Planning a travel photography trip around blooming spring flowers, the peak of the summer tourism season, or the peak of fall foliage is fairly simple. You have to work around weather conditions such as a cloudy days and thunderstorms, but you at least know you have a 2-3 week period to capture the best photos during these peak seasons. However, planning a photography trip around a heavy snowfall is perhaps one of the most difficult subjects to plan for great landscape photos.
For the past four years I have worked as an internationally-published travel photographer. I have shot for dozens of magazines and local communities, I have sold photos to magazines around the world, I have shot on assignment in five states throughout the Southeastern United States. But there was one thing I had not done: captured photos of snow. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia so I knew all about snow. So the very moment I began looking for a house in Abingdon, Virginia I knew there was one place I would visit as soon as possible: Whitetop Mountain after a heavy snow.
The snow began falling on Wednesday. By Thursday the region was blanketed with 6″ – 12″ of snow. Friday was my day. I set out early, right after sunrise, heading along the easiest path to Whitetop Mountain, Virginia. It was an easy drive up Interstate 81 to Chilhowie and an equally easy drive along Whitetop Mountain Road to Konnarock. It wasn’t until I reached the foot of the road leading to the summit of Whitetop Mountain that I reached my first obstacle of the day.
A 3′ mound of snow blocked access to the gravel road, a result of the Department of Transportation plowing snow off the main road. But I thought this would be easy! I have a four wheel drive Ford Explorer, after all, with the biggest tires I could possibly put on this vehicle without making improvements (31″). Switching it into four wheel drive I easily made it through the snow bank and started climbing the long road to the top.
As I drove up the mountain in the deepest snow in which I had driven during the last 15 years, I recalled memories of my dad teaching me how to drive in snow. He took me out to a small campground just outside Sugar Grove, Virginia (my small, quiet little hometown) in a giant 1995 Ford Bronco. The campground was covered with about 14″ of snow and because it was unused during the winter, the road had not been touched by the DOT. He put me in the driver’s seat and told me to make my way through the short road that circled the campground. He taught me about how to keep up a good speed, but not too fast to spin around a curve. He yanked the steering wheel randomly from time to time to teach me how to not overreact and cause myself to wreck. After a few weeks of this, I was pretty good with driving in the snow.
17 years later I was driving up Whitetop Mountain after spending the last 14 years living in the warm, relatively snow-free coastal regions of North and South Carolina. I felt I needed to keep my speed up to about 15 MPH while climbing through the heavy snow. But this was the mistake I really didn’t need to make. As I came upon a slight curve to the left, I lost control of the rear of the vehicle and quickly found myself sliding into a ditch, slamming against the other side. I immediately knew I had a problem.
Sure enough, I was stuck and stuck good. I was fortunate enough that the ditch was so full of snow and packed down tightly that my tires were able to climb the banks of the ditch, but I found myself straddling the ditch and unable to get out. I wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not without help. But then I remembered the snow bank at the beginning of the road: nobody had driven to the top of Whitetop Mountain today. It was about 10:30AM. I could be here awhile.
So instead of waiting around for help that might never arrive, I decided to grab my Lowepro Rover Pro camera backpack, checked to make sure I had all my gear, and set out walking. I knew I needed these photos from the summit of Whitetop Mountain and if I couldn’t drive there, I would hike. I was dressed head to toe in Columbia and Under Armour cold weather gear: boots, wool socks, cold compression under garments, a shell jacket, balaclava, and sky mask. I was ready for the weather I knew I would find at the summit.
With my trekking poles, walking in the ruts of the vehicles that climbed the mountain the day before, it was a fairly easy walk halfway to the top. At first, the gravel road is covered by a canopy of trees. These trees kept the amount of snow on the road to a minimum 6″ and the ruts made for an easy walk. But halfway to the summit of the mountain the trees clear away (Whitetop Mountain is mostly bald) and the wind started to pick up. At this point, the road begins a zig-zag steep climb for about another 300′ in elevation.
The wind started to pick up. I had checked the weather forecast before I left so I knew what to expect. But I had never hiked in weather like this before. On average the snow was just 6″ deep. But the ruts from previous vehicles were gone as the strong winds blew snow everywhere. As I walked around the first turn in the road I knew I never would have driven to the top to begin with: a 3′ snow drift about 10′ wide and 8′ long completely blocked the road. It was only the first of several snow drifts I would have to walk through.
But the snow drifts were easy compared to the 25-35 MPH winds I had to battle during my climb. At points the wind threatened to knock me over (the highest recorded gust that day was 68 MPH, with average gusts around 45 MPH) and at one point actually blew one of my trekking poles down the mountain about 10′. I found myself hiking through 3′-4′ snow drifts and wishing I had snowshoes (the only thing remaining on my winter wishlist that has already sold out in local stores before Christmas). While it had only taken me 30 minutes to hike to the mid-way point on the road, it took me an additional hour and ten minutes to finish the hike to the summit.
At points I found myself surrounded by a snow dust storm as the winds blew in my face. I was exhausted at points, but kept trudging forward one step at a time. I wasn’t cold for an instant (mostly because it was still 9 degrees even with the windchill) because of all the fantastic cold weather clothing I had bought. I believe in being prepared for any photo opportunity, although at this moment I found myself wishing I was shooting on a warm beach wearing flip flops and swimming shorts instead of all this. About an hour and forty minutes after I left my stuck Explorer behind, I reached the summit of Whitetop Mountain. And I began laughing.
This had been much more than just a photo opportunity for me. It was a personal journey. It was a childhood journey. It was the first time in 20 years I had stood on top of this mountain in the winter. It was the first time in 15 years I had seen a snowy landscape like this. It brought back memories of my childhood, growing up just 40 minutes from here. Despite the cold, the wind, the snow drifts, I never stopped climbing and eventually found myself with a view like this.
I could have spent all day sitting up here. In fact, as soon as I reached the top I dropped onto the surface of an exposed boulder and just admired the view for several minutes. I wasn’t cold, I wasn’t really tired. A view like this doesn’t happen every day, and sometimes not even during an entire winter season. But I decided I needed to get the photos in the can and get moving so I could figure out what to do with my stuck Explorer.
I captured a few photos with my camera, particularly the photo here of Buzzard Rock on the Appalachian Trail. I had shot this photo from near the same location during the summer and fall of 2013. Now I had a snowy landscape photo to add to this collection. I pulled out my iPhone to capture a few Instagram photos and then began the trek back down.
I stopped a few more times to capture more photos. Honestly, I feel I should have captured twice as many photos as I did, but I’ll admit the wind gusts were becoming a nuisance and a hazard. I ended up losing a lens cap and a lens cloth to the gusting wind (easily replaced) and decided before I lost something more I should get off the summit.
But on my way back down, I saw this. This beautiful, amazing moment. The wind stopped blowing. The atmosphere cleared. The sun came out. I found myself standing where I had stood once before, looking across the trees, toward an area of the Appalachian Trail I had hiked so many times before: Mount Rogers. While Whitetop Mountain stands at 5,520′, it is only the second-highest peak in Virginia (although it is the highest place you can drive). Nearby Mount Rogers at 5,728′ is the highest peak in Virginia, but only accessible by an approximately 8 mile hike from Grayson Highlands State Park. I stood here, looking at the scene picture below, before I broke out of my reverie and snapped this photo.
Two years ago I parked at Grayson Highlands State Park (my favorite place to hike the AT), set out across Wilburn Ridge towards Thomas Knob, and spent a week slowly hiking and photographing the Appalachian Trail from here to Damascus and back. I had been here before, but never during a magical time such as this. I never could have imagined a beautiful snowy landscape like this. And now that I have captured these photos, you don’t have to imagine, either. You can live vicariously through me.
But I wouldn’t recommend vicariously living the hike up the mountain and back down. Surprisingly it took me almost as long to get back down as it did to climb. The high winds had already covered the evidence of my ascent and made the snow drifts just a few inches deeper. Just over an hour later I walked around a final curve to see my Explorer, obviously still stuck, but also surrounded by two additional vehicles. It just so happened that at the same exact moment I reached my Explorer, two families with four wheel drive vehicles also happened to be making the drive up to see what they could see.
I will never forget the Blevins family for helping me get my Explorer out. Remember when I said I always like to be prepared for any situation? I carry a tow strap with me at all times in a large toolbox. After a few failed attempts (and Mr. Blevins almost driving into a watery ditch himself) we finally got my Explorer pulled out of the ditch. To my amazement I did not have any damage to the side of the vehicle that slammed into the bank of the ditch. Before I let them leave, I grabbed an email address and mailing address for the Blevins family. They don’t know it now, but very soon I will be ordering a 20″x30″ canvas gallery print of one of these snowy photos I captured this day and mailing it off to them with a heartfelt thank you note and a bonus $50 for helping me out.
Hey, of all the things that have gone wrong on Valentine’s Day in the past, this was the best kind of wrong. I got stuck while driving too fast in the snow, spent two and a half hours hiking to the summit of Whitetop Mountain, captured some of the most amazing photos I have ever put in a memory card, and found two polite families who helped me get out. I had the biggest smile on my face all the way home knowing that this had been one of the most amazing adventures I’ve taken yet in my photography career. I can’t wait to see what happens next!