Thursday, January 22, 2015

To date, 2014 was my most successful year of hiking. I logged just shy of 400 miles, visited over 150 waterfalls, and spent my first  night camping in 20 years. I balanced that with being married and having a salaried position with my job. What I'm getting at is, I hate sitting still.
Ready for some hiking! John, Thomas, Lincoln, and Halley.
Appalachian Trail to Charlie's Bunion.
One of the few pictures of Amber from that day. Photo by John Forbes.
Looking into North Carolina you can see Highway 441 coming up the mountain.

Sitting still has been all I've done since Sunday. While hiking back from Buckeye Falls I sprained my ankle. A doctor's visit on Tuesday revealed torn ligaments and several weeks off the trails. As disappointing as it was to hear, I immediately started thinking about all the blogs I needed to catch up on and how this was the perfect opportunity to get them done.
Halley pouting at our Bromance. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
John and Thomas taking in the view.
Laughs aplenty!

All my accomplishments last year just left me even hungrier in 2015. Of course I've had plenty of folks that joined me on the trail last year to make it such a memorable experience and we decided to round up some of our troop for a new years day hike to start the year off right. After several ideas were tossed around we settled on hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, America's most visited national park. We wanted a long hike but with a nice payoff for when we got there and there's few I could think of better than Charlie's Bunion.
Me and Old Man Winter (Jeff)
Helping keep Lincoln motivated. Photo by Halley Burleson.
The long and short of it. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

Charlie's Bunion is four miles from anything, so it helps eliminate some of the tourist and overlook hikers that we've come to despise so much in our travels. The morning of the hike it was hard for me to get motivated and out of bed. Amber and I had went out with friends the night before to ring in the new year and we didn't stop ringing it in until 2am. The two hour drive to the Smokies would do little to help me get woke up.

Amber was feeling the night before worse than me, being sick the majority of the night, but when the alarm went off at 6am she was quick to start getting packed although I could tell it was going to be a long day for her. We met Jeff Forrester at his house in Rock Springs and John Forbes was there ready to carpool as well. We all loaded into Jeff's CRV and were off to meet the others at the Newfound Gap parking area on top of the mountain straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The ride down was filled with laughter and stories from the night before, each one turning Amber a deeper shade of green. When we started getting close to the Pigeon Forge the party traffic from the previous night really started picking up. Even further slowing our progress was a light frost the night before had cars crawling up the mountain with every pull off filled to the brim with people shooting the snowy scene with their cell phones. Inevitably we got stuck behind a car from Florida who refused to pull over or drive above 20mph.
AT entering one of my favorite stretches of the hike. DOWNHILL!
Trail intersection closing in on Charlie!
Cause were the three best friends that anyone could have...

When we finally arrived at the parking area on top of the mountain it was completely packed as well. We were able to squeeze in a space near the trail head and I jumped out looking for the rest of our party. On the far end of the lot I found Thomas Mabry in his trademark orange shirt ready to hike. Across from him was Halley and Lincoln gathering their packs for the day ahead. After Halley gave me some slack about being late we were off to the races and a day with Charlie.

Amber was still feeling awful but the first uphill mile she hung tough and actually ahead of the majority of our group. When we stopped for a rest near an icy section of trail she decided it was going to be too much for her to continue and took Jeff's keys and retreated back to the parking lot. I was sad she was going to miss seeing the Bunion but I knew she was making the right decision with how bad she felt. Thomas being the life of the party helped everyone forget about the gradual three mile uphill march and we encountered many other hikers along the way. As each hiker approached, I was quick to ask them if they had been to the Bunion but none of the first few groups even spoke English! Apparently the Americans were still nursing their hangovers!
Poor Jeff. He just didn't realize what he was getting into!
Icewater Spring Shelter.
Inside the shelter. Photo by Halley Burleson.
Halley had to be in one. Shot with the Gopro.
Long views from the front of the Icewater Springs Shelter.

The trail itself is beautiful and I found that I was stopping at every chance to take pictures. There's several lookouts along the way and it rested our legs while we could see far into the North Carolina side of the park. For Jeff it was his third trip but he never passes an opportunity to hike in the Smokies, we've had some memorable times on the trails here so I was sure this day would be no different. John and Thomas stuck together and were laughing wildly. I couldn't help but laugh when we passed other hikers and Thomas would say something crazy just to get a reaction and it always seemed to work. Halley and Lincoln were always hot on our heels and I was impressed with how far his trail legs had came in a short time since he wasn't typically a big time hiker. As we hiked on my only worry was how Amber was doing and if we would face a crowd when we finally reached the Bunion. I noticed someone's phone beep meaning we had service so I text her and she let me know she had made it to the car and was safe. With that worry off my mind, I was ready to have a truly good time!

The three mile uphill pull finally ceased past a trail intersection and we entered a flat section through an old growth forest. I remembered it from my first trip and really savored being able to be back again. Soon we arrived at the spur to the Icewater Spring Shelter and took a break there. We posed for some pictures and had a snack or two but we're soon hiking again when Amber text me saying she had passed over 60 people hiking in.
Snow within a mile of Charlie's Bunion.
Mt. LeConte from Charlie's Bunion.

The news of the crowds approaching hiking pace ablaze. The final mile to the Bunion is surprisingly downhill. I was so focused on getting there I left the rest of my group in the dust. I didn't notice it until I stopped to talk to two hikers leaving asking them how many people were at the bunion. When they told me nine people my heart sunk a little, it's such a small rock and I couldn't imagine having room on it with that many people. As I drew closer I passed a group of three people leaving then two more so I knew there were only four people left. When the bunion came into view I could see a person in a white jacket sitting on top but no one else. I still was a twenty minute walk away so I hoped they would be gone when I got there, but when I reached the narrow path that swings over to the bunion there was old white coat still sitting there. At the base of the rock were three other hikers who had passed us earlier on the trail.
Before the crew arrived I got the shot I had been thinking about since my wife got me the Gopro.
The crew on the Bunion AND the last known picture of Thomas' hiking stick!
Jeff leaning out taking pictures from Charlie's Bunion.

The wind was pretty rough so it was keeping people from climbing on the furthest rock out on the bunion. The problem was the guy in the white coat had sprawled out a blanket and was eating lunch keeping anyone from getting to that spot. I fooled around for a few minutes taking pictures of the distant views and when I realized he wasn't going to budge I simply climbed over his picnic, well through it really, out onto the rock I had been thinking about the whole hike. I wasn't alone at the bunion but I was at least going to have some pictures with no one else in them! It was here I realized the true value of my Gopro as I was able to capture the entire area around me with its super wide angle lens. I also noticed how far I had come with my fear of heights, on either side of the rock were several hundred foot drops, the wind gusts were sudden, and small ice patches were everywhere but it didn't bother me, I was cured.
Lincoln and I laughing when we spotted Thomas' hiking stick. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
Obviously Thomas was upset. Photo by Halley Burleson.
High above the noise.
Thomas Mabry's shot of Mt. LeConte from the Bunion.

When I snapped out of my bliss, I noticed the rest of my hiking clan arriving at the rock. Picnic boy still stayed perched and not speaking but Thomas, John, Jeff, and Lincoln all climbed out to join me. Halley took some pictures of us on the rock from the main trail (which we still haven't seen!) and then climbed over to join us. We all huddled on the rock for a Gopro group picture and when we finished I told them we should get out of the way of other hikers that might want to take some pictures. As I was climbing back across I heard a hiking stick bouncing from the cliff sides. I was almost afraid to look but turned to see Thomas staring off the ledge in the direction of the noise. He looked at the rest of the group and said, "Badger error!" I lost it I laughed so hard. A hiking stick he had used for five years was now sacrificed to the trail gods.  Lincoln spotted it standing upright leaned against the cliff about 50 yards below us tempting to retrieve, but Thomas put it best, "it's like dropping your keys in lava man, they're gone."
John looking up at Halley from WAY down on the Bunion. Photo by John Forbes.
John at the point of no return on the Bunion. That is a LONG way down. Photo by John Forbes.

After Thomas' stick blunder we retreated back to the main trail. Hoards of new hikers were arriving making it tight for everyone around the rock. John had vanished as he had climbed far down onto the bunion out of sight of everyone there for some solitude and killer views. During this time I noticed a sketchy path climbing higher onto some rocks above us. I pointed it out to Thomas and Halley and they both were quick to take off up the cliff. I was right behind them and when I made it to the top I was so thankful we went up. We were now fifty feet above the crowds of people and could shoot pictures with no one in our way. We could see John way down the bunion below and when he spotted us he made his way over to join us. Being on this ledge with my friends was one of the best parts of the day for me! It was getting late and Amber was waiting on us four miles away, Halley and I climbed down as John and Thomas took a higher route and vanished out of sight. We started hiking out and passed a group of hikers coming from another side trail when Halley asked them if they'd seen a guy with a crazy beard all they said was "yeah, he's coming."
The way up. Photo by John Forbes.
Here I come to the top! Photo by Thomas Mabry.
John thinking about jumping. Photo by Halley Burleson.
The trio at Charlie's Bunion. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

John and Thomas caught up and that nice downhill mile from earlier  was now staring us in the face on the climb out. We took our time and rested occasionally and before we knew it we were back on level ground. We caught group after group of hikers and Thomas was quick to share a "badgerism" or two with each one. Seeing how uncomfortable it made some of their faces brought such joy to my heart. As we neared the final mile of hiking the frozen ground from early that morning had thawed and was now soupy mud. Hiking came to a stand still as groups of hikers had slowed to a snails pace trying to avoid the mess. I was quickly reminded of how bad I hated the smokies just for this reason. John pointed out a comedy of errors in footwear choices during our delay. From loafers to Ugg boots, from flats to cowboy boots, it was obvious some people weren't meant to be here and they would most likely get to eat some dirt before they could escape.
Great picture of Jeff on the Bunion by Thomas Mabry.
Thomas scaling the cliff. Photo by John Forbes.
The Usual Suspects. Photo by Halley Burleson.
Beware of gnome!

When we reached the car I found Amber to be alert and much better shape than when we parted ways. She told us of seeing people hike up the trail and come back a few minutes later coated in mud from a fall. She had been entertained for hours watching all of it go down. Everyone was starving so we agreed to head over to the Apple Barn for dinner except for Thomas who kept saying something about a hot tub but we'll save that for another entry. Until next time, happy trails!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bored on my lunch hour one day at work, I grabbed a scrap of paper and made a list of 20 hiking goals for the year. All of them seemed easy enough to accomplish and it gave me something measurable to track my progress. First on the list was a place known as Flint Mountain Cliffs. My introduction to them came through Randy Tarpley's blog and when I got to stare across the Rocky Fork at them from the summit of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs, I knew I wanted to hike there as well.
The jump across Rocky Fork.
Flint Mountain Cliffs in the distance.

On the coldest day of 2015, I awoke to pictures all over social media of people's temperature gauges in their cars. The highest temperature I saw anyone post that morning was 4 degrees. The bitter cold day was also my off day that week so knowing I wouldn't fight a crowd anywhere I went I chose to bundle up and head to the Rocky Fork...alone.
One of the slabs of rocks that has fell from the cliffs many years ago.
Around the boulders and climbing higher toward the rock walls of Flint Mountain.

I didn't do a lot of solo hiking last year and I wanted to squeeze in at least a few solo days this year to make up for it. On my solo hikes it's seems I'm more careful, take more time working with my camera settings, and just the peacefulness of the whole trip can't be undervalued. I told Amber of my plans and where to find me if I wasn't home at a certain time and was off for the trail head. As I turned up Rocky Fork road the creek had a shell of ice over the majority of it and the frozen scenes caused me to drive extra slow to take it all in. When I arrived at the parking area, it wasn't a surprise to see I was the only one out that morning. As I got out of the truck it was slightly cold but my with all my layers and the fact I was going to be climbing I knew I would warm up. It was the only time I had actually worn long pants on a hike, or in this case, overalls. I've never been on the cutting edge of fashion so I'm sure I looked goofy in my outfit but I was comfortable and started the march up Rocky Fork.
The sun rising over the cliffs.
At last! The base of the cliffs.
First view of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.

The main trail takes you directly between Flint Mountain Cliffs and Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs. My first challenge of the day would be finding a way across Rocky Fork while keeping my feet dry. The ice I found so beautiful earlier was now my enemy as it covered rocks I could have easily hopped across. I followed the creek up to a small fan tail shaped waterfall and found about a 5ft gap I thought I could jump. I stared at the sloped rock on the other side for what felt like an eternity, if I missed the jump I was soaked, and I almost decided not to do it. I took my camera bag off to lighten my weight and tossed it to the opposite bank, now I HAD to jump! A short run and leap later I was dry and on the other side of Rocky Fork. From here, there isn't a trail of any kind.
In about an hour I would be peeking over this wall looking straight back down to where I'm standing!
Large tree balanced on the cliff edge.

My first mission was hiking back downstream to where the base of Flint Mountain Cliffs meet the creek. A sea of laurel make this a rather slow affair and I was sure of my footing since I had no one to help me if something went wrong.  I arrived at a rock wall that wasn't the base of the cliffs but large boulders that had broke free from the cliffs in years past. As the rocks arrived at their final resting place they brought with them any tree that stood in their way so just getting to the base of the cliffs was hard! Climbing around, over, and even under the debris field had me sweating in my layers. While resting on a rock I noticed my overalls weren't fitting right and checked to find both shoulder straps were broken! I tied them around my waist just to keep my pants up and I could keep climbing!
Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs and a tree growing from the side of the Flint Mountain Cliffs.
The narrow rock spine of the top of the cliffs.
Looking back toward Interstate 26 and the distant mountain ranges.

I made it to the base of the cliffs and the shadow they cast had the ground hard and frozen. I was on the right (if you are looking straight ahead from rocky fork trail) side and started working my way along the wall and upward. I was so focused on climbing I didn't notice that it was very steep behind me and when I finally stooped I turned to see the face of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs staring back at me. Although that was my goal in the first place, I knew the route I was on was far too dangerous to keep going alone. I instead climbed back down to the creek swinging to the left side of the rock wall. The cliffs are less vertical on this side and climbing them was much easier. Ledge by ledge I kept pushing upward and soon I could see nothing but sky above a tricky ledge that was about the same height as me. The narrow cat walk had me heel to toe and I swung my arms over the rock to feel nothing on the other side. I  cautiously peeked over the rock to see it was only a few feet wide and the opposite side was a vertical drop of well over 100ft! I had made it to the top of Flint Mountain Cliffs!
Looking over to Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.
Zoomed shot of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.
Wide angle view from Flint Mountain Cliffs.
You can see my broken overalls here! Sitting on the cliffs taking it easy.

Carefully working onto the rock I found a perfect saddle like seating arrangement and I was able to look off both sides of the narrow spine without feeling like my life was in danger. Staring across the Rocky Fork I couldn't believe how incredible Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs were and could understand why Randy was so enamored with this pristine location.  The rocks were covered with beautiful moss and lichens and I was careful not to crush them while I was resting there. For over an hour I shot pictures and video from my lofty perch and decided I needed to climb further to the highest of the cliffs above me.
Looking off the left side of Flint Mountain.
Straight down to Rocky Fork!
This gopro shot illustrates the narrow spine of Flint Mountain Cliffs.

I didn't want to walk though the moss so I left the rock ledge and reentered the forest along the rock wall. I was cut off by a towering slab of rock but by channeling some Randy ninja trail knowledge I found a winding secret path upward. Small shrubs cover the highest portion of the cliff and I wound through them until I came to where I could go no further without sharp drops on all sides. I could tell someone had stood here before with a few branches broken from a large tree I was leaning against, so I assumed that's where Rat and Boulder Man had been as well. The vast expanse of the Rocky Fork unfolded before my eyes. I was now almost even with the cliffs on Whitehouse Mountain and could see the summit of the sharp peak above them. I broke out my zoom lens and shot the various points on the rock I had been scrambling just a few weeks earlier. I was lost in the scene the cold weather and wind didn't bother me as I stayed there for yet another hour switching between lens and filming short videos.  I finally looked at my watch to see that it was nearly 3pm and decided I needed to get down and out especially before dark.
The final approach to the summit of the cliffs.
Final push to the highest portion of the cliffs.
The view from the top!
Standing below an old pine tree on Flint Mountain Cliffs.

When I arrived back at the creek I didn't feel like spending any extra time finding a dry way across and waded the icy stream. In the half mile hike back to the truck the legs of my wet pants were frozen stiff it was so cold. I changed into some dry gear in the truck and my Rocky Fork adventure was in the books
The Rocky Fork property with Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs.
Zoomed shot of Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs on my hike down. You can see Shrine Rock at top and center of picture.

My first solo hike of 2015 was memorable because I went somewhere very few people tread. That being said, I hope that if you are one of the people that attempt this hike, know that it is off trail cliff scrambling and there is danger involved. Also be aware of what impact you are having on the habitat by simply being there, that crunching sound beneath your feet could be an endangered plant that will never return.
For size reference, the circled area is the Crack of Doom we had our picture made in on John Forbes 100th trail day.
And here we are in the Crack of Doom. Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs are huge!

I enjoy the challenge of reaching these difficult destinations but I want to see them in the same condition 20 years from now for future adventure seekers. Always try to live by the rule, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints and nature will continue to find a way to inspire us. Until next time, happy trails.