What do you get the team superhero for his 74th birthday? A trip on their bucket list of course.. Happy Birthday to my good friend and team member Doc Miller! His AAR follows:
AAR: BUSAR Old-Manventure: Porters Creek Manway-Lester Prong-Tourist Bunion-Dry Sluice Manway
November 12, 2016
One goal of BUSAR training has been for members to become familiar with the unmaintained manways in the GSMNP along which off trail hikers may easily lose their way. The Porters Creek area, in particular, attracts hard-core bushwhackers and has been the source of recent high profile search efforts (Morgan Briggs missed the manway and wound up on Porters Mountain, 2009–Jenny Bennett was found in Lester Prong off the manway, 2015). In the 80’s manways from the Greenbrier area were fairly open up to the Appalachian Trail. It is still possible to reach Charlie’s Bunion, near the Appalachian Trail, from the Greenbrier section of the Park beginning at the Porters Creek Trailhead at 1900 feet, following the trail to Backcountry Campsite 31, then continuing via old manways up Porters Creek and Lester Prong to reach the steep upper ridges of the Bunion. Last December the Goat led the BoBerry Manventure (BUSAR – Real Bunion) up Porters Creek Manway and the first tributary of Lester Prong to the real Charlie’s Bunion via the Pyramid, then descended via the Dry Sluice Manway.
This year he planned to lead the team up a generally parallel route following the second tributary of Lester Prong up to the “Tourist Bunion” located on the above map just above the “R” in “TRAIL” at 5536 ft. elevation.
Three promontories are variously referred to as Charlie’s Bunion, thus resulting in confusion at times.
Jenny Bennett clarified this in one of her several blogs about the area:
The Charlie’s Bunion designated on the USGS topographic map is also known as Rocky Craig. BUSAR
scaled that via Pyramid Rock in 2015. The next ridge to the west culminates in Middle Craig. The next promontory, further west, is variously called the Tourist Bunion or Bunion Craig. That was the objective of our training on this day.
The plan was to approach via the vanishing Porters Creek Manway and Lester Prong, then scale the ridge
and top out on the Tourist Bunion (Bunion Craig). We would complete the loop by descending steeply via Dry Sluice Manway to Porters Creek Manway above Campsite 31. As the date approached, Andrew announced “Alex has home improvement obligations, so I am polling the group to see who still wants to climb the Tourist Bunion this Saturday? There is a LOT of exposure, potential of death, and once you commit, you can’t down climb”. Another option was vertical training at Look Rock, but when Dusken instantly replied “I opt for the one involving death” it was game on. Sharbel assumed the role of team leader. Andrew, Common Man, Dusken, Johnny and I rounded out the team.
Andrew described the route as “trail to manway to scramble to trail to manway to trail”. Many thanks to Goat, Sharbs and Stronger than the River who had run much of it during their 6.5 hour scouting trip the previous week. Sharbel planned the day as follows: “let’s all meet at the Porters Creek trailhead at 0730 on Saturday so we can go over our plan of attack and hit the trail by 0800. Pack light as there are some tight spots to get through. The creek should be flowing decently so we will be ok on a water source for the majority of the hike. I won’t tell anyone they cannot do this hike but if anyone has doubts about themselves I would say to sit it out. Once we leave the creek we are going straight up and through some pretty thick veg. Once we get to the scramble there are some exposed areas where death is a possibility and going back isn’t an option. I think the trip will take 8-9 hours. Maybe quicker if we want. See y’all at the trail.”
Ten days before my 74th birthday I was having doubts about whether my participation would prevent the elite team of exceptional athletes from completing the mission before darkness fell. I had been longing to make the trip, and was confident that I could do it, but not if it would diminish the enjoyment and comfort level of the team who might consider me a liability. I thought secretly of doing what I considered to be honorable and let the team carry on without me when the going got tough. I would enjoy the glory of the day in quiet contemplation along beautiful Porters Creek, pondering the off trail adventures of Jenny Bennett and my late friend Charlie Klabunde in one of their favorite places, until the team returned.
Phase one unfolded as planned. Everyone reached the rally point at precisely the same time. It was a beautiful clear Fall day, warm for November, with light winds predicted on the ridge tops. When the team reached the end of the trail at Campsite 31, I was about 10 minutes behind. Knowing the real manventure was just beginning, I tactfully pointed out the fact that the day promised only 10 hours and 20 minutes of daylight, we had left the trailhead an hour after sunrise, and it might take all of the remaining light and more to complete the loop at my speed. I suggested that I linger in the area while the team proceeded at their usual high-speed pace. At that point, a great day became a fantastic day.
King Cobra declared that he wasn’t going on if I didn’t. The team unanimously rejected my proposal and unselfishly insisted that we would accomplish the goal together. What followed was one of the greatest displays of teamwork and teambuilding that I have experienced.
For most, it was literally a walk in the park, for some it was an opportunity to function outside their comfort zone, for me it was a test of physical ability and endurance and a life-changing experience which I will never forget.
The rhododendron tunnels of the old Porters Creek Manway were less tight than I had anticipated, thanks to the pruning efforts of some whom Jenny Bennett fondly referred to as “certain eccentric humans that I know”.
The drought made the trip up Porters Creek and Lester Prong dry and easy.
The way was marked by occasional cairns, some of which are very impressive.
It is important to correctly identify the confluence of Porters Creek and Lester Prong* and then to count the tributaries joining Lester Prong. The finger ridge up to the Tourist Bunion lies between the second and third tributaries of Lester Prong. The team verified this with the GPS. Even such skilled backcountry navigators as Jenny Bennett, who used only map, compass, altimeter and terrain association (not GPS) have misidentified the tributaries (Tourist Bunion).
One must know which tributary you are ascending in order to climb out of it in the correct direction.
*The cremains of Charlie Klabunde and Jenny Bennett were spread at the confluence of Porters Creek and Lester Prong. Jenny’s Last HikeSharbel led us up the third tributary, following the mostly dry but nonetheless beautiful remote streambed, to approximately 4400 ft. elevation.
At that point, travel became more difficult as we climbed through dense vegetation, belly crawling at times, to scale the ridge to our East. It was often necessary to be within 10 feet of the one climbing above you to maintain visual contact. Once we were on the ridge, the real adventure began–as did the teamwork that I mentioned.
The final 1000 feet of elevation rose progressively more steeply as the beauty and exposure increased in inverse proportion to the width of the knife edge ridge.
Jenny Bennett’s words echoed in my mind – “There’s lots of handholds and footholds—it just happens there’s a lot of air around it, too. So it becomes an exercise in positive thinking. In other words, focus on what’s there instead of what’s not there.”
Andrew schooled me in proper handholds and techniques on the flaky Anakeesta shale formation where Sand Myrtle has a tenuous, untrustworthy toehold. Common Man was right behind me to check my footholds and boost me when my old joints prevented me from reaching where I wanted, and needed, to be. In the absence of rope, body belays for the stiff and rusty “Tin Man” were improvised using a page from Jason’s Swiftwater Rescue playbook when topography exceeded the extent of my flexibility. Sharbel, Dusken and Johnny were also part of the human chain.
Considering the consequences of a slip and fall into the adjacent nearly vertical scree-filled ravine, the team literally put their lives on the line for the benefit of the weakest link, just as they would in a rescue situation. They have the skill and experience to assess and manage the risk and to do it safely. This is why we train as we do. As a proud member of this team I never had any concerns or doubts about completing the mission safely.
Jenny J cheered us up the final pitches from her vantage point on the Appalachian Trail. She would have been part of the crew but for a knee injury.
Andrew sighted a Peregrine Falcon overhead, a great omen, as we enjoyed a brief lunch and photo op on the “Tourist Bunion” while visiting with “tourists” who had come by way of the Appalachian Trail.
Like many of them, I had enjoyed the breathtaking view from this spot many times before, and in many seasons, only dreaming of reaching the Bunion the hard way. I never imagined I would have the opportunity, and certainly not at age 74. I am deeply indebted to this team who has accepted, supported, encouraged and trusted me to participate.
We were burning daylight and it was time to go down – fast! Of course that was part of the plan and our route lay 15 minutes to the East along the Appalachian Trail. Sharbel led us right to the top of the obscure Dry Sluice Manway and we began our descent to Porters Creek.
Common Man stayed with me and Johnny kept us in sight while maintaining visual contact with the leaders. The steep descent of the open Dry Sluice gave way to intimate rhododendron tunnels in the upper reaches of Porters Creek Manway which has been flagged with yellow tape. We rallied at Campsite 31 and then hit the trail together for the last leg. Common Man hung with me while Johnny continued to bridge the gap between us and the leaders. It was indeed after dark when we reached the trailhead by the light of a brilliant Super Moon. Cheerful, unselfish team members – who held team above self – waited in the cold darkness to debrief our “fantastic” adventure which was a high point in my life.
Thank you brothers…..BUSAR!
To make my long story short, it was my first day back with the park, when I got assigned to the fire. After coming of a lookout detail on Ski Mountain, I was tasked with evacuating the headquarters building with another wildlife ranger, Ryan Williamson. We cleared the building out and then were tasked to remove trees of the Gatlinburg Bypass for the evacuation.
Ryan and I started cutting trees when the embers started falling, causing spot fires to erupt on both sides of the road. We called in that it was no longer a safe route and watched the convoy roll out Two Mile. Things were getting pretty crazy at this time, with winds driving a canopy fire up the ridges.
There was a lot going on the radio, but somewhere in there we got word to head to the Spur, the section of road connecting Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge, to clear downed trees. The Spur was one of the main evacuation routes for thousands of residents. As soon as we cleared the city limits, we started running into downed trees and cut them out as we headed towards Pigeon Forge.
Word came over the radio that trees were blocking the road at Gnatty Branch and we hit stand still traffic shortly after. I jumped out and started hoofing it through the traffic, thinking Ryan would catch up as traffic eased forward. The traffic wasn’t moving, so Ryan ditched the truck and set out on foot, catching up to me later on. It is hard to estimate, but we both agreed that we probably walked through 1.5 miles of traffic to get to Gnatty Branch.
At one point a father and son team came running up, talking to me briefly, then started running ahead. Predictably, this caused some drivers to panic and exit their vehicles thinking there was a need to run. Fearing they would abandon their vehicles compunding the problem, I assured them we would get the traffic rolling.
Arriving at Gnatty Branch, the rangers had already diverted traffic to travel in the opposite direction on the South bound Spur. Ryan, Rob, and I cut out the tree that was blocking the road. While cutting on that tree an officer from Pigeon Forge rolled up and said there was a burning tree up ahead that was blocking the road, so I jumped in with him to go clear it.
Around this time, my phone started blowing up and I got the following email from my neighbor on the other side of the mountain about a fire 1 mile from the cabin:
emergency! please call 911…there is a fire across the lake and it has burned out all of our phone lines. I tried 911, but lins were burning and I’m not sure emergency went out. Please call!!!
After calling the local fire department, I frantically tried contacting my wife to get her and my son to evacuate to safer grounds. With no luck, I was able to get the dispatcher at Graham County to get one of the volunteer firefighters to contact her. By far, that was the most stressful half hour of the night for me, observing the chaos at hand and knowing that my family would be trapped if the fire spotted close to them.
Once we cleared the North bound lanes, we shifted to the South bound, then back to the North bound, and repeating the loop until 2 am to keep it open for emergency responders. With fire on both sides of the road, houses and condominiums ablaze, and the repetitious explosions of propane tanks venting, it will be a night that both Ryan and I will never forget. Wind gusts were clocked at 85 mph that night, and at one point, I had to brace Ryan to keep the wind from pushing him into the tree he was cutting.
I started wildland firefighting 16 years ago and have seen some pretty crazy fire behavior on western details, but the firestorm surpassed anything I could have imagined in this area. The fact that the fatalities are not in the thousands, is a testament to the rangers, firefighters, and other emergency personnel that were out there that were on the front lines with us that night.
Several other BUSAR team members responded through their home units in the days after the firestorm; Doc Miller, Jason Benjamin, & Matt Jernigan. While my response was not through BUSAR, I give credit to the team for keeping me in “fighting” shape, both physically and mentally.
BUSAR’s Jason Benjamin also wrote a great Facebook post about his observations while leading an inter-agency structural crew in the days following the fire:
What the Gatlinburg fire reminded me about humanity:
I’ve avoided social media for the past several months because I was tired of being told how divided our country was. Every time I logged on to Facebook my news feed was flooded with terrible, hateful posts. People I had always known to be thoughtful and considerate were spewing venom at anyone that disagreed with them. Lines were drawn and friends became enemies as they called each other names like “deplorable”, “elitist”, “misogynist”, “hack” and “bigot”. As a military veteran and career firefighter, I’ve spent nearly 30 of my 47 years helping people. I could no longer put up with being inundated by the constant fury and vitriol. I even deleted a few people from my social media because of the hate they displayed.
I spent two days in Gatlinburg last week fighting fire and searching for victims on my days off from the fire department I work for. The staging area was in the same building as the shelter for those that had to leave their home. The moment I arrived on the first day, I saw dozens of the local residents that were staying in the shelter. Before I could get inside to check myself and my teammates in, I was thanked and blessed ten different times by strangers. The pain in their eyes and voices was heartbreaking. I already had faces to put with the stories I’d been hearing and I hadn’t even checked in yet.
Shortly after checking in, I was asked to lead a Battalion made up of firefighters and equipment from all over the Southeast. There were local departments represented, as well as departments from as far away as Cherokee, NC and Manchester, TN. All of us were there for the same reason and we couldn’t wait to get to work. Although our primary mission was searching for victims, we spent the entire morning putting out brush fires and rekindled house fires. It wasn’t until after we took a break for lunch that we finally got the chance to look for victims. At times, the smoke was thick, but we kept working for as long as we could. No one wanted to quit.
I spent the first day back at my fire department thinking about what I had seen in Gatlinburg. I thought about all the people that sincerely thanked us for being there. I thought about the victims we’d found and the ones that were still out there. I thought about the men and women that volunteered to be there because they wanted to help. I thought about the newly-broken families. I thought about the senseless pain and suffering. I thought about the tragedy.
I can’t say when it occurred to me, but at some point I thought about how I hadn’t seen hate. I hadn’t heard anyone mention politics. None of that mattered at that point in time. All that mattered was people were facing the worst nightmare of their lives and other people came from near and far to do anything and everything they could to help. I witnessed strangers helping strangers. I saw immigrants from Latin America and India sharing cups of coffee and tea with native East Tennesseans and no one was talking about building walls. They were talking about rebuilding their homes and businesses. No one seemed to care if the person sitting next to them was here legally. They did, however, make it very clear they were glad they made it out of the fire safely.
I’ve had a few days to process most of what I saw in Gatlinburg. As awful as it was, there is so much to be thankful for. A lot was lost during the fire, but so much more was saved by the brave men and women that stayed to fight and the thousands that showed up later. I’m thankful I had a chance to play a small part in it, but I’m most thankful for what the Gatlinburg fire reminded me about humanity:
Regardless of how much we disagree, we will always come together and fight to survive and protect each other. We are humans and we have not lost our humanity. We are not as divided as I thought. We just temporarily forgot what it means to be humane.