Apr 26, 2016

Musings on LeConte Lodge...

The Dining Hall that greets the hiker to LeConte Lodge
I think it was around 1982 that my late wife, Margo, first read about LeConte Lodge.  We had been backpacking many times, having hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail, several of the trails in the Cohutta Wilderness in north Georgia, the Chattooga River Trail, and a few others.  But gradually, Margo had become somewhat claustrophobic about sleeping in a tent.  She would wake up in a panic attack and scramble to get out of the tent.  Of course my solution was to get a larger tent.  That didn't work.  So it was a big deal when Margo saw the article in Southern Living about the LeConte Lodge.  She couldn't wait to tell me about it.
Llamas are used to bring
supplies up to the "Lodge"
and haul out trash

"Look at this," she said.  "You hike up the mountain in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and instead of sleeping in a tent, you get to sleep in a real bed!"  It sounded kind of interesting.  I read the whole article.  The deal was pretty straightforward.  You pay a certain amount (I think it was around $40 that first year.) and you reserve a space on top of this mountain for a certain date.  You hike up the mountain on one of five trails, and the company that runs the place provides dinner, lodging in a cabin, and breakfast.  Then you hike back down the mountain.  No tent.  No sleeping bag.  No need to carry much food, other than lunch and snacks.  It sounded interesting.  We decided to see if a couple of our friends, Guy and Anita Smith, would like to try out this new adventure.  They agreed.  Then we called the phone number in Gatlinburg that was listed in Southern Living.  My recollection is that this took place in January.

To our amazement, we were informed that reservations opened up on September 1st for the subsequent season, and that they were usually completely booked up by the next day!  The good news was that they had just had a cancellation for April 20th for a party of four.  If we wanted to take that accommodation, it was ours.  We jumped at the opportunity.  And so began our first adventure with LeConte Lodge.

We studied our Smoky Mountain trail guide to figure out which of the five trails we might want to take.  There was a range of lengths and degrees of difficulty.  The shortest was the Alum Cave Trail, at 5.5 miles, but it climbed nearly 2,800 feet.  The longest was the Boulevard Trail, at around 8 miles in length.  It started at the Newfound Gap parking lot, elevation 5,049 ft.  The Lodge is at 6,400 ft. elevation.  My feeble mind said that was only an elevation change of 1,545 ft.  Clearly this would be the easiest trail.  Had we known better and had the Internet been available, we might have read the following on the hikinginthesmokys.com Website: "
Many people assume that because this hike begins at such a high elevation that this must be the easiest trail to the summit of Mt. LeConte. Don't be fooled. This is a very tough hike. The trail rises and falls many times as it crosses the ridgeline between LeConte and the main crest of the Smokies."  The total elevation gain is actually about 3,000 ft.  We innocents, not knowing any better, elected to take this trail on our first LeConte expedition.
Our one-room cabin -- not
exactly the Taj Mahal!

The Smiths and Meads drove to Gatlinburg the day before the highly-anticipated jaunt.  We noticed as we drew close to the mountains that there appeared to be snow on the peaks that we could see.  It had snowed a few days earlier and we were surprised that it hadn't all melted.  But how could we let a little residual snow interfere with an otherwise perfect adventure?  We arose fairly early on the appointed day, found a nice little pancake restaurant for a hearty breakfast, and headed up Newfound Gap Road to our embarkation point.  It took a little longer than we had anticipated, but we were in the parking lot by 10:30 or so, and eastbound on the Appalachian Trail by 11:00.  It was a glorious, sunny day.

In the first couple of miles, we gained a considerable amount of elevation, and it wasn't long before we were in snow.  We successfully found the intersection where the Boulevard Trail leaves the AT and heads for Mt. LeConte.  The snow was melting at a pretty good pace, which had turned the trail into a muddy trench.  We had to be very careful to maintain our footing, and we all slipped and fell more than once.  In our preparations, we really had focused more on the intellectual side of hiking than the physical, so none of us was in really great shape.  Our pace gradually slowed.  As we got higher and encountered more snow, our backward slippage increased on every upward step.  And as the sun descended after noon, it got much cooler.  We added layers of clothing, but we were all hiking in very cold, wet, feet.  Did I mention that Margo and Anita had decided to hike in tennis shoes to save weight?

Greeted by snowy stairs

We reached the peak of Mt. LeConte, at 6,594 ft., only to realize that the Lodge was on the opposite side of the mountain from which we had approached, and that we still had probably a quarter of a mile to go.  It was nearly 6:00 PM, and we knew they served dinner at 6.  We literally slid down the ice-encrusted trail until we saw the Lodge, just in time to hear the dinner gong being rung.  The girls were in tears at the joy of seeing our destination and the thought of hot food and a warm bed.  Guy and I were greatly relieved to see our destination with all four of us intact.

We signed in the guest register and went in the dining hall before we checked out our cabin.  No one could have enjoyed the meal more than we did!  Hot roast beef and gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans, followed by sliced peaches, with plenty of hot coffee to warm us. The sleeping accommodations proved to be spartan but comfortable.  There are a series of log cabins ranging from single bedroom to three bedroom.  We were in one of the single bedroom units -- I recall that it was cabin number 1.  It was literally a 1-room cabin with a queen-size bunk bed and a couple of chairs and a small table.  There was a small kerosene heater that a staff member came by to light before we went to bed.  That was it.  No frills.

The recreation building
We soon migrated down to a shared building that is the recreation center.  We had been told to bring any food that we might have in our packs to store it in large garbage cans that resided in this building.  That was to prevent the mice and small squirrels from getting into our packs and destroying them.  We also saw the shared toilets nearby.  The ones with flush toilets were supplemented by old-time outhouses for those nights when the water had to be secured to prevent freezing.  That night, it got down to around 20 degrees.  We played Monopoly in the rec room until around 10:00 PM and then found our cabin and retired.  It took no time for all of us to be asleep.

Fortunately, one of the attendants had advised us to fill our cabin's bucket with water from the public spigot and place it on top of our kerosene stove overnight so we'd have warm water for bathing in the morning.  It felt wonderful to wash our faces with a warm, wet washcloth in that frigid environment.  Then, we assembled for breakfast in the dining hall.

Everyone sits at assigned tables, so we had the same table mates for breakfast whom we had met upon arrival.  The hot biscuits, scrambled eggs, sausage, apple butter, pancakes, and Tang ("the drink of Astronauts") really hit the spot as we anticipated the hike out.  We had no choice but to return by the way we came in, since our shared vehicle was at Newfound Gap.  After breakfast, a few goodbye hugs, and brief packing of what little gear we had brought, we began the trek to the car.  It wasn't long before we started shedding layers of clothes.  And enough snow had melted that the footing was much improved.  And going down proved to be much faster that going up.  Within around five hours, we were standing in the Newfound Gap parking lot.

Not long after this hike, Anita found out that she had been pregnant during our adventure.  A little more than a year later, we went up again with Guy and Anita, having made reservations the "normal" way.  In subsequent years, we hiked the mountain with other colleagues and friends, in all seasons, in groups large and small, and in every imaginable kind of weather.  I've hiked every trail more than a few times.  Margo gradually decided she'd rather stay in Townsend, TN, with our dogs and read a few good books while I hiked, so we did that for a number of years.  I hiked it several times with my friend Jim Kahrs and his family, and with my Nephew David and his kids, Canon and Forrest.  In all, I believe I hiked to the summit 28 times.

The last couple of times I hiked up Mt. LeConte, I took falls that were caused by my not seeing a hazard.  The last fall I took resulted in a gash in my forehead that required several stitches to bind up.  I concluded that my depth perception has diminished over the years and that maybe I need to slow down a bit.  So I haven't been up LeConte in probably five years.

My memories of the many hikes are varied.  But most are joyous.  Regardless of a little leg and hip pain (or a few stitches) the beauty of the wildflowers, the solitude and tranquility, the scent of the balsams, the beauty of the butterflies, or the laughs and jabber of my hiking companions are my most prevalent recollections.  A person could do a lot worse than that.  I'm a very fortunate guy.

1 comment:

Monty Love said...

You introduced me to Mt LeConte, also. I still remember those trips. I've been several times, also with other friends. I'm glad you invited me to go that one time. It was a great adventure. Thanks