Aug 18 2011

Smoky Mountains National Park Chimney Tops adventure

After a delicious breakfast served at Creekwalk Inn on Whisperwood farms, the plan was to cover the two popular Smoky Mountain locations, Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome.  Being that Clingman’s is officially the highest point in the Smokies, it was a must.   With all the tourists in Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome, there wasn’t exactly a sense of accomplishment.  Yes, we had been hiking daily, and our legs were sore, but this was due only to our habits obtained in regular life.

The plan was to head over to Chimney Tops Trailhead.  It was a decent swimming hole, and a great study area.  It would work out perfectly, I could leave my wife studying peacefully on a large rock, listening to the rushing water, while I checked out a short trail.  Then I could come back from the trail, take a dip, and we’d call it a day.  I remember seeing a young man fly-fishing the stream, and wishing that I had a fly rod so I could try it on my way back.  There was no time for that today, however, figuring it was a 1.1 mile hike, I said, “I’ll be back in about an hour hunny”, and I was off.

I stopped a hiker early in the hike and asked her how long it was.  “It’s not that long, it took me an hour and a half on the way up, but it depends on how good you are, I myself am not used to the altitude”.  I figured I’d have to hurry it up, and started at a fast pace.  Now, keep in mind, when I hike, I take lots of gear.  I carry a gallon of water per day minimum in case of emergencies, which I had in bag minus the difference in my waste-bound canteen.  I also carry my Canon 30D, a knife, basic survival gear like water tablets, etc, a flashlight, and my heavy camera tripod, which I hang out of the back of my bag.  On this hike, I also had some extra weight, which I’ll get into later.

So about 20 mins into it, after passing beautiful flora, I gazed upon what looked like one of the nicest open-shutter stream shots I’d seen in TN.  I remember being exhausted, and thinking, I’ll get this on the way back, when there’s even less sun out.  I was basically jogging up the incline, and was dying.  I decided to sit down to catch my breath, which was wheezing, and about 25 lbs in the package of two stones I had in my bag.  I’m also a hunter, and have some very long hikes in my plan, so any hike is considered training.  This is how I convince myself that it doesn’t matter how much my gear weighs, but this was an exception.  I was stressing myself with speed rather than weight.  I crossed a sign that pointed out the Appalachian trail, and remember thinking on how I also wanted a picture of that.  I stood there for about a minute confused.  The sign said 1.1 miles.  I was under the impression that the entire hike was 1 mile.  I decided that the sign was giving me the entire trail’s length, which was pure denial despite a clear mind.  There was no way I was turning back. 

I crossed another group of hikers who alerted me the more strenuous part was up ahead.  I looked at it as motivation and pushed on.  As I got closer, this fit woman in sweats is resting and I don’t remember what I asked her, but I remember her reply, in full southern accent, “You got about fourth of a mile, pretty much, straight up, if you can get through that I think you’re alright.”  Again, more motivation, without hesitation, I continued to ascend.  If I can explain that terrain in few words, I’d say this.  If you take a staircase, made of stone, remove the stairs and replace them with rocks randomly poured down, for about a 1/2 mile, that’s about it.  I took a slow pace, and would set goals every few trees to hold on to.  I didn’t want to sit down, because I didn’t want my body to lock up.  I pushed it for as long as I could, and received some more inspirational words by some guys coming down.  “You’re almost through this part, then the incline stays the same, but the rocks turn into gravel, so it’s easier on the legs”.  About 10 minutes into it, with the breaks becoming more frequent, I got to the gravel.  Then, 10 mins later, I start feeling the breeze.  That was by far the most inspiring feeling.  The wind, near the top of the mountain.  I got to what looked like the end of the trail, a tree, rooted up, and a peak behind it.  The trail disappeared for a second but it was nowhere near the top.  I started walking faster now, the rough part was over.  I had been hiking for about 45 mins, I had to be close.  Then there was about a 1 min. descent, which was frustrating to know that I climbed it, and would have to climb it on the way back.  Finally, a sign, I could see the chimneys.  The sign said the trail ended, something along the lines of, “the trail is closed due to improvements, to get to the top, you must climb the rock face”. 

Yes, I’m afraid of heights, but I also have a deal with conquering my fears.  The rush is much more grande due to the primal fear.  So I decided to start climbing, with my backpack, water, knife, tripod, etc.  About halfway up, it started to rain a little.  And I started to think about how slippery the rocks were when wet, so I found myself a little ledge, took off my backpack and gear, and leaned back to see what the weather wanted to do.  A climber started coming down from the top.  His shirt said something rock on it, and he had nothing but a bottle of water in his pocket.  He says, “well you have it all to yourself”.  I said something about the rain and he answers, “yeah I wasn’t gonna stay up there to find out”.  So I rested for a while and realized, I was up there, all by myself.  Once the initial awe-inspiring view feeling passed I began to look immediately around, and realized, how a slip down the side would be a nasty fall.  I heard voices from the trail, so I decided to wait and see if I’d have company climbing up.

They settled in about 10 feet under me and one of them uttered something like, “I’m not too fond of them rocks up there”.  I decided to make conversation and said, “well I feel like a chicken shit, but I don’t think I’m goin’ any higher than this, with this rain”.  I don’t know if I was more afraid of the heights than the rain, but the rain sure seemed like a more respectable fear.  Who in their right might, afraid of heights, climbs up a freaking mountain.  One of them responded, “I don’t blame you, me neither”, and with that it started pouring.  I took a few pictures, packed it up, and started getting down to a safe zone.

Once down there, I took off my shirt, wrapped my SLR in it to somewhat protect it from the rain, and began jogging back.   I realized, then, that I had the car keys, and my wife, was stuck by the river, with no roof to protect her or her books from the rain.   I even began pacing through the roughest part of the trail, picked up too much speed, and almost spilled all over the rocks.  I realized, then, how that was a stupid risk, and slowly made my way down.  My wife would have to wait.  Of course, the best things and the worst things happen during the worst times, as life shall have it.  On the way down, I ran into a doe and her fawn walking the trail in the rain.  She wasn’t bothered too much by me and by the time I took out the camera and setup the tripod due to the low light of the sun going down, they calmly made their way into the bush, and the shot was over.   I decided to take that beautiful stream shot, however, in the rain.  I didn’t even check it.  I also stopped and loaded my rocks back into my pack.

Finally, on my last run, crossing the second to last bridge, I spot a young man about my age, with something on his fly rod.  I wanted to take a picture, but it was pouring and all I could think of, was my wife, the camera getting wet, etc.  In about a 30 second conversation I shared that I was from Florida, and he told me this was the first fish ever he’d caught on a fly rod.  He was so excited he must have dropped that rainbow trout on the ground about 5 times.  I told him I had to take a picture and took one with both my camera and his.  He was also from Florida, it turns out.  He asked me what I was doing in TN, and while I wanted to stay and chat, I said “I’m just up here hiking, taking it all in, but I gotta go my wife has no keys man!”, and I was off jogging again with my water, rocks, SLR, knife, tripod, etc.  It was a great example of payoff on both of our sides.  See, that was the same fly-fisherman I’d seen earlier.  And all those hours I spent on the trail hiking, he was fishing.  Even when it rained he was still at it.  The trout was no more than 4 inches long, but it was a trophy.

So I made it back, and there was nobody at the swimming hole.  Exhausted, and wheezing again, I jogged my way to the car, and there she was, sitting on the ledge, under a tree, studying in the rain.  I wanted to tell her the story, but she was so mad I left with the keys, I knew better than two spill it during that time.  So I caught my breath, drove towards town, and processed the adventure to myself.  See, just like the trout, this was not a major hike or climb. It was a simple, two-mile uphill hike, with a small climb at the end.  Not a big deal at all, Touristy, even.  But for me, after misjudging the distance, starting the hike sore, alone, adding the excess gear, excess pace, and the rain, this was a great Chimney Tops adventure.