Posted by: pjbarr | April 5, 2010

Steep Ascent

Start: Grassy Gap
Finish: Brown Fork Shelter
Distance: 12.9 mi.
Trip Distance: 151.0 mi.
Side Trips: None
Side Trip Miles: 0.0 mi.
State: North Carolina
Highlights: Cheoah Bald, The Jump-Up

“Life for two weeks on the mountain tops would show us many things about life during the other fifty weeks down below.” -Benton MacKay

I awoke exceptionally late and I didn’t get started until nearly 10:00am. It was already sweltering hot and I had the climb up Cheoah Bald remaining. Other than the summit, I don’t particularly care for this section. I hiked it previously on a section hike with my friend Shannon Dillmore in December 2008. I remember the climb up Cheoah from the NOC as long and monotonous. That fact remains, except now it is hot and dry.

The lone exception on this section is a small rock outcropping called The Jump-up. It has a somewhat dramatic view overlooking the Nantahala River 2,000 ft. below. The name came from the insanely steep rocky ridgeline that the AT once bee lined straight up – so steep you had to literally “jump up” to it. In typical modern AT fashion, the AT now takes an excessively long switchback up the north side of the slope to reach it; half the time the trail isn’t even ascending. Such reroutes I often grow bitter at. When Earl Shaffer and Gene Espy thru-hiked, the trails went straight up the ridges. Today’s section, historically known as the Stecoahs in older guide books, used to be known as one of the single most difficult stretches of the entire trail. This wasn’t because they were the tallest mountains or even the most rugged; rather the trail simply went literally straight up and down the ridgelines. Today the trail took extended switchback detours to prevent following the steep historical route, including in and out of Locust Cove Gap and down to Stecoah Gap.

Today’s entire section was hot and dry and generally uninteresting. The exception was the great southern views from the summit of Cheoah Bald. Once again in North Carolina I was so fortunate to get a good view from one of the premier mountain vantage points in the region.

Cheoah Bald was a tough climb because it is a 5,063 foot peak jutting above a 2,000 foot elevation river immediately below. It is a 2,000ft prominence peak and the highest point in the Cheoah Mountains range. Above all, its summit holds many memories for me.

In March 2008 I climbed this peak with Allison up the Bartram Trail to complete my quest to climb all 5,000ft peaks in the southeast with 200ft. of prominence. I became the only person to accomplish this feat. It was a quest that took me nearly four years. It was a great adventure – one that expanded my comfort zone and grew my outdoor skills monumentally. I climbed, crawled, even got frostbite to accomplish my quest, and I finished it on a crystal clear late winter day on this scenic summit. It was certainly a special moment – one that will only be eclipsed when I stand atop Katahdin in five months, with luck.

It was that same day atop Cheoah Bald that I met my friend Brian Allgood. Allgood, his fitting trail name, thru-hiked in 2008 and we actually saw him and ever so briefly exchanged greetings exactly one week prior when Allison and I were camped at Beech Gap in the southern Nantahalas while I was polishing off my final 5,000ft peaks. One week later exactly, we came back to the mountains and as fate would have it that was the exact time Allgood needed to walk from Beech Gap to Cheoah Bald.

This meeting we finally exchanged introductions and discussed the irony. I lost track of Allgood during his hike but he made a wonderful surprise visit at one of my book presentations in western NC later in the fall driving all the way from his home in Abingdon, VA to meet me. We’ve since hiked together and ran into each other at Trail Days in Damascus. He is eagerly awaiting my arrival in Virginia where he plans to join me for a few days on the trail. Allgood has a subtle and poetic way of expressing his appreciation and awe with the outdoors, mountains and wilderness that I really like. Hope to see you soon, Allgood.

Like from Wesser Bald, I could see the Smokies to the north. They are certainly getting bigger and closer. I eagerly await them – my homecoming within a homecoming.

Descending to Stecoah Gap I found what is undoubtedly the rock overhang where Earl Shaffer spent the night during his 1965 southbound thru-hike. Stecoah Gap is now the newly proposed location of a massive multi-lane highway mountain crossing. Initial rumblings have speculated a tunnel to be constructed in the gap, but that was recommended for Winding Stair Gap in the Nantahalas and a 250ft wide, 100ft deep road cut resulted. As if we didn’t already have enough conservation issues to fight for here comes another directly impacting the AT.

The climb out of Stecoah Gap was initially well graded and pleasant. All day I had not been in an exceptional hiking mood, but rater was just counting the miles as they go by and ambling along as opposed to attacking the trail.

I reached Sweetwater Gap and the trail began to climb steeply. Very steeply. The trail literally beelined without aide of switchbacks up a dramatically inclined slope. I had to stop countless times to either catch my breath or relax my muscles – a habit I have rarely exercised since leaving Georgia. And the climb just kept going and going. Many times I just laughed in disbelief, frustration and exhaustion. While it bested me physically, I was thrilled with this climb. Perhaps out of respect or maybe just because one of the original climbs of the Stecoahs remained. The trail should be this hard! Earl and Gene climbed this same trail and struggled up this same ridge. Compliments to the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club for leaving this especially steep section of trail intact. While it doesn’t truly reveal itself on profile maps, it was undoubtedly the steepest section I have encountered yet on my short time thus far on the AT, with the ridgeline climbs up Sharp Top and Courthouse Bald upon entering NC a close second.

Tonight I’m at the shelter with Tomato, who is from Charlotte, Locomotive and Walrus who is a granddad-previous thru-hiker with a thru-hiking grandson, and Sabbath Keeper, a religious fanatic but otherwise extremely friendly and personable guy. 3 Bears just arrived and I am glad to see him and hope his arrival provides an intermission or even hiatus to the religious discussion now ensuing in the shelter.


  1. the trail went straight up and down the stecoahs on my first boy scout visit in the late 60’s. and again on my AT thru hike in ’76. i could see the mounting erosion – on wet days, the ‘trough’ was perilous at best, and sometimes just plain not negotiable. the climbs north of stecoah gap were notorious for being even more exhausting than the stretch from the river to stecoah gap. the old jump up really gave a feeling of ascent – you could literally see the changes on the horizon as you labored…

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