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Sunrise from Uncompahgre Peak

Sunrise from Uncompahgre Peak, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from Uncompahgre Peak, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Colorado

After getting up absurdly early for two mornings in a row on Mt. Sneffels and Wetterhorn Peak, I was feeling rather run-down, but I had one more peak I wanted to do before heading for home: 14,309-foot Uncompahgre. After hiking out from Wetterhorn, I bounced down the 4wd road from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead, then continued bouncing up the 4wd road to the Nellie Creek trailhead, the standard jumping-off point for Uncompahgre. Grateful to be out of the truck, I then collapsed into my tent for a short night's sleep.

My alarm jarred me awake at 1 am. I was on the trail before 2. Although I felt like I was pushing hard, I gained only 770 feet in the first hour, and suddenly I realized that I should have allowed a lot more time. I still had over 3,000 feet to climb, and only three hours to do it. I had to arrive on the summit at least 10 or 15 minutes before sunrise, preferably more, since I knew I would need to don warm clothes, find a composition, set up my 4x5 field camera, adjust the camera's tilts, shifts and swings to get everything in focus, add a graduated neutral-density filter to reduce the range of tones present in the scene to something the film could capture, then calculate the exposure with a hand-held spot-meter ‒ a meticulous and time-consuming process. In addition, I knew that the peak light on the clouds often preceded the actual moment of sunrise by as much as half an hour, depending on the direction I was looking.

As I pushed higher, fatigue and altitude began to wear me down. I felt like I was working at race pace. I crested the last steep rise and began plodding up the final, gentle quarter-mile to the summit, but my boots felt like they were immersed in wet concrete. Feeling rather sick, with no time to spare, I finally reached the summit cairn, threw on an extra layer and began searching for a composition. The light on the high cirrus clouds was already peaking when I finished setting up my first composition, slammed the film holder into the back of the camera and exposed the first sheet, creating the image you see here. By the time I finished exposing the fourth and final sheet of that composition, the sun had crested the horizon and was pouring golden light onto the orange volcanic rocks that comprised my foreground. The color was so intense they almost looked molten. I recomposed in haste, repositioned the graduated neutral density filter, re-metered, and kept shooting. After making a few more images, which proved to be unremarkable, I started down. By the time I got to my truck, I was craving sleep more than I ever had in my life. I slept in my tent for 2 1/2 hours, packed up, and started the seven-hour drive to home.

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