Sunlight Peak Panorama
Sunlight Peak Panorama, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
I had already shot sunrise twice from the summit of Sunlight Peak, back in the summer of 2006, but I had never shot a panorama from the summit. As I examined the map, it seemed to me that Sunlight was quite possibly the best Fourteener in Colorado for a 360-degree panorama, with the spectacular peaks of the Needle and Grenadier Mountains rising in every direction. You might think that the right lens for such a panorama would be a telephoto, to draw in all those distant peaks. The problem with that approach, however, is that you end up with a print that is six feet wide and six inches high. To make such a wide panorama interesting, you need to be able to look down steeply from the summit, so you can use a wide-angle lens and make a print that is six feet wide and perhaps 15 inches high - a much more appealing shape.
The true summit of Sunlight Peak is a massive granite obelisk that rises some 20 feet above the jumbled pile of boulders where the summit register can be found. Reaching the summit requires a few delicate moves on a 4th class friction slab, then stepping across a deep but narrow chasm and making a final few scrambling moves onto the summit. The level portion of the summit is so small, and so exposed, that I've never actually dared to stand up on it; instead, I've merely sat. Sunlight Peak, with its pointy summit, offers an ideal vantage point for a 360-degree panorama. The summit is so tiny, however, that it creates a logistical problem: to shoot a 360-degree panorama, you have to keep moving to stay behind the camera and stay out of the field of view of the ultra-wide-angle 16mm lens. How could I do that when the summit is so tiny that there's no place to stand? I couldn't remember the summit clearly enough to know if there was any way to rotate the camera through 360 degrees without getting into the field of view of the lens, so I brought a radio release that would allow me to fire the shutter remotely after I climbed down from the summit and hid behind some nearby boulder.
I had gotten to bed at midnight after shooting sunset from Mt. Eolus. For the next two days I explored Chicago Basin and shot photos of mountain goats and waterfalls. Forty-eight hours after finishing my Eolus shoot, I got up at midnight to start my climb of Sunlight. I remembered the route fairly well after climbing it twice in 2006, and the ascent went smoothly, taking just over three hours, which put me on the summit at 4 a.m. - more than an hour and a half before sunrise. I climbed to the very summit by headlamp and began experimenting with tripod positions that would allow me to rotate the panoramic head through 360 degrees. To my great relief, I discovered that I could stay out of the camera's view by straddling the summit obelisk with my left leg dangling over the abyss, then scrambling around to the opposite side of the summit to a small ledge where I could still reach up and trigger the cable release. The radio release would be unnecessary, which would make it much easier to create a stitchable series of images during the fleeting moments of sunrise.
At last it began to get light. A few cumulus clouds blushed pink as the sun rose, and the moon shone brightly as it set over Chicago Basin. I shot multiple panoramas, three frames per camera position, 30 degree rotation between each set of three images, scrambling back and forth across the summit block to stay out the frame, pausing for just a minute between sequences to let the light evolve into something different than what I'd just captured.
In my euphoria over the magnificent sunrise, I almost forgot how precariously I was clinging to the summit, and how high was the vertical cliff below me. I've noticed over the years that sleep deprivation, combined with the variable focus of my progressive-lens glasses, can cause a moment of what I can only call vertigo. Such a moment hit without warning when I was balanced precariously with one foot on a sloping hold in the middle of a panorama sequence. Suddenly I became completely disoriented. My sense of balance vanished. For a single terrifying moment, I began to topple over backwards. Then the world snapped back into focus again. I lunged for the top of the summit block, grabbed it and steadied myself. If I'd missed, I'd have taken a 20-foot free-fall into a boulder-strewn slot and would almost certainly have been seriously injured or killed. It was a chilling reminder of how a single moment of carelessness or neglect can turn an exhilarating climb and photo shoot into a disaster.
When the color of the light faded to white and the moon set over Chicago Basin, I packed up, taking extreme care not to drop a $2,200 lens off a cliff. Then I scrambled carefully back down the summit ridge, did the twinkle-toed, tippy talus two-step down the loose, unstable gravel, scree, and boulders filling the Red Couloir, and hiked back to my camp in Chicago Basin. My mood alternated between exhilaration and somber reflection. I'd always assured my wife Cora that the most dangerous part of all my outdoor adventures was driving to the trailhead. I had inadvertently proven myself right in 2008 when I was rear-ended on I-70 by a semi. By great good fortune, I had walked away, but my 4Runner was totaled. Now I had almost proven myself wrong. I owed it to her, to my teenage daughters Emily and Audrey, and to myself to make sure such an incident didn't happen again.