My upcoming e-book, Behind The Lens: Great Smoky Mountains, was originally planned as a November 1 release. Due to my extremely busy schedule, however, it will not be ready for the 1st, but instead will be available sometime mid-month. I just returned from a ten-day Smokies trip and now I leave for Zion on Wednesday for another ten days. No rest for the weary, as they say.
In order to whet your appetite for what’s to come, here’s another teaser from the book. Some of these short essays are all about photography and some about the personal anecdotes behind the images. As you will soon read, this essay is from the latter category.
High and Wild
I hit the trail just before 2:30 in the afternoon with hopes of bagging a sunset from the summit of the Chimney Tops. I had just performed some exhaustive searches on the Internet for sunset images from this location but could not come up with a single example. I thought that was strange. The trail to the Chimneys was one of the most popular hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so why the conspicuous lack of the seductive sunset photo? This fact made me all the more determined to capture one, even if the possibility of being the first to do so was far too improbable.
If there were any omens, bad signs, or warnings of impending trouble on the real or metaphorical horizon, they were opaque to me at the time. The sky on this late spring afternoon was a rich shade of blue with billowing cumulous clouds drifting benignly over the mountaintops. The warm sun, coupled with a refreshing steady breeze through the 80-degree air, made for ideal hiking conditions. It was, if nothing else, a bit too perfect.
The hike to the top was strenuous, but not overly difficult either. Over its two miles, the trail gained 1350 feet to an exposed double-capstone knob with panoramic views in every direction. Recent heavy rainstorms, however, had washed away the rocky trail that allowed relatively easy access to the eastern side of the pinnacle. This was the first obstacle I encountered as well as first sign of trouble.
I opted to scale the exposed, rocky pinnacle head on by performing some semi technical, hand-over-hand climbing for about 30 feet until I reached the summit. Getting back down in the dark would be a problem, but with sunset yet several hours away, it might as well have been an eternity. The view was stunning and I was too mesmerized to care at that moment.
As I blissfully ignored that problem another one was quickly developing. Dark storm clouds were accumulating over the higher mountains in the east and heading my way. I knew the exposed knobby summit would be a dangerous place to wait out a lightning storm, but I also hated the thought of the difficult climb back down as well. I sensibly chose to retreat to the base of the capstone anyway until the storm passed. I left my tripod on top and began the slow, deliberate climb back down, blindly feeling for each foothold as the thunder became louder and the winds more intense.
When the heavy rains finally hit, I had descended but a mere a third of the rock’s total vertical distance. I reversed course and climbed back to the summit, since going up was faster and easier than going down and I certainly did not want to be clinging to the almost vertical rock during the height of the tempest. Once back on top, the storm was picking up intensity and lightning flashed in every direction. I wedged myself into a rock crevice for protection but it was of little value. I was vulnerable and the storm was right on top of me.
I soon experienced a very strange physical sensation. My skin began to tingle. Glancing down at my bare arms and legs, a sickening feeling came over me. Every hair was standing straight and upright. I knew what that meant, and I knew it was a bad sign. For an incalculable amount of time, I closed my eyes tightly and clenched every muscle in my body, bracing for the inevitable that fortunately never came. The rain finally abated and the storm moved on, leaving me only in a very frightened and wet state.
As the sun slowly dropped toward the western horizon, the sky and clouds from the storm’s remains bounced a beautiful magenta glow over the mountains. The light show capped a perfect ending to an unforgettable experience. I was euphoric – and relieved, not so much by the sunset itself, but by the entire expereince.
After carefully descending the wet summit rocks by moonlight, I scrambled down the steep, shadowy trail to my waiting car. I promptly treated myself to a cold beer.