Doug McFalls spent last winter as caretaker at LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The lodge is near the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in the Smokies.
“I came away with a better understanding of myself,” McFalls said. “I spent the vast majority of my time with me.”
Allyson Virden, who along with her husband Chris manages the lodge during the season, noted on the “High on Leconte” blog www.highonleconte.com: “I like to call those of us who love working up top a ‘special breed.’ I can say that because I am one. Many of the crew come to the mountain to enjoy a simpler life and have time to enjoy nature.”
McFalls, an avid reader and budding photographer, fit that bill.
“I’ve worked in the hospitality industry most of my life, but I’m OK alone,” McFalls said. “One can really step away up there and enjoy the peace and serenity.”
A day in the life
There is certainly solitude and time for relaxing pastimes like reading, but sleeping in isn’t one of them.
“We’re asked to check the weather station every morning at 7 a.m. and report the conditions to dispatch at the National Park Service,” said McFalls. The National Weather Service station at LeConte records minimum and maximum temperatures plus precipitation totals.
McFalls said wind conditions weren’t recorded at LeConte because conditions are too harsh and too remote for an anemometer to work properly (they can ice up) and be maintained and calibrated regularly.
McFalls said breakfast was usually in order after a trip to the weather station and then, if power was good, he would update his website and perhaps post some new photos. Next he would walk the grounds and check on all the cabins and buildings. One day after a wind event he discovered a cabin with a missing door and a broken window.
McFalls said he also kept an eye on the backcountry shelter that’s just under a mile from the lodge.
“There are more winter hiking enthusiasts in the park than most people would think,” he said. “Most of them are experienced hikers, knowledgeable and well prepared, but occasionally you run across someone who isn’t prepared.”
LeConte caretakers and all seasonal staff are trained in Wilderness First-Aid and all are CPR certified. The Park Service depends on LeConte’s caretakers to assist in any emergencies and/or rescues around the lodge.
McFalls said he always greeted hikers he met on the trails near the lodge and invited them in to warm up and re-hydrate. According to McFalls, dehydration can slip up on winter hikers.
“It’s so cold, you don’t realize you’re thirsty,” he said.
McFalls said that most of the hikers he encountered during his stay as caretaker were in good shape and just happy to have a warm dry place to sit and relax for a while. But one hiker from Indiana wasn’t so lucky.
“When he left Gatlinburg it was in the low 30s and misty,” McFalls said, “but by the time he had made it up here it was between 8 and 10 degrees and snowing. He was dehydrated and suffering from mild hypothermia.”
McFalls cared for the hiker at the lodge until a park ranger and medic made it up the mountain.
“The weather was so bad it took the ranger and medic a day to make it up here,” McFalls said.
The hiker required about a day and a half of care before he was strong enough to hike back down with the ranger and medic.
Often the day-to-day living on LeConte during winther months harkens back to earlier times. Solar panels provide the only electricity and the cloudy, short days of winter with their accompanying snowfall can make electricity a scarce commodity. McFalls said there was running water until it gets really cold, then the caretaker is left to haul water up from the spring. The caretaker uses propane to heat with and it has to be flown in by helicopter. And there’s that tromp through the snow to get to the outhouse.
Weather is frightful
Winter on LeConte is either spectacular, scary, or maybe some of both, depending on your point of view. The record low temperature recorded on Mt. LeConte was minus 32 degrees fahrenheit on Jan. 13, 1986. The record high was 80 degrees fahrenheit on Aug. 9, 1995. The coldest temperature McFalls recorded during his stay was minus 9 degrees fahrenheit.
“But it hovered around zero for nearly a week at one stretch,” McFalls said.
Because there is no anemometer on LeConte, McFalls was left to estimate wind speeds.
“There were days when I estimated sustained winds to be between 30 and 40 miles per hour and estimated gusts to be between 70 and 80 miles per hour,” he said. “The wind can be quite an event. You can be snug as a bug in a rug, deep asleep in your warm bed and the wind will shake the whole cabin. It’ll definitely wake you up!”
The annual snowfall for the peak at Mt. Leconte averages just a little over 71 inches. McFalls recorded 51 inches of snow at one point last winter.
And winter isn’t necessarily through with LeConte when the lodge opens back up in March.
“We had to shovel paths to all the cabins through two-and-a-half feet of snow when we opened the third week of March ,” McFalls said.
One with wildlife
McFalls caught occasional glimpses of other visitors besides winter hikers. He said there was a red fox den near the lodge and that resident raccoons were constantly trying to investigate the buildings. He saw signs of bobcats and coyotes, and even in the dead of winter one of the resident bears would sometimes make an appearance.
“He minded his business and I minded mine,” said McFalls.
He also said that ravens, which are fairly common during the season, would come and go during the winter.
McFalls said the caretaker begins stocking provisions late in the season while the lodge is still open and the llama train is running.
“A llama pack train brings supplies and packs out laundry three days a week during season, and near the end of the season the pack will begin bringing up can goods, rice and beans and dry goods. Right at the end of the season, they’ll bring up things like potatoes and carrots.”
The caretaker does get a little R&R during the winter when they can arrange for a substitute caretaker.
“On those trips to town you can pick up things like milk and eggs,” said McFalls.
One caretaker’s perspective
McFalls grew up in Gatlinburg, Tenn. His Dad was born in the Park and his Mom went to Sevierville High School with Dolly Parton.
“I’ve spent a lot of time hiking these mountains, and when I stayed at the lodge for the first time back in the 90s I knew I wanted to work here,” McFalls said.
He was hired for the season in 2008.
“I took that first winter off, but when I came back in 2009 I took the winter caretaker job plus worked this season. I was at the lodge through the winter and up until Thanksgiving this year.
“I love the peace and serenity of it. It’s so remote and so beautiful. The winter I stayed at the lodge, it was a shock when I would go down the mountain. Town was distracting — there was constant input. I was happy to get back up top where there was time to think and reflect,” McFalls said.
“I wouldn’t close the door on it,” said McFall of aother winter on LeConte. “But I’ve experienced most of LeConte. More than I ever thought I would when I signed up for my first season. And it has instilled a desire for other adventures.”
McFalls has applied for a position as a ridgerunner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Ridgerunners spend most of their day out on the trail talking with hikers and keeping and eye on trail conditions. “Can you imagine getting paid to hike the AT through the Smokies?” McFalls said, almost wistfully.
You can get an idea of what McFalls experienced at LeConte Lodge by visiting www.ReflectionsOfTheSmokies.com.
This winter’s caretaker is Alexander Hughes. You can keep up on this winter’s happenings at LeConte at www.highonleconte.com/daily-posts.html
LeConte Lodge is the only private lodging facility in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park open to paying guests.
The rustic cluster of log cabins has a capacity of 60 guests per night housed in one of the 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 multi-room lodges. There is no electricity but hot meals are served twice daily. The only way to get to LeConte is by hiking.
Although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934. Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer and founder of the rustic lodge, began building the retreat in 1926.
Eight years later, Jack and Pauline Huff were married at a sunrise service at LeConte’s now-famous Myrtle Point, the traditional place to watch spectacular performances of daybreak. Jack, Pauline and their family continued to operate the lodge until 1960. It is presently operated under the auspices of Stokely Hospitality Enterprises.
LeConte Lodge is open from mid-March through late November. For information visit www.leconte-lodge.com.