(WBIR - Sevier County) Those who scale steep slopes to heights of more than 6,500 feet at the summit of Mount LeConte know there is no easy path to the mountaintop.
Every strenuous step along any of the rugged trail options hammer home an old three-pronged mantra of the mountaineer: "It's always further than it looks. It's always taller than it looks. It's always harder than it looks."
This particularly grueling winter has made life at the summit a challenge, even for a man who meets the mountain for a living. This winter was the third time John Paul Krol served as the caretaker at the LeConte Lodge. However, this winter included a lot of firsts compared to the previous seasons.
"It has been kind of eye-opening," said Krol. "I haven't ever heard of a 'polar vortex' before this last winter."
The LeConte Lodge cabins close in late November and do not re-open until March. When the rest of the crew climbs down, Krol arrives to take over as the summit's sole resident. He spends months alone during the deep freeze and keeps an eye on the cabins. Life at LeConte is a mix of back country beauty and semi-settlement.
"Water we have to haul up, so I have to go down to the spring about two-tenths of a mile from here and carry it up in jugs. For electricity we have a solar panel for chargers, park service radios, and stuff like that," said Krol. "I also use the electricity for my satellite radio. That's my one big indulgence for this season."
Krol's compensation inherently includes room and board. He also receives a stipend for food.
"I'm definitely not making my millions. But as they say, outward simplicity and inner-richness."
When the winter sun gives way to glowing city lights below, the icy darkness usually sends Krol to slumber snug in his cabin.
"My cabin is pretty toasty. It's a small space and holds heat well, so that's usually where I run to."
Krol then rises with the sun and begins a daily routine that revolves around recording and reporting the wildly unpredictable weather at the summit.
"The first thing I do is check the rain gauge if there was any precipitation. Then we've got a digital thermometer that is just a little high low gauge with the current temperature. We use park service radios to call that into headquarters and the National Weather Service," said Krol.
The juice from the solar panels also allows Krol to power a small laptop that relies on a single bar of cell service to update the daily blog on the LeConte Lodge website.
"I get the weather conditions out to people so if they're going to hit the trail today, they'll have a better idea of what it's like up top. So they know whether to bring traction devices. I also get some photos up, usually taken within the last few days," said Krol.
(Reporter's note: See album from WBIR's trip to LeConte Lodge and some of Krol's winter photos at the bottom of this article)
This winter's photos through crystal clear air are unforgettably frigid. There are several images of ice covering Krol's beard along with a heavy frosting on cabins. Waterfalls are completely frozen into hourglass-shaped ice columns.
"This year was just super cold. Probably in three seasons, I had my five coldest nights up here. It got down to -18 and -17 degrees. Before this season, I think the lowest I ever saw was -5 degrees one night. Those mornings with the polar vortex were really incredible. We don't have a lot of insulation in the kitchen, so I'd wake up and it would be 10 degrees in there with the heater on full blast. You could tell without even looking at the thermometer, you were wearing everything you have got, it is good gear, and it's just cutting through you," said Krol.
Krol said the hardest thing about being at the top of Mount LeConte in the winter is not necessarily the negative temperatures or the snow. It is whenever there is a constant thaw and freeze that converts snowy trails into sheets of ice that require specialized equipment to make even the shortest hike safely.
"You make sure you've got your spikes on. It has been so long where you just have to worry about falling and have a little bit of anxiety while you're walking. There were some sections of trail you just knew there would be black ice for several weeks."
In the last week Krol has finally been able to savor a sun-soaked splash of spring that melted most of the snow. After enduring months of negative temperatures, a day with highs in the 40s made conditions positively perfect for Krol to wear shorts.
"I forgot how much I missed it [the warm weather]. It has been great and you just try to enjoy the clear trails. When you can just jet up and down the mountain and go into cruise control, it's as good as it gets."
During the main season when the cabins are open to visitors, a pack of llamas make supply runs three times per week. The animals are not used during the winter season, Krol usually spends one day a week hiking down the mountain and back up again to restock on a few supplies.
No matter how low the mercury dips, Krol says the job of caretaker comes with a lot more personal highs.
"The sunrises and sunsets are incredible. I just want to share this with everyone. I think people become their best selves when they're out here. It is your back yard and it is easy to take for granted that you live in a place this remarkable. These mountains have so much character and it's worth it to get out and see what's around the next corner. Sometimes it's just mind-blowing up here."
John Paul Krol's shift as winter caretaker ends in around a week and a half. While many caretakers work one winter, he says he would like to return next year for a fourth season.
"If they'll have me, I definitely want to come back. There are still a lot more books I want to read. I think it's also great to get up here and test your limits. Not just physically, but mentally. There's a lot of time up here for self-reflection to examine what things you crave and why you crave those things. It's time I cherish at a place that is as good as it gets. I mean, I get to be the only person living in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park."