June 22-24, 2018
Big Cataloochee and Luftee Knob are the last two (2) peaks I had to climb for the South Beyond 6000 Challenge, a series of forty (40) peaks over 6,000 ft. in North Carolina and Tennessee. Over the past several years, I have made several attempts to climb these last summits. One time I climbed the wrong peak, another I not only climbed the wrong peak, but descended the wrong side of the mountain. These peaks are in the middle of nowhere, they are steep, and there is no clear manway to the top.
Located in a remote portion of the Smoky’s, there’s no easy way to access these summits. The easiest way is from Pin Oak Gap, located off of Balsam Mountain Road, a 28-mile, one way forest service style type road that is often in rough shape. The route was fairly simple, hike up Balsam Mountain Trail on Friday, spend the night at Laurel Gap Shelter, climb the summits, spend the night at Tricorner Knob Shelter and hike out to the car. Finding the peaks had already proven terribly difficult. In my planning, I found a great, indispensable source, Avenza Maps. You can download this app on any smartphone. Then you can download any number of maps, often times for free. I had used Avenza in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and could attest to its accuracy. The biggest benefit is that 1) it works even when your phone is on airplane mode and 2) it tells you where you are located on the map with a small blue dot. Luckily, the Luftee Map is free and very good.
My good buddy, Johnny and I met Friday evening after work in Sylva. We then drove over via the Blue Ridge Parkway Balsam Mountain Road. The conditions were less than optimal. With the thick fog and rain, it took us well over an hour to go 14 miles on the dirt road. When we arrived at the trailhead, the fog was so thick, that it became evident that we would never be able to hike the 4 miles to Laurel Gap Shelter. Reluctantly, we decided to camp beside the car and head out in the morning.
Balsam Mountain Trail is idyllic, full of flowers, moss, plush evergreens and a steady grade. After two (2) miles, we took a quick break and soon a group of guys hiked up the trail. We talked and it turned out not only were they out to hike Luftee and Big Cat., but it was their last two (2) peaks as well! We talked for a while, exchanged information on the peaks.
After four (4) miles, turned right on Mount Sterling trail. The key to bushwhacking up Big Cat. is to find the easiest spot. You will hike roughly 1/2 mile and cross two (2) creeks. The first creek is stony and fairly small, the second creek is much larger. Just past the second creek the terrain becomes much more level. Just around the bend, we left Johnny’s pack and began the 1/2 mile trek up the mountain. I have attached a marked map in the pictures to indicate our route. the bushwhack wasn’t too bad, but we definitely took a few breathers, as it is quite steep. The summit is indicated indiscriminately by a dead hemlock. There are no views, but the summit is fairly level.
With one peak down, all that was left was Luftee. This is a tough bushwhack to find. It’s located roughly 2.8 miles from Laurel Gap Shelter on the right had side of the trail. I have attached another picture to aid in the ascent. What makes this peak so tough, are that there are a number of peaks in the area, so as to deceive one into thinking they are climbing Luftee, when in fact you are on the wrong mountain entirely. Two miles past Sterling, I checked the map over and over, making sure we were in the right vicinity. We then picked an access point. By access point, I mean an area without dense briars and blowdowns. The bushwhack is fairly short, compared to Big Cat, but it is much steeper. With every step, your foot risks falling through a hole or old tree and it is at such an angle, that you might fall backwards. Once at the top, it would have been impossible to find the summit without the map, we thought that we were there, only to have to search and eventually find it anew. It’s marked by a series of stacked stones on a log, with no view.
Going back down was even tougher, as the steepness was quite precarious. We then hiked the last two (2) miles to Tricorner Knob, where we were greeted by a plethora of AT hikers and section hikers out for the night. We talked at length with Double Stack and a crazy Tennessee guy named Poncho.
This was my first trip with my super ultralight gear, of which I was greatly impressed. I love my Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape, which doubles as my shelter, rain gear and pack cover. In constant rain and bad weather, it kept me dry at all moments.
On Sunday with intermittent showers, we made our way back to the car. Balsam is a great trail, seemingly straight out of a Tolkien novel with it’s green and brown hues shining in an otherwise remote forest.
I am happy to finally finish the South Beyond 6000 Challenge. Over the past few years, it has been a great source of adventure and fun. The best part has been the planning and research, and it is my hope that this blog will aid the next series of hikers who take on this fun challenge.
Total mileage is 23 miles.