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6,500-Foot Lodge Atop Mt. LeConte Packs In Hikers

ALUM CAVE, Tenn. — Two and a half miles up a steep mountain trail Saturday I distinctly heard a full-throated preacher hard at work. We rounded a bend in time to witness the final minutes of the renewal vows of the Rogers couple from Mt. Sterling, Ky., on their 25th anniversary.
They kissed. We all clapped, strangers and family.
“We come up here every year,” Mr. Rogers said.
This time they brought children and grandchildren, minister and photographer. Someone thought to pack a small bouquet of flowers for Mrs. Rogers to clutch.
In the recess of this huge bluff that takes considerable effort to reach, they re-tied the knot. Mrs. Rogers dabbed tears. A host of accidental witnesses in hiking boots gathered close to ooh at this intimate occasion in God’s mountainous splendor.
Icicle spears fell from 70 feet atop the Alum Cave as they melted in the sunshine, but we were safe under the bluff. A crisp wind stirred.
While the Rogers clan descended the mountain, young Michael and I paused for a PB&J picnic with apples, cheese and raisins — fuel for the remaining steep trek up Mt. LeConte at 6,500 feet elevation.
It was 32 degrees at 2 p.m. when we arrived, and the firs were coated in a thick layer of majestic frost. The ascent is arduous on warm days. Saturday it was at times perilous. We grabbed protective cables with two hands to avoid slipping on ice. To our left, the cliff dropped hundreds of feet. They would never recover our bodies.
The late Margaret Stevenson hiked this trail 718 times. Her bronzed hiking boots are enshrined at Mt. LeConte Lodge, an unlikely primitive, pricy no-star hotel at the top that requires at minimum a five-mile arduous hike. It is completely booked for the summer and all weekends. Reservations are taken for the following year beginning Oct. 1. They are quickly snapped up. I have never been able to snag a reservation.
Heavy gauge wire covers the windows to protect sleepers from bears. All the food is packed up the mountain by llamas. Bunk beds are available in 10 tiny cabins. Community bathrooms. There is nothing comfortable about this place, but the sunrises and sunsets seen from 6,500 feet — and the challenge of getting there — allow the lodge to keep a long, usually futile waiting list.
This was my fourth time atop Mt. LeConte, always going up and down in a day, never staying overnight.
The lodge has a picture of Jack Huff who strapped his mother to a wicker chair in 1928 and backpacked her up the mountain so she could see the world from up there.
Michael carried our pack. I had the luxury of just walking.
We had set up our tent far below in the Smokemont Campground, one of only 10 campers, most of them trout fishermen.
“How do you like your tent?” asked a woman with a Boston terrier. She had a red tent exactly like it. “Leaks like a sieve. I’m taking it back,” she told me. It had rained the night before, when we had planned to arrive. We spent …