Monday, February 17, 2014

I frequent several forums and facebook pages that are dedicated to my love of hiking and waterfalling and recently a picture caught my eye that I had to go see for myself. Marty Peterson had hiked to Laurel Falls near Hampton, Tennessee during the bitter cold temperatures we had been having and found it nearly frozen solid! Just by looking at the picture I found it hard to fathom that the amount of water that crosses the falls could be frozen, no matter how cold it had been.
The waterfall normally looks like the middle picture.
Another perspective shot, me at the base of the 55ft falls.

Unfortunately, my work schedule was jammed and I wouldn't have a day off before I was sure it would thaw, so I did what any sane person would do, I set my alarm for 4am and decided I would hike there alone, in the dark, in below freezing temperatures, and see it once the sun came up and before I had to be at work at 10am.
Taken from the footbridge as  the sun was first lighting the gorge.

Laurel Falls is the premier waterfall in Northeast Tennessee, it's inevitable that whenever I'm discussing hiking that someone will ask if I have been there. There are two ways to access the falls. The longer route's trail head is in Hampton along the road and travels nearly four miles to the base of the waterfall. The first time I hiked to the falls I took this route and from what I remember it was a pleasant hike and had several nice bridges before finally following the creek up to the base of the waterfall. The easier route is from Dennis Cove and follows the ridge on a level hike before descending a long series of stone steps to the base of the falls. I always hike in this way now, it's much shorter at only 1.5m to the falls. The road into the cove is an adventure in itself, the four miles to the top of the mountain are steep and curvy and the steepest of sections are without a guardrail. I was hesitant on going just because of the road but Amber's friend lives on the mountain and assured me it was passable. As I was driving up the snow covered road that morning, I cussed her on more than one occasion.
Laurel Falls at sunrise.

Upon arriving at the trail head, the moon lit the trail enough for me to see and I started sloshing through the snow and away from the safety of my truck. The forest is incredibly quiet when it snows and it downright deafening in the dark. The only sound was the water flowing under the ice on it's way through the gorge. The creek wasn't completely frozen over so I was worried that I had missed my opportunity but when I arrived at the footbridge over Laurel Fork the thickness of the ice raised my spirits. As I wound up the stone steps that pass through the ridge to reach the trail above the falls the first light of day was lighting the horizon. Normally, Laurel Falls can be heard from the top of the ridge but I was greeted with silence, I was so excited I hiked at a blistering speed and actually broke a sweat. When I made it to the stone steps I had to watch my footing, each rock was coated in ice and I definitely didn't want a broken leg with no one likely to come through for a day or so.
Detail of the ice.
Parting shot.
Sunrise over Hampton, Tennessee. Bays Mountain and Eastman can be seen in top right of photo.

As I drew closer to the falls I could see the ice coating the entire surface of the 55ft monster, and upon arriving at the base, I was in completely stunned silence. The pool was frozen solid and a sliver of water could be seen snaking downstream. The main falls was iced over except for a tiny portion at the base. It was one of the crazier things I've ever witnessed in person. I made sure every picture counted and checked my lens to make sure mist wasn't building up ruining the image, I knew I might never see it like this again. After filling my camera with pictures, I realized I had a tight window to make it home and get ready for work. As I walked in the door at 10am, I knew that no matter what happened that day, it wouldn't wipe the smile from my face. Until next time, happy trails.

Monday, February 3, 2014

I have the worst writer's block. I've started this post several times only to get half way through and delete it all and stare blankly at the screen. It's sad too, considering how many great hikes I've been on recently. The Farmer's Almanac has managed to accurately predict this winter as being one of the harshest in recent memory. Although we haven't seen big snowfall totals, the bitter cold has lingered for long stretches of days presenting a unique opportunity, a frozen waterfall.
Beware of hang gliders!

I've hiked to Red Fork Falls on multiple occasions and have to say it's one of my favorite waterfalls in the area. The hike is short and rarely does anyone else join you. The trail, although short, does present quite the challenge when it arrives at the top of the waterfall. The full 80ft to the base is a vertical descent that parallels the waterfall. The trail is slick and crosses several large rock outcrops where ropes are now secured to assist you down. The lower portion of trail is constantly wet from the spray of the waterfall and makes for slick conditions year round.
Second creek crossing.

Now, imagine all that frozen solid. That's exactly what Steve and I were greeted with when we visited a few weeks ago at the height of the polar vortex. The first creek crossing was frozen completely from one side to the other and Steve didn't hesitate to "skate" across to the other side making it look easy. I stuck to the rocks that are in place for crossing even though they were also coated in ice. At the second crossing the creek was once again frozen but with thinner ice and it didn't look safe so I bushwhacked downstream finding a more suitable crossing with more exposed rock. Once on the main trail on the other side it was an easy trek to the top of the waterfall. I could tell from our vantage point that the falls was framed in thick ice but wasn't completely frozen like the falls we had visited earlier that morning. I was still anxious to see it from the base and began the slow trip around the top and to the base. Literally everything had a coat of ice on it and I had to chip away pieces of it just to have a grip or a foot hold. When we arrived at one of the steepest points the ropes to assist us were frozen in about seven inches of ice! Steve tried to swing around the rock with the piece of rope but his feet wouldn't find anywhere that would keep him from sliding out into the side of the waterfall. I scooted around the rock ledge and found a spot I could jump down onto another ledge and then continued around the ridge away from the spray of the waterfall. Although there was snow on the ground, I could see boulders laid out that had to be a former trail and followed it until it wound around safely at the base of the waterfall. The sun was starting to come over the ridge so I hurriedly took photos before the light was too harsh. I was impressed with the ice that had built up around the falls and the fact that we were still intact to see it.
HDR image of Red Fork Falls. One of my favorite pictures. I actually watermarked this one.
Steve wasn't so lucky the second time across the ice. Notice the hole?

I've fallen behind with the blog entries lately, and I apologize. I promise you though, the sights I have on deck are worth the wait. Until next time, happy trails!