Justin Potter - The Hike Where I Fell In Love

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hello, my name is Justin Potter, I’m a photographer currently living outside of Charlotte, NC. I grew up in Northern California mountains where my friends and I spent every free minute we could either riding our bikes on some trails or exploring the woods.

We moved away from the Mountains when I was around 9, I didn’t have the mountains to play in but I still found myself always outside. So my love for the outdoors is one of those things that's always been a part of my life.

When I was 21, I moved from Northern California to North Carolina for school. I never really planned on staying in NC but it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the lush greens and the beautiful scene I found all around me.

So I stayed, found a job and life happened but something was missing, I started riding my Mountain bike and found myself back out in nature again. I found myself wanting to explore more and more. 

Then I went hiking in the mountains Of NC. To this point I didn't really think NC even had mountains, least not like I had grown up to. Instead these mountains were full of lush green forests and rocky formations.

Turns out the Appalachian mountains are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. Having been at one time believed to be taller than Everest you can just feel the history here. 

I’ll never forget the moment I reached the top of a mountain called Hawksbill located in the Linville Gorge. It has a 360 view of the Blueridge mountains surrounding it as well as one of the biggest gorges found on the east coast. It was at that moment that I was hooked with the outdoors. From then on I have hiked as much as possible but It also led me to discovering one of my childhood loves of photography.

I finally realized that there's nothing we can't go see or do.

My mom was a photographer, so there was always a camera near by growing up. Now though I wanted to share these beautiful landscapes I was seeing around NC. I bought a few cameras until I finally decided to take the plunge and invest in one.

Since that day my two passions have led me to some incredible places. From Death Valley, to Yellowstone, and so many other National Parks as well as learning that there is so much more beauty found within this amazing country. It's taught me to look around more, to see the beauty in everyday life.

I can honestly say that moment on Hawksbill changed my life, I went from building race cars for a living to becoming a photographer, having my first cover this year on the Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine was sort of surreal.

I found myself looking at this whole journey and thinking how crazy it is to see a photo I took grace the cover of a magazine but also excited to see where it leads to in the future!

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

I go into every hike with pictures in mind. I wonder where the best spots are, what the trail is known for, what surprises might I expect. Last November, though, the hike was different.

My hiking buddy, Brian Murphy, and I decided to ascend Mt. Humphreys, the tallest mountain in Arizona at a height of 12,633 feet, twice the elevation I'm used to around the east coast. I'm usually a solo hiker when exploring my local area but when travelling, Brian and I hike together.

This trip, Jalene Ann, a Phoenix local and high school friend, asked if she could join us, we really hadn't seen each other since high school. I'd given up on dating, opting to pursue the whimsical world of photography.

I want to capture the special moments like brilliant sunrises, solar eclipses, wild horses - all that nature has to give. Dating really didn't fit into my life. When Jalene asked if she could come with us I told her it would be tough. To my surprise she had already hiked the mountain a couple times and she asked if I could handle it.

Sure, I can handle it.

Brian had just completed a summit to the top of Rainier a month earlier, so his pace was hard to keep up with. We planned to reach the top by sunset, about a two hour hike. Jalene and I talked the entire time while I snapped pictures along the way elevation sickness began to kick in about three miles deep into the beautiful Alpine forest.

Thankfully Jalene suggested that we take it slow. The sight of the peak with the sun closing in on the horizon urged me to push harder. I pushed onward despite shortness of breath and dizziness.

We reached the top right at sunset. The view was majestic, a blaze of colors. Twinkling snow made for the perfect backdrop. The temperature plummeted below freezing, I could see that Jalene was cold. I told her I needed a hug.

The sunset photos were perfect, but that hug with the girl of my dreams was the true gift. It may have been pitch black darkness as we hiked back down but our conversation seemed to light the way. Almost like a fire growing inside of us both with every step.

So, how can a mountain change your life? It has changed mine in a way I never could have imagined. That mountain brought two people together who knew each other twenty years ago. Two people that unknowingly turned a life long crush into so much more. It showed me what true love is. I can't wait to see where it takes us next.

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

I think the one thing I’ve learned from all of this is that we grow up seeing all these places in National Geographic or whatever magazine you grew up with and dreaming of getting to see such incredible places but never really believing I’d get to see them. Truth is we all can.

I have so many people that comment on pictures saying they wish they could see or go to these places. I used to think the exact thing. I finally realized that there's nothing we can't go see or do. 

If there’s one thing I want to be remembered for when the time comes I can't do these hikes anymore, it is that I showed people through my pictures that we are all surrounded by beautiful places.

Even if you don’t live by some dramatic mountain landscape if you just get out and hike through your local state park you're going to see things you never have before. I hope that my pictures inspired people to challenge themselves.

One of my proudest moments was this year seeing my best friend climb Mt. Rainier. Two years ago I was trying to get him to come hike with me and he swore he would never hike a day in his life. He said he couldn't understand why anyone would do that. Few months later I took him on that same hike up Hawksbill Mountain, he was hooked. From that day on he’s dove into this hiking thing to where he now hosts an outdoor podcast called “Fixed Lines”

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

It’s hard not to just pick my Canon 5D Mark IV Camera since its the one constant that is always in my pack but as far as hiking, my favorite item in my backpack is my Petzl TACTIKKA Core rechargeable headlamp. One of my first sunset hikes, I had hiked up 1.5 miles to the top, with no plans of staying that long but the sky just lit up that night!

Without realizing it, it had gotten dark and I was up top with no flashlight and needing to hike back down. Luckily the trail was well marked and my cell phone flashlight had enough power to light my way back down.

As soon as I got home I bought a headlamp. It has taken a few different attempts to find the right one but this one has been the winner. The rechargeable battery lasts way longer than AA’s and I love how bright it is. I always keep two headlamps in my pack just in case but it's definitely the one thing that I never leave without.

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

If I were to give any advice to anyone just starting out, it would be to start small and hike with others. Find a group of friends that are also interested and learn together or if you're lucky to have friends that are experienced hikers just tag along.

Its amazing the things you'll learn from them. From learning how to read a trail that isn't marked to just knowing what to do in the moments where you feel like you’re lost. 

One time in Yosemite I was hiking alone on an unmarked trail, trying to find that spot where Ansel Adams took his iconic shot of Half Dome. I had lost the trail so I climbed up this granite mountain to get a better look.

I finally saw where I needed to get to and climbed back down only to be greeted by a cliff. So I back tracked and found myself jumping through some bushes only to be face to face with brown bear. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

Luckily I climbed back up that granite mountain and the bear didn't follow me. I learned right there I wasn’t experienced enough to be going where I was going. 

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

There is a photographer named Tommy White based outside of Blowing Rock, NC. He’s one of those photographers that it doesn't matter where he's hiking or what area he's in, he finds some incredible places.

He's the guy that always finds that lone tree surrounded by a field just begging to get its picture taken or just the right spot in the Blueridge Mountains for that fiery sunset. He is the one that inspired me in the beginning and still to this day keeps me inspired to go hiking in western North Carolina. 

Where’s your next adventure?

This year I want to make it back to Montana. I haven’t got it all planned out yet but I want to start with a couple days in Yellowstone, I was there in ‘15 but without a real camera and its always been on the back of my mind to go back and capture all of those geysers and waterfalls.

Yellowstone is one of those places I tell people if you want to fall in love with nature, spend a couple days in the park. If you cant find yourself just amazed at what you see then the outdoors probably isn't the place for you. 

After Yellowstone, I want to make the trip up to Glacier National Park. I’ve only seen pictures on Instagram and stuff like that but it looks amazing. I think I could spend a month up there but I’ll keep it to a few days and hopefully make it to Medicine Lake where I can get a perfect reflection shot.

My main goal is to hike up to Mt. Siyeh. It’s an 8.6 mile out and back hike with 4,064ft of elevation gain to one of the most incredible views of a crystal blue lake below. From the first time I saw a picture from there I have wanted to see that for myself. So hopefully that’ll happen this June.

Where can others learn more about you?

To follow any of my adventures you can find me on Instagram and Twitter Jpotterphoto or on Facebook at Justin Potter Photography You can also get a hold of me through my website j-potter.com


Want to share your Story From The Mountain?

Hey, I'm Greg Kamradt, the founder of Terra Mano.

We interview awesome hikers/mountaineers/climbers/photographers and share the stories behind their ambition. By sharing these stories, we want to help others become inspired to reach their goals.

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