|'Moses of the Mountains'|
Rev. Morgan's portrait at St. Francis Church in Cherokee, N.C.
Who's the oldest person to climb Mount Le Conte?
If you've read Emilie Powell's book Gracie and the Mountain, you might think it's a tie between Rev. Rufus Morgan, an Episcopal priest who made his 172nd hike on his 92nd birthday in 1977, and Gracie McNicol, a retired nurse who logged her 244th trip on her 92nd birthday in 1983.
But it turns out that Rev. Morgan didn't stop at 92. I found this cleverly headlined clipping in the December 1978 issue of the The Communicant (the monthly newspaper of the N.C. Episcopal diocese), verifying that he climbed Le Conte two more times, including his 174th and final trip on his 93rd birthday, Sunday, Oct. 15, 1978.
Powell's book includes a conversation between McNicol and Morgan when she visited his cabin on Sept. 26, 1982, when he was 96 and she was about to turn 91. "I told him I was going to match his record of climbing Le Conte at age 92 next year," she said.
If she didn't realize his record was actually 93, he was too much of a gentleman to correct her. Rather than debate facts, he gently kidded her for counting trips on horseback. "He said that I am never going to match his hiking record if I don't stop riding a horse up," she said.
Rev. Morgan died the following February at age 97, and Gracie pressed onward toward her goal. She rode horses up the Rainbow Falls trail six times in 1983, and on Oct. 1 she celebrated her 92nd birthday at Le Conte Lodge. By then she had developed vertigo, and her doctor convinced her to not attempt the summit again. (About the same time, the trail was closed to horses.) Gracie was just three weeks short of her 100th birthday when she died in 1991.
Rev. Morgan climbed Le Conte for 50 years starting in 1928, six years before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. At 93, he still had the stamina to hike, but he was almost blind and needed a guide. The 1978 clipping points out that he carried his own pack, kept a steady pace, and stopped only for lunch on his way up the seven-mile Trillium Gap Trail.
"I've hiked a million miles in my life, I reckon," he told the church newspaper. That was just a figure of speech, but he certainly walked over 2,000 miles on the slopes of Le Conte.And Le Conte was not the only place Rev. Morgan walked. He also frequented Albert Mountain and Siler Bald—mountains named for his grandfather and great-uncle. While in college, he once walked from Vermont to Boston—217 miles in five days. He singlehandedly maintained 55 miles of the Appalachian Trail through the Nantahala Mountains. Friends called him "Moses of the Mountains."
SPEAKING OF OLD-TIMERS: The Bible tells us that Moses was 80 when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and was still climbing at 120 when he died on Mount Nebo at "the top of Pisgah" (Deuteronomy 34:1). Morgan and McNicol would have agreed that climbing helped keep Moses spry: "His eyes were not dim nor his natural vigor diminished" (34:7).
Pop goes the record?
If anyone has approached Rev. Morgan's record, it is probably James "Pop" Hollandsworth (1915-2013). For more than 35 years, he led memorial hikes for Dr. Charles Lindsley, who died in January 1971 in a fall from Grassy Slide near the top of the Alum Cave Bluff trail. As far as I know, the last time he led the Lindsley hike was at age 92 in 2008—but I wouldn't be surprised if he returned later. If you have any details on his Le Conte hikes, please leave a comment. A World War II veteran, Pop was the founder of the mountaineering program at Asheville School and was also the first director of the North Carolina Outward Bound program.
Other nonagenarians have climbed Le Conte. When I met 95-year-old Dr. John Adler in July 2016, he said he last climbed Le Conte "about two years ago," which would have been age 92 or 93. But he did not recall the exact date.
In a 1940 newspaper column, Ernie Pyle mentioned a 94-year-old man who hiked up. Unfortunately, Pyle did not record his name for posterity.
This 1969 photo from Joe Schlatter's Le Conte website shows another old-timer remembered only as "Cousin Joe." According to Joe Schlatter's brother John, who worked for Herrick Brown at the lodge that summer, "He was from South Carolina, was around 90 years old, and was blind. He hiked with a friend, maybe his doctor, keeping a hand on the friend's shoulder." John Schlatter also pointed out that one of the hikers seated next to the cabin in the background is none other than Rev. Rufus Morgan, who would have been 83 that summer.
Before the lodge was built, a Knoxville florist named Charles Baum claimed to be the oldest to reach the summit. He nailed a copper can to a tree to hold a climbers' logbook, where he wrote, "This book was placed on top of Le Conte Mountain for records on June 6, 1922, by C.L. Baum, at this time said to be the oldest man to climb to the top, age 61." (Baum's gravestone indicates he actually would have been 59 in 1922.)
LOOKING FOR THE HONOR ROLL? If you are reading this on your phone, you will need to switch from the mobile view to full screen (iPhone users click on "View web version" below) to see our list of 32 men and 11 women who have climbed Le Conte at least 100 times.