0730: a wakeup call from a friend confirming that the trip to the Smoky Mountains was on. There were scattered T-storms in the forecast, but the hiking trails were open, and the weather promised to be good for the adventure. Soon we were packed in a rental car driving on up I-85N and then to 985 and 441. The drive was long, but the music and random casual banter kept our attention off the clock. After a short stop at the Cherokee Visitor Centre, we finally parked up near the beginning of the trail to the Alum Cave Bluff. That promised to be a moderate (a rather loose definition for a non-hiker like me) hike of 2.2 miles (it was probably a good thing that I found out only later how high we had gone!). And so began my second hike in the Smoky Mountains (the first time I hit the Smoky Mountains from Tennessee). The walk was fun, and besides, we were just starting off. Short walking brides, slippery rocks, obstinately curved sly rock steps bordered by looming green rocks, great breathtaking views (how unfair it is to take away from you something that you really need for a hike like this). Finally, we were walking up the sandy porch to the Bluff.
After water and refreshments (a CLT -- chutney, lettuce, tomato -- sandwich and a banana washed down with generous doses of water), we were on our way to the second installment -- a 2.8 mile hike up to Mount Le Conte. This time (not being someone used to scampering in the hills) I took it easy, which led to a reasonable distance between me and the rest of the group. Mount Le Conte turned out to be a junction of several other walking trails, and I had to make an educated guess: "where would these guys have gone?". My eyes fell on a sign for a 0.2 mile walk to "Cliff Top". "Yep, that's where these people would go!" said I, and proceeded to (for safety's sake) eliminate the other possibility (a walk in the other direction to Myrtle Point). I met two people enjoying a snack at a shelter close to one of the two ways to get to Cliff Top and made sure my friends had not gone by. When I got to Cliff Top, the view was marvellous. As I found out later, this was 6400 feet above sea level (and our hike had taken us through a height of about 1500 ft!). At this point, I must note several things: (a) no sign of my friends (b) the camera was in my bag. This meant that they had probably waited a while (confirmed later) and had decided to head back, hoping to meet me on the way (the draft was actually very cold, it turned out, and they split into two parties -- one heading back to the Bluff, and the other heading up to Cliff Top). I met the second party on my way down. Turns out the couple I met had noted my Google T-shirt, and were kind enough to inform my friends that I had headed up Cliff Top (thus confirming their assumptions). Photographs were taken (with due apologies to the first team), and then it was a trudge back to the Bluff. My feet hurt by now, and walking downhill ain't so much fun, really, once you have tired feet. But, I plunged onward -- after all this was a "moderate" hike! Eventually, I staggered out at the start of the trail throwing my arms up into the air, doing a very convincingly comic imitation of a guy who had just discovered the boat on the coast of a strange island that he had been shipwrecked on.