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Field Notes: Blood Mountain

By Erik Hogan

Fear lurks in these midwinter nights. Like a hunting animal, it follows along in the darkness. This is not a terror, the defined fear of a specific threat. Rather, it is the unstructured fear of the unknown that grows as worry and causes hesitation. How easily it infiltrates the mind.

It is early January and I have not backpacked, or done much hiking of any kind, for 2 months. Work schedules, holiday obligations, and other priorities conspire against me in the late months of the year. Some are legitimate and some are excuses. When the cold and the dark settle in, so does the apprehension.

Winter camping that I have done in the past has been at controlled locations with access to campfires that burned through the night. I have backpacked in cold snaps in Autumn. I have not backpacked in winter. The fear of this unknown gnaws at me. Just how cold will it get? Is my gear good enough to keep me safe? The questions grow louder as the days grow shorter. The longer time stretches since my last backpacking trip the stronger the unknown becomes.

For Christmas I receive a sleeping bag liner, winter jacket, and winter socks. They are the armor I need to defeat my excuses. Now is the time to challenge the winter and fight the off the inertia.

Blood Mountain in the Blood Mountain Wilderness of North Georgia is my destination. The legend is that Blood Mountain, like the neighboring Slaughter Mountain, has its name from a battle that took place here generations ago between the Cherokee and Creek Indian tribes. It is the 6th tallest peak, but the highest point that the Appalachian Trail crosses in Georgia.

I have climbed Blood Mountain many times as a day hike. The drive there is not very far and the hike, following a portion of the Appalachian Trail, is well established and also not very long. I am comforted by the thought that if disaster strikes I am a short scramble back to the safety of my truck.

The Byron Reese Trailhead parking lot has numerous other cars occupying it just before noon. I am only surprised by this because it is mid week and cold. The temperature reads 39 degrees and cloudy when I start. I throw on my pack and am surprised at how light it feels when my legs are fresh.

Action banishes fear. I have learned this lesson many times before in other contexts. Hesitation builds in the mind with anticipation and inactivity. Do not listen! It is critically important to just get started. Now that my boots are on the trail, the fear dissolves in the light of the tasks at hand.

In my anxiousness to get going I drive my legs like pistons up the mountainside at a quick pace. Frosty dirt crunches underfoot. The cold dry air in my lungs feels good. Sweet almost, and it wakens my mind. The trail meanders ever upward by way of many stone steps. I focus on the distant mountains now visible through the bare branches of the oak forest all around. And on my heaving breath.

I realize that I am sweating freely. I stop and take off my heavy outer jacket, but it is too late. My shirt and the inside of the jacket are wet with sweat. This could be dangerous as temperatures drop at night, so I air them in the hopes that they will dry.

Near the summit the Appalachian Trail crosses several open rock faces. Here are some stunning views to the South and West! Although the light is flat, the clouds confer contrast to the sky. It is still mid afternoon, but I am eager to begin making photographs. First, I want to make camp and leave behind my heavy pack.

At the summit of Blood Mountain a stone shelter stands tucked beside massive boulders. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression. It still stands strong and stoic, yet without a door or panes in the windows it has the appearance of gothic horror. I have heard many accounts of this shelter being overrun with rodents at night. I have not interest in testing that fact and find a place nearby to pitch my tent.

Carrying only my camera, tripod, and extra batteries, I now move up and down the open rock faces, finding compositions and making photos. The process continues for several hours until, just past sunset, I head back to camp.

In the quickly deepening cold I prepare a meal of chicken and dumplings and then retreat into my sleeping bag. Darkness has fallen, but it is still early. My worry grows as I consider the long hours of night ahead. I cannot sleep through it all. I try to occupy my time by writing these words and reading. A faint tapping on the tent walls and causes me to peak outside. Snow flurries, but they do not continue long. Somewhere in the distant valleys a pack of coyotes launch a series of wild screams, a haunting serenade as I drift to sleep.

Aches and discomfort define the night. At 01:00 I awake to the roar of wind through barren branches clawing at the sky. My tent is protected from the gusts by a large rock ledge, but it is a sign that the clouds are being driven away and temperatures are dropping further. I am warm in my sleeping bag, except for my feet. I sleep in stretches of 1 to 2 hours, awakened by the dull ache of frigid toes. Moonlight makes the tent glow.

Strong winds persist through the transition to morning. My elbows and shoulders now cry out against their warm confinement and I must get up. Retrieving my food bag, I make coffee in the vestibule. Water from my bottles freezes as I try to pour it into the pot.

Two more hours before the sunrise. Fear begins to stalk me again. Momentarily, I consider packing my things in a rush and running down the mountain before the cold realizes I am awake and grabs me. This is a time that requires patience and determination. The coffee helps.

Dawn approaches with a continuous gale above. I begin to pack and the activity helps warm me. I step out of the tent into steady snowfall, driven sideways by the wind. It gathers in patches on the brown leaves covering the ground.

Lifting my pack, I head out from under the tree cover to the open, exposed rock. The mountain top is covered in warm tinted clouds, obscuring any views. Snow continues to drive down, but it does not cover the ground. Yet. I am too cold to wait for the possibility of changing conditions. In exertion there is warmth. I turn to the trail and begin my hike through wilted mountain laurel and rhododendron leaves.

A longer path lies ahead for the return. Frozen earth rhythmically crunches under my boots. The Appalachian Trail continues South to Bird Gap, where it connects me to Freeman Trail. This trail contours the mountainside. The temperature rises as the path descends elevation. I see distant peaks through a netting of branches and, as the clouds break, the morning light falls through and illuminates the hillsides. But on this stretch of the journey there are no vantage points for photos.

I turn from thoughts of regret and missed opportunities, and instead focus on the horizon through the trees. The visions of sunlight warming the ridges and valleys fuse into my soul through willful concentration. The creation of artistic photos and creative writing are a fulfillment, but they are generated from lived experiences. Some experiences, like the sights before me as I walk out of the hills, out of the cold and darkness, will remain all my own. This adventure has become a part of me and I carry its light with me into tomorrow.

Erik Hogan is a photographer who primarily shoots landscape, wilderness, and nature scenes in the Athens area.

Follow on Instagram @erikhoganphotography Erik's sketchbook includes a look behind the scenes, with an option to purchase a limited number of prints through the link in his bio. htttps://

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