will be fine. Many of the trail parts have solid rock which at times were slippery with ice left from the snow that had melted and refroze. We were told the lodge had remnants of snow from a few days before and this explained the ice. I have to say, this is the toughest part of the trail. It is a good thing that it is in the last mile or so. It it were halfway, many folks would simply turn around and go back. As we made our journey up, I had forgotten to zero the trip odometer on my GPS, and so all we had to go on was the elevation. Knowing the top of the mountain was 6,593 feet, just about everyone in the party was asking me what our current elevation was. I had a watch on me with an altimeter, and so I just kept calling the elevation out and informed everyone of our progress by shouting out elevation levels at various times. We also asked folks coming down the mountain from the lodge "how much further". Both of this methods has pros and cons. How much further might depend on how much in shape they were. Elevation levels being called out may also discourage you as well. You are are 5,400 feet, your legs are shot, and you know you have another 1,000 feet to go! Not good on the mental state! The average time to get to this neat place is about 3-4 hours you may recall.  On this day with all the parties, it took us 6 hours! As we get near the top, the elevation finally leveled out. After 15 more minutes, we arrived! Mount LeConte Lodge, elevation 6,593 feet. The flat hiking trail was EXTREMELY slick from the packed down snow that had become ice from so much foot traffic. We had brought along foot traction to add to our shoes. It was such a short stretch to the lodge that we decided to just take our time and not fool with putting them on our boots. Final arrival time was 3:05 p.m. EST.


Arriving at the lodge offers a unique view that you might not expect. Extremely old cabins, wooden roofs, and a about as rustic as you can go in appearance. No modern day brilliant colored signs, but rather simple wooden signs that pointed the way- Dining Hall, Cabins, and Lodge Office all with arrows. The now famous signs that are hanging above the dining hall show today's date, something that is changed out manually every day. The main focus areas of the lodge are the dining hall, the office/lounge, where you can purchase shirts, mail a letter from the lodge (transported down by lamas), the rest rooms in which are housed in two buildings. One building is the older "latrine" style (rarely used now), and the newer flush toilets (heavily used and appreciated).  The remaining buildings are used for storage, employee cabins, or for guests. They vary in size and accommodations. Depending on how large of a party you have may determine what type/size of cabin you are given.  Upon arrival, we are greeted with hot chocolate or coffee. I must say, that was the best hot chocolate I have had in a long time! The first view many people get after being greeted with a warm cup of chocolate is the view out the dining room deck. It is spectacular! You look down from over 6,000 feet into the valley where you can see the cities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and at the base of the mountain, Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Right out in front of the deck down below is the cabins of the employees as well as a bear trap, weather station, and propane tanks lined up with a fence around them. Why would you mention this detail you might ask? Because they all have their own stories. First, the propane tanks: Since the 1920's, the cabins have all been heated by kerosene. The lamps at night use them as well. About 3-4 years ago, it was decided to switch all cabins over to propane gas. From talking to others that stayed in the past, this was very much welcome. The cabins have black walls and black pictures hanging on the walls from the soot from using kerosene heat and lamps. The lamps alone, put out a lot of soot. The tanks are switched out from time to time using a large helicopter that carries one off and sets another refilled one down. I would love to see this task done up here! The Bear trap: Well, not much explanation here, other than the fact that from time to time they have a bear problem up here. There were bear warnings out by the Park Service on this trip as a matter of fact. With Mount LeConte shelter with backpackers and food being brought up and cooked outdoors not far down the trail from the lodge, bears that are really hungry will stray in the area, mainly at night. If they become too bad, they set the bear trap up at the lodge. Interestingly enough, all of the cabins up here have strong wire like cage material over the windows. This is to keep some bear from wanting to crash the party I suppose. The lodge encourages everyone to not even leave food they brought up with them in the cabins. Not so much from the standpoint of bears, but mice. They are and have been a horrible problem until this action was taken. Now, residents are asked to bring ANY of the food they brought up and are asked to put in a metal can in the lounge area for the night. 

Last the weather station: It is interesting to point out that in the hottest of ever recorded summers, Mount LeConte has never been above 80 degrees F. This is the place to be in the summer heat! The flip side of that is cold. Man do they see so bitter cold up here unprotected. Snow is quite frequent for the south up at this altitude. It basically has it's own weather system this high up in the mountains. It reminds me of Alaska. No weather forecast is 100 percent accurate. The mountains have their own patterns of weather that can be unpredictable. 
After some warm drink and rest, we head over into our cabin and get it ready before darkness and suppertime. The cabin we are in will sleep about 5-6 couples. Again, it was the first lodge there. Other cabins around sleep less than that. They are all extremely old. There is an old table with a kerosene lantern by our bed. It also has a bucket to fill warm water available from the kitchen and wash up in your cabin. Soap, empty hot chocolate/coffee mugs and matches are all on the table for use. Full bathing is not possible at the lodge, but small washings or "bird baths" as my mother used to call them are for everyone. That is the reason for the bucket.  Looking at the age of this cabin does two things to people. They either fall in love immediately and are ready to stay, or for some, it looks to old and creepy to be happy. It was no problem for any of us. When you are this tired after walking 5.3 miles, anything looks good! Before we settle in, there is still plenty to do, so lets get going!


Well, they may have gotten your attention. It might as well be called that. The standard thing you do at Mount LeConte is to hike just under a mile on up to the real top of the mountain (LeConte Lodge is really not at the TOP of the mountain) to see the sunset. THAT is a "must do" if you have the slightest bit of strength left in you to do. On this day, about 40 people hiked up the continuing incline making it's way to the top. Couple with that, ice that was stepped on, glazed over, and you have some really bad conditions. Most all of the ones in our team went except two. They stayed back at the cabin in the warmth. The rest of us braved the elements and headed to the top. Reaching the top of Mount LeConte is absolutely stunning! No words ever written here can describe the breeze, the smell, the panoramic view, the sun of God's beauty shining down on all the mountains around and underneath you. Sitting down, we all wait with anticipation for the sun's moment to remember. As we glance around, Steve points out the small tower at the top of the mountain across from us. He or someone around us points out this is Clingman's Dome, the highest point. The trouble is, you feel like you are even with it, so you don't feel like it is taller than you. As everyone sits around, talks, laughs, and carry on and waiting for the moment, many cameras on tripods, binoculars, and video cameras are all posed for the moment. Finally, God's light show kicks in gear wide open as the sun starts setting, setting the stage for colors changing, patterns, sun dogs (sun hitting high cirrus ice clouds) and light rays being cast and shown. It is truly a spiritual experience. One that I will never forget. How could watching the sun go down be such a big deal you ask? Well, you have to be there and you will know exactly what I am talking about! It provokes a mental stimulus that is hard to beat. It is similar to those sunsets people describe on the ocean. As the sun disappears over the horizon, some claps and some "wows" are heard among the crowd. Unreal! 


After a breathtaking sunset with little clouds and miles and miles of visibility, we make our way down, slowly! The ice has just further froze and so getting down the rocks coming down in elevation proved to be a lot more than some bargained for! At times, it was downright treacherous! We finally made it down the mountain back to the lodge, and about the time we did, we hear the familiar sound of a triangle announcing dinner time! Time to eat! When you think of how many years they have made this familiar sound at the lodge announcing dinner, it truly is amazing to be here. Supper yields some very hungry people! After making such a long hike, anything, and I mean just about anything is mouth watering. First up, they bring out a half of a peach, potato soup and cornbread. After everyone indulges and partakes that, they bring round two. It is roast beef, cream potatoes, green beans, gravy if you want it. Top the meal off with a large thick chocolate chip cookie that is sliced like a brownie. If you want seconds and thirds, they are more than happy to feed it to you. It was one amazing meal after a long 5 mile day. The sunset and the meal just topped it off! Now, time to walk over to the lounge area and sit in old time rocking chairs around the stove. That was awesome as well. We talked for about an hour, resting with the meals settling in our stomachs. This is times you don't forget about. It is a time where you don't want it to end. It did though. Some rather wild and loud card playing folks at the table behind us suddenly started drowning out the conversations, and so we moved over to the old living room of our cabin. We talked for about another hour and then all decided to head to bed. The original plan was for some of us to get up early enough to watch the sun come up the next morning on the other side of the mountain. As the evening moves on, that ideal is becoming harder and harder to full fill. With every muscle aching in our bodies, most everyone decides, "I think I will pass". With warm and toasty propane gas heaters in every room, the night saw little need of much blankets, except for my wife. She shook and shivered all night long from cold. I don't really know why. I stayed very comfortable. One of the long time friends of Brett, whose name is Pat who had been many times with his wife Jennie, commented that the normal is if you sleep on the top bunk, the heaters will run you out and you lay half naked on top of the bunk bed burning up. If you sleep on the bottom of the bunk beds (they are regular sized bunk beds), you will freeze all night. They explained it all! Just before we went to bed, the moon, almost at full was shining brightly down on us. It yielded a spectacular view of the mountains and the valley at night. The sun was so bright, we were fascinated to see that the solar panels that have "auto trackers" to follow the sun during the day, were following the moon that night because it was so bright! 


At about 5 in the morning, my wife and I had about all of the bladder being full that we could stand. It is one those times laying in bed when your body says "nope, I am NOT allowing you to go back to sleep until you address this bladder problem." We both decided to get up and make the short hike over to the rest rooms to settle this. When I went out, I let her go on and I stayed out for a little bit. Words here cannot come close to describing the nighttime sky. There were billions of stars out that could be seen since the moon had gone down. I cannot remember how long it has been since I saw this many stars out. With such a high altitude, you forget how clear the air is up here! I could have stayed out for hours, but after my wife returns to me from the rest room and I address my bladder problem, we head back for a couple of more hours of sleep. 


Monday morning, November 7, 2011-Morning yields a blue sky, beautiful sunlight, and warmer temperatures. The low was only in the upper 30's. Pretty good considering this is November. I begin the cursed task of packing things up slowly, getting fresh water from the well, and then waiting for the breakfast bell sounding to come and eat. Several people were up just before 8 a.m. standing outside for the cue that breakfast was ready. The rest rooms were full, so you knew most everyone was up and ready to dive in for round two of a great meal. As we sit down to eat, I ran over and shoot some video with my iPhone. This moment has to be captured to share! Breakfast starts with pancakes. Later, grits (a southern thing), eggs and ham are brought out. It was amazing. I was told later that most of the supper was just canned goods, but hey, I will take it any day in my book. It was awesome! Breakfast was extremely good. The glass at another table taps with a loud noise like someone is making an announcement. The crowd quiets down and one of the employees at the lodge says "I would like to welcome everyone to Mount LeConte Lodge. We hope you enjoyed your stay with us and we hope you have a safe journey back down the mountain. We invite you back anytime you can come and stay with us. Be safe and remember to pack out all of the trash you brought up here. Thanks and have a great day".  The noise and the eating resumes. Wow, what a unique and amazing breakfast, and to think that all of this has to be brought up here to the mountain! 


About 9:25 a.m., we all head out back down the mountain. There is something interesting this time going DOWN the mountain. Everyone is screaming in speed down the mountain. There are very few stops for rest this time. It's only gravity pushing you and the calves of your legs reminding you of muscles you have not used in a long time. Coming down, we scream in at 12:30 a.m. Some of the crew even makes it in at 12 noon. What a contrast! I stop some with my buddy Brett and we admire some of the scenery. We both snap pictures and discuss the trip. My wife is just ahead of me and stops some, but is mainly headed for that car and to get those boots off! Steve, Dewanna, and Don, must have zoomed  down the mountain. They beat everyone. Pat and Jennie stay back with us as well and we all have conversations down the mountain that really top a trip off and make it wonderful as well. It's the fellowship and the nature that ties anything amazing like this together. As we get to the car, in a rather tired and ill tone, my wife says she needs to get the car open so she can get these boots off-NOW! She made it fine as did everyone else. 5.3 miles show up on my GPS since I reset it to zero at the cabin. We pause for a group picture (taken by a total stranger) at the trail head parking, shake hands, and vow we will be back to this amazing place. Brett doesn't bat an eye. Even with this being his 5th trip, he is ready to book next year, immediately!


I must close with some humor for everyone. With my wife and I (both in our early 50's) on our drive back home, we sat in the car for about 5 hours on the drive home before we decide to get out and eat supper. As we get out, it is all we can do to move. I consider myself in shape at this stuff, but for some reason, 10 miles of trail hit me! We both poked across the restaurant parking lot at .4 miles per hour. Traffic in the drive though had to wait what seemed like minutes until we crossed in front of them and finally got out of the way at a tortoise pace.  Man, I have not been this "stiff" ever! After 5 minutes of walking around, I returned somewhat to normal. My wife still recalls that and laughs at how we looked. We looked and felt like grandma and grandpa. 
If you ever have the opportunity to do this amazing journey, please take the time now to do something similar while you still have your health. If you cannot make this journey, then it is my wish that you enjoyed going along with us on this trip. I hope that the writings I have here have portrayed the images I witnessed with this incredible beauty.  It's all out there folks. The beauty of nature and God's creations are all for the taking. All you have to do is push your body sometimes to get to these places and open your eyes. I guarantee you it will cleanse your mind and body from this crazy world we live and deal with on a daily basis. It puts the meaning of life back in check with your mind by clearing the "stuff" out we deal with daily. 
See you on the next adventure! Thanks for going with us!