Groundhog Ridge Manway to Mt. Cammerer

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When JD called and asked if I wanted to hike, it didn’t take much arm twisting.  When I asked if he was up for an adventure, he didn’t bat an eye.  His response? “I have always wanted to do that offtrail”.  And with that our plan was solidified on Friday afternoon.

By Saturday morning, we had two more conscripts on board and one of them was familiar to me. You will appreciate this story.  JD said we were meeting “Dave” at the trailhead.  Imagine my surprise when “Dave” steps out of his vehicle and I am face to face with a guy I had a hand in hiring to replace a vacant position at the school where I do counseling work less than a week ago.  He and I had already put in two days at the Academy this week.  Dave has been hiking with JD and Bill for several years. When we were interviewing Dave, I asked him what he did in his free time as an outlet.  He proclaimed, without hesitation, “hiking”.  And without hesitation, I uttered, “Your’e hired”.


I found this old pot as we plodded into the Smokies. It was barely protruding from the snow.


JD has completed four complete laps in the Smokies.  Both Dave and Bill have also finished maps.


We got turned around twice. The slick snow was just another small hazard. Climbing the manway is a challenge in good weather, as you may recall.



There is quite a bit of rhodo pulling. With the snow, it was often one step forward and one step back.


That’s Dave.  Our newest science teacher, probably wondering why he followed me on an offtrail.



This is really what the untracked trail looks like.  Steep.  How steep?  Well,

profile of cam

Strava captured our stats.  It took us two hours and 45 minutes to top out and reach the tower.




I soaked every piece of clothing. When I took off my layers, steam came off my body like an iron plugged into a 220 volt outlet. I had apparently cut my nose while Rhodo surfing.


We decided to descend via the regular trail which gave us 8.5 miles for the day. As we were leaving the tower, I run into a  friend of mine, Stephanie, who had also taken advantage of the government shutdown long enough to make a run up the AT to the lookout.


As we descended, the weather improved and a warm front raised the temps so much a fair amount of snow had disappeared from the bottom of our trek.


But the scenery was fantastic.  As well as the company.  It was a wonderful mid winter outing.


27 Icy Smokies Miles with Curt

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I was supposed to be in Banff, Canada this week.  However, due to the selfishness of some woman who decided to board a plane from Knoxville with the flu and seat herself next to Laurel, the result was as expected and in keeping with the John and Laurel Christmas flu tradition.

So Laurel landed in Orlando with a full blown case and we had to cancel our plans. I was still in Knoxville and knew that Curt was wanting to do a big loop. He graciously allowed me to accompany him and our journey began in the icy morning of Wednesday, Dec 27, 2017.


Curt is no stranger to these waters of the Little River. As a fly fisherman, his knowledge of the drainage around Goshen is extensive. He had not, however, climbed above campsite 26.  If this sounds familiar, we completed this loop in reverse a few years back.  Here is a link.


I have some strange fascination with this log as you can see from the link above.  However, on this trip, I took a full boot bath that dogged me for the remaining 20 miles.  It was in the teens cold.




We spent the better part of the evening getting this guy to flame.  It provided little warmth and my boot and sock were frozen. It required quite a bit of finesse to keep a cold, formerly frostbitten foot warm.


We lay in 15 degree bags wishing I had brought my mountaineering kit. Fifteen is a survivability rating and survive I did, but thriving is always my outdoor goal. My toes didn’t warm until we were two miles into our big climb up Goshen Prong.


We had 12 miles to do this day and I was very happy to reach the AT above Double Spring. We saw no one along the AT whatsoever.


But it was beautiful. These are new miles for Curt, who now has the bug,  and you know what I mean.


The Narrows is what this section is called and it conjures memories of epic trips from long ago such as this most notable one..


I really love the Narrows, and its sister Sawteeth on the other side of Newfound Gap. These exposed ridges really produce in winter when the vistas are endless.


Curt soaks it up.


We made record time getting to Goshen the first day. Seven miles in under two hours.  Today, our pace was slowed due to the cold and frozen trail. We found areas that were pure ice and required negotiation. Not to mention the elevation from Goshen to the AT. We were also losing the battle with daylight in these shortened hours. Movement along Miry Ridge was “sporty” given the blowdowns, icy conditions and sloped trail that tries to pull you down the valley with each step.

It was a 12 mile day.  tn_P1080282

I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me where this is.  I made it here just in time for a glorious sunset and busted out my headlamp for some more ice walking into 26.  I followed bear tracks into camp thus proving my oft stated theory that complete hibernation is all but a myth for Smokies bruin.


there was no fire in the ridge of Mire. Curt needed no explanation as to the nomenclature for this trail. As is the case with paths which accommodate equestrian use, some muck is par for the course. I bedded down at 8.30 after a quick dinner in my sad sack tent.  Curt has a nice tarp system that you may appreciate.



He had virtually no condensation, a continuous problem with winter backpacking. For a guy doing his first big mileage event, he proved up to the task. I have mountain biked with Curt for a while and can attest to his cardiovascular endurance.  And cardio fitness is what ensures success on these types out outings. Curt also comes from the fishing/hunting world so outdoor exposure isn’t novel.


One of my favorite interior views of the AT is from Miry Ridge just about a mile down from camp.



It warmed up in the sun long enough for me to strip down for a Buff shot. Our water bottles, boots and fuel would freeze overnight, along with our toes if not careful. When it reached almost 28 degrees, it felt like spring.


Back down towards Jakes Creek we re entered the snow zone.


These bear cables took a big hit at Jakes Creek.


So we ended up back at Elkmont.  Heated seats never felt so good!  A grand adventure with great company and weather, for the time of year. I’ll take cold over a cold rain any day.

Happy New Year to all.  2018 looks to be chock full of Huge adventures so stay tuned.

(If you have enjoyed this trip report, consider taking a look at my first book recounting our ill fated journey into the Karakoram in Pakistan)





Solstice Stroll: House Mountain

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The view wasn’t much, it had been quite a dreary looking day, but the temperature was good and Laurel was in town.


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She stops at the summit where we didn’t tarry for lack of vista. It was a stroll for the solstice, our shortest day of the year.


Like her visit, this little “walk” was but a spur of the moment surprise. And getting out in nature at any time, is preferable to not.

And enjoy our time outside and together, we did.

Merry Christmas to everyone.  Another adventure awaits on Christmas day.



An Incredible Photograph

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Last year about this time, Laurel and I were making our way down towards Mexico for a climb on Pico de Orizaba via La Malinche. It was an eventful experience in that she got seriously altitude sick and had to be brought down. Not unusual for someone who had never been higher than 8 thousand feet. After assuring me she was fine upon reaching the relative safety of 8 thousand feet, her previous high point prior to this trip, I returned to finish this climb solo.

While there, sleeping in the hut on what was now to be my third attempt on Mexico’s highest volcano, I met John Stevenson who was to head out the same morning at midnight or so.  We exchanged pleasantries and he retired, with his guide, for a small bit of sleep before our traditional alpine start. Midnight was cold and spitting snow, as I remember, and the cold was bone chilling here at the refugio at 14 thousand feet. I donned multiple layers and headed off into the dark abyss.  I soon caught up with several guided groups.  The sun didn’t start rising until I hit the final snowfield at 17k and began pressure breathing my way to the summit that seemed, with every step, more elusive.

Light crested the horizon in step with my arrival at the caldera, or summit cone.  I had passed most everyone in my push from the last great snowfield, having paced well through the labyrinth that had eluded me on two separate attempts.  As I reached the familiar cross with no doubt that the summit was now successfully checked, it was John and his guide that came up next and snapped several photographs. John took some great pics of me and I returned the favor.


This is the photograph John took for me.  I was not far out of night as my headlamp apparently remains in full beam.

It was an awesome experience.  John and I stayed in touch and he invited me to go down and climb in Kazakhstan with him but I was not able to make that work.  He was able to climb Khan Tengri which brings me to the point of this post.  While ascending this great peak in the communist region at 6000 meters with a guide, John’s attention was diverted to a great disturbance in the sky. It was very curious to both my new friend and his Kazakh guide and I assume they may have thought it extra terrestrial at the time.

Turns out this magnificent photo was a shot of the Soyuz space capsle launching off towards the International Space Station in July of this year.  I found the shot so amazing it had to be shared, so here goes!  Isn’t it incredible?


Hazel Creek for Turkey Week

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It was a brisk morning that turned into a glorious day as the Highlander Navy set sail from Cable Cove across lake Fontana on Friday morning. Martin navigates the brisk waters expertly in a heavily laden old 17 foot canoe that was towed across the dragon by an even elder 1971 Ford truck.


Mtn. Laurel, who is now fully acclimated from out last week’s outing to Spence, steers her own vessel towards yonder shore.


Kurt and AJ complete the armada. Here we are witnessing an Eagle soaring high above at Ollie Cove.

tn_P1080147Low water levels made our docking and portage somewhat tricky. Then there was a half mile walk into an almost empty Proctor campsite.


Martin begins camp duties.


And Laurel does what she does best as AJ oversees!


Much merriment ensued around a crackling fire and chilly night.



The next morning we went in a few separate directions.  Curt set about to trout fish with his fly rod.  AJ and Laurel and I walked over to Ollie Cove.  We are at Hazel Creek because Eagle Creek is closed for bear activity.  It has been closed for a while. I soon prevailed upon our group to undertake a bit of bushwhacking.  AJ and Laurel were game.  What we did was take off into the woods between Ollie Cove and Hazel Creek.  For a couple of hours we played in the woods, up and down hills and hollers.



There’s rhodo surfing, then there’s leaf skiing.


Up these hills and down.  I had honestly expected to find traces of the old Proctor civilization but none were to be had. It was a good workout, though.


As the sun dropped, so did the temps, so we raised them.


Curt was also warming from his day in the chest waders.  His luck was a bit better than ours, having hooked a small one but nothing else.  It didn’t matter. We were soaking in the Autumnal goodness of Hazel Creek and Proctor.


Martin is telling AJ to HUSH!  Hush, Hush, Hush!


Nice looking pile, eh?


From Florida to the mountains, Laurel has had a busy week. And glad we were to share her company.


Clear as a bell was the water flowing from old Proctor.


We toted some show food and no one went hungry on this trip. Eggs, sausage, you name it. Water vessels are quite nice at times.


Sadly, we departed Sunday to even more bluebird weather.  It was a three day blessing of perfect company and weather in Proctor. The seas were somewhat sporty as a bit of chop kicked up around 1 pm when we hit the main channel of Fontana.  But the vessels held up along with their pilots.  Awesome outing.


Spence in the Snow

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“Why do we like Frank?” Laurel asked me a half dozen times as we climbed up Bote mtn in 40 mph winds.


She didn’t drive to Tennessee from sunny Florida for this kind of weather.  And reminded me of it repeatedly.  Little did I know that Frank was giving us every out available and texting me the hourly weather updates.  Which were bad.


I despise shelters but in big winds, they are relatively safe.  And big winds did we have.


It probably took almost 3 hours to reach Frank at Spence Field.  Laurel had never seen this spot and got plenty of new miles in the process. Here, however, she enjoys my -40 sleeping bag.




We joined our Ukranian friend, Costya who built a warming fire.  He was to be our only company.


Franks says, “We’ve had enough of your lounging about, get out of that cocoon and be social”.


Laurel emerges for a photo op in front of Costya’s delightful fire.


I believe I may know someone who knows this person’s Father.


With heavy wind came seriously shifting smoke. This necessitated rearranging the tarp to block said winds.  Throughout the night the storm intensified and rain pelted the tin roof in a chorus which led to sound sleep.  By early morning it had turned to snow.



We departed around 9 am and descended via Anthony Creek this time and shuttled back with Yo-Yo. The snow line was around 3500 feet.


Temps were in the high twenties early that morning.




If you look closely, you can see Yo-Yo in the distance.  In front of him is Mtn. Laurel.  We were shedding layers as entering the mouth of the cove.  It was an experience, but good to be out.


Derrick Nob via Greenbrier Ridge

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I was privileged to join my fellow Southern Forest Watch board members, Rob Cameron and Myers Morton in their quest to complete Smokies mileage this past weekend.


We had a bit of company.

Myers, Rob and Nick started Friday at the Dome, overnighted at Siler’s and I met up with them Saturday coming in via Middle Prong.  It was 8.6 miles for me and about 3000 feet of elevation, give or take. I had a great solo walk. There was a strange sighting, though. And I welcome any input from those with an ornithological bent.

As I rounded the corner on Greenbrier I came across this.


I don’t have the slightest idea what type of bird this is. After doing my impromptu autopsy, moved on and about 25 yards ahead of me was a wet creek crossing upon which were four of this poor fellows compatriots who flew off upon my arrival.  It was quite a mystery as to what had transpired.  (update: Roger Murphy identified this as a cormorant. Good catch Roger)


You can see that I had the trail along Greenbrier to myself.  I hadn’t been out in the Smokies for a while, last weekend was the Fall Festival hosted across the street from my house by the AMBC. I wouldn’t ordinarily miss peak leaf weekend but the festival was one for the books and I’m glad to have entertained guests who came and went during the two days of big fun at Baker Creek, which I enjoy almost daily.  Here is a pic of the nightime fun in my backyard last weekend.


Pardon my digression, anyway back to the ascent of Greenbrier.  It was cathartic to sweat up a trail in the crisp Fall temperatures after passing the combat hikers who turn around at Lynn Camp.  Three hours was my final time to the shelter.



Catching a nice sunset from the AT.


It was cold, windy and moist.  But in true Highlander/Hell Guy fashion, a fire was soul warming.


We had section hiking company from Canada. A good group who retired early.


Myers and Rob hung out with me for a while.  I soon realized that Myers bedded down to beat Rob and his talent for both inhale and exhale snoring. He could give Martin a run for his money.


In the morning, we were visited by the coneheads.  It was what you may call a “heavy dew” situation.  So heavy, one might almost be tempted to call it rain.  It was very moist.  Myers decided to descend with me as Nick and Rob headed towards Thunderhead and Rocky Top.




It was a great outing with great folks.  I enjoy time spent with my SFW board members and friends. We strategized and made plans for the future.  SFW has been pressing the NPS to open Parson’s Branch Road and Scott Mtn Trail. We also questioned them about the continued closure of campsite 90 and campsite 17, ostensibly for bear activity. The NPS is dragging their heels.

It is quite possible that the multi year delay in opening Scott Mtn is due to pressure from homeowners along that trail who wish to avert hikers in their backyard.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, another potential Blackberry Farm/Sundquist situation.  I have corresponded with them over the situation.  We are plotting additional measures.

I wish everyone a great couple of weeks and plan to be out with Yo Yo and Laurel next weekend.

Cane Creek and Updates

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Three clients canceled on me at 3.30 Friday afternoon so instead of going from my school job to the office, I veered left and ascended o’er Look Rock. My destination was Goldmine and Cane Creek.  The weather was looking bad for Saturday and as I pen these words on a blustery, 39 degree Sunday evening am relishing the decision.


It used to be that Hangover weekend was peak leaf time. That certainly has changed over the past decade. But of course, global warming is a hoax and those retreating glaciers are just illusions. It still looks as if next weekend will be the sweet spot.  I just needed some solo time down my adopted trails. I was in work clothing but found a pair of tennis shoes in the trunk. Campsite two was totally empty.  You know, the overcrowded backcountry of the Smokies.

And things were pretty much as I remembered. Image-967931526

It was a great diversion. I dropped two miles down and about 900 feet. When I returned and reached the Cooper road sign, something growled at me from behind a tree.  I stopped and tried to determine the direction from which this gutteral groaning emitted. Soon I heard another one and saw absolutely nothing. Usually in these instances, it has been a bear warning me of his presence. I found nothing and slowly moved ahead to hear nothing more. And that is my Halloween story of 2017.


As I close this weeks hikumentary, I will share updates from Southern Forest Watch and our efforts to keep the backcountry accessible to taxpayers.  I believe the letter below to backcountry specialist Christine Hoyer is self explanatory. This is on the heels of Ryan Zinke’s NPS attempting to raise entrance fees so dramatically that most usually pro park groups are opposing them.  Check out what he is trying to do here.

(Of course, Zinke who was accused of travel fraud while a Navy Seal and lately was indicted in the “private jet” scandal so rampant with Trump’s cabinet and just this week, has apparently steered a contract for Puerto Rico’s power grid to a company based in his hometown with no experience in any such matter.)

I hope this correspondence finds you well. I’m sure you are busy this time of year.  I am writing to inquire about the closures of a couple of backcountry campsites, primarily campsite 90 and campsite 17 on behalf of the Southern Forest Watch. We have been asked about these prolonged closures for bear and I thought I would just reach out to you and see if you could provide some guidance about how long we can expect them to remain that way. We are fielding questions about the policy and protocols for bear closed sites. It seems as if these two in particular have been closed for a while. Are there still bear issues being monitored there? When a site is closed, for instance, what is the typical closure time and how is the safety of the site assessed?
Having spent considerable time at both, I was particularly surprised about campsite #17.  I have never seen a bear there in all my years and I have put several hundred nights in there. We have also been contacted about the status of Parson’s branch road and of course, Scott Mountain remains a concern. It appears as if they may be permanently closed.
I appreciate any information you can provide.
Thanks so much
John Quillen
Board President 
Southern Forest Watch.


Some say the world. Hangover 2017

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As I headed back up to the Hang for the annual October pilgrimage, I was reminded of the two previous trips and realized that the eclipse will forever likely be the most magic moment I have ever spent on this mountain. And that is saying a lot for somewhere that holds such import with me.


But it is the people that often make the place, and the memories. AJ chose to spend his birthday up here with us back in June.  I dug this up out of the geocache.


That of course, was a lie.  The hound followed us up for the eclipse and I could have used him on this one with my 72 lb, record Hangover pack. His utility as a load bearing Sherpa mutt is redemptive.


AJ and I made it up on Friday, along with Mark Cooke and his crew.


Between June and this past weekend I have spent about 10 days on this particular piece of ground.  And, being the traditional Hangover weekend that I alone have observed for well over a quarter century, was blessed with the traditionally good weather therein.


Friday’s sunset was not to be missed.tn_P1070943tn_P1070943


It was a very mellow evening. Since AJ, myself and Mark Cooke and his crew ascended the traditional Lead we had earned a peaceful night of sleep atop the hill. Mark and his crew wisely avoided the late night scene but were not sufficiently far enough away for latecomers the second evening. And for that, and my part in it, I sincerely apologize.


Then Yo-Yo show-showed.  He too, took the traditional, true Hangover ascent route pioneered and adhered by the stalwart.  Being a hardy man, Frank did the quick turnaround and joined us in a dayhike out to Bob’s Bald.


So off we marched towards Naked Ground. And in the splendor of early Autumn a hint of crispness swept like wispy clouds over the ridge.



I love the way light bends like this tree in the period of refraction we call Fall. Makes for different angles.



The iconic Bob tree has fallen victim to the ages. Many are the times I have camped beneath his flanks.


But a few folks were holding vigil.


Frank is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  Reminds me of the time I first met him many moons ago as I ascended Leconte via Alum Trail. In reality, Frank is one of the least unkind folks you will ever meet.


Made me miss my favorite of all Hangover partners.


I had all but given up hope of ever seeing Martin and he busts into camp at dusk thirty.


Martin made it out to the rock where we rocked with another magnificent sunset and an old friend or two. During the eclipse, I shared the rock with friends from many years and trips to the region. If you didn’t see the video, you should.  It is HERE.


Billowy vapor enveloped the Fodderstacks and cleansed them. Purging detritus from the edges this moisture flowed through us and did the same. Old air is removed from cobwebbed lungs and replaced with all nutrients essential for second growth.


And suggestive of the view from a lunar landing craft’s window, the place is renewed through both ice and flame.  And I end this tale with one of my favorite works.

Some say the world will end in fire, 
Some say in ice. 
From what I’ve tasted of desire 
I hold with those who favor fire. 
But if it had to perish twice, 
I think I know enough of hate 
To say that for destruction ice 
Is also great 
And would suffice.      —Robert Frost


The Alpine Dihedral

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Some of you may be tired of my climbing tales and I promise we will be back to backpacking next weekend.  However, this was a day that involved one of the classic trad routes at the Obed and I was the guest of Chris Buffkin. Besides, this is the view from the top of our route, isn’t that something to celebrate. When people inquire about my climbs, I have to say that the view is probably the biggest payoff on any ascent. In this case, it was the company, physical effort and view which contributed to the overall dynamic.


There really is no way to look good in a climbing helmet.


(This is the second climb we did called Lillian’s Arete.  And it is a sport climb, as you can see from the bolt hanger.)


The first part of the ascent from the bottom appears endless.  Until you get on it, and realize it is so.


When the treetops get really small, you tend to quit looking down.


Which is why Chris is looking up. Chris did a great job leading this climb, we spent a couple of hours on the rock, about two and a half from bottom to top.  Our rappel took two full ropes. Chris took this great time lapse of me coming down that you may enjoy.  At least I did anyway.