Our pace to the top of Mt. LeConte is quite slow, but we finally arrive with the sun and cool temperatures to greet us. We hike a short distance past the lodge to the shelter. No one else is there. We relax and stretch a bit, then Clarence and I head down the Boulevard Trail to locate the actual rock cairn summit of LeConte for pictures. Some of the views we pass are breathtaking. We try to scope out Myrtle Point for a possible trip at dawn to catch the sunrise, but since neither of us has been there before, we aren’t sure where to go and return to the shelter.
Along the way, a large flying insect plops right in front of me on a fern frond. He is carrying something. I raise my camera and shoot. The resulting photo is thrilling. It shows a Robber Fly (possibly Diogmites neoternatus or Asilus sericeus – if a reader can positively ID it, please let me know), and he is dining upon a day flying moth Trichodezia albovittata. [My thanks to the great park staff at Twin Creeks for their identification help.]
Annette, Clarence, and I walk to the lodge to buy t-shirts and fill our water bladders before dinner. The lodge is a quaint and attractive complex of numerous small buildings including several tiny cabins, dining hall, and office. Visitors pay quite a premium to hike up, enjoy a big meal, and spend the night. Our stay at the shelter is free, but we have to bring our own food. The only other advantage of the lodge might be its bathroom facility. The shelter has one dilapidated Port-a-Potty, and it is nasty! Apparently hikers don’t aim well. Annette braves the smell and filth to wipe it down with some tissue. This helps, but you can’t hold your breath long enough or do your business fast enough. The floor of this “toilet” appears to be rotting and adds the fear of falling through into the pit. A shovel out behind the shelter would be far more appealing.
Cooking on the trail is an interesting proposition, consisting primarily of heating water. I get to see two approaches in action. Annette and I use her stove and utensils to fix Japanese style noodles topped with tuna from a pouch. The noodles take their sweet time absorbing the water. Meanwhile, Clarence’s JetBoil heats water that he pours straight into a freeze-dried meal pouch. Afterward, he has a spoon to clean. Annette and I have a pan, bowls, and forks to wash. One approach is definitely simpler, but both produce tasty results. Clarence shows us various electrolyte drinks and gels and pills (Annette takes a few of the pills for leg cramps), and he has little bagels and cheese to share. We eat well.
While we are cooking, a party of four arrives to join us in the shelter. Morgan Briggs, who turned 71 the day before, has just completed his 221st trip up LeConte, accompanied by his son and two grandchildren. His years of volunteer work and recreation in the park provide him and us with some fascinating stories.
If my first trip up LeConte is any indication, the weather up here can change radically on a dime. Clouds begin to gather, and a storm blows through as we are eating. We escape the brunt of it but still get a heavy downpour followed by thick mists. Just as we assume any chance of a sunset at Cliff Tops is all but lost, the skies clear completely. We head west dodging puddles to find quite a crowd from the lodge gathered to watch the sun dip below the horizon. The scenery is spectacular from this perch, and the sun does not disappoint, spreading fiery yellows and oranges between the deepening sky and darkening mountains.
Not to be outdone, the moon emerges as a golden crescent cradling the rest of its shadowed sphere now visible in earth’s reflected light. Venus shines like a beacon just above. One by one other stars appear. In the gathering darkness we prepare for bed and make certain any item that might attract a bear is securely hung high between storage poles. The ironic message of the posted Beware of Bears sign that has been ripped by a bear is not lost on us. I climb into my brand new sleeping bag and wait for sleep.
An interesting note about night at 6500 feet, there are no insect noises. It is totally quiet. Night temperatures had been in the low 50s a few days prior to our trip. It certainly doesn’t feel that chilly. In fact, I get hot in my EN rated 26 degree bag and have to pull out arms and stick out feet periodically to adjust my internal temperature. The cool, moist evening air stirs lightly through the shelter and moves across my skin almost like a caress. I focus on that gentle sensation in hopes it will soothe me to sleep. This environment is too new and strange to permit sound slumber, but I get enough rest for our hike down the next morning.