Wednesday, March 4, 2015

There's been several stretches of below freezing nights this winter and with those chilly temps come the hope of seeing a frozen waterfall. I'm a waterfall junkie as it is but after last year's polar vortex and seeing some local waterfalls frozen stiff I wanted to venture out to even grander scenes if this winter would cooperate.
Ice coated bridge crossing over Ramsey Prong.

The good part about my job is it gives me the opportunity to constantly meet new people and preach the gospel of hiking to them. For some their mild interests remains simply that but for others they lace up the closest thing to a hiking boot they own and follow me into the wilds. While working in Church Hill, Tennessee I met a fellow assistant manager named Ben Zook. We became friends and soon he asked to join me on a hike. After several hikes together I could tell his interest had grown and soon he was asking me where we were going next.

Sadly, I relocated to a new store in late November and my time working with Ben came to a close. However, we remained friends and after seeing some winter scenes I had captured he hike again under the following circumstances. The hike had to be long, have an element of danger, with a frozen waterfall as the main attraction. My mind immediately started tumbling ideas around and I settled on one of the most popular hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains, Ramsey Cascades.

Truthfully, all hikes in the Smokies are popular, being the most visited national park in the country it's hard not to bump into someone on one of the over 900 miles of trails. Having settled on our destination I asked Ben if he would mind if I asked my friend Thomas "Badger" Mabry along for the hike. Ben happily agreed as he had heard many Badger tales and wanted to meet legend for himself and as Thomas and I exchanged messages leading up to the hike I was in for a surprise myself. The Badger claimed that famed Panthertown Valley author, Todd Ransom might be interested in joining us making what would be his first trip into the Smokies and Thomas' first trip up to Ramsey in 40 years!

As my eyes grew heavy the night before the trip, a final message from Badger sealed the deal, "Badger IN, Ransom IN!" We agreed on meeting at the trail head at 10am and Ben and I stopped for some breakfast and some supplies before rolling into the parking lot exactly on time as my truck clock flipped to 10am. The parking lot for Ramsey is generally full of cars regardless of season so when we parked next to the only other car there I was nearly beside myself with excitement. Todd appeared just under the bank and was quick to greet us. I could see Thomas down by the Little Pigeon River with his camera shooting the raging waters. I told Todd how shocked I was to find the parking lot empty based on my two previous trips but that we should be grateful to have somewhere so wonderful to ourselves. Soon the Badger appeared on the scene and we all made small talk as we gathered all of our gear for the trip up Ramsey Prong.
The giant Tulip Poplar on Ramsey Prong.

The hike begins rather easy and touristy. A flat gravel path winds you through the woods before arriving at the bridge crossing of the Little Pigeon River. From there the trail steadily climbs and doesn't let up until reach the waterfall. Ramsey is worth every step but the 2400 feet in elevation gain turns back a lot of people leaving their legs as useless mush. I witnessed the havoc on my first trip there when a family of four were spread out along the trail completely spent and out of water...a full mile from the waterfall. Almost having to run to keep pace with Todd, something told me that we weren't going to have any issues. Meeting Todd in person was a real treat and he was easy to talk to as we torched the first mile and a half to Ramsey Prong. Ben stayed quiet for the most part but would occasionally bust out laughing at one of the Badger's many stories.
Todd Ransom with the Badger.

The turn up Ramsey Prong takes a more rugged approach the final 2.5 leg burning miles to the waterfall. We soon passed nice cascades and took time to rest while Thomas scrambled down to do some photography. Although some light snow was beginning to show up along the edge of the trail as we gained elevation I had built up quite the sweat. As we approached the first log bridge I nearly wiped out as ice coated the entire trail! I warned the others and Ben finally came to life when he seen the narrow bridge crossing a very loud Ramsey Prong. When I say that the log is narrow, it's barely wide enough to put both feet side by side, add a thick coat of ice, and it's downright scary. I loved the expression on Ben's face as he came scooting across the bridge and following close behind was Thomas seemingly oblivious to the danger. Todd crossed last since he had scrambled down to the creek to take pictures of us crossing but he didn't have any issues making it safely to the other side.
Todd fitting Ben with the crampons.

Remember the part about the closest thing they owned to hiking boots? Well, Ben's boots were more like slick bottom dress shoes and on the opposite side of the creek he began what had to be a grueling stretch of climbing while trying to stay on his feet. He took more falls than I could keep up with and as the snow deepened the hard packed ice on the trail grew slicker.
The curved log bridge on Ramsey Prong.

The snowy scene was nice and we stuck with the creek as we entered the old growth forest. Towering over the forest are several tulip poplars that are the biggest I've seen in person. Everyone shared in my awe of them and we took an extended break trying to capture their size with our cameras. I particularly enjoyed it, it's rare that something can make me feel so small. In my opinion, you could hike just to see these trees and it would be a rewarding experience. After twenty minutes or so we were back to hiking, uphill of course.

Reaching a rocky set of steps it took Ben over 10 minutes of clawing to find a way up to us. Todd had begun digging through his pack and came up with what saved the hike for Ben...slide on crampons! I has never seen any in person so I watched intently as Todd helped Ben slide them over his boots. Instantly Ben was transformed into a power hiker and left Todd, Thomas, and I in the dust as we carefully slid up the trail. We reached the second log bridge across Ramsey and although it's shorter I have always liked how it curves in the middle of the bridge in a L shape. A large tree branch hangs over the bridge twice as large as the trunk that supports it. Every time I hike by it I'm amazed it can hold its weight.

The final mile of trail is downright brutal and the ice made for some slow steps as we wound away from Ramsey Prong and up a dried stream bed. The Badger put his hiking transmission in low gear and fell behind as I was able to talk with Todd about rock climbing, writing, and camping while we struggled to keep sight of Ben and his fancy new footwear. Soon Todd's pace was too much for me and I was hiking alone again. The rocky steps were coated in ice so I opted to walk off trail to try to keep my footing and as I pinched between two large rocks that split the trail I saw Ben and Todd looking for a way across the small side stream just before Ramsey Cascades. The normally small stream was frozen wide of it's banks and it was hard to distinguish where to step safely. Todd and Ben found the wrong way and the cracked ice made it easy for me to stay on the rocks as I hopped from rock to rock staying dry. Ben and Todd continued on as I lingered waiting for the Badger to cross the stream, once he was safely on the other side we joined Ben and Todd at the base of the icy scene of Ramsey Cascades.
Sign just before the falls.

The very icy Ramsey Cascades!
Ben celebrating a successful hike!

The majority of the waterfall was draped in a thick coat of ice with strange formations trimming a delicate flow that tumbled down sixty feet to where we were standing. Todd and I sat on the large rock next to the falls while Thomas and Ben prodded around closer to the streams edge. Todd borrowed his crampons back to explore around the falls and walked out onto the frozen stream easily crossing to the other side. I asked him how the ice felt and he said he thought it would be ok...even though I weighed more than 150lbs more than he did! I couldn't resist and joined him out on the ice and although it was slushy on the top layer, I could see the sides of the ice several inches thick along the edge of the creek. Soon Thomas and Ben came out onto the ice with us and we all climbed over directly in front of the falls! It was a special feeling standing on the water and being able to lean back against the frozen waterfall. We eventually dispersed taking pictures from every angle. Thomas and I went downstream climbing out onto the creek to shoot the lower cascade that makes the waterfalls total height right at 100ft. I was able to include some frosted trees at the top of the falls in my scenes which I felt added to the appeal of the picture. At a certain point I looked over and saw Thomas laying on the creek lining up a picture, I couldn't help but laugh, the Badger would go to any length for a great capture! Todd continued to stalk around the falls as Thomas and I settled downstream. Ben stayed by the large rock next to the base of the falls just content on being there. Although  I had several trips to the falls, I can't remember a more beautiful scene.
Standing on Ramsey Prong!
Badger stalking the waterfall. Where he is laying is normally a rushing creek!
Thomas' beautiful capture of Ramsey Cascades. Photo courtesy of Thomas Mabry.
From left to right, Ben, Thomas, Todd, and me.
Badger on ice!
One of my favorite shots from the trip. Thomas and I in front of the falls. Big thanks to Todd Ransom for helping with my camera on this picture!

As we gathered our packs after a couple of group pictures by the falls, Todd once again saved the day by being prepared. He had brought a water filter system and we were all able to refill our water bottles for the hike out! I was dreading the hike back with all the ice and the fact it was going to be downhill but none of us had any footing issues and before I knew it we were crossing the first log bridge exiting the icy winter wonderland. As we approached the parking lot I started thinking about what a great time we had, and how hiking can take a group of people that may not know each other that well but in the end they are friends sharing stories and laughs. My final mission of the day was to buy a copy of Todd's Waterfalls of Panthertown Valley book and I dug around in my truck finding a pen and he was kind enough to sign it for me! Hopefully we can get this group together for more adventures later this year, until then, happy trails!

7'4" is not match for this monstrous tree!
narrow bridge!

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