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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Gary White #90: Going the extra mile

Armed with duct tape and head-lamp, Gary White is ready for anything.

     There are 320 climbs up Mount Le Conte represented in this photo of Gary White and Dewey Slusher thawing out in the dining room at Le Conte Lodge. Dewey posted it March 15 with this message:
If you happen to make it up to Le Conte Lodge this week and you see this man, please take a moment to stop and thank him. He's Mr. Gary White, a retired engineer and resident of Alabama who volunteers his time to help get things around the lodge up to speed for opening.This is a huge benefit for all of us who hike up there, not just the guests. The hospitality extended to us day hikers and overnighters at the shelter by the Lodge crew is a wonderful gift. By the way, Gary has hiked up to Le Conte 90 times. Think how amazing that is for someone living in the "Heart of Dixie" state.
     We all owe our thanks to dedicated staff and volunteers like Gary (and Tim Webb) who brave the cold each March to get the lodge stocked up and spruced up for guests. Their work includes unloading and storing tons of supplies that are delivered to the mountaintop by helicopter. This week's late-winter storm has delayed the flights, forcing Le Conte Lodge to cancel reservations for March 20-23.
     The waiting list just got longer!

Friday, February 3, 2017

See 5 state highpoints from Le Conte

The website will help you simulate and identify peaks visible from any point you choose.
This is the projection south/southwest from Myrtle Point on Mount Le Conte. Click on the link and zoom

and pan to see the entire panorama. Click on the name of a mountain to get the bearings and distance.

     Rock City advertises that you can see seven states from Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga. The scenery in Rock City is spectacular, but it falls short of the barnyard hype—you'll be lucky to see four states: Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina. A monument at the overlook points toward Kentucky, Virginia, and South Carolina, but all of those are way beyond the horizon. (South Carolina is 120 miles away, not 80 as the sign says.) And of all the mountains you can see from Rock City, none of them are the highest in their states.
     From Mount Le Conte, however, it is possible to not only see five states, but also to see the highest point in all of them.
     On a perfectly clear day in the Smokies—antithetical, I know—all five should be visible from Myrtle Point on the east side of Le Conte. From right to left, the panorama includes Tennessee's Clingman's Dome (7 miles southwest), Georgia's Brasstown Bald, (57 miles southwest, just to the left of Clingman's), North Carolina's Mount Mitchell (66 miles east), Virginia's Mount Rogers (126 miles northeast), and Kentucky's Black Mountain (92 miles north/northeast).
     The highest points in Tennessee and Georgia can be seen from the Cliff Top overlook on the west side of Le Conte, and the Kentucky high point is visible from Le Conte Lodge.
     It may also be possible to see six states and five state highpoints from the tower at Clingman's Dome. Virginia's Mount Rogers is hidden from there, but South Carolina's Sassafras Mountain may be barely visible 57 miles to the southeast. The computer projections at and are inconclusive, but once the tower is built on Sassafras later this year, we'll put it to the eye test.
     (There is a Sassafras Mountain visible on the horizon southeast of Le Conte, but alas, it is not the one in South Carolina.)
     Can you really see all the way from Myrtle Point to Mount Rogers? It is far-fetched but not impossible, considering the way those peaks are aligned across the upper Tennessee Valley. Looking down the same corridor, I've been able to see Mount Guyot from Elk Knob—a distance of 100 miles. 
     Even if Mount Rogers is out of range, several closer Virginia peaks should be visible on the horizon northeast of Le Conte, including High Knob near Norton, Va.
SPEAKING OF PEAKFINDER.ORG, I highly recommend the Peakfinder app ($4.99), which works with the iPhone camera to create an augmented reality. It will show you the names and outlines of the mountains before yousuperimposed over the image on your camera. The overlay moves with you.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Ed Iler #39: Counting Le Conte 'cultists' in S.C.

The Greenville News, Jan. 14, 1974
     Mike Hembree and I were not the first Greenville scribes to be wooed by Mount Le Conte.
     I recently unearthed a 1974 column in The Greenville News written by J.B. Southern, where he described Le Conte's cultish appeal and listed several local hikers who frequented the mountain—even though it was 140 crooked miles from Greenville.
     The Greenville honor roll back then was led by Ed Iler with 39 climbs up Le Conte, R.P. Crumpler with 22, and Marguerite Chiles and J.A. Southern (the columnist's brother) with 19 apiece.
     "There are Mount Le Conte cultists in many other communities too," Southern wrote. "Unquestionably Dr. Rufus Morgan, retired Episcopal minister of Franklin, N.C., is chief among them. He has made an astounding 137 visits to the mountain's crest."

     Rev. Morgan's status was not as unquestionable as Southern supposed. In fact, the preacher had a friendly rivalry going with a retired nurse from Maryville, Tenn., named Gracie McNicol. By the time they were finished, they both claimed records.
     Rev. Morgan hiked up 174 times, which at the time was believed to be the most by anyone other than the staff at Le Conte Lodge. McNicol made 244 ascents, but 103 of hers were by horseback and "only" 141 on foot. Morgan and McNicol both made their final climbs on their birthdays: Rev. Morgan at 93 in 1978 and McNicol at 92 in 1983. As impressive as their accomplishments were, neither of them ranks in the Top 20 today.
     In hindsight, I'm almost certain that by the late 1970s Ron Valentine was already ahead of Morgan and McNicol, but he has been modest about his accomplishments and so far I have not been able to document his hikes. If you can help me get in touch with Valentine, please email TommyL810(at)hotmail(dot)com.

     Speaking of "hindsight," Le Conte was my first and last chance to be a cover model. Mike Hembree shot this picture in June 1985 as we climbed the Alum Cave Trail "on assignment," as reporters used to say (although I doubt that our editors let us claim our expenses), and he wrote about our adventure for The Greenville News' weekend magazine, NOTIONS.

     As for Southern's opening quote, it should be atttributed to ill-fated George Mallory instead of Edmund Hillary. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Ernie Pyle on Alum Cave Trail, Hudson Bay blankets

     Here is another newspaper column by Pulitzer Prize winner Ernie Pyle from his 1940 trip to Mount Le Conte. He vividly describes the views, the wildlife, the weather (record high 68 then vs. 81 now), and the accommodations at Le Conte Lodge ($4 then vs. $145 in 2017).
     Note that on the late-October night he stayed at the Lodge, he was the only guest.
     Pyle's guide was Wiley Oakley, the famed "Roamin' Man of the Mountains." They climbed the Alum Cave Trail, and it may have been at Inspiration Point that Pyle had this epiphany: "It was then I realized, for the first time in my life, that there can be as much majesty and stirring beauty in eastern mountains as in the Rockies. Many times on the trail I just stopped and stared and stared. I don't know that I have ever seen a lovelier sight than the onward-stretching undulations of the haze-softened and color-splashed immensities of the Great Smoky Mountains."
     This was one of a series of nine columns that Pyle wrote from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the fall of 1940. We previously posted his profile of Jack Huff. His columns were syndicated nationwide, and I clipped this copy from the Jackson (Miss.) Daily Clarion-Ledger, published October 29, 1940.

     Want to see more of Ernie Pyle's columns from the Smokies? Explore these clippings that I've posted on If the links don't work, let me know.