To Pop Hollandsworth and all the special people that hiked Leconte in Memorial to Dr. Charles Lindsley and all the people that gathered in Gatlinburg, it's wonderful to see that you care enough about your lost friend and eachother to come together every year for 40 years.
I am reprinting a letter from Lary Pless that was forwarded to me and really tells the whole story well.
To all in eager anticipation of the 40th annual hike up Mt Leconte, ,it seems apt to share again an account of the hike that I wrote shortly after the accident; I don’t believe that Pop disagrees with it in any major aspect, but kindly ask him to add or amplify as appropriate; Jack Davis and Chase Ambler have passed on, leaving 4 hardy survivors of the original trip (Pop, myself, Doug Byrd’74 and Lee Sparkman ‘74);t I am copying, Doug in Washington, DC and Lee in Bluffton, SC; I don’t believe either has done much camping/hiking since that particular trip (!); in any event, by copy I am asking Lee and Doug if they would like to share any memories of the experience and/or correct or add to my account; see you all soon Larry
[The following is an account of Dr. Charles Lindsley’s fatal accident on an Asheville School hiking trip
up Alum Cave Trail on Mt. Leconte on Saturday evening, January 30, 1971:]
The three busts in the front seat bobbed rhythmically up and down with the bumpy road: Pop, Doc and Jack. All longtime, bonded hiking companions, and experts in the ways of the wilderness. I could see them through the mass of backpacks arranged for my comfort in the back of the school’s van. The olive drab packs gave off the rank smell of sweat and wood smoke.
It was late on a Saturday afternoon in January, and raining. There were only seven of us, and we were on an overnight trip to Mt. Leconte , high in the Great Smoky Mountains .
The highway wound and turned, passing near mountain towns like Waynesville, and Cherokee, and Bryson City . Always climbing, always winding, up through the tunnels and passes of the mountains.
By the time we got to the parking lot, the drizzle had stopped. We strapped on our backpacks for the long hike ahead. The trail was level for the first mile or so, passing through the forest of huge hardwoods, over its rushing streams, and under and around its rock formations. The sky was dark grey and forboding – rain, snow, or sleet was imminent. The trail continued its tortuous course; soon it began its ascent, imitating the patterns of the highway, always climbing, always winding. The cold grey sky, the stark winter landscape, and the monotony of the pace induced an almost hypnotic trance. I trudged along silently, alone with my thoughts.
As we mounted higher into the wilderness, the weather worsened. Sleet pelted us in huge crystals; sudden rain showers drenched us through wisps of fog. Progress slowed as our group moved closer together. We passed under the dramatic Alum Cave Bluffs hundreds of feet above, the mass of dry brown dust below the overhang in sharp relief to the wet all around us.
Then we began to hit the first serious patches of ice. Long stretches of the cruel ice had now replaced the happily babbling brooks of the warmer months. It was riskiest at big washes caused by the flood of September 1951. Jagged scars running far down the mountainside intersected the trail. Crossing these iced-over washes was precarious business, even with the many hand cables strung along the rock ledge walls. As only a few of us wore crampons, a hasty or misplaced step could mean a virtual freefall down the two or three hundred yard expanse of the uninterrupted, silicone-faced surface. We bypassed the more ominous slides by going up into the woods, protected by dense undergrowth, trees, and fallen logs. Pop asked Doc to switch from the lead to bring up the rear, for Pop had an ice ax and could carve steps. I stood in front of Doc as we rested -- the last two in the chain -- while he changed his wet lumberjack’s shirt, preparing for the next ice crossing.
After painstakingly detouring into the woods around the longest, most dangerous -- and uncabled -- slide of all, we paused in the twilight to regroup and count our numbers. We had spread out considerably on this crossing, so it was some time before we discovered that Doc was missing.
Doc, the veteran of so many hiking trips both close by and out West. Famous in his hiking club for his story of a night alone in snow near an Indian’s charred body in the ruins of a Smokies shelter (the Indian had died seeking warmth on a moonshine run after drinking from his cargo.) Had Doc silently taken a shortcut up the mountainside to leave the perilous trail? Turned back? Fallen?
When almost an hour of shouting and whistle-blowing proved futile, the expedition split in two. The three leaders would search through the undergrowth and along the trail for any sign. They hadn’t much time, as it was deep dusk by now. The three students would hike up to the three-sided Adirondack shelter at the top and await further word.
Suddenly everything about this weekend hike had changed. My heart raced and slowed, raced and slowed.
Now our boots were wet, our leather gloves soaked, our bodies chill and weary. After creeping with infinite care over the high, icy ledges of the trail, three of us finally arrived at the summit shelter. There we found two hikers from far away. Someone had stretched plastic sheets over the open front to keep out the gusting wind; the tarps would make loud “whaps” all night. For an hour we waited, shivering in the shelter and listening to the wind in the dark. Later Chase, one of the leaders, walked up the hill to say that there was nothing else we could do, that a rescue squad had been summoned with the one-way telephone at Leconte Lodge (fortunately open for a small winter trip), and that we’d best go to sleep, for there would be a long day ahead. Later I would learn that but for that phone, I would have descended the mountain alone in the night to seek help.
With resignation I set up my sleeping bag, and fell asleep with an empty stomach and the knowledge that there was a man out there in that cold wilderness, hurt…or dead…
“They found him. He’s dead. They’re taking the body down to Sevierville”, said a voice from the shelter entrance. The stark words shocked me out of a restless sleep, of uneasy tossing and turning. In sharp contrast to the dark day before, the yellow sun shone brightly on two inches of clean snow that had fallen during the night, and the wind was silent.
After eating an unexpected pancake breakfast in the warm kitchen of Leconte Lodge, we learned the facts of the tragedy: that he had silently slipped down the ice sheet covering the steepest, longest wash; that he had died instantly; that Pop and the Sevier County Rescue Squad had found his lifeless body in the early hours of the morning; that with much effort they had raised him to the trail with ropes in a wooden “Stokes litter”; and that they had left with the body in the litter at around six a.m. Later Pop would describe how, shortly into the search, he had ominously discovered Doc’s specially carved hiking stick a few feet below the trail. And how he had later spotted the rescue team’s distant lanterns swinging eerily at midnight as they ascended the mountain.
We began our trek back down to the van. I kept finding pieces of blonde wood which had broken off the litter, between ruts in the snow.
At the van we solemnly loaded our packs then drove off through a new snowstorm to the park headquarters in Gatlinburg, where they had taken Doc’s personal effects. Along the way I stared at the new snow and frost hugging the evergreens on the close, steep mountainsides. On the highway back to Asheville , we met a robin’s egg blue and black hearse, always climbing, always winding, up into the mountains. Was it was on its way to Sevierville to pick up Doc? Only two heads bobbed in the front seat of the van now.
Nature is not kind. She does not yield to one who has walked thousands of miles through her beautiful forests and across her high mountain ridges. Nature does not change. The Universe will always be impersonal and uncaring, as it was at its beginning. And it will continue to destroy the man who does not respect her omnipotence, who does not bow to the mountain.
Laurance D. Pless
February 24, 1971, as revised
Doug McFalls - LifeOnLeConte