Braving the Gale Force Winds

February 5, 2014

I have spent the last several days sitting on my posterior in either a patrol car, a classroom, or a courtroom.  Needless to say, I was getting a little stir crazy to get out and do something fun outdoors.  With court only lasting about half of the day, I had time to take a quick trek after I got done.  I wasn't really planning on going though because the weather forecast had been for rain most of the day.  However, I noticed that the rain was supposed to stop around lunch time, and the clouds were supposed to start clearing off.  If there is one thing that I have learned over the years...when a weather front clears out, there are usually some dramatic skies involved.  I had some hopes for a quick photo adventure for the afternoon, but was going to wait and see what the weather was going to do.

When I got home, the sky was still a featureless white, but the rain had stopped at least.  I figured that I would just stay home and get some much needed quality time with Toni.  That was, until she told me her plans for the afternoon.  She wanted to clean, and she prefers to have the house to herself when she cleans.  So, essentially, she was giving me a shove to go out and create some pictures while she did her thing at home.  Looking at the sky, I figured that my best bet was to try for some waterfalls.  I have been wanting to get back to Dugger's Creek Falls and/or Roaring Fork Falls for a while now.  There was no time like the preset.  I told her my plans and headed out the door bound for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  As I was leaving the driveway, I could see that the sky was starting to break up.  I made a 3rd quarter plan adjustment and decided to go to Hanging Rock instead.  I thought that I could make it there before the clouds were gone, and I could photograph Tory's Falls instead.  Also, if the sky did start to clear, there was an area close to the falls that would make a good landscape shot with an interesting sky.  That was my destination for the afternoon!

A funny thing happened when I got to Stokes County though...the white clouds that were showing a high possibility of changing over to a quite dramatic sky suddenly turned blue.  There was no transition at all.  I looked down at my speedometer after seeing a slight break in the clouds and by the time I looked back at the road I was squinting.  Not a cloud in sight!  Poof....Gone.

Now what?  There was no way I was going to get a waterfall picture done in this kind of lighting.  I was even a little pessimistic about getting a good broad landscape photo at the location I was planning by Tory's Falls.  I was headed to Hanging Rock, so I kept on with the path.  My intention was to look for "targets of opportunity" on the way and hope to get something worth shooting on this bright sunny day.

I arrived at the park and saw that I had until 6pm to get something.  That gave me plenty of time, but the conditions were just not that great.  I remembered from years ago that the sun painted the summit of the park with some very warm tones in the evening.  It was my best chance at a picture based on what I saw I had to work with.  I got the truck parked and grabbed my gear to start the 1.3 mile hike to the summit.  I remembered enough to know that while this is a short trail, the climb in the last third of the hike was brutal with an extra 30LBS to carry.  Despite that, I was moving with a quickness so that I would have maximum time at the top to find a suitable composition, or two.

I made it to the top in about 35 minutes which was pretty good time, and put me there about 3pm, so I had about two hours if I needed them.  The first thing that I noticed at the top was it was windy.  Not a breeze, not a gust, just flat out windy!  I would estimate there were 20mph sustained winds with 30-35mph gusts.  It was enough to bring back painful memories of watching my tripod mounted camera topple over at Rough Ridge, breaking a lens.  This was not starting out well at all.  The second thing I noticed was that there were no clouds in the sky except on the far horizon.  Two strikes against this location.  The third strike came as the location of the sun itself.  Apparently, I was recalling a Summer sun, as this one was too far South to light the intended face of the summit.  This was not good...not good at all.  To make matters worse, there were two hikers that were eating their lunch out on the summit.  I didn't want to disturb them, so I had a very limited area to work in.

Tortured Soul
I was starting to get discouraged and ready to pack it in and hope to find something on the way home to photograph.  Then I saw that there were clouds coming in.  That gave me hope, so I started looking even harder.  What I found, was a little difficult to get to, but I found the tree quite interesting growing out of the side of the summit.  I worked my way down to a point below it and fit my 16-35mm f/2.8L lens with a Singh Ray Intensifying Polarizer to make the clouds pop, and the trees stand out.  I got down low to the ground and shot at about a 45 degree angle up into the sky.  It was an awkward shot, but one that managed to capture the abstract nature of this tree against the light cloud cover.

Down to Earth
It was the long main trunk that seemed to hug the ground that caught my eye, so I decided to also try this as a horizontal shot as well.  I think that they work equally as well, and say two different things through the imagery.  In both cases, the sky really pulls it all together.  I am very fortunate that the clouds started rolling in to eliminate the negative space that would have been the empty blue sky.

After I finished with several different compositions of the tree on the side of the mountain, I started looking for some more compositions.  I was watching the position of the sun very carefully and decided that I wasn't going to be able to do any of the "typical" subjects for this location.  The lighting was just not right to photograph the actual summit today.  I took this as a personal challenge...a challenge to find off the wall compositions that might be overlooked by other photographers, as well as myself on previous treks to this spot.  An interesting fact about this location. I am pretty sure that the last time that I visited the summit was in January of 2010.  It was on this trip that I slipped on some ice and destroyed my 10-22mm lens as well as damaged the circuitry on my Canon 40D which was my first DSLR camera.  This time was much warmer, but a lot windier.

With the other hikers moving on from their lunch break, I was able to go out on "the" Hanging Rock and see what was available out there.  The first thing that I found was a gust of wind that almost took my hat off!  I had to use the chin strap to make sure that it didn't go flying off of my head.  I carefully worked my way around the rocks looking at the different compositions that were available to me.  One that stood out was a tree that appeared quite symmetrical.  More importantly, it was situated with the North sky behind it.  I was going to get more use out of my polarizer with this tree.  After I set up and had shot about 3 frames the clouds cleared, leaving only some faint clouds in the sky that looked like stretched cotton.  Even more interesting was that they were sitting atop the tree as if being held up by the branches.  I set my exposure very quick and snapped this picture before the clouds moved on...which they were doing quite quickly with the high winds.  Oh, did I mention, I was also having to wait for lulls in the gusts before I was able to capture the tree with any detail!

Uplifting in B&W
As with several of my other images, I was looking at the tones in front of me and thought that there would be a decent possibility that this would render nicely as a black and white image.  That is the nice thing about digital capture.  The film that I load into the camera is very flexible, in both speed and format.  I filed the idea in my head and kept on shooting in full color.  I was out on the outcropping that is the summit, but wasn't out in the open.  I was feeling the wind, but wasn't being overly affected by it, other than it blowing the limbs and leaves.  With my current detachment from the wind I decided to venture out on the tip a little bit and see what could be seen from that vantage point.  I think that this was the first time that I had been out that far for the purpose of capturing an image.  Normally, this is the section that is the subject of my photograph.

I looked around and found an interesting view with several trees growing inbound from the tip of the outcropping.  The sky behind the trees was a deep blue thanks to the time of day.  I set my tripod up, and started to frame an image that would successfully capture what I was seeing and feeling at the particular time.  I found that even though I was a fair distance away, I was using the widest setting on my lens to capture everything that I wanted.  I had to stop and think for a moment to make sure I wasn't trying to include too much in the image which would cause a lack of visual focus.  Nope, what I was seeing was all important to the image, and I felt that nothing could be eliminated.  Plus, I really liked how the sky was being rendered with the extreme wide angle field of view.

Dry Brushed Sky
The picture that you see above is the first of five frames shot of the scene.  While I usually don't keep the first image, this one had the perfect cloud formations..seemingly erupting from the clumps of trees atop the rocky surface.  It would seem that I am drawn to trees that grow in difficult places, and this picture is all about those trees.  The clouds, while an important element on their own, are the perfect support to the main focus of the composition.  Everything here just fits together perfectly in my opinion.

I would have loved to have worked this scene a little bit more, but decided to keep my promise to Toni and stay safe above all else.  The gusts of wind were picking up quite a bit now.  In fact, I was being held captive by the wind just a few minutes after this shot was created.  I found myself holding onto the camera to keep it from blowing over (bad memories from Rough Ridge), and bracing myself against a tall rock to keep me from blowing over.  When I realized that I was no longer bracing against the rock and was actually being held against it by the wind, I decided it was time to go before I found the express elevator to the trail below.

Dry Brushed Sky in B&W
I still had about an hour left before I had to be on my way back to the truck to make it out of the park before closing, but the wind had killed my spirit.  I had to abandon any more opportunities from the summit area because it was becoming just too dangerous to continue.  I started to make my way down the trail and back to the parking area.  I was reviewing my pictures in my mind and figured that I probably had about 20 or so shots, and felt confident that I would be able to use two of them at least.  It wasn't a big day, but it was a fairly productive day for me considering I had not really intended to come out at all.

When I was processing the images, turns out there was 18 total, I found that the last composition of the day also worked out very well as a monochrome image thanks in part to the clouds.  With that conversion, I ended up with six pictures that I felt met the standards of this gallery.  If nothing else, I am extremely happy that my hit rate for this (rather difficult) trek was about 33%.  I say difficult mainly because of the wind.  I was so worried about losing equipment, waiting for the trees to stop blowing, and trying to keep myself on my own two was very hard to worry about the basics of photography.  Fortunately, my old habits have started to come back, so I can set an exposure almost automatically, and have a pretty quick hand at composition.  Had it not been for those factors, I'm sure that I would have missed many of these shots.  The sky was changing almost every second.

The hike to the summit is not an easy one, but it rarely disappoints if I keep an open mind and let it direct me to the picture that it wants created.  None of these images were ones that I set out to create when I started on the trail to the summit.  However, I think that every one of them is better than what I went out there to capture!

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