A scheme had been arranged to hike with Wendell Liemohn of Louisville, TN. Wendell’s hiking blog was the first one I came across nearly two years ago in researching for my Smokies adventure. His profession before retirement involved exercise science and he is what we all want to be when we grow up – extremely active and healthy. He has completed the Smokies 900 and many miles beyond that as he helps others to reach that goal. We have communicated a few times and Wendell offered to hike with me if I ever needed a partner – so I grabbed the chance. He and I both took some teasing from our friends for “meeting on the internet.”
Wendell is a member of a loosely organized group of hiking enthusiasts in TN and he brought along four friends for our hike, so our group consisted of myself, Wendell, Leslie, Frank, Richard and Charlie, some of whom have also completed the Smokies 900 and some still in the process. When introduced, I reminded Richard that we had met before – Jim and I hitched a ride with him to the Gregory Bald trailhead back in June. The hiking world is very big and very small!
I was thrilled and intimidated to be in such good company because today we were going up Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte and then down Trillium Gap Trail. Had my previous three days of hiking taken their toll? Immediately upon leaving the car, Charlie and Leslie took off like lightning up the trail. Wendell good-naturedly walked with me for a while, but I knew that he normally would be speeding along as well. But even though Alum Cave is a strenuous trail, there was ice to slow us down and grand views to be appreciated, so the hike up did not seem as tough as I had anticipated. This is truly a trail for all seasons. (Check out this web page to learn about the trail before you go.)
If you have hiked up Alum Cave Trail, you know the sights to be seen, but if not, let’s just look at the pictures for a while:
Rime ice on Alum Cave Trail - how cool is that?
Lunch break in the sunshine on the porch - left to right - Frank, Smoky scout, Charlie, Richard, Wendell (Leslie is our photographer)
Wendell (standing) and Richard
Yep, 26 degrees!
My primary goal for today’s route was to complete Trillium Gap Trail, but a secondary goal was to hike up Alum Cave Trail with the ice, which was an absolute blast. We all wore crampons or YaxTrax on our boots, but caution and cables and hiking poles were still essential. (Do YaxTrax work? Five of us wore them. I have now worn mine twice and they are fine. One of Leslie’s broke on this second use, but she thought she could repair it. So…they work great until they don’t!)
I did not know that Trillium Gap Trail would have spectacular ice oppor- tunities as well. After lunch on the porch we started down this trail also used to deliver weekly supplies to LeConte Lodge – by llama. It’s rocky and worn and challenging for the first couple of miles, and the ice was scary and incredible.
As we walked along it seemed to be snowing, although the sky was a beautiful blue. It was the rime ice falling off of the trees and it looked somehow different than snow. Leslie finally hit on the proper description – it was like snow inside a snow globe! This was a unique winter wonderland.
At the junction with Brushy Mountain Trail we all met up and then Charlie and Wendell took off at their natural pace (really fast) and we didn’t see them again until we got to the cars. The temperatures rose all the way to the mid-30’s and several times we thought we could remove our YaxTrax, only to turn a corner and hit another icy patch. We did remove them at last and soon we reached Grotto Falls, which is usually crowded in warmer weather but was ours alone today. The trail goes behind the falls or you can cross the creek in front (walking behind is more fun, of course – how often do you get to see a waterfall from the back side?) From here we still had some miles to go to our car at the Rainbow Falls parking lot. The trail map is a little fuzzy about the approach trails to Trillium Gap Trail and the trail junction signs are, too. Just what is Grotto Falls Trail? It’s not on the $1 map, but it leads from a parking area on Roaring Fork Road to Trillium Gap Trail. Leslie and I walked up and down these approach trails from all the parking areas so there would be no loose ends.
One of the benefits of hiking with a group is the mixing and matching, walking with one person for a time and then with another. No one feels obligated to stay with any one person and everyone is interesting to talk with. I got to know five new people and discover an entirely new universe of Smokies hikers. How fortunate they are to live so close to this wonderful place! Wendell and Charlie drove me to my car at the Alum Cave trailhead and I headed for home, grateful for four more safe, unique, challenging and totally awesome days in the mountains.
Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined--how is it that this safe return brings such regret? -Peter Matthiessen