Ascent of Cumberland Mountain-Chadwell Benchmark on 2020-10-05

Climber: Chris Gilsdorf

Date:Monday, October 5, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Cumberland Mountain-Chadwell Benchmark
    Elevation:3400 ft / 1036 m

Ascent Trip Report

For almost two decades, I've been working toward a goal I didn't even realize I had until the past few months: that of becoming the first person to climb all of Kentucky's nine peaks with 1000' of prominence. The list used to be only eight--a list Andy Martin has already completed--but after the summit of Bryson Mountain in Tennessee was mined away several decades ago, the highest remaining point on the massif was determined to be Logmont Benchmark, across the state line in Kentucky. After a very slow start to pursuing this goal, my pace rapidly accelerated in 2020, and I soon found myself with only one such summit left: the esteemed White Rocks Benchmark. This impressive mountain, straddling the Virginia-Kentucky border and the highest point in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, also lies just a few miles from all of the Bell County, Kentucky county highpoint candidates, including the infamous Oeser's Knob, a 4th-class boulder. I had planned this hike to finish not only both of these lists, but also that of every P1K whose prominence cell lay within Tennessee.

Unfortunately, plans for the other summit I still needed to climb for the prominence cell list, Buzzard Roost, kept falling through, and I finally decided to take advantage of a nice weather window and just go for it on White Rocks. I drove up on a beautiful, misty Monday morning in early October, leaving the house later than I would have liked. I arrived at the trailhead at 9:15 and was soon starting my journey uphill. The trail wound uphill through the woods, wide and gentle at a steady pace. I passed the turnoff for the shortcut trail to the White Rocks Lookout, and finally crested the ridge near the summit of White Rocks, where I saw a faint climber's trail heading right. However, I passed it--the trial of Oeser's Dome lay ahead, and I would not allow myself the summit of White Rocks without first surmounting it.

Continuing on the ridge, the trail was at first wide, then after the turnoff for Sand Cave, narrower, but still generally level and pleasant. I made good time toward the pair of county highpoint candidates (Chadwell BM being several miles off yet) and soon drew abreast with the easternmost candidate. A short uphill bushwhack through moderate brambles brought me to the summit area, and Oeser's Dome at last came into view, an imposing nugget of lopsided rock. Beyond it was a slightly lower ridge of more easily surmountable boulders, which I suspect are what actually lie along the state line and which would place the Dome firmly in Virginia. I walked along these boulders, dropped my pack, and contemplated the Dome. It didn't really look dome-shaped at all from here; it looked challenging but doable. I had brought helmet, harness, rope, prusik loops, and climbing shoes up there with me--but ended up not needing any of them. I dropped down into the cleft between the boulder ridge and the Dome, making my way to a tree growing initially sideways out of the rock, and getting up onto it here. From this spot, five feet or so of footholds along a ledge of sorts--small, but big enough--led to a wider part of the ledge with some exposure below. From here, there was one slightly sketchy friction move straight up to hoist yourself up the last step of rock, but in dry conditions with decent traction, I was quickly on top of the rock and able to easily make my way over to the highest nub. Success!! And not quite as scary as anticipated--I'd grade the boulder overall as a class 3+, but wouldn't vehemently argue with anyone who called it class 4. That said, it has some drop, probably about 20' at the very pinnacle, and a fall there could kill or seriously injure someone. For those averse to unroped scrambling, you could consider tying a rope around one of the trees along the rocky ridge--depending on your trust level of a tree whose roots extend partly into a boulder when it comes to bearing weight--and prusik your way up the far side of the boulder. But really, for most seasoned scramblers, getting up this thing is reasonable--it's comparable in difficulty to Sunlight Peak's summit block in CO, and easier than the summit rocks on Haycock Mtn in PA, as well as Clark Mtn in MO if the radio tower ladder weren't there.

Keeping along the ridge crest, I followed an old herd path the short distance to candidate #2, a small area with brambles and an area of open rock with some views out to the SW. Here I made my first dumb mistake of the trip--instead of just retracing my steps through the brambles, I decided to continue on the ridge. Unfortunately I soon discovered that everything leading south off to my left that would get me back to the trail was 1. very brushy and 2. guarded by a small cliff band. I stubbornly continued on, finally finding a small break in the cliffs through rhododendrons, open forest, then a very muddy creek crossing and more rhododendrons. I finally reached the trail again, happy to continue on.

Making my way along the Ridge Trail toward Chadwell BM, I started encountering more actual uphills and downhills, which slowed me down some. I passed the Chadwell Gap trail turnoff, which appears to be open now. After a long uphill grind, I topped out near a campsite and turned left into the woods at height of land. I continued, roughly following the state line with occasional game trails and persistent, though not impassable brambles. A small dip down into a saddle with less brush, a short uphill push, and I found myself in the vicinity of the final county highpoint candidate. I tagged a half-dozen high looking areas, the last of which was several rocks in the crook of a tree. I started heading downhill, but not before catching my foot on a vine and face-planting into the brush. Luckily, nothing major was injured except my pride, though my left thigh would end up being pretty sore on the downhills at the end of the day.

I headed downhill off the summit at roughly a right angle, entering far easier territory with ferns and few brambles. Going gently downhill, I reached a path (apparently the Ridge Trail), and here made my second mistake of the trip: I turned left. I had considered turning right, but the topo map showed another trail leading off the current one that would take me over by Hensley Settlement, so hey, why not? This second trail, as it turns out, doesn't exist. I bushwhacked along the approximate route of the second trail, but soon entered a mess of rhododendrons and muddy creek bed, which slowed me down quite a bit working through all that nonsense. After a slow and circuitous route, I came up on a fenceline at the edge of the settlement, but nowhere did it look super easily surmountable, especially with my exhaustion and large pack, I finally reached the real trail again, passed through a gap in the fence, and entered Hensley Settlement.

The view in front of me was beautiful and pastoral, with rolling grassy fields, picturesque wooden fence lines, and a spattering of old wooden cabins, all under a clear blue sky and surrounded by trees whose colors were just beginning to turn. Two women were there already, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery--I suspect they had hiked up the Chadwell Gap trail. I took a food and water break, then wandered the settlement for twenty or thirty minutes. Some of the houses were surprisingly still signed as private; none were open to explore. This would have been a lovely place to relax, but it was now approaching mid-afternoon, and I was still at roughly only my halfway point, and needed to hustle. I began the long trek back over toward White Rocks BM, no side trips this time. There's not much to tell here--it was uneventful, and after maybe an hour and a half I was back at the turnoff for Sand Cave. This time, I headed down the trail toward it, losing a fair bit of elevation and passing a spot where the Ridge Trail continued eastward. Losing still more elevation, I finally bottomed out in a murky creek bed, and went a short distance up it to where Sand Cave came into view. Wow...what a spectacular, imposing wonder this was. It was Alum Cave writ large, a massive horizontal cleft extending deep into the mountainside, its steep, sandy floor sloping up into its deepest recesses. It took literally a few minutes to walk up to the apex of the cave floor. I returned to my pack, resting only a few minutes, still with several miles to go before dark. However, the side trip had been well worthwhile.

Climbing back up to the Ridge Trail was brutal, but thankfully brief. I continued east along it, now at a more mild grade, reaching a small saddle with a rocky pinnacle to the left. A bit beyond here, I saw Powen Ru's track had ascended the mountain, and seeing no obvious trail but fairly open woods, I did the same. I made easy progress until the ridge crest itself, reaching an area of thick brambles. I investigated this to make sure highest ground was not hiding somewhere within or beyond, then turned around and soon reached a few small flat rocks and the benchmark at the summit. I had done it...I had somehow completed the nine P1Ks of Kentucky. But here in this place of brambles and vegetation and no views, the moment did feel a bit anticlimactic. I considered continuing along the ridgeline as Powen Ru had done, but quickly abandoned this idea when I saw how overgrown and miserable the ridge crest was. I cut more downhill through some more of the open, ferny woods, seeing the trail below, and rejoined it.

Happy to be back on trail, now for the rest of the hike, I continued downhill to a saddle and then up through broken cliffs on a rugged trail to gain the top of the famous White Rocks for which this area is named. The trail on top of the rocks has several turnoffs to separate lookout points. I picked one at random and emerged to a late afternoon vista stretching out across Lee County and into Tennessee. A beautiful view, though the sun was practically behind White Rocks BM at this late hour, and I couldn't see into Kentucky at all. I enjoyed the view a bit, then started down, retracing my steps to the shortcut back to my ascent trail. I alternately walked and jogged the switchbacking trails downhill, my left thigh causing me pain whenever I did the latter, and arrived back at the car five minutes after sunset, for a total distance in excess of nineteen miles and a total of ten hours of hiking. My GPS track claimed over a vertical mile of elevation gain, but I'm not sure I buy that--in general terms, it was probably around 3100' of gain, plus some other imperceptible extra ups and downs. In any case, though, this was a worthy and worthwhile adventure, a fitting end to my Kentucky endeavors, and one of the best hikes I've done in the Southeast.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:1714 ft / 522 m
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:1714 ft / 522 m
    Distance:19.5 mi / 31.4 km
    Start Trailhead:1686 ft / 513 m
Descent Statistics
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Chris Gilsdorf
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