Mountain Adventure

May 1, 2008 By    

When night falls on Mount LeConte and a cold, stiff wind rattles the cabin walls, the blue flame of propane provides warmth to weary hikers inside.

At 6,593 feet, LeConte Lodge sits atop the third-highest peak in the Smoky Mountains.
At 6,593 feet, LeConte Lodge sits atop the third-highest peak in the Smoky Mountains.

The temperature can drop in a hurry 6,500 feet up the third-highest peak in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. But since the turn of the century, the camp atop Mount LeConte – one of the most popular and remote destinations for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts – has been heated by propane.

And it’s no secret. Just below the small lodge and the camp’s rustic cabins sit 30 500-gallon propane tanks enclosed in fencing and overlooking a breathtaking mountain view. This fuel source allows 12,000 guests per year to find comfort atop the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States.

“There’s no other place like it in this part of the country,” says Tim Line, general manager and limited partner for LeConte Lodge. “It’s very unique, and it appeals to a lot of people.”

The journey

Much of that appeal comes from the journey as well as the destination. Because the mountaintop is inaccessible by road, hikers spend hours walking one of five trails leading to the lodge. Trailheads are located a short drive from Gatlinburg, a busy tourist town at the foot of the Smoky Mountains.

Before the camp opens to hikers, workers spend a day in March stocking it with supplies that are flown in by helicopter.
Before the camp opens to hikers, workers spend a day in March stocking it with supplies that are flown in by helicopter.

Alum Cave Bluffs Trail is the shortest, steepest and most popular route at five miles one way. The Boulevard Trail is the longest at eight miles. Hikers also may choose between Rainbow Falls, Bullhead and Trillium Gap.

A recent trek up and down Bullhead was grueling for novice hikers. The seven-hour ascent offered amazing views of the Smoky Mountains and civilization below. Other than the steep climb, patches of rocky terrain proved to be the biggest obstacle. The descent the next morning was a manageable four-and-a-half hours and highlighted by a train of about eight llamas carrying supplies to the camp – which they do three times per week.

Built in 1926 to help gain national park status for the Smoky Mountains, LeConte Lodge serves as a getaway from the daily grind. Once atop the mountain, hikers revel in the views and the peace and quiet. Cabins have no electricity or running water, although an outside pump provides cold water for guests. There isn’t much to do except relax, read a book, play a game or musical instrument or share stories with fellow hikers. Giggling kids spent a recent evening perched atop a tree and peering down at guests.

Empty 500-gallon propane tanks are flown from LeConte Lodge to a staging area in the park for refueling. AmeriGas provides the supply.
Empty 500-gallon propane tanks are flown from LeConte Lodge to a staging area in the park for refueling. AmeriGas provides the supply.

A family-style dinner is served at 6 p.m. each day, with breakfast at 8 the next morning. Soon after, hikers are on their way down the mountain, and new guests are on their way up. The camp is so popular that reservations are taken a year in advance, with each guest paying about $100 per night, which includes the two meals. A 10-member crew operates the camp, and one member stays throughout the winter.

“We get a mix of people,” says Line, adding 45 hikers on average stay in the 10 guest cabins each night. “There are a lot of couples, families, church groups, family groups. A lot of people have been coming for many, many years. We get a lot of return business – and new people as well.”

In addition to the 12,000 overnight guests at LeConte Lodge each year, an equal number completes the hike in one day, Line says.

Delivery method

The camp presents one of the most unique methods in propane delivery. Each year, before the camp opens its doors to thousands of hikers, a helicopter from the Construction Helicopters Inc. fleet transports tanks off the mountain for refueling. AmeriGas uses staging areas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and orchestrates the refueling process before the tanks are flown back to Mount LeConte.

Empty tanks are flown from the camp in groups of four and returned full in pairs. With the process complete, 30 tanks sit neatly in rows.
Empty tanks are flown from the camp in groups of four and returned full in pairs. With the process complete, 30 tanks sit neatly in rows.

“When we started they were one of the biggest companies around and willing to fit our needs,” Line says of AmeriGas. “Over the years it’s evolved and become a pretty good working relationship. They’ve always been open and flexible in working with us, and the trucks are there when we need them.”

AmeriGas services the account out of Knoxville, 50 miles from the site, but it also gets support from its Morristown, Kingsport and Crossville locations. About seven employees are involved in the process.

The empty tanks are flown in groups of four from Mount LeConte to a staging area in the park. Five or six AmeriGas bobtails wait in another area one mile away. When the empty tanks are in place, AmeriGas sends one truck at a time to the filling area. The full tanks are then flown back in pairs to Mount LeConte.

In addition to propane, the helicopter transports supplies such as canned goods, dry goods, hardware and building materials. The airlift takes about 50 trips totaling 200,000 pounds and lasting about eight hours when conditions are right. The event, which was held on March 17 this year, is dependent on the ever-changing mountain weather.

A propane heater is used in the LeConte Lodge dining room, where hungry hikers gather at 6 p.m. each day for a well-balanced dinner.
A propane heater is used in the LeConte Lodge dining room, where hungry hikers gather at 6 p.m. each day for a well-balanced dinner.

“We had a good day on that Monday that we airlifted,” Line says. “We had a lousy day the day before and a lousy day two days after, but that one window went well.”

Propane usage

A walk through the intimate camp with Resident Manager Chris Virden reveals the many uses of propane. Each cabin is equipped with a propane heater, which replaced kerosene. There’s a propane heater in the dining hall and camp office, four propane refrigerators, a propane stove, a propane incinerator, two tankless propane water heaters (one for hikers, the other for the crew’s shower) and two propane kitchen lamps. (Kerosene lamps are the main source of lighting throughout the camp.)

A former art student with no background in propane, Virden was hired as resident manager of the camp in 2001, about the same time propane was installed for heating. He now has knowledge of the fuel, with Line’s training.

“I didn’t know about propane either, but I learned as time went on,” says Line, who has spent 32 years with the camp. “When we got the new system put in, AmeriGas spent the whole summer up there. They provided training on how the system works. When Chris came, I trained him.”

Cabins are nestled among the trees on Mount LeConte. The camp's 10 guest cabins sleep 45 hikers on average each night.
Cabins are nestled among the trees on Mount LeConte. The camp’s 10 guest cabins sleep 45 hikers on average each night.

The camp’s applications use about 15,000 gallons of propane per year, with the season running from late March to late November. Line says 26 tanks (about 13,000 gallons) were refilled this year, with the annual average being 26 to 28 tanks requiring propane.

Before the 500-gallon tanks were installed at LeConte Lodge, propane existed in small amounts. The camp used about 10 250-gallon propane tanks, but kerosene remained the primary source of heat.

“There really is no other fuel we could use up there,” Line says. “Wood was used up there for many years – up until the mid ’70s – but there got to be an erosion problem with so much wood being burned.

“We switched to kerosene, but it was never a very clean fuel,” Line adds. “We had problems with heaters smoking and constantly needing cleaned. We still had to fly up drums of kerosene, and that was a problem and issue environmentally because the drums would rust and might start leaking. In 2000 we decided to go with something cleaner.”

Installing propane was a challenge – digging ditches and laying lines – but the end result was a success, Line says.

“It’s been great,” he adds. “The heaters burn all night, and they never run out of fuel. With propane you have heat 24 hours. It’s a cleaner fuel, and it’s much more efficient.”

Reliable heat is required atop Mount LeConte since the weather is unpredictable. Nighttime summer lows can fall to 40 degrees, while spring and fall lows can dip into the teens with snow.

“I’m a huge fan of propane. It’s really improved the quality of everything,” says Virden, whose wife Allyson also works as resident manager.

“Propane’s been a totally different experience. Kerosene was a lot more work, and everything smelled like kerosene. Propane – you don’t even have to think about, which is nice.”

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