Tour de LeConte: Ascension

Back in August, I remember sitting down on my lunch break at work and sketching out the distances for what it would take to ascend every single trail on my favorite mountain. A trip like that would be about 80 miles with close to 20,000ft of gain. Do I really love that mountain that much? The 6593 tattooed on my chest is a resounding “yes.”

The Tour de LeConte is still a very underground thing. I feel like most folks that do the route, have a high respect for LeConte and view the Tour as a pilgrimage and journey instead of an event. The route is typically tackled by hikers, but recently has gained the attention of some runners. I believe something like 33 hikers have completed the Tour since 1983. Outside of covering all 6 trails on LeConte in one push from the road side trail head, there aren’t many rules or regulations. Most people will utilize a shuttle to transport themselves from the bottom of Alum Cave to the start of Boulevard at Newfound Gap. My BFF Ash did the Tour back in June and chose not to utilize a shuttle, thus pioneering a new route for the Tour. Her Tour was ~ 51 miles w/ almost 11,000ft of gain!

I had originally planned to do the Tour back in August, but instead, Ash and I ended up linking a 43 mile route between LeConte and Rocky Top. Still, the Tour has been on my for the past few months so when one of my week day classes got canceled last minute, I jumped at the opportunity to pop up to the Smokies for an adventure!

I clocked out of work around 5pm on Tuesday and drove the all too familiar 5.5hr route up to the Smokies. I made a quick stop at good ole Walmart and Arby’s for a few trail supplies.

I got into Gatlinburg around 10:30pm (Alabama time) and drove straight out to Roaring Fork to stash a gallon of water and an aid bag at the gate at the beginning of Trillium Gap Trail and Old Sugarlands Trail. On the drive out, I saw a fox and big black bear. Though all my food was air sealed, I still couldn’t help but think how pissed I would be if I got to the 40 mile mark and all my supplies were ransacked. I had debated whether to get straight to the Tour or try and sleep for a few hours. By the time I got out to Alum Cave trial head, I had convinced myself that a little snooze wouldn’t hurt anything so I curled up in the back of the Element and slept for 1.5hrs. At 1:10am, I hit start on my watch from the Alum Cave trail head.

The air was cool and clean as I made my way up Alum Cave. I didn’t really have a time goal other than “God I hope I can get this completed in under 24hrs.” I moved pretty steady up Alum and quickly down Boulevard. I utilized the restrooms while I was at NFG before starting the return trip up Boulevard.

I knew I wouldn’t get to witness the actual sunrise from Myrtle, but couldn’t resist heading out there for the orange glow and silhouetted mountains. The moon and stars were incredibly bright!

I filled up my 2 soft flasks at the lodge spigot before heading down Trillium and connecting Brushy Mountain Trail. I’d only been down Brushy once and that was last year when I did a long 30 mile loop for my birthday that linked an off trail route up Charlie’s Bunion. Last year I was slightly hungover when I was descending Brushy so I thought maybe this time around would be a lil more pleasant. The top portion of the trail is sort of churned up and makes for some concentrated running but the trail started to smooth out (and I use that term lightly because there’s really nothing “smooth” about southern Appalachia trail running) the further I descended. A momma bear and her cub threw me an unconcerned look about a 1/4 mile from the Brushy trail head. I waved good morning to 2 hikers as jogged down the gravel to the gate at the start of Porters Creek trail head.

I had a feeling that the next 10 miles from Porters Creek over to Trillium Gap trail head were gonna mentally taxing. I was right. I hit the first of countless lows as I ascended Brushy.

The falls were infested by the time I got down to Grotto. I tried my best to tip toe past the sea of tourists, but it was slow moving until I hit the Trillium Gap Trail. I slid into another low and it would last until I got to my hidden drop bag at the gate of the Trillium Gap / Old Sugarlands intersection.

I wallowed in self pity while I munched on an Arby’s sandwhich and downed some Coke. I didn’t plan on sitting around for 15 minutes, but I wasn’t in a real rush and needed to clear my head and all the negative thoughts.

The extra time and sandwich helped lift my spirits for the long climb back up Trillium to the lodge. Since it was mid-week, the upper section of Trillium was closed and I found myself apologizing profusely to the park workers. I explained what I was doing and got the go ahead, but I genuinely felt bad for being on the trail and am certain that the High on LeConte post for 10/15/2020 was mostly directed towards me. 😦

It had been a long time since I ascended Trillium and had completely forgotten how looooooong it seems. You turn a corner and expect the trail to start wrapping upwards towards the lodge, but instead, it just keeps wrapping away from it! I was more than relieved when I finally saw the stairs.

I tried my best to convince myself that I wouldn’t be disappointed if I skipped Cliff Top, but it didn’t work. To keep the purity of the Tour, I needed to take the side trail up to Cliff Top and descend the rocky path back down to the lodge.

After snapping a quick picture and Cliff Top, I made my way back down to the lodge to refill my flasks again. There was a mini gathering at the spigot so I plopped down in the grass and took a breather. Despite fighting my mind for control all day, I was happy to be on 6593.

The Smokies were really showing off the colors as I started descending Rainbow Falls! The contrast of the beautiful reds, yellows and oranges with the burnt trees were a sight to behold!

The trail below the actual Rainbow Falls was packed so movement was slow and frustrating. My mind kept convincing me to stop dancing around the hikers and to accept the slow movement, which unfortunately is was I kind of did. I eventually got to the trail head and utilized the bathrooms there before grabbing the Airhead Xtremes from my drop/aid bag.

The ascent up Rainbow was slow moving, but the golden hour paired beautifully with the golden leaves and made me one happy little dude.

By the time I got to the Rainbow/Bullhead junction, the woods were dark. The horizon gave off a devilish red glow as I started running down Bullhead. The wind picked up by the time I passed “The Pulpit” cairn. I startled a lone coyote that was hanging about. The whole scene enhanced the October spooky season! It was lovely and maybe my favorite moment of the day.

Getting down to the Trillium Gap Trail / Old Sugardlands junction for the final time brought forth new life.

I downed the final half of my Coke and devoured my last Arby’s sandwich before starting the final climb of my day. I got into a great groove and made my best push of the day up Bullhead. I thought by the time I got to Alum Cave Trail I would have a nice, bombtastic descent to the finish. I was Donald Trump meme wrong.

The long descents of the day had caught up to me and I just couldn’t force myself to move swiftly down the mountain. I happily accepted the reality since I was a mere 5 miles from finishing. After 23hrs38mins, I finally saw that lovely Alum Cave trail had sign. The end result was 78 miles with 20,740ft of gain and 20,627ft if descent.

I needed to feel uncomfortable. I needed to feel humbled. I needed to feel alone and vulnerable. I needed to make sure I still had that grit and that determination to push through and get the job done when shit gets hard. Funny how mountains always seem to know what you need huh?

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