Backpacking on Brush Heap Mountain
December 6-7, 2008
For as long as I can remember, I've been intrigued by the notion of backpacking, and knew that some day I'd get around to buying the gear so that I could go. I knew from my traditional camping experience that getting all the equipment down to a size and weight I could haul on my back would not be easy. In the last 10 years I made several attempts at research on the internet, but the information and choices were overwhelming and I never got very far.
This summer as I was going over a list of wilderness locations I'd like to explore, I was reminded that some remote destinations are simply too isolated to hike to, and back from, in one day. Then it hit me: If I could backpack in and spend the night, I could go to places that otherwise seemed beyond reach.
With renewed determination I wisely bought a book about backpacking and over the next 3 months proceeded to research then buy the necessary gear. I also bought a wide assortment of "just add water" meals at the grocery store to figure out which ones tasted best. I wasn't finished researching and buying until after my fall vacation and the peak of colorful foliage, so I didn't have a backpacking destination that I was dying to visit. But soon after, I realized that in December the sun would be rising in a great position to be viewed from Brush Heap Mountain in the Ouachita Mountains, and backpacking there would be much better than getting up at 2 a.m. to make a long drive followed by a steep 1-mile uphill hike in the dark.
I resumed my fitness walks in the mornings, with the added twist of wearing my backpack with weight in it to get myself in shape. Finally, the first weekend in December arrived. Packing was a major production that I started Friday night and didn't finish until the next morning. My pack wound up weighing 42 pounds, which by today's standards is ridiculously heavy for an overnight hike, but I'd loaded more water and extra clothes than was necessary. And really, most backpackers don't lug around over 8 pounds of camera gear.
I left the house Saturday morning a little after 11 thinking I had plenty of time, but when I pulled in to the Athens-Big Fork trailhead and stepped out of the Tahoe, the sun was low in the sky and I could tell there were only a few hours of daylight left. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid 50s.
I quickly reached the Roaring Branch crossing. It looked so different than my last visit in April of 07, when it truly was roaring amongst the lush greens of Spring. Now it was a quiet trickle in the browns of late Fall. I easily hopped across it and headed south along the trail, which soon headed steeply uphill. The pack weight didn't seem to bother me, but I stopped five times to catch my breath during the 700-foot rise in elevation. I reached the top of the ridge in about an hour and started searching for a campsite that I assumed would be there, in a saddle near the intersection of a spur trail going to an overlook area on the east side of Brush Heap Mountain. I even continued down the trail a few hundred yards but never spotted a campsite. As I turned around and headed back up to the saddle, I had to stop and admire the view of the southwest side of the "knob".  Instead of typical forest undergrowth, the sloping ground was covered with tall, amber grass, and the woods were open with sparse big trees. I should have taken some pictures but I didn't want to stop and unpack the camera gear.
I made my own campsite in a small opening in the underbrush on the saddle. I quickly unpacked and set up the tent and stored all my gear inside, then put the camera equipment in the backpack and headed up the spur trail, which was steep for the first 100 yards. Then the faint trail ran along a rocky path on the southern side of the mountain, a bit down hill of the ridge. When the twin peaks of  Blaylock Mountain and Fodderstack Mountain came within view, I knew I had arrived at the eastern overlook area.
I found a bluff with a clear view of the mountains and waited for the sun to go down. I put the long lens on the camera and zoomed in as close as possible to the rocky top of Blaylock Mountain. The last rays of the setting sun turned the thin clouds on the horizon a gorgeous pink. I lingered for a while hoping the sky would turn even more colorful, but that didn't pan out. I turned around and climbed back up the trail. The clouds on the southwest horizon were brilliant. Jupiter and Venus were close together and shining brightly, and I really should have tried to find a way to take their picture.
My new Black Diamond LED headlamp did an amazing job of penetrating the black of night and keeping me on the trail. When I neared the tent, bright eyes of wild animals stared back at me and chills ran up my spine. Then I realized my tent had pieces of reflective material sewn on in numerous places!
The temperature dropped fast, so I changed into my long underwear and got in my goose down sleeping bag as I boiled water on my gas stove for dinner. Alfredo flavored ramen noodles were one of the taste test winners I'd packed. I watched a couple of TV shows (Robot Chicken Star Wars specials) on my iPod nano, then got ready for bed. I poured water into a cook pot and a mug, just in case there was a hard freeze overnight, and I ate a chocolate bar for some extra warmth.
The alarm clock woke me up at 4:50. I put on my goose down parka as I sat up in the sleeping bag and started heating water for coffee and breakfast. I set the timer on my camera and stuck it down at my feet to document my first ever backpacking trip. A liquid coffee concentrate called Java Juice was absolutely nasty... I think I'll stick with Folgers Coffee Singles from now on. The red beans and rice were o.k. but I forgot to pack salt. A full package was more than I wanted to eat, but I didn't want to deal with the excess so I finished it off.
I hiked back to the overlook in the dark. The sky started brightening as I arrived. I never got cold while waiting for the sun to come up, though I'm glad I had my face mask when the wind started blowing. The sun rose pretty close to where I expected, between the two peaks a little to the left of Fodderstack Mountain. The air was so clean and clear that the sun was really bright as soon as it emerged above the horizon.
 I snapped a few shots of the terrain from the top of my perch on a rocky outcrop, then packed away the camera gear and found a way down below to do a bit of exploring. Soon the sun got high enough in the sky and the breeze grew so strong that it was tough trying to get any pictures, so I headed back to camp.
As the trail descended west down into the saddle, a strange bluff formation on an opposite hillside caught my attention. The entire outcrop was tilted, as are so many of the features in the Ouachitas. I took some pictures for memory's sake. (I later determined the bluff formation was on the ridge north of Roaring Branch. In my picture, on the left Raspberry Mountain towers over that ridge, and another mountain named Blaylock looms in the upper right.)
When I reached the tent, I warmed up the coffee then started to tear down camp. I love being in the late fall woods on a cool, sunny morning, so I took my sweet time. I poured out most of the leftover water, which lightened my load for the return hike by 5 pounds. On the drive home I felt quite satisfied having finally done two things I'd wanted to do for a long time... go backpacking, and catch the sunrise from Brush Heap Mountain. And it felt good knowing other destinations seemed much more possible.
Here's a list of the backpacking equipment I chose:

Gregory z65 backpack - 3 lbs., 14 oz.
Big Sky International Evolution 2P tent - 2 lbs., 13 oz.
GoLite Adrenaline 20 sleeping bag - 1 lb., 2 oz.
Therm-a-Rest ProLite 3 sleeping pad - 13 oz.
MSR Wind Pro stove - 1 lb., 8 oz.
MSR Miniworks EX water filter - 15 oz.
Black Diamond Orbit lantern - 5 oz.
Black Diamond Spot LED Headlamp - 3 oz.
MSR Duralite Mini cook set - 1 lb.
Snow Peak Titanium Trek 700 Mug - 5 oz.