I had first climbed Mt LeConte on April 4, 1977, some 18 years ago. You might ask how in the heck I remember the date… well I didn’t, but my grandmother at the age of 87 did/does as I was vacationing with her back then when I first hiked it. A few years back, she even had a brick placed in front of the civic center in Gatlinburg, Tenn. I remembered it snowed on that 3 day backpack and small floods hit Gatlinburg while I was on the mountain and my grandmother had to evacuate her hotel room due to the rising water, but that is another story…
I later climbed in 1981 with my wife, Debbie and we were fortunate to see a black bear on the trail on the way up – exciting to say the least. Now, it appears I have come full circle as I hiked it last Friday with my son, Ben (age 11). We had just moved from Colorado and so we visited my grandparents (yes, the same ones) as they now live outside Sevierville, Tenn. I was hoping that Ben would be up to it as he had been recovering from an infection within the last 4 weeks that found him in a hospital and this would be his longest hike — 11 miles RT.
As we stepped out the door to leave the house, Ben said that the patio was wet…I said sure thinking of the heavy dew in the south. As I stepped out I was pelted my raindrops. Something did not seem right as my grandfather had just told me that they have not had rain for 3 months … so why on the day of our hike!? Well, we were already up so we headed to a stop in Gatlinburg for coffee and food at McDonalds enroute to the trailhead which we reached at 7:00am.
It was still raining lightly, but in GSNP, what is new about that? We started up the trail at 7:15 with Ben leading the way to Arch Rock at 1.5 miles, a formation you hike through that he really enjoyed. He started to slow at about 2 miles just shy of Alum Cave Bluff, a 100′ overhanging bluff, and I was starting to wonder if he was going to make it.
After a short rest and a snack he declared he was ready to go all of the way, and we kept a slow steady pace up the wet trail into the clouds. Soon we were in the clouds and the wind picked up as the trail narrows. I enjoyed watching him tackle the “narrow” sections on short “cliffs” in the fog, rain, and wind — he was getting into the challenge!
After a couple of stops to place moleskins on his heels, we were passed by a national park volunteer, an older gent with white hair, moving at a good clip. As we got closer to the summit, we ran into the people who had spent the night in the lodge ($50 per person – includes dinner/breakfast). One party was an older couple, their granddaughter, and two great grandchildren, going slowly down the narrow sections. We would meet them later…
Right at the 3 hour point, we leveled off and reached the lodge. Ben was pleased with his performance and I was very proud; we had made it up! We found the community cabin where we had lunch at 10:15 and spoke with the gent who had passed us on the trail. It turned out that it was his 809th trip to the top of LeConte and he is the current record holder (alive) for the most number of trips. He hikes it about twice a week and averages about 108 times up a year. There were newspaper articles in the cabin with stories about his exploits. A real gentleman, we enjoyed talking about his many adventures while the wind, fog, and rain pelted the outside panes of the windows.
Our new friend mentioned that the older couple Ben and I passed on the way up was a husband/wife who has made the trek up each year for like 50 years. He was 80 and the wife was 76! Impressive!! Later when I would get back to tell these stories to my grandmother she would recall Knoxville newspapers stories recently about both of them. Perhaps a Tenn. reader could provide more details. The couple was from Alabama. After about 45 mins, Ben announced he was ready for the 2nd part of the hike and off we went into the fog. After only a short time, we met the couple again, going very slowly. I asked if they were alright and if they needed any assistance but they said they did not. We kept going, arriving back at the cave and arch in good time, stopping to admire the chipmunks along the way.
As we were nearing the end, a couple coming up the trail asked if we had saw the Alabama couple and I related my impressions and offer of assistance that had been politely turned down. These folks were the daughter and son in law and they thought it would be good to hike up to the cave to meet their parents, daughter, and grandkids. I agreed with that idea so off they went. Ben and I concluded our hike at 1:30 at the van as he dove for a cold soft drink in the cooler. He was one tired puppy, but pleased with what he had done and the people he had met along the way. For me, it was like following my footsteps from almost 20 years ago. It made me happy that the wilderness/outdoors was still a significant part of my life even after many bends that life had taken me over the years. The Smokies remain as a great place for a young man to learn to hike and appreciate the outdoors… in this case it was my son, filling my long ago footprints.
Beta: Alum Cave Bluff Trail, 11 miles RT, Elevation gain to the 6,400′ summit was 2,560′, rated moderate/easy, 6 hours