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Milky Way Panorama from Huron Peak

Milky Way Panorama from Huron Peak, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

Milky Way Panorama from Huron Peak, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

After my near-disastrous epic on Missouri Mountain, Mt. Oxford, and Mt. Belford in May 2013, I decided to dramatically slow the pace of my next Fourteener shoot. When I set out again a month later to do the next five Fourteeners, I gave myself a day off and a night in a hotel in between each peak. Now it was time to do Huron Peak, the last of the Fourteeners I planned to shoot on this trip. I had already made single-frame shots of interesting portions of the Milky Way from the summit of seven Fourteeners. It was time to up the ante and see if I could shoot a complete Milky Way panorama. The Milky Way occupies an enormous arc as it stretches across the sky, far wider than any lens can capture in a single frame. Shooting a Milky Way panorama would require shooting multiple overlapping frames, then stitching them together afterwards in software. That, in turn, meant I would need to carry a four-pound panorama head and a heavy tripod (rather than the light one I usually use), plus my usual eleven-pound camera bag, plus enough food, water, and warm clothing to be comfortable on the summit of a Fourteener all day and well into the night.

The unsettled weather I’d endured earlier in my trip had passed, and the forecast called for clear to partly cloudy skies, with no chance of a thunderstorm. The most recent trail reports that I had read online said there were still a few big lingering snowfields. It would be a royal pain to try to cross these snowfields once they became the consistency of sherbet around mid-morning, so I started up the trail around 7 a.m. Fortunately, I had now spent ten days above 10,000 feet, and I was thoroughly acclimated. On Mt. Princeton, at the beginning of the trip, I had barely managed 700 feet of elevation gain per hour and was feeling a bit rocky on the summit. On Huron Peak, despite an even heavier pack, I averaged nearly 1,200 feet per hour and summited in just over three hours.

Now the long wait for sunset began. Photographically speaking, there was little to do until the light became more interesting. Anticipating the wait, I had emailed the notes for my upcoming landscape photography workshop to my phone. Now I whiled away the time delivering my lectures on hyperfocal distance and tilt-shift lenses to the summit cairn, which didn’t seem too appreciative of my efforts. A few other mountaineers summited, enjoyed the view for a little while, then began their descent. By 1 p.m. the trickle of other climbers had stopped and I was alone. Thick clouds began to build, which surprised me, given the benign forecast, and I eyed the sky nervously. This was no place to get caught by a thunderstorm.

A few strands of virga fell from the clouds to the south, but no thunderstorm ever threatened Huron Peak. The clouds thinned as sunset approached. The sun found a hole in the clouds just before it dropped below the horizon and the tips of Ice Mountain and West Apostle began to glow. When the light on those peaks faded, the clouds to the north lit up. In just a few minutes, the light show was over. It was time to wait some more, this time in gathering darkness.

A few minutes before astronomical dusk, I set up the panorama head and began shooting. Each panorama consisted of forty frames in four rows of ten frames each. At first, lingering clouds near the eastern horizon blocked part of the Milky Way. As the night wore on, however, the Milky Way rose above the clouds until it was glowing brilliantly against the cobalt sky. I finally called the shoot a wrap at midnight and headed down. Two hours later I reached my truck. I slept inside it for five hours, then began the long, caffeine-fueled drive home.

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