8°!...That's what the thermometer at the Leconte lodge read as we summited. 8°! With a finger numbing, skin percing, body shivering, beard freezing -15° wind chill. Hunkered down on the porch of cabin 3 waiting on first light, trying to stay warm. 15 minutes rolled by and we started to see the first signs of light on the horizon. I moved from the porch and looked over the top of the dining hall and that's when I saw it. We had hoped this would happen but it was more amazing than we could possibly imagine. No longer were my fingers numb. What I saw made me instantly warm.............but wait! I'm getting way ahead of myself.
My alarm went off at 1:30 am. Quite early for some but pretty much a weekend routine for me. 1:30 am is prime hiking time. Groggy from only 3 hours sleep I began the task of getting dressed. What to wear? I knew it was going to be cold up top but how cold. I chose to error on the side of caution, so I packed for the worst. I came to my buff and almost left it. I hadn't used it all winter but something told to bring it. Might be the best decision I made in quite sometime. Out the door and on the road! It's quite easy to navigate the streets of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg at 3 am. As Bill Murray might say " Is it too early for flap Jack's?" Yes Bill it is too early for flap jacks but its not to early for a Honey Bun!
Pops couldn't make this trip so it was just going to be me and Oz. He is already there when I arrive at the Rainbow Falls trail head as I pull into the parking lot. Rainbow falls trail to the mighty Mt. Leconte was our hiking route this morning. Typically we would do Alum for a sunrise hike, but as is tradition in the Smokies, 441 was closed due to ice and snow. The trail was muddy and a thin dusting of snow lay on the ground. This gave us hope of good snow up top. You know as a kid how you hoped it would snow and watched the weather constantly hoping and praying? Well for us winter hikers that doesn't go away when you grow up. We live for the white stuff. We watch those little icons on the weather apps like hawks waiting for them to show the little snow flake graphics. Oh the joy to see the Snow Flake graphic.
The beginning of the trail follows Leconte Creek just to our right. Today this creek was raging from the previous day's hard rain. Hiking at night heightens your sense of sound. The Cascades up leconte Creek sounded like Niagara falls to us. At about mile 2 the muddy trail transitioned into snow and ice. At one Creek crossing some fancy rock hopping was needed. Snow and ice lay on these rocks so we made the call to put on the spikes. A face plant was not on our agenda. As we ascended, there was much more snow than ice. Spikes are useless in the snow. The chains of the spike just become clogged an marred with clumps of snow. This in itself can cause an ankle twist. Time to take the spikes off.
At mile 5 we hit what I like to call the arctic zone. If you've hiked Mt. Leconte enough you will notice a zone up close to the top where the temperature suddenly drops. This is pretty much all year but this morning it was a straight up gut punch. It was here i started to notice the ice forming on my beard. I let the ice build. Winter hiking 101, never ever knock the ice off your beard. It keeps you warm. But more importantly it makes you look like a bad ass. Not my best ice beard but I'll take it.
At 6.5 miles we arrive at the lodge. About 4" of snow lay on the ground. The wind was cutting us like a knife. It was still a good 15 minutes till first light and an hour until sunrise. The lodge was not our final destination this morning. Sunrise at Mt Leconte is best viewed from Myrtle Point. We still had .75 miles to go but if we continued on now we would arrive way to early and probably freeze to death. We decided to get out of the wind in the porch of cabin 3.
We unpacked and began adding our additional layers and activating hot hands. My face felt like someone was punching me in the face with spikes. I decided to break ice beard 101 rule. I put on my buff which destroyed it. 😥😥. But oh how good the warmth of my almost left behind buff felt.
It was here that I started this story. First light breaking free. Peering out over the dining hall we got our first look at the one thing that us sunrise chasers live for. A full scale cloud inversion.
Our bodies instantly changed from cold and numb to "Hot and Ready". We strap on our packs and head toward Myrtle Point with a new sense of urgency and excitement. It was going to be a good morning.
We got our first full scale look at the landscape looking south just a couple hundred feet from High top when we arrived at Apollo ridge. OOO...MMM....GGG!!!!!!!! The beauty we saw rendered me speechless. The sky was as Orange as I have ever seen. The trees and mountains where covered in Rime Ice and Snow creating a crisp White/Black contrast that created a spectacular definition of the ridges and valleys. The clouds were quickly pushing there way thru the valleys. I didn't want to leave this spot but I know it was going to be even better at Myrtle Point.
Forcing our self on we finally made it. Instead of standing on the main landing we walked down to our secret little spot. Pushing our way down the narrow trail thru ice covered bushes we arrived at what we call Adam's Perch. This spots gives us a Panaramic view of the Tennessee Valley all the way to the North Carolina side of the Smokies.
The Tennessee Valley was an ocean of clouds. On this day it was a raging sea as the wind swirled and churned the clouds like butter. If you where in a boat on this sea you would most likely capsize. The mountains rose out of the valley and thru the clouds to create islands in the sky. We where still 20 minutes from sunrise so the sky was still a bright orange across the horizon. The scene can only be described as the Touch of God.
No longer noticing the cold or the wind we began getting to work. The task of getting our cameras out, deciding on lenses, checking to make sure lenses are clean, laying out the tripod, exposure setting, and composition. On this day we had to be conscience of the batteries freezing up. So we kept extra batteries in our pockets to keep them warm and do a quick change if the camera shuts down.
Scanning the area, taking early shots. Most of these preliminary shots are really intended to find the right composition and place to be for when the big moment happens. For that glorious time when the sun breaks the horizon. Oz was down on the lower part of the ridge, while I was on the middle part. The scene was so amazing I couldn't help but take a few shots of Oz in action. We love the adventure shots. Adventure Photography really adds to the experience and helps to solidify the memory.
With my spot found, I awaited the sun. I chose a spot with ample snow in the foreground at an angle were it would be illuminated with an orange hue once the sun broke free and shown on them. I think I chose wisely. In the words of the Beatles: "Sun, Sun, Sun, here it comes! Here comes the sun and I say, Its all right!" It was more than all right! It was spiritual!
Eventually like all good sunrises they must come to an end. We continued to shoot for a while but soon the sun got too bright. Sadly it was time to move on. We made our way back up to the
landing where we ran into Kemp the Lodge Caretaker. We talked to him for a while but eventually we said goodbye and made our way back to the lodge.
The Lodge is always magical in the snow. We walked around cabins that are busy with visitors but empty in winter. Down the stone paths taking shots as we went. Walking by the dining hall wishing we could stop by for some hot chocolate and no bake cookies. The trees where dense with rime Ice. The sun had just cresting over the tree line. Oz stood up on the Office porch and captured an amazing Panoramic shot.