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.