Trailside Talk: Counting on Le Conte

Trailside Talk: Counting on Le Conte

By Mike Hembree

If you have hiked to the top of Mount Le Conte, you have "peaked" Tom Layton’s interest.

A former journalist and master of the pun, Layton is the overseer, editor, and only employee of a website devoted to one of the Smokies’ legend-filled mountains and to the people who hike its trails repeatedly.

Layton, 66, gets “punny” from the very start—the website address. It’s lecontest.com, which can be interpreted in any number of ways, and that’s the point. Or the peak.

Layton, who lives in Boone, NC, began his extensive Le Conte research in 2012. He is all about the numbers (and the stories they add up to), and the website devotes extensive space to listing hikers who have conquered the Smokies’ third-highest mountain hundreds—even thousands—of times. Using newspaper stories, interviews with Le Conte enthusiasts, and LeConte Lodge logbooks in which many mountaintop visitors sign their names, Layton has compiled lists that indicate at least 92 people have hiked the mountain at least 100 times—his “centennial club.”

Number one on that list is Tennessean Ron Valentine, whose Le Conte hikes total in the neighborhood of 4,000 over more than 70 years. Valentine has kept his exact total private, but Layton still hopes to document the accomplishments of Le Conte’s all-time hiking king.

The website also includes detailed information on Le Conte legends Jack Huff, who established LeConte Lodge; Rev. Rufus Morgan, who registered his 174th hike at age 93; and Ed Wright, who climbed the mountain 230 times in 1991 to set a one-year record. He was 66.

As interesting as the fact that hundreds of hikers return to the shoulders of Le Conte year after year is the fact that there is a man who has built a busy hobby of cataloguing those visits, plus the occasional oddity like the first Le Conte trip by a horse.

LeConte Lodge, c. 1970.

“It’s fun discovering the stories of people who are obsessive about it,” said Layton, an active hiker who typically is on a trail somewhere in the Southeast almost every weekend. “What is it that makes somebody keep coming back? I struggle to describe it other than I like going back myself. It’s such a destination and a neat place to go. It’s different every time.”

Layton’s personal number? He’s at eight Le Conte visits, leaving him only 92 hikes short of the centennial club. He plans to hike the mountain every year with a night or two at the mountaintop lodge. While other lodge visitors relax after a morning on the mountain, Layton typically is copying visitor logbooks that are stored in the lodge office. The logbooks go back to the 1920s, and it’s an uphill battle (another pun, you’re welcome) for Layton to transfer their information to his statistical load.

“It gnaws at me that there are so many that I still have to get to,” Layton said. “I’m going back this year, and I’ll probably get two or three or four more done. The folks at the lodge have been very helpful in copying pages and sending them to me. I just keep accumulating the information, and I feel like the honor roll is maybe 80 or 90 percent complete. But I keep finding new people.”

Layton’s “Mount Rushmore” of Mount Le Conte would feature Huff, Morgan, Wright, and Wiley Oakley, who grew up on the slopes of the mountain and talked of climbing it at least a thousand times. As Layton points out, however, Oakley was known to exaggerate, noting a sign in his Gatlinburg store that advertised “Antiques Made to Order.”

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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