Climbing Mt. LeConte, the Alum Cave Trail

Climbing Mt. LeConte, the Alum Cave Trail

Mt. LeConte, Great Smoky Mountains

11 miles, 6,593 ft., Alum Cave Trail

2014 Highpointers Convention, Gatlinburg, TN

July 26, 2014

Wes Chapman

Lecont from the Buckhorn

LeConte at sunrise from the delightful Buckhorn Inn

 

Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July

And I just hit town and my throat was dry,

I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew.

At an old saloon on a street of mud,

There at a table, dealing stud,

Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me “Sue.”

 

A Boy Named Sue    Johnny Cash

 

Gatlinburg in Mid-July

I’d waited long enough to get here. I had enjoyed those lyrics featuring Gatlinburg since 1975, when an erstwhile fraternity brother – who sported the well-earned moniker Crazy Reggie – sang them to a Guardia Civil Officer in Spain in the hope of avoiding our impending arrest on charges revolving around drunken hooliganism. Reggie had been actively demonstrating the subsequent lyrics from the same song, “And we crashed through the wall and into the street, kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer”, with several local Spaniards, which generated the attention of the Guardia officers.

 

Reggie has long since passed into the great honkytonk in the sky, leaving me only with a curiosity regarding what Gatlinburg must look like in mid-July, and fond memories of the hypnotic effect of A Boy Named Sue on Spanish Police Officers.

 Crowds in Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg in mid-July – a sea of people and traffic

Mt. LeConte & the Highpointers Convention

 

I came to Gatlinburg at the suggestion of Martha, who was dying to attend the annual convention of the Highpointers Club and to climb Mt. LeConte. We climbed Clingman’s Dome – the highpoint of Tennessee – back in 2011, but we had not spent any time climbing/hiking since moving down almost a year ago.

 

Highpointing remains a fairly exclusive club. There are only a few hundred people who have completed the entire list, and only six have done all fifty plus the seven summits. This compares to over two thousand who have climbed Everest. It is necessary to be a fairly serious mountaineer to be a successful Highpointer, but not sufficient. This quest is about touching the fabric of America – from a feedlot in Iowa to the top of Bora Peak in Idaho – it is a tasting menu, and the convention is a chance to visit with some folks who have eaten the whole meal.

 

At the annual dinner, we had the pleasure of sitting with two interesting characters; a neighbor (and retired Foreign Service Officer) from Nashville who has done all 50, as well as Ranger Jim, a 93 year old retired park ranger who finished the climbs back in 1978 (the third person to do so). The stories from these guys were terrific, and made the entire evening.

 

Mt LeConte

Mt. LeConte is named after one of two brothers (there is some dispute as to which) – Joseph or John – who were a 19th century geologist and physicist respectively. The mountain was formed as part of the Appalachian orogeny, about 250 million years ago, with the collision of North America with the African and European land masses, forming Pangea. This was a complex, geological train wreck in slow motion, producing the northern and southern Appalachians – which are quite different in makeup, although closely related in origin.

 Cadis cove and Thrust Faults

Origin of the Great Smoky Mountains

Source: Penn State University

 

The Smokies are the product of an enormous thrust fault, which pushed old meta-sediments on top of much younger limestone and related sediments – much like you see around Nashville. The result of this strange age inversion (oldest on top) rock sequence is that massive and very hard rocks rest above soft and much more plant-friendly limestone. Mt. LeConte is made of an 800 million year old meta-sandstone called the Thunderhead formation. It closely resembles the Mt. Cube quartzite in NH, and has similar erosion resistant characteristics. This is hard massive rock, and it makes an imposing, steep sided mountain.

 Karst Topography

Origin of Karst Sinkholes

 

Two odd results come from this. First, these mountains feel like the Adirondacks for climbing. They are steep, and have a lot of slides – the wedge shaped slides are everywhere. While this area was never glaciated, the topography superficially resembles glacial terrain due to erosion patterns caused by the soft limestone substrate. These mountains catch a lot of moisture-laden weather blowing in from the south, and the moisture rich air produces over 85 inches of rain per year at the summits due to adiabatic cooling.

 Climbing Profile

Hiking Profile of Mt. LeConte

 

Second, where the old, silica rich rocks are eroded away to expose the younger limestone underneath, there are small areas of flat and incredibly rich farmland. These are called Coves locally, perhaps because the steep walls of the older overlying rocks typically create a circular feature that looks a lot like a coastal cove. The circular features and steep walls are created by karst collapse – collapse features cause by chemical (acid) based erosion of underlying limestone.

 TN Geology Map

Tennessee Geology: A story in three parts

 

Cadis Cove was a settlement near Gatlinburg which was cleared of inhabitants for the creation of the Park. It was originally settled in 1818 by the Oliver family, who purchased their property from land speculator William “Fighting Billy” Tipton.It remains as a museum today, its current bureaucratically imposed peace standing in stark contrast of the multi-month running gun battle in the 1930’s, required to convince the local inhabitants to clear out to make way for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

 

Mt. LeConte Climb

 

LeConte is a pleasant day hike – the trail is extremely well maintained and designed – we were 6 hours round trip, with an hour for lunch at the summit lodge. The trail reflects the incredible handiwork of the WPA folks who built it, and so many of our outdoor trails around the US – including very large portions of the Appalachian Trail which passes just to the east of here. The trail includes large split log bridges over creeks, stairs cleverly caved into the rock, hundreds of yards of steel cable handrails, and a path which is carved out of the hillside, maximizing the views. This is a trail that integrates man and nature in a number of very clever ways; it would have made Frederick Olmsted proud.

 Lecont Bridge

Bridge over a creek on Mt. LeConte’s Alum Cave Trail

Lecont Cliff Top View

View from the Cliffs on Mt. LeConte

Lecont Summit

The wooded summit of Mt. LeConte

 

The bio-diversity of the area exceeds that of all northern Europe, ranging from typical southern US at the bottom, to southern Canadian at the summit. The elevation has preserved “islands” of species of plants left from the Pleistocene ice retreat, around 10,000 years ago. I was frankly delighted to bump into the red/black spruce hybrids at 6,000 ft. of elevation; a species that dominates from 2,000 to 4,000 feet in New England.

 

Alum Cave is the eponymous heart of the trail, and seems to be the final destination for about half of the hikers. It is not really a cave at all, but rather an old collapsed mine which produced Epsom salts for local use and saltpeter for gunpowder in the Civil War. Today it is kind of a dusty mess, although historically significant.

 

 Alum Cave

Alum Cave

 

What makes Mt. LeConte truly special is the wonderful lodge at the summit. This was built in stages beginning with the purchase of the land for the Park in the 1920’s, and today is a group of small cabins and a central lodge that receive guests from May to November. It is routinely supplied by lama train, providing a colorful and knee-sparing alternative to the 100 lb. packs carried by the hut crews in the AMC White Mountain hut system. We’ll be back for another visit with an overnight stay.

 Lecont Summit Lodge

Mt. LeConte Summit Lodge

 

Mt. LeConte is a Tennessee treasure, and a must visit for any hiker in the area. It is accessed through some of the worst tourist traffic that I’ve ever witnessed in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, but it is clearly worth the hassle – the mountain is simply terrific. I just wonder – what did Gatlinburg look like in the mid-60’s when Shel Silverstein wrote A Boy Named Sue; my how things have changed.

 Adios from Mt. LeConte

Adios, from Mt. LeConte

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Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

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