Sat, Nov 18 2017 - Key Swap: LeConte, snow, ice, adventure... (View Original Event Details)|
Snow: I'm sure I felt a few flurries pelting me, so check.
Adventure: Definite check!
We began our adventure at the park n' ride where we revealed the teams and assigned cars. We picked up a couple more adventurers at the Oconaluftee visitor center at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then the two teams parted ways. Team Lisa leapt from our vehicles at Newfound Gap and into a 2 mile climb up the AT. We traversed a ridgeline, hiking along the narrow backbone of the mountain and into the clouds. We stayed to the center of the trail. Clouds, fog and rain limited our visibility to a black ravine to one side and a solid whiteout to the other. The wind would sweep the mist away for a moment here and there to reveal the steep dropoff to both sides.
At mile 2.7 we said goodbye to the AT and made a left onto the Boulevard Trail. We passed the side trail to the Jump-Off, then it was up, then down, then up, then down, then at last the final push to the Mt. LeConte summit at 6,593 feet. We encountered gusty winds and intermittent rain as we strode onward and upward. After a particularly windy section, we looked up from holding onto our hats to see a huge buck on the trail just a few yards in front of us. He must not have heard or smelled us in the 45 mph winds. We stopped in our tracks, there was a glance of mutual surprise, then respect, then he plunged down into the forest. We eyed one another until our entire group caught up to witness him jump back onto the trail behind us.
Team Lisa made our way up the the well-maintained trails of the Mt. LeConte village, past Myrtle Point and the rudimentary shelter. We admired the rock cairn to our left that marks High Point and the official highest point on Mt. LeConte. Then it was into the warmth of the dining hall to exchange fist bumps and car keys. After a photo op outside, the two teams broke bread together and warmed up with hot chocolate and coffee before parting ways again. Team Lisa leisurely enjoyed our hot beverages while giving Team Wynn a head start, as they admittedly had more miles to cover in their second half.
Team Lisa geared up and headed out for our steep descent down the Alum Cave trail. With one eye on the weather we kept it moving fast down the mountain. We were glad of the cables to guide us down some of the wet rocks. We hugged the cliff face as we progressed down the narrow path. We didn't linger long at the bluffs at Alum Cave, as a dust storm created mini tornadoes with stinging debris at random intervals. Then it was on to Arch Rock and the stone steps carved through the tunnel. We crossed a couple rough hewn bridges as we followed the gentle undulations of Alum Cave Creek for our last mile out.
We found Team Wynn's vehicles waiting for us, and drove back to the visitor center for a change of clothes and hand scrubbing before sinking down to await Team Wynn. We retraced our steps on the large relief map in the visitor center museum. Finally, with just minutes left until closing time, we spotted Lisa's car driven by Wynn, squealing into the parking lot on two wheels, closely followed by Team Wynn Car #2. Reunion! Team Wynn hurriedly changed into dry clothes, we swapped cars again, and all 16 of us proceeded to Kostas in Dillsboro to celebrate Wynn's birthday.
We also swapped tales from the trail. Team Wynn's adventure had begun at the Alum Cave trailhead and also included gusty winds and a stop at Alum Cave. After meeting Team Lisa at the top, they faced 8 long miles back to Newfound Gap. "It was a lot more uphill on the second part than I expected" - one Team Wynn member, recounting the repeated steep ups and downs of the Boulevard, exclaimed at dinner. Team Wynn also plodded out their last couple miles on the AT in a steady rain. And last but not least, Team Wynn saw an elk instead of a deer. There were smiles all around on the patio of Kostas as we broke bread together and shared our love of the great outdoors.