Updated: Mar 2, 2020
I made it to Myrtle Point 25 minutes before the 7:34 am sunrise with a fresh, untouched 6 inch blanket of snow waiting for me. The wind was not phased by my presence and actually blew my hat right off my head but was caught by a small spruce tree nearby. The beauty before me was more than I had imagined the night before and my first order of business was to retrieve my camera from my semi-heavy backpack loaded with camera gear, 2 extra layers of clothes, enough snacks to last me a few days and at least 4 packs of Hand Warmers. I secured my camera around my neck and checked my settings but something was missing, I scrambled back to my backpack and I couldn't believe my eyes, the wave of disappointment hit me harder than the 30 MPH winds that morning...
It's not often that an Adam hikes alone since there's 3 of us, we usually have at least 2 in town and able to hike, but this Sunday morning was different. Pops was out of town and Hoss was tanning his hide on a cruise ship in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico so I was the only Adam left, I had the freedom of hiking where I wanted. After studying the forecasts I decided on ole faithful, a Mt. LeConte sunrise was my destination for today's solo hike. 4 hours of sleep quickly passed and my 2:30 am alarm sounded, I was dressed, had my coffee and banana and was out the door and in my jeep for the 1:10 minute drive to be at Rainbow Falls Trailhead by 4 to be hiking no later than 4:15, allowing myself extra time to make it to Myrtle Point by sunrise in case of heavy snow slowing me down as my hike grew in elevation.
As always, my initial plan was up Alum since its the shortest route to Myrtle Point but with the trailhead being on the constantly closing 441(Newfound gap Road), my plans were smashed around 5:30 pm the night before due to snow and ice in the smokies. I basically flipped a coin in my mind and decided on Rainbow over Bullhead while on my commute to Cherokee Orchard where Rainbow Falls trail begins in The Great Smoky Mountains. For adventure photography or guided hikes, you need other people included, well this hike wasn't about any of that, it was only about me out enjoying nature totally alone, and every now and then a person needs a good solo hike.
I pulled into the parking lot and it was completely empty, the last swig of my coffee was down and my backpack was snug, nothing was left but to put one foot in front of the other for 7 miles, gaining around 4,000 feet of elevation in the dark and eventual falling snow.
I started off strong and with good pace but noticed a pair of footsteps leading my path. I had figured it was from someone late the afternoon before but these looked really fresh. I carried on and about 1 mile and a half saw 2 lights coming down the trail towards me. 2 young guys were wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes and only a light jacket and it was in the 20's, I didn't stop to talk to them but thought it seemed weird, considering there were no cars in the parking lot. Anyone that's hiked Rainbow recently knows about the decently big blowdown just past the falls that covers 2 separate portions of the trail, and that's where the 2 guys tracks ended. They decided to turn around 3 miles in because of a blowdown at 5 in the morning. Insignificant part of my hike but I found it strange.
A light dusting of snow quickly turned to 3, 4 and eventually 5-6+ inches and my pace suffered. Snow, especially fresh, is like walking on sand, it feels like it takes twice the effort to go half the distance and it was kicking me hard. With 2 miles left to my destination, my headlamp went from 100 to 0 within 3 seconds and its never died that quickly on me before. No big deal, change out the batteries and carry on, but not until I checked my backpack did I realize I left my extra batteries at home, on the coffee table. So there I was, no headlamp and 2 miles from Myrtle in falling snow, I either had to hike in the dark or use my phone, luckily the snow reflected enough light and I was able to see pretty well despite it being dark.
I eventually made it to the intersection of Rainbow and Bullhead, only .6 miles left to the Lodge with another .7 out to Myrtle, but most hikers know the last 0.6 to the lodge is a killer. Very steep in your 5th-6th mile and add in the snow factor, I was dreading this section all morning, as I always do. My pace came to a crawl but if I slowed down too much, I would miss sunrise. As I approached High Top, which is appropriately named to be the highest point of Mt. LeConte, 2 tents were set up and actually startled me as I was still hiking in the dark. Not the first time seeing random tents along the trail but makeshift camp spots are not allowed in the park. I always want to say something to people that are breaking park rules (dogs, littering...) but the last thing I want to be is "That guy", it would go through one ear and out the other anyway so I carried on, hoping the noise of the crunching ice and snow woke them from their sleep.
Shot of the tents and fire with the High Tops rock pile in the background.
I finally roll up to Myrtle Point 25 minutes pre sunrise, as I mentioned at the start, 6 inches of perfectly wind blown snow awaited it's sunrise photoshot, I was pumped. After slinging my camera around my neck I checked my screen, it said [-E-], meaning no memory card. Again no big deal, load it with a card and get to shooting, but, as were my headlamp batteries, they weren't there. I could deal with no batteries and hiking in the dark, but no memory card?! I checked every pouch, zipper, bag and corner of that backpack and nothing, my memory cards were back home, on the coffee table. Kemp, the caretaker for Leconte Lodge had shown up during the 5 minutes of me tearing my bag apart and I asked if he had an extra card on him, he didn't. His spare was back in the cabin, on the coffee table, a 20 minute hike away. I was up a mountain without a memory card, luckily the sky was 100% clear and there were no clouds to paint the sky with those vivid colors us photographers live for.
Sunrise from Myrtle Point
With my hand warmers up to full strength and tucked into my gloves, I sat and waited for the sun to make its first appearance over the mountain ridgeline. After snapping a few pictures and taking a video explaining my stupidity, I yelled at Kemp "I'll see you next weekend!" and packed my stuff up, starting back down the ridgeline and towards LeConte Lodge. Around every turn was another postcard photo with the frozen spruce trees and snow-draped trail, the wind blowing snow and giving the entire scene a sparkling effect. As happy as I was, I was sick, forgetting my memory cards was a lesson I hope to never learn again.
I snapped a quick picture in front of the Lodge kitchen and headed back down Rainbow Falls trail for an uneventful hike back to my Jeep. While heading back, I finally talked myself into focusing on how nice it was to just sit and enjoy the miracle of a sunrise from Myrtle Point, an experience a majority of people in this world will never see. Sometimes photography gets in the way of fully enjoying these moments because of the person focusing on the camera, settings, composition and angles, I felt blessed to even have the ability to do what we do, see what we see and experience what we experience in these captivating mountains we call home. Around 15 miles and 6 and a half hours later I was in my jeep with the heat blowing on 10. As bad as I felt about the memory cards, any day hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains is a good day and another story to tell.