The Rev George Yandell, Rector
TOP OF THE WORLD
It was a weekend in early February of 1964. My scout troop was undertaking its annual ‘freeze out,’ as the scouts called it. I was just before turning 12 years old as a second-class scout.
I had joined Boy Scout Troop 52 in West Knoxville a little less than a year before. The troop and my patrol had taken some day hikes during that time. This was a hike of entirely different magnitude. We were hiking up Mt. Le Conte in the Smokies. (Trip Advisor calls it one of the most dangerous hiking trails in the USA. It’s the 3rd highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains.)
In the troop meetings in the weeks prior to the hike, we boys had to bring our packs and hiking gear to be inspected. I was told by the scoutmaster I needed warmer outerwear and a water-repellant poncho since the weather “on top” he called it, could be pretty unpredictable and severe. The day of the hike we met at West Hills Elementary School way before dawn, loaded our gear in some parents’ cars and motored to Gatlinburg, then up through Cherokee Orchard to the Rainbow Falls trailhead. I put on my pack as the first pale light came into the sky. I recall there were about 50 boys and 6 adult leaders on the hike. The trail to the falls wasn’t too hard, but just above the falls the trail got steeper and sleet started coming down. Within an hour the trail was covered in snow and footing became slippery.
By the time the guys with me and an assistant scoutmaster had paused for a snack and some water, the snow was a foot deep and coming down heavy. I don’t know how long it took to reach the lodges on the top of the mountain – all the older boys had claimed the small cabins and had fires going in the pot-bellied stoves. (The small cabins had two double-bed bunks- 4 -6 boys had jammed themselves in each.) Alan, Joe and I had to sleep in one of the much larger lodges. I recall they had two-three bunkrooms and a large center area with a fireplace. Four of us piled into one of the bunkrooms and took off our wet gear. More younger scouts took the other rooms. One of the older boys started a fire, but it did little to warm the drafty lodge. We huddled near it, ate some gorp, waiting for dinner.
The dining lodge was warm, dry and the food delicious. Mr. Brown and his young men helped him serve beef stew, warm bread, cobbler, as much as we could eat. We had a brief evening program around the tables, got the plan for Sunday morning and hiking out. That night was one of the coldest I’ve spent. I slept in all my clothes and outerwear, pulled the blanket tight over me, and woke frequently to burrow down deeper under the covers.
When day dawned and we went to breakfast, the snow lay heavy over everything and the sun reflected so brightly I had to squint. After breakfast we went to a large flat spot overlooking the rest of the world. Peaks I would come to recognize later were white islands above dense white clouds- Thunderhead, Charlie’s Bunion, Clingman’s Dome, Gregory Bald.
I couldn’t know it then, but that hike changed me. Standing deep in fresh snow on the top of the world for the Sunday service whetted my appetite for more. I went on every hike the troop and my patrol took. I came to love the challenges of winter hiking and camping. (The next year’s freeze-out was on Spence Field in tents. Lots warmer than Mt. Le Conte.)
I remain deeply grateful to Mr. Rowland, Mr. Cheverton, Mr. Haubenrich and all the other men who volunteered to lead and train us. Life-changing is too tame a description for those experiences. Soul-deepening is more apt.
I thought about those early hikes when I stood at 9,000 feet on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana beside my cousin Nancy Womack in August 1990. (Nancy had taken her first backpacking trip with me in January 1982. We hiked from Clingman’s Dome to Spence Field on the AT, then down to Cades Cove in 3 days. She was hooked.)
We were overwhelmed by the vastness of all those mountains marching north toward Canada. That 11-day Sierra Club hike linked directly to my Boy Scout experience 37 years earlier. The top of the world still calls to me. G. Yandell