Phil Perkins Photography

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Upper Spruce Flats Falls

It had been quite a while since first I saw another waterfall above Spruce Flats Falls. During autumn of 2021, as leaves fell from the trees, I’d caught a glimpse of whitewater through bare branches as I traversed a mountain trail in the Smoky Mountains.

Of course, I had to find a way to access these newly discovered falls, but, over time, that proved to be difficult. There was no way to climb up and over the 30-foot tall Spruce Flats Falls, as it ran down a vertical wall of slippery, wet rock. On the right side of the gorge is a tall mountain, with several sections of imposing cliffs and no visually discernible route of ascension.

I’d tried the left side, before, successfully climbing up some distance, though, without seeing a path forward, turned around. Yesterday, however, I tried again.

The hillside is very steep and always wet, due to both airborne mist from the falls, and given that its proximity is somewhat shielded from direct sunlight. Under wet leaves, the soil remains damp and slippery. This means that, to advance uphill, there are often instances when footing is reliable for no more than a few seconds.

As such, it’s important to avoid open areas which lack handholds – rocks, exposed tree roots, trees and bushes (especially Rhododendrons, a hearty shrub).

After an arduous climb, I reached a relatively flat space and stood to rest for a moment. I also laughed, because, as I caught my breath and thought about how strenuous that climb had been, I saw an old tree with many persons initials carved into the bark. Well, I thought…I’m sure they were younger than 59 years old!

Thus far, stability and continuity of movement were of primary concern; if I’d lost balance and started to slide down such a steep face, I probably couldn’t have stopped. To such ends, I expended a great deal of physical energy, which, at times, included essentially crawling uphill to increase the breadth of my grip, where little was present.

With this endeavor, challenges were constant, and the need for caution, continuous. In order to access the base of Upper Spruce Flats Falls, I needed to keep climbing much higher before then descending across the mountainside along a diagonal trajectory – I knew where the falls where, but only generally how to go about getting there.

Looking forward I could see that I first needed to reach higher ground, some 20-feet above my location. To do so, I’d either have to backtrack a fair distance in order to climb up a rocky section; or, alternatively, I could try a route directly in front of me, across a narrow leaf-covered ledge and then up a short but steep hill, also with leaves.

As I mapped out an ascent in front of me, it appeared that there would be sufficient small rocks in place to establish safe handholds. Well, that turned out to be a mistake.

Halfway into the process, I realized that the ground was more slippery than anticipated and, while a few fixed rocks had decent edges for gripping, the consequence of slipping would entail a fall of 20 feet. I quickly gathered myself, and, very slowly, climbed down in reverse from whence I came. Once safe, I opted for the other route.

After an exhaustive hike up the mountain, than across and back down again, through dense shrubbery and vines with thorns, my legs were gashed and bleeding in several spots. Nonetheless, I’d finally arrived at the approx. 25-foot tall waterfall!

Prints available in my gallery.

Lessons From the Trail

A note about trekking poles. Walking sticks provide hikers with the capacity to achieve better balance, and I surely could not have reached this waterfall absent such aides. However, more commonly, I used my trekking poles continuously to brace myself from sliding downhill, as push-points for upward locomotion, to test surface footing underneath leaves, remove debris from underfoot, and, on my return, as points through which to gather my weight during descent.

A note about leaves. Leaves can be deceptive, as often a flat blanket of leaves does not accurately represent an underlying surface. There may be crevices or a hole. Also, leaves accumulated on a hill against the upside of a log may simply be stacked in suspension. Either way, it’s important to always check for stability before trusting your step.

A note about handholds. For safety, every handhold should first be tested whenever possible. One should never assume, for instance, that a tree will support ones weight, particularly when its the only point of stability being relied upon. In such situations, grasping the base of the tree near the ground increases the likelihood that a tree won’t break.

A note about focus. The cost of weak moments can be significant and, just as the physical demands of such a climb left me exhausted, so too did the need to retain focus. Herein, in order to remain safe and to accomplish my goal, each step had to be considered, and each movement methodical. Furthermore, as previously noted, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and take the time to be thorough when weighing options to proceed; to recognize a diminished state of mental acuity, and not allow oneself to hurry.

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