4 of us : Karthik, Subruk, Virendra and me, set out to conquer the Blood Mountain peak in the North Georgia mountains. The Blood Mountain, the scene of a bloody battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians in the 1600s, is the highest peak on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. Before leaving for Hong Kong, Danupon left us his book “50 Hikes in the North Georgia Mountains”. The book classified this as a moderate to difficult hike that might take around 4 hours to cover the trail through the Chattahoochee National Forest. The trail, starting at Neels Gap, initially followed the Byron Reece Trail for around 0.7 miles after which it forked to the Appalacian Train (hence forth referred to as the AT) which took us to the peak of the Blood Mountain. The descent was largely along the Freeman Trail which, towards the end forked onto the Byron Reece Trail.
Saturday morning. Bags packed. Ready to go. Everything was planned out. Nothing could go wrong. Or so we thought. The signs were ominous when Karthik, who by the way woke up more than an hour late, didn’t come to pick me up till 10:30 (half hour late). He had already picked up Subruk. Next we had to pick up Virendra. Virendra lived some 5-6 miles away, in an residential campus which left us spell bound. But to get there we had to consult the GPS system. We had been driving for what seemed like more than 6 miles and still we hadn’t got there. After a while Karthik come to the realization that he had Costco’s address on the GPS system and not Virendra’s ! And the GPS was faithfully taking us to Costco ! and not to Virendra’s ! Oh well !
That fixed, we partially retraced our route to get to Virendra’s. By now we were way off the plan. We had to planned to be out of Atlanta by 10:15, but we reach Virendra’s only at 11. But thats ok, we thought. We are only an hour late, right ? Right !
All set. Everyone aboard. Music at (almost) full volume. Lets go ! Off we raced to the North Georgia Mountains. We enjoyed the sights and smells of rural Georgia on the way. An hour later we stopped at a Moe’s near the consolidated Gold Mines to get a few burritos for lunch. After much deliberation, we decided to pack our lunch and have it later. Subruk hadn’t had any breakfast, so he decided to have his brunch there. After the break, we set off once again. We witnessed countless bikers along with us, riding, banking exaggeratedly as they made their way past us. We had a mini adventure just as we reached Neel’s gap where we were supposed to start our uphill climb, we went past and didn’t realize that we had gone past it. But no worries, a few miles later, we came back, reached Neel’s gap and we were ready to start climbing by 1:45pm. Already 1.45 hrs behind schedule. Better late than never, eh?
We started off at the Byron Reece Trail. It was pretty wide at the beginning, but narrowed down after a while. It was pretty steep through out. We crossed a few streams on the way. We walked in a single file. Subruk, being the eldest and hence the wisest, defying his age, led the way. He was almost running. We all tried to keep up, but we fell behind by a few yards after a while. Karthik was next, leading the three of us. He, with his goggles on, was looking like Rajinikanth. Ever fancied seeing Rajanikanth in the woods? hmm …
Virendra, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt was having a hard time keeping up. He was clearly tiring after the short while. His attempts to get Subruk to slow down were in vain. Having no other choice, he himself slowed down. This created a further gap between Karthik and him. And I was stuck behind him. I was the back-marker. Not much choice did I have. There was no space to overtake him. After 0.7 miles we came to a fork, from where we took the AT. The AT is a marked hiking trail in the eastern United States, extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is approximately 2,700 miles long. But we were only doing a part of it.
As Subruk, the pace-setter, defying his age, raced ahead of the pack, nature decided to set the record straight : He slipped and fell, landed awkwardly on his ankle and thereby twisting it. “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”. My first concern was was something broken? Thankfully no. Was something out of place ? Thankfully no. We were only around a mile from where we had started. There was, of course, the option of returning. But Subruk wouldn’t hear of it. He decided to battle on. He continued to defy his age and the odds stacked against him. He showed no signs of discomfort, and he walked on. And so did we.
It was a hot sunny day. The lack of any tree cover made the woods seem naked. The mid-day sun was driving Virendra into a state of delirium, whose calls for a time-out were increasing in frequency. It was in one of those timeouts that it dawned upon us for the first time that we did not have enough water for a 6 mile hike ! There were no signs of the clouds coming to our rescue either! Oh well.
We went on on the AT. Open rock bluffs and scattered tree cover provided many excellent views. Stone steps had been added in some places to make the ascent easier.
The labor to install these stone steps must have been back-breaking, but they makes the hike seem like a breeze despite the steep gradient. After a while the AT leveled out and we reached a good vista at the crest of the mountain. A short hike later we reached the peak of the Blood mountain. The view from this grand vista made all previous views pale in comparison. There were many mountains in the horizon to the south and the east, ranging far and wide above the trees. A few feet from there was the Blood Mountain Shelter – it was a fully enclosed hut, it had windows but no glasses and the fireplace had been rocked shut.
We had stopped to have our lunch in one of the previous vista points. This was our second break-point. For the first time there were signs that Subruk was struggling. We spent around half an hour at the top : Karthik wanted to photograph the wooden house from every angle, from inside and outside, without leaving any space uncovered. Subruk, not wanting to be outdone by a younger Karthik, got his camera out and started clicking away. Virendra and I prefered to just sit back (literally) and soak in the views.
4pm we began our descent. Had to cover around 3.5 miles. Should be done in 2 hours, right ?
Subruk, was now really struggling. He could barely walk. He managed to walk a few feet, before finding it hard to continue. And we had 3.5 miles to go !!! But Subruk wasn’t the kind of person who would give up. After a short break he was ready to go. We found him two sticks. He used them as walking sticks and decided to battle through the treacherous terrain.
Subruk says :
“My ankle twist wouldn’t have mattered on a plain surface. The problem arose when I had twisted my ankle again at an awkward angle. From the point it got twisted till the shelter, we mostly had to climb. This was not really much of an issue for the ankle. Unfortunately, we had to go down, and this was clearly hard on the lower part of the legs, especially my ankle.”
We all marvelled at his courage, grit and determination. Hiking in the mountains is an arduous task in itself. Hiking with a twisted ankle is harder than you can imagine. He was clearly in pain, a fact vetted by his muffled screams from time to time. He was clearly struggling, a fact vetted by his much decreased pace. He was clearly tired, he hadn’t had anything since his brunch. Yet he battled on. Not once did he stop for a break, whereas we three “fit people” took breaks from time to time. Subruk we salute you !
“After my incident, the hike had become an test of endurance, than the fun climb it was till then where we could enjoy the views (or the lack of it), and take pictures of the vista. Now it was just a matter of how much could we steel our mind and get past the descent to the fork that would take us back to the Byron Reece. No more fun, no more distractions, I had to just look down and study the terrain before I could lay my left ankle down each time. Till that point the passers by were friends, and were greeted with the friendliest of pleasantries, not anymore. We spotted many a team of hikers that we passed, now they were passing us back. We just had to get on with it and get down as early as possible.”
We descended on the AT for a while before taking the Freeman Trail. This trail had many short ascents and descents, but had an amortized descent. The single track path was quiet bouldary making travel slower. Numerous small streams and numerous fallen trees weren’t helping either. Our estimated 2 hrs were up, but still we were nowhere near our destination. After 1.5 miles in the Freeman trail, we were supposed fork into reach the Byron Reece Trail. A further 0.7 miles down from there was our car waiting for us.
As time went by, and no sight of the fork we were becoming increasingly unsure of ourselves. Things started taking a dark turn, literally. Other than ourselves, we hadn’t seen any human for a long time. After sunset, the light was fading fast. Our supply of water had ran out by then. Our supply of food was over long ago. Also, in the middle of mountains, our phones weren’t able to connect to the service provider! To make things worse, there were signs warning us to be beware of bears ! And if this wasn’t scary enough Subruk was telling us tales from the TV series “Lost” and “I shouldn’t be alive” which were eerily similar to our current situation ! Thanks a lot Subruk, for making us feel a whole lot comfortable !
Hoping against hope and comforting each other, we walked on.
After walking for what seemed like an eternity we heard Virendra let out a cry of joy! He had found the fork !! We all raced the last few meters to reach the fork. Just 0.7 miles more and we’d reach our car. But wait, we were not there yet. There were 4 trails from there : One from which we had come and 3 others. But only one of them led us to the car. After 2 minutes, all of them looked indistinguishable from one another. We had difficulty spotting the one that we just descended from! With a bit of geometry and common sense we found the correct one.
The eerie silence of the woods was interrupted by sounds of motor cars with increasing frequency. Our joy knew no bounds. Subruk was almost running once again. We sighted more and more humans on the trail. Yes! we were indeed on the right trail! Our gloomy conversations about survival were replaced by the far less gloomier conversations about algorithms for PPAD complete problems. From the fork, the 0.7 miles were a relative breeze, we traversed that in about half hour’s time. Soon we reached the parking lot. We got into our car and raced away to Atlanta !
Subruk : Subrahmanyam Kalyanasundaram
Karthik : Karthekeyan Chandrasekaran
Virendra : Virendra Kumar
Me : Anand Louis