Ascent of Mount Le Conte on 1992-03-18

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Sonya K.
Date:Wednesday, March 18, 1992
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Le Conte
    Elevation:6593 ft / 2009 m

Ascent Trip Report

My little alarm clock woke me up at 7:30, and I got out of the horrible bed and ate some Peanut Butter Crunch for breakfast, sitting at the grungy table in the grungy kitchen next to my bedroom. It was very quiet--the English guy in the bedroom behind mine was apparently sound asleep, and I didn't know if Sonya was up or if she was still up for the hike. I then packed up and made my bed, not knowing if I'd be coming back or not, then started putting stuff back in the car.

It was cloudy out, but definitely not raining, and it looked like the pavement was dry and the sun might peek through at some point later. Sonya emerged from her bedroom by her front door, and she was very cheery and ready for the big hike. She threw her stuff in the car while I used the bathroom, stupidly smashing out the lightbulb in the kitchen with my head, so Sonya had to wait while I picked up tiny pieces of white glass on the kitchen floor. Since the English kid had gotten in late last night and was apparently still asleep, we decided to take off without him.

I drove the twelve miles into Gatlinburg, my car's engine quite balky, as Sonya and I talked more, in Gatlinburg agreeing that the town's legendary tackiness was well deserved. I then drove out the two miles into the National Park, to the Cherokee Orchard parking lot, where I had spent a night in a Chevy Citation back in March, 1983. As I pulled in, it started to sprinkle lightly, but it still didn't seem like heavy rain was imminent.

After parking I started getting my pack together and my boots on, surprised that Sonya was all ready to go--usually I am the first one ready that then has to wait for the other slowpokes futzing around, and I was chagrined by the role reversal. I guess living out of your backpack for months makes one efficient. I finally laced up my boots, threw junk in my pack, and we set up on the Rainbow Falls Trail up towards Mt. LeConte, 6.6 miles and 4000 vertical feet away.

I wanted Sonya to go first, since I tend to hike at too fast a pace that then requires long rests, and she indeed set a good slow, steady pace up the gentle trail through the deep woods. The rain was so light that most of it never got below the trees, and we talked constantly as we slowly ascended. She was amazed by many things that I, as a veteran of eastern North American woodlands, took for granted--hollow logs, mushrooms, huge trees, rocky brooks, and the like. The forest was dense, but all the barren branches of late winter made it seem more open--views of hills ahead were prominent.

After an hour or so, stopping only briefly for water breaks, we reached a major brook crossing under what we thought must be Rainbow Falls, where Sonya stopped to take a picture. The trail was now climbing more seriously, occasionally switchbacking, and it was raining slightly more heavily--the forest was getting to be wet more and more. We were also seeing snow on the ground more and more, but not yet seriously. We plugged on upwards, in easy conversation, I making general observations about our progress and how nice the gentle trail was, she asking more questions about the forest, America, and other things. It was about here I found out she was 23, had worked as a nanny in Australia for a few years after finishing school at 19, then had travelled in Europe for a couple of years, especially England, where she hoped to return.

After a while we came to a large waterfall, clearly Rainbow Falls, and saw the sign announcing that we were right. We rested, ate a little food, and continued our increasingly wet upward journey. The trail was a series of large, gentle switchbacks, with a nice constant grade that was clearly bringing us higher and higher. Soon we were about at cloud level, and then up into the clouds, where a fierce wind was whipping the trees above us. The views we had had of neighboring ridges and the valley below disappeared, and we felt like we were really getting somewhere. Also, the trail was now pretty much totally snow-covered, about an inch or so making thing slippery, but enough people had hiked the trail so that it was pretty much packed down. About this time we saw the first soul we had seen all day, a solo hiker coming down a windy, semi-exposed stretch of trail whose English wasn't too good but said that we were only about forty-five minutes from the top. Encouraged, we plodded on.

By the time we reached a trail junction in the windy forest telling us it was only 0.6 miles further to the summit, we were pretty wet, and the wind and rain were now definitely lashing the mountain. We hiked the fogbound, now thickly forested stretch of trail upward quickly, now with summit fever. Shortly, I saw a bunch of cabins off to our left--the Mt. Leconte Lodge, a backcountry lodging/hut type facility just below the summit. We struck off from the trail to the collection of cabins, in search of a shelter to rest and dry off, and were successful when I tried a door to a basement storage room of one of the cabins. It was very dark inside, but dry and warm, so we started taking off out wet clothes and eating lunch.

However, suddenly a woman came in to our little refuge, we surprising each other. She apparently worked for the lodge, now closed but getting ready for the summer season, and she was getting some cleaning supplies out from the basement. I said that if we were trespassing we would leave, apologetically, but she said we were fine, she didn't mind. (Sonya later said that she certainly wouldn't have left if the woman had told us to, berating me for offering.)

Anyway, after our eyes adjusted to the almost pitch blackness inside, the strong wind occasionally blowing open the door a few inches to provide a little more light, we changed clothes to the extent possible--I was doing pretty well with my high-tech Gore-Tex jacket, so just exchanged my fairly dry T-shirt for a polypro one and put on my damp pile jacket that had been around my waist. Poor Sonya was so wet it was as if she had been swimming, and she changed what clothes she could.

We then ate lunch, for me some tunafish, Snickers Bars, and a pop-tart I shared with Sonya (her first). I wanted to hike to the actual summit of Mt. Leconte, still another quarter mile away, and after lunch Sonya agreed that she might as well come with me after her initial plan to wait in the cabin for me seemed silly to her--why climb 99% of a mountain? So we put on our jackets, leaving our packs behind, and started back up the wet, snowy trail in the howling wind and cutting rain. After about five minutes we passed a lean-to on the right in the mist, but barely stopped, our summit fever giving us temporary tunnel vision. We also didn't really stop to chat with a group of about seven wet, weary backpackers on their way down the trail. Five more minutes of frenzied hiking brought us to a clearing in the wind-whipped forest with a cairn just to the right of the trail, clearly the summit. We had reached Mt. Leconte's summit, 6593 feet above sea level, the third highest Great Smoky Mountains peak and sixth highest peak in all the Appalachians.

We both put our feet high on the squat, unstable cairn, I gave Sonya a little hug, I exulted a bit more, wandered around the clearing on both sides of the trail for fifteen seconds, and then we both agreed that it was time to leave. I went first, charging down the trail and was far ahead of Sonya, and I then made her go first to avoid that happening again. Back at the lean-to, we stopped in to say hello to the backpackers we had seen. It had a chin-link fence in front of it to keep out bears, and the seven guys, all from Kentucky and on their spring break from college, were starting to dry out. We talked for a few minutes--Sonya announcing "I'm from Australia and this is the first mountain I've ever climbed", but the guys were too depressed to be really interested--when I asked why they weren't on the beach for their break one guy jokingly threatened to kill me if I mentioned that again.

We left the lean-to and were quickly back at the basement of the Leconte Lodge cabin, where we rested briefly, bundled up, threw on our packs, bid farewell to our refuge, and started back down the trail in the now heavy rain, seeing another group of hikers, including an old man with a badly deformed nose, on their way up. Sonya again went first, both because I liked her slower pace, and I didn't want us getting separated.

At the junction 0.6 mile below the top we had a brief discussion and decided to be adventurous and return by a different trail, the Balsam Point Trail, which was half a mile longer but, importantly, different from our upward route. We were apparently still high from our summit experience, because this was a mistake, we realized later. The trail had deeper snow on it, had been used much less frequently, and was subjected to extremely intense wind that blasted us almost off the mountain. It was a much more spectacular trail than the Rainbow Falls Trail, winding around ridge tops, saddles, and minor summits with many (then fogged-in) overlooks, but the consequent exposure to the elements was brutal.

Our previously lively conversation came to a complete halt as we fought our way down. On the leeward side of the ridges the snow was deep and slippery, and on the windward side there was no snow but instead a fierce wind and driving rain, so bad that my cheek that faced the wind was frozen and in pain from the pounding while my other cheek was fine. The only saving grace was that the trail, like the other one, was gentle in grade and underfoot.

After a while we were low enough so that the snow and wind weren't problems, and on a long stretch of leeward trail through the forest Sonya really picked up the pace, flying down the trail at what I told her must have been five mph. She must have been eager to get down, and the easy trail was conducive to such cruising. We still had a long way to go, though, and we passed more overlooks, dropped beneath the clouds once again, stopped to drink water, and were finally down far enough that the intense weather of the heights was just a memory.

Near the bottom we stopped to rest under a huge overhanging rock that provided nice shelter from the rain, our first sit-down rest since the top. We luxuriated here for a good long time, eating, talking, comparing how wet we were (my cotton jeans were soaked through, and all of Sonya was), and resting. Sonya seemed in good spirits, and I was glad our conversation had picked up again after the long silence of the downhill slog.

We had only about an hour more to go after our rest, and it was pleasant, since we knew we were going to make it, the trail was dry and easy, and the rain had eased. After flat meandering the trail finally brought us to a junction, where a sign told us we were 0.2 miles from the parking lot if we turned right. We happily trudged to the waiting Volvo, I very surprised it was after 5:00 P.M., as Sonya told me. There was little we could do to dry off given what we had in the car, so I just changed my shoes and we sat down, sopping, as I drove back into Gatlinburg.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4013 ft / 1223 m
    Trailhead:Cherokee Orchard  2580 ft / 786 m
    Quality:4 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground
    Weather:Raining, Cool, Windy, White-out

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