Great Smoky Mountains: Mt. LeConte via Alum Cave

 Look at that saturated goodness!

Look at that saturated goodness!

Happy New Year everyone!  No blog post last week as I was busy spending quality time with family to celebrate Christmas.  Speaking of Christmas, my wife got me not one, but TWO boxes of Fuji Velvia 50!  This should last me the year...although I might purchase another box in the fall just to be safe for my annual Zion trip.

With regard to Zion, I hope you all enjoyed my intro video and blog to this year's trip.  I stayed a total of 8 days this year and plan to release a video from each day.  My hope is to put out one video per week for the next little bit, but right now I'm actually waiting for some more film to return from the lab.  These aren't landscape shots, but some behind the scenes work.  I took an old Canon Rebel and shot a roll of 35mm Portra of the trip.  Once those scans return (I'm too lazy to scan my own 35mm color negative!) I'll get back to posting daily recaps.

In the meantime, I've been anxious to get out and shoot again.  I haven't taken a single shot since the end of October!  It's a strange reality to take so many shots in a short amount of time (52 total sheets in a little over a week at Zion) and then be completely shut down for months at a time.  Therefore, I made it a goal of mine to shoot something over Christmas break.  This meant a trip to the Smoky Mountains was in order.

If I'm being honest, I'm not all that inspired to shoot the Smokies.  I'm not quite sure what it is.  Perhaps it's just familiarity.  After all, I have grown up here nearly my entire life.  Rolling hills covered in trees are things I've seen for as long as I can remember.  It could also be the people.  (That sounds mean...)  The Smokies are the most visited National Park in the US...and it's not even close.  Last year, more people visited there than the next two parks (Grand Canyon and Yosemite) COMBINED!  The previous year, it was more than the next 3 combined.  If you like being completely stopped in traffic, then I highly recommend visiting in the fall on a weekend.  Finally, I just don't connect with the scenery as much as I do in the Southwest.  There are trees; trees everywhere!  There are very few "clean" views to be had, and when you do come across one during a hike, there is often no photographic composition.

And it's not just me who thinks this way.  (My elementary school teachers taught me to never start sentences with "and" so technically I do know better...)  Ansel Adams himself once said, "The Smokys are OK in their own way, but they are going to be devilish hard to photograph."  Perhaps that's why he only came here once.  However, Ansel lived near the Sierra Nevada, and I live in East TN.  It's the closest park to me (essentially in my backyard) and I do find the Smokies beautiful in their own way, so about a year ago I made a conscious effort to shoot there more.

I chose to hike to Mt. LeConte early on the day after Christmas.  LeConte is one of, if not the most famous landmarks in the park.  It's the third highest peak (if anything here can actually be called a peak) in the park, and there is a lodge at the top where people can stay overnight during the warmer months...as long as you make reservations well in advance!  There are four (technically five if you count two trails that join before the summit) separate trails to the top.  I decided on the Alum Cave trail as it's the shortest trail and set out early in hopes to avoid the inevitable crowds.

I arrived at the trail head just before 8 a.m. and 29 degrees outside.  Sometimes the hardest part of the journey is just getting out of the car, even when you know you'll be warm after about 10 minutes of hiking.  I eventually built up the courage to turn the car off and hit the trail.  I had the entire mountain to myself!  A light snow covered the rhododendron as I made my way upward.  It was really quite beautiful!  After about 45 minutes of hiking I came to an arch.  An actual arch!  My own little slice of Utah right here in Tennessee.  Another prominent milestone along the hike comes at the halfway mark:  Alum Cave.  Not really a cave, Alum is a 90' high, 500' long overhang that stays completely dry underneath.  It's an excellent spot to rest; some people even turn around at this point.

I highly recommend continuing.  Just past the "cave" the hike starts to gain some elevation.  Soon, you'll start to rise above the surrounding hills.  By midmorning, the sun had melted most all of the snow.  The warmth was nice, but it made me realize I had underestimated the water I would need.  This is something I do with alarming frequency.  I just find it hard to pack a second liter of water when my pack is already so heavy.  I conserved as best I could during rests and slowed my pace a bit.

My pace would be further slowed by the last half mile of the hike.  It was a solid sheet of ice.  And I mean solid.  Thankfully, the park has installed wire cables to hang on to, but it took every bit of concentration I had just to stay upright.  I slipped numerous times but thankfully never fell.  Unfortunately, my pace slowed to a crawl.  I finally reached LeConte Lodge, but a five mile hike had taken me almost 4 hours!  I started to become a little concerned about remaining daylight.  I am always prepared to hike in the dark, but hiking in the dark in an ice field was quite unappealing.

Further complicating the situation was the fact that Myrtle Point (a well-known overlook near the summit) was another .7 miles away, over more ice.  The top of LeConte, just like the rest of the entire park, is covered in thick trees.  At one point I was literally at the peak, the ground fell away from me on all sides, yet all I could see were trees.  Therefore, I knew I would need to reach an overlook to have any chance at a shot.  At this point a bit of psychology came into play.  I was not expecting to take an award winning image here, but I felt that I needed SOMETHING tangible from this trip for all the effort I put in!  With water, and now food, running low, I knew that I needed to take a shot to feel some sort of accomplishment during my return hike.  Therefore, I made the decision to continue on.

 iPhone pano from atop Myrtle Point.  I was too tired to correct the horizon...:)

iPhone pano from atop Myrtle Point.  I was too tired to correct the horizon...:)

I arrived at Myrtle Point around 12:30 in the afternoon and came across the first people I would see on the trip...who asked if they could take a picture of my camera!  I quickly set up a shot, but I could feel the internal clock ticking.  I knew I needed to start back soon to avoid darkness and ice.  There are few things more unsettling in large format than being rushed while shooting.  I tried my best to relax as I composed and focused but I found it very difficult to find any sort of peace.  Oh well.  I went to cock the shutter...and nothing happened.  Panic!  The shutter was stuck open and the aperture blades wouldn't move.  I tried for several minutes to get it to work, all the while thinking what it would do for my mental state if I didn't come away with a single shot.  Eventually, changing the shutter speed appeared to reset everything, and I took the shot.  This little hiccup does have me concerned about the health of my 90mm lens though.  Might be time for a check-up...

I quickly packed up following the shot and started to head back.  It was honestly one of the least satisfying shooting experiences I've ever had.  Fortunately though, the afternoon temps had started to melt the ice which allowed for much faster hiking.  I even got to explore the lodge.  Sweet!  What wasn't so sweet was that I bit it, HARD, about a mile past the lodge.  Even better, I fell in front of a total stranger.  I went nearly 8 miles without falling and without seeing anyone, but the first time I'm close to another hiker, I fall.

Fantastic...

 Looking rough...

Looking rough...

Fortunately I shielded my gear from the fall with my knee and hand.  I really miss hiking in my 5.10s; they would grip anything.  My pride and gear were both barely still intact, so I continued onward.  At about the 3 mile mark on the return I really hit a wall.  My knee had a golfball size knot, and I was really starting to feel the effects of dehydration.  I took a LONG break at Alum Cave, where I finished off my water while listening to 3 people discuss how "age was just a social construct..."  I don't think I have much in common with this group.

The remainder of the hike was uneventful.  I even got my second wind and was able to hike back fairly quickly, with plenty of daylight left to spare.  I looked rough though.  I took a selfie at the car to commemorate the event.  Funny how I only take selfies when I shoot large format; perhaps because it allows for so much downtime...weird.

The next day I developed and scanned the film, and I really enjoy this shot.  I've tried to separate the image itself from the effort it took to create it, but I think it stands quite well on its own.  I still prefer the Southwest (and I probably always will) but I am slowly making peace with these hazy rolling hills.

 "Room with a View" shot on 4x5 Ilford Delta 100

"Room with a View" shot on 4x5 Ilford Delta 100