Mount Yonah/Unicoi Adventure
My good friend Kevin Rains was getting married to a woman that he had been pursuing steadfastly for years, Tiffany Timko. Despite her multiple attempts to shrug him off, Kevin was genuine in his intent and persisted in ways that even I--no stranger to perseverance--advised against. So when they at last announced their engagement and I had still not met the woman he unplayfully called “The One”, I was my usual brand of suspicious.
I, on the other hand, mostly respected her willingness to show up after nightfall and hike through a dark forest with a strange man…
Despite coming in at a disadvantage, Tiffany won me over fairly simply—by coming to several of the weekly night hikes I organize in Atlanta. I figured her attendance was one part wanting to meet me and one part working on her bridal figure, and I was happy to facilitate both! Tiffany is a godly woman who radiates grace, and so it didn’t take long to see why Kevin didn’t walk away from her. I, on the other hand, mostly respected her willingness to show up after nightfall and hike through a dark forest with a strange man training for a Denali expedition by carrying a 60lb pack and dragging a truck tire behind him that he named 'Pig-Pen’ (after the Charlie Brown character that was always stirring up a dust cloud wherever he went). We managed some conversations over Pig-Pen, and she could hold her on on the trail to boot—I never heard her complain about the ever-spry pace we keep on the night hikes.
When I heard their wedding was to be held in Cleveland, Georgia, I quickly went to work to see how I could frame an adventure weekend around it.
So having been with Kevin throughout his courtship of her and at last having had the pleasure of getting to know her enough to approve of the matrimony, there was no way I was going to miss the ceremony! ESPECIALLY when they booked a location in the north Georgia mountains! Finally, a wedding with some hiking near me. When I heard their wedding was to be held in Cleveland, Georgia, I quickly went to work to see how I could frame an adventure weekend around it. Cleveland is not far from the Appalachian Trail, Unicoi State Park, and Mount Yonah, so each was considered and all were decided upon!
The plan was that we would drive up Friday night to stay at Unicoi lodge (because we needed both an early local start and a clean HQ to shower and prepare for the wedding the following day). If it was raining Saturday morning, we would hike a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. If not, we would go hiking and climbing at Mount Yonah, then return to the lodge and get cleaned up for the wedding. Sunday, we would go hiking to Anna Ruby Falls and maybe follow up with an excursion to Unicoi Lake to go swimming.
Because it was not forecast to rain, we headed to attempt some multi-pitch climbing at Mount Yonah. Shanna Irving and I were joined by long time friend and adventure racer Ron Sanders, his brave date Mozelle Pittman Brick, and Melissa Wynn. Shanna and I had known Melissa for a while through a hiking group and had hung out several times, but ironically none of them involved hiking. That would at last change! We divided up the gear and made our way up the trail to the Main Face. The hike is a mostly-uphill two mile jaunt, which winds its way up the mountain through some beautiful forest. Mount Yonah is the site of a Native American legend about a beautiful Cherokee maiden named Nacoochee who fell in love with the Chickasaw warrior Sautee. When their love was forbidden by the tribal elders, a war party followed the eloping lovers and threw Sautee off the mountain, with Nacoochee then jumping to her death, a Lover's Leap. This Native American variant of the Romeo and Juliet story was just the kind of romance we needed to get in the mood for a wedding!
After setting up our climbing camp and an initial top rope so the others could climb, Shanna and I decided to attempt to scout out a route that we could use as the second pitch of a two-pitch climb to the top. Because I had quick draws but no traditional (“trad”) pieces of protection, I was a bit let down when I realized there weren’t bolts along the proposed route into which I could clip the quick draws along the way to lead the climb. Instead, there was a set of metal cables that the Army Rangers from nearby Camp Merrill use to establish their top ropes while practicing military mountaineering skills on Mount Yonah. Not a problem. Having brought two ropes, we then intended to climb the “walk down path” to the top, fix a second rope, then do the multi pitch top rope climb by transitioning to the upper rope after having climbed the lower one.
Alas, we had insufficient gear for climbing both pitches of the route, but we would not be discouraged!
Unfortunately, the only anchor we could find at the top was poorly placed for the route and non-redundant. There were plenty of trees on which to establish an anchor, but they were further back from the cliff edge than the length of webbing I had brought. Alas, we had insufficient gear for climbing both pitches of the route, but we would not be discouraged! Shanna and I made our way back down to the other crew to discover they were wrapping up on the route they had been climbing while we were away, so I reset the rope for a separate route and we continued climbing.
Ron had done an awesome job protecting the others’ climbs while we were scouting (nobody died), and Melissa rocketed up the face. Mozelle had shown off some amazing courage tackling a 60-foot route her very first time climbing outdoors, Ron confidently followed, and Shanna and I finally got to do some climbing of our own after all the line fixing and exploring. When it was time to go, despite being drained from the August heat (which wasn’t the scorcher we had expected), I was left wanting more. I earmarked what gear I needed to bring next time to climb the entirety of the 200-foot Main Face, and we began to pack up for the hike down.
That is when the monsoon hit and turned the sloped granite of the approach trail to a slip ’n slide.
That is when the monsoon hit and turned the sloped granite of the approach trail to a slip ’n slide. We did our best to work together as a team to safely get down from our climbing camp perch with our gear, but it was slow going. As Shanna and I were in a rush to get to the wedding, we grabbed our gear and ran down the trail to get back to our cars, the lodge, the shower, and the wedding. On the way to the ceremony, it was a torrential downpour to the point where we had to drive incredibly slow because even with the windshield wipers raging it was impossible to see through it. Through a miracle, the outdoor wedding was beneath a break in the clouds, so as we rolled in the curtain lifted and we were completely dry! After celebrating Kevin and Tiffany’s union and dancing into the night, we returned to the lodge to get some sleep before our next day’s adventures.
For our Sunday hike, we were joined by fellow adventurous soul and badass stuntwoman Dailyn Matthews. We dropped a car at Anna Ruby Falls, then drove back 9 miles south to the Smith Creek Falls Trailhead, where we began hiking again towards Anna Ruby Falls, the jewel of our hike. Despite being in a generally gorgeous area, the Smith Creek Falls Trail mostly ran within visibility of the road, lacked scenic vistas, and was aesthetically unimpressive, so we filled our time with heated discussion (it was August in the South after all) as we made our way to Anna Ruby Falls.
As we floated in the cool mountain waters and relaxed between the trees, the sun set behind the Appalachian surround and brought our weekend to a close.
The falls did not disappoint. Coming off of the trail in backpacking gear we stood out among many of the visitors who had taken the half mile paved trail to get to the viewing deck for Anna Ruby Falls. We spent some time appreciating the cascading waterfalls, then headed out to hang out at Unicoi Lake with a hammock and a book. As we floated in the cool mountain waters and relaxed between the trees, the sun set behind the Appalachian surround and brought our weekend to a close.