There were seven of us and it was a late summer afternoon in the middle of the forest in Rabun County, Northeastern Georgia. Our guy in front held the topographical map. The sinuous trails rolled around the sides of the mountains, and their lower slopes would meld unto each other to the point where you would not notice when you moved from one to the next. If you looked upwards you could, by figuring how the mountains sloped up, but we were concentrated on following each other in single file, looking down at the trail path and checking to see if we had signals on our phones. We did not seem to be climbing, for a long while now. Whatever we were doing, it was not taking us to the top where we had set our goal. We were going around and around, and the new trails we encountered looked less and less traveled. We stopped at a spot where the canopy was not as dense, and the sun shone through a bit more. It was also the highest spot around, but still not any distinguishable peak. “Hey guys, I got a coordinate signal on my phone!”, Manny commented. He gave us the coordinates. We looked at the map. We were way off. We realized, in fact, that for the past half hour or more, we had wandered totally off the course we were supposed to be in. We were kind of lost. “It will take us half an hour to get back to where we took the wrong turn, and that is a couple of hours away from camp. If we don’t turn back right now, night will fall, and we’ll be stuck here until next morning, and that would not be pretty”, Jose explained. We decided we had failed to reach the 2,945 feet summit, and we hurried back trying to retrace our steps. As we came down the last hill and could see the camp below, the sun was starting to set.
The next morning, as every morning, I got up to the sound of our sons target practicing in the range earning their shooting merit badges. After breakfast, and once they went on to the rest of their planned morning activities, we convened our group of seven dads again. “Let’s give it another shot, we can’t leave this place without getting to the top of the mountain” one of us exclaimed. Jose, Waldo and Manny bailed out. There was a lot of rain in the forecast. Martin, Matt, Pepe and I looked at each other, and decided to get our best rain gear on and try again.
We left camp before 10 am at the foot of the hills. We went up the first slope and got on the Bartram Trail, as the day before. That was the easy part, as the trail is marked, and it follows William Bartram’s route from his journeys through the region between 1773 and 1777. He made history then, and we were determined to make our own history that day. With the experience gained through failure, the four of us retraced our steps and found the place where we needed to get off the famous trail and head west through the trails less frequented by regular hikers. We carefully checked the map and tried to make better sense of the shape of the contour lines to avoid the mistake of the day before, which threw us hundreds of yards off course. We were able to find the point where we messed up, and this time we did not. It was very humid, and it started to drizzle. We put our plastic rain ponchos on. I made sure mine covered my camera. We were able to get geographical coordinate readings on and off from our apps on our phones. We were on course and we knew it. The range became more and more upward sloping. We were close. The forest canopy made the drizzle light on us, but the clouds above it made the morning look like dusk. Nevertheless, we carried with us newly gained confidence and expertise.
Suddenly, as we faced what we knew would be the last steep ascent to the top, at almost three thousand feet, there was a cloudburst. The hill pushed back at us initially with a stream of water coming down our path to follow. As the rain fell hard, the stream quickly became a small river of mud, and almost immediately a torrent like I have never been in the middle of before. We fixed our rain outfits tighter and secured our carry-on gear with carabiners to free our hands and hold on to the trees and twigs along the path, and to stop our falls when we slipped, as we made it up the down-pouring river of mud towards the summit.
We arrived at the top. We – Martin, Matt, Pepe and I – high fived each other as the rain poured and sank our soaked boots into the mud. Martin, who grew up in Oregon and was the most experienced hiker in the group, pointed us to scour the ground for the markers. There were three, placed there by the National Geodetic Survey in 1975, and they form a triangle that surrounds the summit. The National Geodetic Survey, originally named the United States Survey of the Coast, came into existence in 1807 when Thomas Jefferson, a big supporter of science, was president.
We took our victory pictures, trying not to ruin our cameras at the same time. We stayed at the top for a while, until the rain died down a little and we decided to head back down. And that is the story of how my friends and I conquered the summit of Rainy Mountain near Clayton, Georgia on the second attempt.