Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Peak of Silence: My Ascent of Mount LeConte

I haven't really been blogging much lately.  In all honesty, I haven't really had much that I thought was worth blogging about.  I know that usually I post training updates, gear reviews for any new gear I've been using, etc.  Fact is, the past few weeks I've probably done less running than I have since I started really running just over a year ago.  At least distance-wise.  I've been doing more speed work lately, in preparation for an upcoming race (Qdoba Dino Series 15k Trail), and before I start the big push for the TNF Endurance Challenge Trail Marathon in San Francisco in December.

But none of that is really the point of this post.

Months ago I got word that I was going to be relocating to California for work.  I figured, that since my wife and son would be leaving to head to the homeland (Indiana/Ohio area) to spend time with her parents about two weeks before I would join them, that I would do a little stop of my own on the way.

Enter Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

It's been years since I've been to the Smokies, probably almost twelve to be honest.  But ever since then, I've longed to go back and spend even just a day on my own in the mountains there.  So I planned it.  The search began.

I wanted to find a trail(s) to get max benefit of my time (one day), something that would require good effort, I wanted to see a waterfall or two, and I wanted to summit one of the mountains east of the Mississippi.

Mt. LeConte was the one for me.

Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Smokies, with a "textbook" summit of 6593 feet.  However, if you were to measure it from the base of the mountain near Gatlinburg, it has a total height of 5301 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the eastern United States.

That's why I wanted this one.  The tallest.

There are several trails you can take to to reach the summit, and even take combinations of trails, depending on what length, intensity, and what you want to see along the way.  Like I said before, I wanted to see a waterfall, so for my ascent, I chose Rainbow Falls trail.

Conveniently, the Rainbow Falls trail head ended up only being about 4 miles from my motel.  I had considered just running to the trail head from my motel, but quickly dismissed the idea.  While it's usually no big deal for me to run 8 miles on the road (round trip), running that 8 miles with a 6000'+ summit in between was probably a bit more than my fitness level right now.  Instead, I just drove to the trail head, and I'm glad I made that choice.

There were actually far more people there at 9:30 am than I expected, at least in the parking lot.  Once I actually got on the trail, I probably saw 15 people total, and over the almost 6 miles to the summit, that made for sparse interaction.  Exactly what I was hoping for on this trip.

The Ascent

All the research I had done prior to my trip, specifically on Rainbow Falls Trail, indicated that it was a "strenuous" hike.  I can deal with strenuous.  I figured that since my fitness level is probably well above the average person, "strenuous" to that average joe would just mean I have to put forth a little more effort than usual.  It's not like I was expecting to run up the whole thing, so I wasn't too worried.

The trail did prove to have some very technical sections, even from the very beginning.  It's very rocky, and has some very consistent, though not extreme, vertical gain.  By the book, average ascent over the trail to the summit is roughly 580' per mile.  Nothing crazy, but nothing to scoff at either.

Rocky sections of Rainbow Falls Trail

Almost the entire trail up to the falls follows a stream, with some amazing, postcard-like views available of Appalachian mountain wilderness.  The stream is on a constant descent, so it's always cascading over rocks, and is lined by amazing trees and boulders.  For a moment, when I stopped to enjoy the picturesque view, I could imagine surrounding myself in this environment on a daily basis, and never tiring of it.

Stream running alongside trail

I crossed several single-railed foot bridges switch-backing over the stream.  Made of split logs, they were clearly man-made, yet didn't detract from the wilderness around them.  They fit perfectly.  As if 200 years ago when someone was settling this area, this is what they built. 

The Falls

At just over 2.5 miles into the ascent, you reach Rainbow Falls, the trail's namesake.  Rainbow Falls is the largest single-drop waterfall in the Smoky Mountains, and when the sun hits the mist it creates late in the afternoon, it creates a rainbow, hence the name.  From drop to splash, is 80 feet.  It doesn't seem that tall from the foot bridge that crosses in front of it, but as you get closer and gain more perspective, the height becomes more apparent, and is very breathtaking.

Rainbow Falls

Wide view of Rainbow Falls.  People to the left give some good perspective.

I stopped here for a break, to take a gel, some electrolytes, and some fluids.  I went off-trail a little bit and picked a large slab of rock to relax on while I removed my pack, and took some pictures.  I didn't stay long, maybe 8-10 minutes, because with the technical clothing I was wearing, as the moisture started wicking away in the cool mountain air, I started to get cold, and wanted to get moving again to warm back up.

To the Top

As expected, most hikers turn around at Rainbow Falls and head back to the trail head.  That's not such a small feat for most people, as the round trip would be near 5.5 miles, and given the technicality of the terrain, would make for a good 3-4 hour hike.  But that's not what I wanted.  Seeing the falls was just a stop along the way, as I was headed to the top.  

The only people I saw on the trail after the falls was a group about a mile and a half from the summit.  They were headed back down the trail, presumably from spending a night in the lodge that is maintained near the peak.  Aside from those few, I spent the rest of my ascent in solitude, and wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

The remainder of the trail to the top is a mix of flat groomed trail, rocky technical sections, and rolling single-track.  Near the top, I passed the intersection of the Bull Head trail, which I would be using for my descent.  Past that, about another 1/2 mile, is the LeConte Lodge.  But, there is still almost a half-mile to go before I turn around.

Peak of Silence

I continued to climb past the lodge, to where I knew I would find the highest point of the mountain; the summit.  I passed through lush Appalachian forest, where moss covered nearly everything in sight.  Then I reached it.  Just off to the right of the main trail, is a large pile of rocks.  While it is not an extravagant marker, it's sheer simplicity seemed to be the perfect beacon for the apex of my journey.

Marker at Summit of Mt. LeConte

Simply a pile of stacked rocks.  Almost ironic in it's purity.

There were no stunning vistas to be seen from the top of Mount LeConte, only this elementary marker, and the surrounding forest.  However, there were other things at the peak, many of which one would probably not notice if you didn't take the time to realize they were there.

The air was pure and cool.  The forest was teaming with old growth trees, ferns, and numerous other plants and mosses that I've never seen before, or at least never noticed.

And the silence.  The near deafening silence that surrounds you; that engulfs you.  So thick is the silence that it would seem as though you could could swim through it.  As if someone put a pair of ear muffs on you and placed you in a padded room.  Silence so loud, you could actually hear it.  

There was no noise from passing cars, or aircraft flying overhead.  No one talking, no footsteps.  No wind howling, or storms thundering.  Not even noise from wildlife.  The kind of absolute, vociferous quiet,  that can only be experienced at the summit of a mountain.  I'll never forget what it sounded like.

I didn't want to leave.  I could have spent hours there, reveling in the isolation found in a place so filled with life.  It was a study in contradictions.  So much going on, so much life surrounding me; yet a feeling of utter satisfaction and comfort in my seclusion.

Yet, in the words of Robert Frost, I still had miles to go before I sleep....

Down and out

I departed the peak, and began my descent.  I stopped a few hundred meters from the top, at a spot where the forest opened up just enough to see the surrounding landscape.  I sat down, ate a snack, and took a few pictures to remember where I had been.  Then the fun began.

View from near summit

View from near summit

I love running downhills.  Staying light on my feet while descending at a rapid pace makes me feel almost as if I am floating.  I didn't want to end this trip without feeling that in a place which I may never return, or at least for sometime to come.  So I did.

I put the trekking poles away, tightened up my pack, and set off down the trail.  I ran past the lodge, back to the Bull Head intersection, and took off down the new trail. 

This trail was slightly less technical than Rainbow Falls trail, but with steeper elevation change.  There were many more switchbacks on this route, and I enjoyed gliding around the sharp turns.  I was tip-toeing over rocks and roots, feeling as though I was barely touching them as I traversed the mountain slope.

Gatlingburg view from Bull Head Trail

My quads started burning with lactate after about two miles, but I didn't care.  I would rest or walk every so often, but only long enough to catch my breath before I was off again.  I'd never felt so light, or so fast, regardless of how quick I was actually moving.  I may have been only running at an 8 min/mile pace, but I felt like I was the fastest man in the world.

I couldn't help jumping off some of the larger boulders along the trail, laughing as I did.  I knew if anyone else saw or heard me, they might find me slightly crazy, but I didn't care.  If they new what I was doing, or more importantly, why I was doing it, then I wouldn't seem so.  If they had experienced what I was experiencing at that very moment, then they would have understood.

I fell a couple times, but I felt no pain.  Nothing could have taken that time away from me.  I felt alive.  I felt like I was at home, doing what I've always dreamed of doing, in a place I could spend forever.

As the trail came to an end, I reached the road back to the parking lot, just up from where I started.  I stopped my GPS, and I looked at the time and mileage, but instantly dismissed it.  While I may have gone into this adventure planning to do it as quickly as possible, the mountain told me that was the wrong idea.  I don't care how fast I was.  I don't care how much I climbed, or descended.

I only care, that this day, on that mountain, I ascended to the peak of silence...and it's a journey I will never forget.


  1. Sounds like an epic trip filled with self revelation and discovery. Thanks for sharing.