18M Run up Mount Le Conte, Smoky Mountains NP, Tennessee
Elevation Gain: 6097'..................Elevation Range: 5025'-6593'
March 30, 2022
I headed out early from our vacation condo in Sevierville to drive into the Smokies to reach Newfound Gap before the sun came up. With flashlight in hand I headed north, straight up the rocky, meandering Appalachian Trail to get in a solid training effort after much of a week off for freezing cold temperatures and high winds on the ridges in the park. The sun was up on time, peaking through the misty fog and low-hanging puffy clouds that blanketed the blue valleys on the North Carolina side. By the time I worked out some of my morning stiffness I reached "the Jumpoff" where the Boulevard Trail branches west off the AT. Making it up as I ran along without a plan, I decided to divert onto the Boulevard and follow it to summit Mount Le Conte, the park's third highest peak. The appeal of exploring a new trail and peak overwhelmed the familiarity of running further on the AT once again.
The air was brisk at 41 degrees and some light breezes, so I was glad I wore my gloves and dressed warm. There was quite a bit of thick ice along the AT on the climb up, leftover from winter, obliging me to choose my steps carefully in places. I did have one dramatic fall on my butt further along as thin ice on the rocks became more common with elevation gain.
Through the day, I encountered perhaps ten backpackers, all moving south. The first one I spoke to advised me that he was bugging out, retreating to civilization for the day because of high winds that were forecast. I hadn't heard that weather report, so I continued without concern. Once the sun was up a bit and I finally made the higher ridges, the wind whipped up to 40 or 50 mph in intermittent gusts out of the northwest, with reports I learned later of 80 mph at times. It was absolutely wonderful to be up high on such a dramatic weather day.
I quickly figured out that if I was going to keep my hat, I had to take it off and hold it in my hand as I ran along exposed sections of the trail. As the vegetation thinned and trees became shorter up high I grew less wary of limbs falling and hitting me as I ran. There were a few others like me that just leaned into the wind with their heavy packs and took it as a matter of course.
The trail crossed several steep, exposed rock outcroppings with anchored guide wires to use in navigating safely. By the time I climbed above 6000 feet the smell of sub-alpine fir trees welcomed me; it is something I look forward to whenever I climb anywhere in the country. The summit of Mount Le Conte was one big rock cairn (shown top right amid the fog) nestled in thick fir trees. Without a view, I didn't linger, but moved further along the trail to descend to the backpacker's shelter down the ridge where I stopped to inquire what everyone was eating for breakfast. With temps in the thirties at best, the wind made it much colder. Most of the hikers I spoke to told me the past couple of nights had been quite cold sleeping high.
Turning around at the shelter, I retraced my steps back down the windy ridges to the Jumpoff and turned north again to add another couple miles of the Appalachian Trail to my run, passing more hikers at Icewater Spring Shelter and enjoying parts of the famous path that brought back good memories of adventures here when I was younger.
I finally trekked back to the car and was surprised to find no tourists at Newfound Gap, a place that is normally crowded with looky-loos who hike a ways on the AT just to go home and tell someone that they did. But there was no one. Driving back toward Gatlinburg, again, there was zero traffic. When I reached the park boundary, the gate was closed and locked across the highway. The park was closed after I had arrived in the morning for not only the high winds, but because of a couple uncontrolled wildfires on the southeast side of the park near Bryson City, NC. I didn't smell or see any smoke up high because the wind was coming from the opposite direction.
One other guy pulled in behind me as I was trying to find a signal for my phone. We finally had to walk outside the park a ways to find a ranger who gave us the lock code to get through the gate. By the time I got closer to Sevierville, the air was strong with forest fire smoke, and from our condo the southern sky was heavily occluded with a long dark cloud. Just another good day in the mountains with an adventure story to bring home. I was just glad that the fire, which was contained in a day or two, was not a threat to my or any other backcountry adventurers this time around.