Thursday, July 5, 2018

Going the extra miles: Beyond the Tour de Le Conte

 The 44-mile Tour de Le Conte is not the only ultramarathon on the mountain. Others have tried to see how many round trips they could turn on the 5-mile Alum Cave Bluff Trail.
 As far as I know, the one-day record is 6.5 laps—that's 65 milesby John Northrup in 2012. I presume he started at the top and made seven trips down and six up. The previous year, he made five round trips for 50 miles in 17 hours.
 His mileage surpassed Stan Wellslinger, who made six round trips, or 60 miles, on September 28, 2007. Ed Wright, in his book, called Wellslinger "Stan the running man."
 David Worth, who has the fastest known time for the Tour de Le Conte (44 miles in 10:03:41) and the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies (72 miles in 14:50:22), tried running the Alum Cave trail on his birthday in 2011 but blew out his candles after 5.5 laps for 55 miles. When his wife Caitlin offered to run another lap with him, he declined:

"I told her I would only go up again if someone paid me a thousand dollars. She said she wasn't going to, and there was no one else around to ask, so we slowly made our way back to the trailhead. I had a great time up until the last hour or so on the trail, then it just wasn't fun anymore. I had already spent an entire day hiking and running my favorite trail with some of my favorite people, there was no motivation to go back."
 Before Wellslinger, Bill Sharp of Andersonville, Tennessee, held the one-day record of four climbs totaling 41.6 miles on June 1, 1992. (The mileage tells me that he went all the way to High Top instead of stopping at the Lodge). Sharp ranks highly on our honor roll, climbing Le Conte 270 times before he stopped counting hikes in 1994.
 Wright himself often climbed Alum Cave two or three times in a day, especially in 1991 when he turned 66 and set the one-year record of 231 climbs. In his lifetime total of 1,310 ascents, there were three days he made three round trips and 125 days he climbed the mountain twice.

Ed Wright (1,310 lifetime climbs), Paul Dinwiddie (750), and Margaret Stevenson (718).
Please help me identify the lady on the right.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Tour de Le Conte: All 6 trails in 24 hours

Here's one way to do the Tour de Le Conte, starting in Cherokee Orchard and ending in Greenbrier Cove. The colors indicate elevation. (Map by John Northrup)

 Have you ever hiked all six trails up to Mount Le Conte? For most of us, that's a lifetime goal. On the other hand, there are a few unstoppables who have completed the entire "Tour de Le Conte" in a single day. 
The full tour is impossible right now, because the Bullhead Trail has been closed since the devastating 2016 wildfires in the Smokies. But if you want to imagine what it would take, you might start at midnight at Cherokee Orchard, climb Bullhead, pass Myrtle Point before sunrise, and roller-coaster down the Boulevard and Appalachian Trail to Newfound Gap. By mid-morning, catch a ride down Highway 441, climb the Alum Cave Bluff Trail, and descend Rainbow Falls. Now shuttle to the Grotto Falls trailhead, climb the Trillium Gap trail, ignore the sunset at Cliff Tops, and backtrack down Trillium to the Brushy Mountain Trail (the longest route of all) to finish in Greenbrier Cove. That's more than 44 miles of hiking and 11,000 feet of climbing.
 The Tour de Le Conte is also known as the TLC, 24 Hours of Le Conte or the Le Conte Triple Summit. The man who knows it best is John Northrup, the manager of Le Conte Lodge, who has completed the odyssey four times and wrote about the challenge in a 2017 post on the Lodge blog, High on Le Conte.
 More recently, there has been a lively conversation about this topic on the Hike the Smokies Facebook page, so I looked through my files to see what I could document.
 As far as anyone knows, the first successful Tour de Le Conte was November 7, 1993, by Lee Lewis and the late Mike Povia. Amy Povia has her dad's completion time (22:29) tattooed on her wrist for inspiration.
Lewis (who has climbed Le Conte well over 100 times) wrote on Facebook:
"When Mike and I did this 25 years ago, we didn't have any inkling of what a gauntlet would be thrown down. We hiked it because it had not been done before (to our knowledge) and why not. Our record, although maybe not the fastest because we hiked it, we did not run it, cut any switchbacks, or take off-trail shortcuts, but we still did it within our self-imposed time limit of 24 hours, and that record stood for 17 years. We had John Mansfield sign off on our homemade sheet at the Lodge and Tom Brosch sign off at the trail heads/shuttle points to prove we had been there. We did not have cell phones or even camera documentation, and because of that we enjoyed every step, we enjoyed conversation, we enjoyed our friendship—we hiked."
 Since then, only nine other individuals have been able to match their feat.
The fastest known time for the TLC is 10 hours, three minutes, and 41 seconds by national park ranger David Worth on August 1, 2011. (Northrup is next fastest with 11:05 in 2015.) Worth went up Rainbow, down Trillium, up Bullhead, down Alum Cave, up the Boulevard, and down Brushy Mountain—a total of 44.3 miles. 
 Worth wrote on his blog:
"I enjoy these sort of challenges because at the end of the day there are no cheering crowds and no finishers' medals. You are alone with the trail and the truth of the situation. Quiet moments on the trail and an honest sense of fatigue are reward enough. There are purists who argue against these speed hikes and runs, viewing them as nothing more than a continuation of our hurry-up culture. For me, a day of trail-running is more than a simple race against time. It's how I've come to appreciate the trail the most. Thoughts of grocery lists, school work, and everything else yet to be done take a back seat. I'm able to experience the trail directly, without mental chatter."
 Other than Northrup, I know of only two hikers who have completed the TLC more than once: Brian Thomas and Shawn Carson. In 2011, hiking with Davis Soehn and Shawn's son Tyler, they completed 45.7 miles in 22:02 (Rainbow to Trillium, Bullhead to Alum, Boulevard to Brushy). In 2015, they changed course (Boulevard to Bullhead, Rainbow to Trillium, Brushy to Alum) and covered 46.4 miles in 19:32. Thomas has a blog called that's a great resource for anyone who is considering the challenge.
The only two women to complete the TLC both did it on the same day: May 31, 2011. John Northrup's wife Bonnie and the second woman (not named in John's blog) hiked independently, and their paths never crossed.
 Robert Orler posted on the Hike the Smokies Facebook thread that he was part of a group of six who attempted all six trails in 2010. Two of them were successful, finishing in 18:30. So that makes at least 17 times it has been accomplished by 11 individuals. I've added a list of them on the sidebar of this blog. (If you're reading this on a mobile device, you'll need switch to "View web version" to see the sidebar.) A couple of names are still missing.

  • The Tour de Le Conte has been completed by several different routes. On Northrup's first loop in 2010, he included all the side trails to overlooks, which made it close to 50 miles
  • Though the tour is sometimes known as the Triple Summit, competitors actually cross the highest point of Mount Le Conte only once, on the Boulevard Trail. The other intersections are near Le Conte Lodge, 200 feet below the summit.
  • Some hikers disregard the Brushy Mountain Trail as part of the Le Conte network because it connects to the Trillium Gap trail so far from the summit. In 1993, four months before Lewis and Povia set the six-trail standard, Bill Sharp attempted a one-day hike of the five major trails to Le Conte but had to stop because of the July heat, according to Ed Wright's book. In 2016, Minta Ray and Taylor Drake successfully hiked the five trails, covering 39 miles in 19 hours. They went up Rainbow, down Bullhead, up Trillium, down Boulevard, and up and down Alum.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Updating the Le Conte Honor Roll

Gracie McNicol with Paul Dinwiddie on her 92nd birthday in 1983, when she set a record with her 244th ascent. Paul later raised the record to 750 with his final hike at age 78 in 1993. (Photo by Dr. Ed Jones)

 Tennessee's Mount Le Conte may be the most addictive peak in America—certainly in the Southeast. When the roll is called up yonder, there are dozens of hikers who can claim at least a hundred trips up Le Conte. A handful have more than a thousand.
 As an old sportswriter, I thought they deserved a Top 10 honor roll.  
 Once I began researching them, I found more than I could have imagined. As of July 4, 2018, I've documented 35 men and 13 women who have climbed Le Conte at least 100 times. In fact, I know of two who have made 100 ascents after heart surgery.

 Our most recent additions to the honor roll: 
  • Lee Lewis from Tennessee has 129 climbs in his logs, plus many more that he did not record. Lewis and Mike Povia were the first to complete the "Tour de Le Conte"—all six Le Conte trails in 24 hours.
  • John D. Williams from Tennessee made his 24th climb on June 24.
  • Pat Northrup from Michigan made her 34th ascent on June 20.
  • Tim Webb from Alabama made his 170th climb on April 5.
  • Kent Roberts made his whose 150th trip in 2014, but only recently did I discover it on Instagram.
 You are invited to submit new names or updates by leaving a comment below or emailing
—Tom Layton
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 Honor Roll and enjoy the full breadth of the information we've accumulated.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Thanks, Tim Line: 41 years serving us on Le Conte

Tim Line has been climbing Mount Le Conte even longer than the llamas, who have been supplying the Lodge since 1986. If it looks like Tim has horns, that's just the ears of the llama behind him.
(photo by Dr. Ed Jones)

 This is the 94th season for Le Conte Lodge, and for the past 41 years the team has always included Tim Line. But this spring as he turns 65, Tim has decided it's time to retire.
 “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he told Morgan Simmons in a story published in Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine. “My knees are starting to wear out and my back hurts. I loved every minute of this job, but it’s time to let someone else take over.”
 Line estimates he has climbed Mount Le Conte about 1,400 times. That's an average of once a week since the Lodge hired him as a cook in 1977. All those hikes cover more than 14,000 miles, which would span more than halfway around the world.

 As far as we know, only two men have climbed Le Conte more than Tim Line:
  1. Ron Valentine, now in his 80s, has been hiking Le Conte regularly since 1946 and probably has made more than 4,000 climbs. When Ed Wright wrote about his 1,310th and final climb in 2008, he asked Valentine to disclose his total: "My hearing is marginal at best, but I think that he said that he had made 798 hikes to Le Conte since January 1, 2000. I think that he said that he had about 3,000 hikes before that. I asked him when he was going to come clean and tell the world of his accomplishments. He replied that he would give the number after I died. I told him that I was not half dead yet."
  2. Jack Huff, like Line, managed the Lodge for over three decades (1926-59) and probably made between 2,000 and 3,000 hikes in his lifetime. He stopped counting hikes after he reached 1,000 in 1937 and was probably near 2,000 by 1948. We estimate his lifetime total at 2,500, considering that he climbed less frequently after he took over his father's Gatlinburg motel in 1949. His wife Pauline continued as the site manager for the Lodge through 1959. I've added her to our honor roll, since she surely made more than 100 climbs in 25 years. The Huffs were married at Myrtle Point in 1934—this past Sunday would have been their 84th anniversary. 
 Tim Line met his wife Lisa on Mount Le Conte, and they home-schooled their children there. Daughter Gracie is named for Gracie McNicol, who once claimed the Le Conte record with 244 ascents. Son Jacob is now part of the Lodge crew.
 Tim Line once ran down the 5-mile Alum Cave Bluff Trail in 33 minutes, setting an unofficial record that stood until 2012, when John Northrup galloped down in 26 minutes. So it's appropriate that Northrup is the man who will be following Line's footsteps as the Lodge's new manager. Northrup has worked for Line for nine years and has been climbing Le Conte since before he was born: His first ascent was when his mom Pat was 5½ months pregnant.
 Between day hikers and overnighters, close to a million guests have visited Le Conte Lodge during Line's tenure. (That includes me, four times.) On behalf of all of us, thank you, Tim! It's all downhill from here.
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 34 men and 13 women who have climbed Le Conte at least 100 times.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Rev. Rufus Morgan: #174 on his 93rd birthday

'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 Ervin 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.

 McNicol evidently didn't know this when she visited Morgan's 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, according to a conversation recorded in Powell's book.
 If she didn't realize his record was 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 Boston217 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.
 More recently, Navy veteran Dick McAliley of Acworth, Ga., celebrated his 85th and final birthday at the lodge in 2013. He climbed Le Conte 23 times, the last five after he recovered from a stroke in 2008.
 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 33 men and 13 women who have climbed Le Conte at least 100 times.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Dr. Ed Jones #350: Climbing the list

 Hikers arriving at Le Conte Lodge with reservations for the night of April 1 were greeted with this joke on the iconic sign above the dining-room doors:

 When they went to write their names in the logbook and scanned down the column that shows how many trips each guest has made to Le Conte, they probably thought they were seeing another April Fools prank:
 350 trips to Le Conte? As far-fetched as it must have seemed for sore-footed novices signing the register for the first or second time, that's no joke.
 Dr. Ed Jones probably has climbed Mount Le Conte more times than any active hiker except for Ron Valentine and a few of the staffers at the Lodge.
 He is a physicist and physician in Knoxville whose website,, includes hundreds of photos chronicling 35 years of hikes and explorations on Le Conte. He is also a meticulous record-keeper—note how he documented his dates for hikes 347, 348, and 349, which he made while the Lodge was closed for winter. 
 Jones was in medical school at the University of Tennessee in 1996 when he first showed up in the hiking journals of Ed Wright. At that time, Wright had 852 climbs and Jones 188. Wright (who finished with 1,310) described Jones as a close friend of Paul Dinwiddie (the previous record-holder with 750) and an expert on the off-trail routes up Le Conte. By the time he earned his M.D. in 2000, Jones had 243 climbs. I wonder if any other medical student has found time to hike Le Conte more than 50 times.
Dr. Ed Jones at High Top (photo from his website)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tim Webb #163: Representing the Highpointers Club

When the winter caretaker needs a break, Le Conte Lodge calls Tim Webb

 Obsessive climbers of Mount Le Conte would seem to have a lot in common with the members of the Highpointers Club, whose quest is to reach the highest points in all 50 states. But as far as I can tell, only one name is prominent in both groups.
 Tim Webb is a surveyor from Double Springs, Ala., who serves as president of the Highpointers Club. Not only has he climbed the highest peak in 46 of the 50 states, but he has also hiked up Le Conte 163 times.
 Tim is so dedicated to highpointing that he named his daughter Whitney after California's Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48 states. (See this story about Tim and the Highpointers Club published in 2015 by Atlas Obscura.)
 His fondness for Mount Le Conte is measured by a different standard. Le Conte is not even the highpoint of Sevier County, much less the state of Tennessee (nearby Clingmans Dome stands 50 feet higher), but Tim describes it as "a place that is near and dear to my heart, and I hope to continue going up for years to come."

 Many of his trips are in the winter, while Le Conte Lodge is closed. For the past 22 years, he has worked on the March airlifts to restock the lodge with tons of fuel, T-shirts, food staples, and other items for the upcoming season. He also makes occasional trips to relieve the caretaker who stays at the lodge throughout the winter.
 Tim attended the University of Alabama and had a friendly rivalry with the late Ed Wright, an Auburn man who climbed Le Conte 1,310 times. Tim sai that when their paths crossed, "He would always wait until I was out of sight and would yell out 'War Eagle!' to which I always responded to him with a big 'Roll Tide!'"

FOOTNOTE: The Highpointers Club maintains lists of the 286 individuals who have reached all 50 U.S. highpoints, as well as the 559 who have completed the Lower 48. Many of them have climbed Le Conte at least once (especially when the Highpointers Konvention was held in Gatlinburg in 2014, or in groups led by Webb). I know of one 48er who is a regular visitor to Le Conte: Stony Burk has made the pilgrimage from New Hampshire for the past eight years.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ronnie Holbert #62: 'I have missed this mountain'

     Ronnie Holbert signed in at Le Conte Lodge on Halloween of 2012 on his 62nd climb of Mount Le Conte. He wrote in the logbook, "I have missed this mountain." In a recent email, he repeated that sentiment and said he is eager to return to Le Conte once he recovers from knee surgery. 
     He knows it can be done. His friend Ed Wright (1925-2009) made the last 43 of his 1,310 Le Conte hikes after having double knee replacement in 2001—not to mention 132 climbs after heart bypass surgery in 1999.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

When you sign in at Le Conte, please share it with us

When you sign in at Le Conte Lodge, we would appreciate it if you would take a picture of the guestbook and email it to us. That way, we document not only your climb but also others who have arrived ahead of you.
(Photo by Josh Carr)

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 hikers who have climbed Le Conte at least 100 times.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Fewer than 100 climbs? You still count!

     Few of us will ever have the opportunity, the time, or the stamina to climb Mount Le Conte 100 times. But that doesn't mean you don't have a place on this blog.
     The Le Conte Log wants to know how many times you have climbed Le Conte, even if it is only once. Just click on "Comments" below and enter your name, hometown, total climbs, and date or year of your most recent climb—plus any other thoughts you would like to contribute.
     If you are somewhere south of 100 climbs, you are still in good company. Renowned Smokies hiker Mike Maples estimates he has been to the top no more than 40 times. National park pioneers Albert "Dutch" Roth and Harvey Broome counted 90 and 65, respectively.
     If you've been up there four times, you have equalled your friendly blogmaster.

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 hikers who have climbed Le Conte at least 100 times.