Longs Peak Panorama
Longs Peak Panorama, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
I photographed sunrise from the summit of Longs Peak for the first time in August 2006 using a heavy, bulky 4x5 field camera. The experience taught me (again) the folly of a 136-pound guy carrying a seventy-five-pound pack. It also taught me two photographic lessons. First, Longs Peak has broad shoulders; the enormous shadow it casts at sunrise completely engulfs the most interesting of the nearby peaks. Second, August is not the ideal time of year. With no snow left on the peaks, the blue-gray shadowed rock of one mountain blends in almost perfectly with the blue-gray rock of the next, so there's very little separation of tones. It's almost like the peaks are wearing camouflage.
A better time to shoot, I decided, was early June, when the lingering remnants of the winter snowpack would delineate the gullies and ridges of the dramatic peaks to the west of Longs. As photogenic as I expected it to be, the snow introduced a new problem: finding my up the snow-covered Class 3 rock of the Keyhole Route in the dark. In August the entire route had been a frolic up dry rock; in early June, it would be a different climb entirely. A ranger at the Longs Peak Ranger Station who'd climbed the peak just a few days before told me he'd put on his crampons at the Keyhole, where the scrambling begins, and worn them all the way to the summit.
The climb itself posed a significant challenge; the weather complicated matters still further. Powerful storms and high winds frequently rake Longs Peak in early June. I had switched to digital camera gear in 2008, which lightened my pack considerably, but it still wasn't feasible for me to blitz the peak in a day from Boulder. I decided to camp in the Boulderfield, a rocky valley at 12,600 feet that is far above timberline on a notoriously windy mountain. I'd already had one tent destroyed by wind in the middle of the night in the Boulderfield many years before, and I wasn't eager to repeat the experience.
I packed for an overnight shoot and started watching the weather carefully. On Friday evening, June 4, the forecast for the following two days called for partly cloudy skies with winds gusting to 22 mph ‒ breezy, but hardly tent-threatening. On Saturday morning I started driving to the Longs Peak Ranger Station. As I topped the hill just east of Allenspark, powerful gusts began buffeting my 4Runner. Swirling plumes of sand snaked across the road ahead. At the ranger station I got an updated forecast. A glance told the tale: gusts to 65 mph were now forecast for 13,000 feet. Berating myself for not checking the forecast one last time before leaving home, I drove back to Boulder to wait.
The next opportunity came just 24 hours later, with gusts to 30 mph predicted for Sunday and Sunday night, climbing to 46 mph Monday afternoon ‒ unpleasant but survivable. After five hours of strenuous, windy hiking, I reached the Boulderfield and camped. The twin alarms inside my ski hat sounded their clarion call at 12:30 a.m. In less than an hour, I was climbing toward the summit. I lost the route briefly just past the Keyhole, then found it again. Fortunately, there had been enough traffic on the route that I could follow tracks in the snow in many places. Before the trip, I had been intimidated by the short but steep granite dihedral at the top of the Trough that leads to the beginning of the Narrows. It had been years since I'd climbed rock in crampons. But as so often happens, the fears that beset me when I'm lying awake at midnight proved to be exaggerated. My front points gripped securely on the small but solid holds, and the dihedral turned out to be easy.
As I began traversing the Narrows at about 4 a.m., a flash of light glinted off my glasses. Lightning!?! At this ungodly hour? And where was it? To the west, where any storm would be heading in my direction? I turned and scanned the western horizon. No dark clouds were visible against the stars, and I heard no thunder. I continued upward, nervously. Several more flashes sparked more fear, but still I heard no thunder. I topped out at 4:30 a.m. and for the first time was able to look east. An enormous thunderhead over the plains was spitting cloud-to-ground lightning. I shed my crampons, set up the tripod and grabbed a few 20-second exposures of the dark cloud silhouetted against the dawn glow. Then I walked over to the extreme southwestern corner of the summit plateau. This was the image I'd really come for: a 200-degree panorama of the Continental Divide, from the Indian Peaks to the south to the Mummy Range to the north. Like Humboldt Peak, Longs Peak sits just east of the main crest of its range, making it an ideal vantage point for a big panorama.
As I knew it would be, the wind was screaming up the western flank of Longs and blasting over the edge of the summit plateau. I set up atop a precarious granite rib projecting out over the void in the full strength of the wind. On the hike to the Boulderfield, I'd cursed the weight of my big carbon-fiber Gitzo tripod, Arca-Swiss B1 ballhead and Really Right Stuff pano-head. Now I was thankful I'd brought such a rock-solid combination. Although murky skies to the east blocked any colorful light at the moment of sunrise, I was blessed with interesting cirrus clouds to the west. When the sun found a thin spot in the clouds a few minutes after sunrise, the soft, warm beam put texturing light on the peaks north and south of Longs' shadow without generating excessive contrast.
After shooting five panorama sequences and the obligatory record shots looking north, east and south, I headed down, reminding myself that tripping over my crampons could easily be a fatal mistake. Two hours later, I reached my campsite and was relieved to find my tent still standing. After some freeze-dried eggs and a quick siesta, I packed up and headed home, eager to escape the Boulderfield before the wind began gusting even harder. Longs Peak had tolerated my presence only grudgingly, and I didn't want to try its patience.