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Meadow Mountain Panorama

Meadow Mountain Panorama, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

My annual Colorado wildflower pilgrimage is one of the most important photo shoots of the year, but my July 2010 trip nearly ended in frustration. The well-watered valleys of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are home to some of Colorado's most spectacular wildflowers. For my July shoot I decided to visit two valleys that I had never thoroughly explored. Both Hasley Basin and Buckskin Basin looked promising on the map, and both had looked lush and inviting when I had looked down into them from a nearby pass. But both proved to be a disappointment. The flowers were sparse, and the weather didn't help. After six hard days of backpacking, with lots of mud, miles, and mosquitoes but very few good photographs, I retreated to a hotel for one night to recharge both physical and mental batteries. That night I witnessed a wonderful sunset and moonrise over the Conoco station in downtown Carbondale. If only I'd still been in the mountains!

I had originally planned to shoot sunrise from the summit of 14,014-foot North Maroon as my last hurrah before heading home, but decided to change plans. Grand landscapes with wildflowers in the foreground are among my best-selling photographs. The flowers were mediocre in 2009, and in 2008 I was flat on my back with a herniated disc. I didn't want 2010 to be equally unproductive. I decided to spend one last night in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, this time in Silver Creek Basin. I'd visited the area many times before, and often found great flowers.

As I bounced up the Lead King Basin jeep road towards the trailhead, I tried to imagine an image I didn't already have. After specializing in Colorado wilderness landscapes for 17 years, staying fresh is a challenge. Recently I'd been shooting 360-degree panoramas from the summit of Fourteeners. How about a 360-degree panorama of wildflowers? I'd never tried that before. The crux, of course, would be finding a field of wildflowers big enough, and lush enough, to look good in every direction. Silver Creek Basin has some of the biggest Indian paintbrush fields in the state, so my idea might be feasible. Finding the right flowers was my first problem, but the most unpredictable variable was the weather. I knew I would also need a great sky, or I would end up with a photograph that was three inches high and five feet wide.

I backpacked in a short distance, set up camp and began scouting. After re-visiting all the wildflower hot-spots I remembered from previous years, I settled on a field of paintbrush that grew just above timberline atop the broad, gentle, southern shoulder of Meadow Mountain. After shooting some test sequences in late afternoon as thunderstorms began to build, I headed back to camp to eat dinner, planning to return to shoot sunset. As the storms gathered strength, the cold downdrafts off the cumulonimbus clouds began pummeling my tent. If the wind continued, it would be impossible to make sharp photographs of flowers during the long exposures necessary at sunset.

I returned to my shooting location an hour before sunset. Gradually the wind eased to a fitful breeze. As sunset neared, the clouds to the east began to light up. Then the color began to spread. Glowing clouds soon filled the sky in every direction. It had been five years since I had seen such a magnificent sunset. On that occasion, my composition had been constrained by the brown, eight-foot-high oak brush surrounding me on three sides, and I had not been able to shoot the ultra-wide panorama that would have captured the amazing experience. Now, on my very first try at shooting a 360-degree wildflower panorama, I had been incredibly lucky to have such a beautiful sky in every direction ‒ exactly what I needed to create Meadow Mountain Panorama.

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