by Julie Dodd
If you’ve hiked to Mt. LeConte and stopped at LeConte Lodge, you’ve probably talked with Chris or Allyson Virden, the site managers of LeConte Lodge.
As LeConte Lodge site managers, Chris and Allyson have been Smokies ambassadors for 12 seasons. They are stepping out of that role at the end of the LeConte Lodge season, in late November.
In their 12 years, about 12,000 guests each season have stayed at LeConte Lodge (or about 144,000 total in 12 years). In addition, hundreds of day hikers have stopped at LeConte Lodge each week –getting water from the pump outside the lodge, having their photo taken on the stone steps outside the dining hall, or purchasing a special LeConte T-shirt.
On a hot July day in 2013, I was one of a group of about 70 day-hikers at LeConte Lodge to celebrate famed Mt. LeConte hiker Margaret Steveson’s 101st birthday. Allyson baked birthday cakes for the celebration.
Allyson manages the kitchen, which serves meals for lodge guests and gallons of hot chocolate. In addition to being in charge of those meals, she handles meal preparation for the crew, providing them more variety than the LeConte Lodge menu for the guests.
Both Chris and Allyson answer dozens of questions from hikers every day – often the same questions – about the trails, the llamas that bring supplies to the lodge, or the history of the lodge or the park. They have been real educators on topics ranging from trail safety to the ecosystem of the Smokies.
Because LeConte Lodge can only be reached by hiking at least 5 miles (or flying in by helicopter), both Chris and Allyson have to be very self-reliant, being able to make all kinds of repairs – from generators to roofs to plumbing to stoves. They also have been involved with major upgrades to the lodge, such as the addition of porches to the individual cabins and the change from kerosene to propane heaters.
Allyson started the LeConte Lodge blog – High On LeConte — in 2010. Allyson provides daily weather and trail condition information and shares nature stories. The blog also showcases Allyson’s wonderful photos, which give a feeling of being atop LeConte. (Other crew members submit great photos, too, and blog when Allyson is having a vacation day.)
In the four years of the blog, daily posting is only halted because of the weather (so much rain or clouds that the solar panels can’t generate the power needed for the computer) or because the crew is on a rescue mission.
Those rescues have been a regular part of Chris and Allyson’s job. Sometimes hikers are attempting the hike in difficult weather conditions – such as the recent big snowstorm, which dumped 22 inches on Mt. LeConte. Sometimes hikers aren’t using good judgment. In a post earlier this fall, Allsyon told of helping the National Park Service in its rescue of a family with three small children that had attempted a 13-mile hike and wound up spending part of the night sleeping on the trail – without a flashlight, adequate clothing or gear.
But more often, Chris and Allyson have helped hikers celebrate happy events – birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and special family events. On one of my visits to Mt. LeConte, Allyson pointed out a multi-generation family. The grandparents, who had hiked to Mt. LeConte for years, were thrilled that all seven of their grandchildren finally were of an age to hike to LeConte with them.
During the off-season, Chris and Allyson have traveled the world – hiking, kayaking, bird watching, and taking cooking classes.
But they love the Smokies.
They will be living and working in the Gatlinburg area.
Chris and Allyson have been training Ruthie Puckett, who will be the new site manager for next season. Ruthie made her first hike to Mt. LeConte with her family when she was 11. That’s Ruthie in the crew photo — on the far right on the same step with Chris and Allyson. LeConte Lodge, a concession of the National Park system, is owned and operated by Stokely Hospitality Enterprises.