Monday, January 15, 2018

The Allure of Mt. Le Conte: A “Past and Present” Perspective

The following is a guest blog by Andy Drinnon from Twisted Ridge Photography. This is the last part of a three-part series. You can read part one here, part two here, as well as an introduction on the series by clicking here.

Part Three – Following Traditions

Often recognized as the “grandstand of the Smokies,” Mt. Le Conte commands a central position within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The primary vantage points atop the iconic peak are Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. During the early-1920s, the majestic views provided by these locations inspired a generation of outdoor enthusiasts who helped popularize hiking throughout Southern Appalachia. As the number of men and women who reached the summit of Mt. Le Conte steadily increased, various traditions were established on the mountain. The final post of this series discusses the origins of several of these traditions and explains how they have survived the test of time.

Pioneering Smokies hiker, Herbert M. Webster, took this photo titled, “Old Indian Head at Cliff Top,” on January 12, 1936. Can you spot the outline of a head among the rocks? ©The Herbert M. Webster Photograph Collection, University of Tennessee Library Digital Collections

This present view from Cliff Top shows the rocks that form the “old Indian head” photographed by Webster seventy-eight years ago. ©Twisted Ridge Photography

Built near the site of the hiker’s camp established by Paul Adams in 1925, LeConte Lodge is the highest “resort” in the eastern United States. Each year, during the first days of spring, guests begin arriving at the lodge where they spend the night atop Mt. Le Conte in rustic cabins lit by kerosene lanterns. As spring turns to summer, more and more day hikers join guests as they stream up one of the five trails leading to the summit. On warmer days, tired hikers can find refreshment from cups of fresh squeezed lemonade in the dining hall for a small fee. Yet many visitors may not know that lemonade has been served on the mountain for almost a century. This tradition was started by Paul Adams who prepared the drink for hikers who arrived at his camp.

In July 1925, Adams and three local boys began the work of constructing the camp near the summit of Mt. Le Conte. During their first few weeks atop the mountain, the cost of bringing supplies up from Gatlinburg grew to 4 cents a pound. To save money, Adams trained his loyal German Shepherd, Cumberland Jack, to make solo trips from the camp to Charlie Ogle’s store (once located near the present site of traffic light #6 along the Gatlinburg strip). Adams had a leather cavalry officer’s briefcase – designed for use on horseback – custom fitted with a bellyband for Cumberland Jack to wear. Remarkably, at the command of “go to the store,” the obedient canine learned to descend the mountain and follow a shortcut leading from Cherokee Orchard to Ogle’s.

After the dog arrived at the store, Charlie Ogle would place supplies into the pack strapped around Jack’s waist. Then Ogle would give the command “go to Paul,” and Cumberland Jack would return to the summit via the same route. Jack routinely carried 25 pounds of goods back to the camp over an average time of four and a half hours. Along with nails and other small necessities required to build the camp, Jack often returned to his owner with coffee, snacks, and lemons. Adams used the lemons to make fresh squeezed lemonade which he sold to hikers. Basic supplies like Cumberland Jack once toted are now carried to LeConte Lodge three times a week by llamas who are guided up Trillium Gap Trail.

A train of llamas bring supplies up Trillium Gap Trail to LeConte Lodge. ©Twisted Ridge Photography

Hikers who head up to Mt. Le Conte around the last week of March might hear the distinct sound of a helicopter flying overhead as they reach the summit. At the start of each new season, LeConte Lodge is resupplied via airlift with goods such as propane tanks, canned foods, and merchandise. Typically, a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter designed to lift 7000lbs will fly to a staging area at the Luftee Overlook parking area along Newfound Gap Road where it will begin hauling several loads of supplies to the lodge. While airlifts of this nature have been used to resupply the lodge for several decades, the earliest recorded airborne supply drop on the mountain occurred while Paul Adams was serving as caretaker of the Mt. Le Conte summit camp.

LeConte Lodge on a beautiful winter’s day. ©Twisted Ridge Photography

As discussed in part two of this series, Adams spent the winter of 1925-26 alone atop the mountain. Conditions were particularly harsh that season, and in his memoirs he noted the difficulties he experienced due to the accumulation of snow. Yet, on a cold day in March 1926, Adams received a blessing from the sky. That day, as Adams recalled, Lt. Bill Williams of the U.S. Army’s Air Division was flying survey trips over the Smokies. As his small plane passed over Adams’ camp, Williams dropped packages containing a week’s supply of Knoxville newspapers, a 10lb bag of flour, 5 lbs of sliced bacon, a side of sow belly, a dozen t-bone steaks, some round steak, two heads of lettuce, a head of cabbage, fresh fruit, and two pounds of pipe tobacco. Adams confessed that he prepared a fine meal for himself later that evening!

Dusk settles over the Great Smoky Mountains. Image captured from Cliff Top, November 2013. ©Twisted Ridge Photography

Perhaps the most time-honored tradition that has added greatly to the magnetism surrounding Mt. Le Conte is that of watching sunsets from Cliff Top and sunrises from Myrtle Point. Within the pages of her classic work, The Great Smoky Mountains, published in 1937, Knoxville native and author, Laura Thornborough, recalled her first hike to Mt. Le Conte. After ascending the mountain via the old Rainbow Falls Trail, Thornborough joined other hikers assembled at Cliff Top. There, a silence came over her as she watched the sun drop below the horizon:
The petty annoyances of life seemed far away, as I gazed at the nearby peaks, which the setting sun was changing from green to blue, from blue to purple. I sat awed, spellbound, lost in the beauty unfolded before me, absorbed in the thoughts the scene inspired, enthralled by the spell of the Great Smokies.
For nearly a hundred years, countless hikers have been held captive by the same spectacle of light and spellbinding beauty Thornborough witnessed during her first visit to Mt. Le Conte. As early as 1924, Le Conte enthusiasts began gathering at Cliff Top in the late-afternoon to await the sunset. After spending the night on the summit, they would rise early and hike to Myrtle Point, the sunrise peak on Le Conte. Before dawn on the morning of August 7, 1924, Paul Adams led a large group of hikers that included two National Park Commission members out to Myrtle Point. Years later, he recalled the memorable sight witnessed by the group at daybreak: “We were small spectators, awe-struck by the vast, primitive beauty of an extra-special Myrtle Point sunrise.”

A dramatic sunrise begins on a moody late-spring morning. Viewed from Myrtle Point, May 2013. ©Twisted Ridge Photography

Today, many individuals who spend a night at LeConte Lodge, or in the nearby backcountry shelter, follow the same rewarding ritual begun by pioneering hikers like Thornborough and Adams*. Dramatic sunsets and sunrises viewed from Mt. Le Conte leave a lasting impression on those who are fortunate enough to observe them. For this reason, many hikers seek to repeat the experience by returning frequently to the mountain. For example, beginning at the age of 48, Margaret Stevenson (1912-2006) climbed to Le Conte 718 times. In her hiking journal, Stevenson documented multiple overnight trips during which she had watched the sun drop below the horizon from Cliff Top and rise again the next morning from Myrtle Point.

Dating back to the early-twentieth century, several generations of hikers have ascended the slopes of Mt. Le Conte. Since that period, clothing and outdoor gear worn by hikers, along with the trails used to access the summit, have changed significantly. Likewise, the rough tent camp created by Paul Adams in 1925 is now a charming mountaintop retreat that accommodates sixty guests per night. But, despite changes brought about by the slow march of time, a number of traditions established on the mountain continue to link the past with the present. These historical connections have endured thanks largely to the perpetual allure of the magnificent peak.

* Laura Thornborough and Paul Adams made several treks to Mt. Le Conte with members of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club which will celebrate its ninetieth anniversary this year. Mt. Le Conte was the destination for the club’s first official hike which took place in early-December 1924.

Readers interested in the early days of hiking in the Smokies may find the following secondary sources useful:

Paul Adams, Mt. LeConte, Holston Printing Co. (1966).

Carlos C. Campbell, Birth of a National Park in the Great Smoky Mountains, University of Tennessee Press, 2nd ed (1969).

Carlos C. Campbell, Memories of Old Smoky: Early Experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains, edited by Rebecca Campbell Arrants, University of Tennessee Press (2005).

Laura Thornborough, The Great Smoky Mountains, University of Tennessee Press, 1937.

Andy Drinnon is an avid hiker, a historian, and a photographer. You can visit his Flickr page by clicking here.


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