Crews are doing their annual aerial heavy-lifting for the LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains. A large helicopter is airlifting hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies to the rental cabins at the second-highest peak in the Smokies.
There are no roads to the top of Mount LeConte. The only routes are narrow hiking trails that wind several miles up the mountain. Stocking up for a year of operations requires help from above.
"It's 250,000 pounds of goods. So, it's going to take us two days and around 120 lifts," said Crissy Householder, a longtime LeConte Lodge employee. "It's a lot of good people coming together to work on one big project for something very cool in the Great Smoky Mountains."
The lodge workers start by hauling the goods up to a staging area up at the Oconaluftee Overlook on Highway 441, a couple of miles from Newfound Gap and the Tennessee state line. From there, a large construction helicopter from Michigan will ferry goods from the parking lot over to the LeConte Lodge.
“It is the shortest trip to the lodge from here and the overlook has hills that shield the parking lot from the strong winds, so it helps the helicopter during landing and takeoff. Once the helicopter takes off, it deals with some fierce winds between here and the lodge,” said Householder.
The overlook is closed to the public during the airlifts. Crews briefly stop traffic on Highway 441 when the helicopter crosses the road.
"Because it is a construction helicopter, all the gear is hanging from the bottom underneath the helicopter. It hauls everything from canned goods, construction supplies, and big 3,000-pound propane tanks to the lodge," said Householder.
The airlifts rarely go exactly as-scheduled. Weather frequently causes delays and complications. The staging area is on a road the National Park Service frequently closes due to snow and ice. When workers can reach the staging area, the clouds can force them to play the waiting-game.
"The pilots need a good visibility from this location to the top of the mountain in order to make the trip. The weather up here is almost always more extreme. It is usually 20 degrees colder than down in the valley and conditions change quickly,” said Householder.
The airlift was initially scheduled to begin on Monday, but a weekend of snow pushed operations back to Tuesday. The road opened Tuesday around noon. Even though conditions were sunny at the overlook staging area, clouds hovering over LeConte a few miles away postponed the airlift.
The crews hope the weather will provide enough open windows to get the heavy-lifting done in time to start the 2018 season at the LeConte Lodge as-scheduled on Monday, March 19.
"With the weather, you just never know. It's a big endeavor. But we have a great group and this is always an exciting time at the staging area and at the lodge," said Householder.