Humboldt Peak Panorama
Humboldt Peak Panorama, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado
The idea for Humboldt Peak Panorama began with the unique geology of the Sangre de Cristo Range, which rises abruptly for over 6,000 vertical feet above the Wet Valley to the east and San Luis Valley to the west, making it one of the most dramatic ranges in Colorado. It's also remarkably narrow and straight for its length. The Colorado portion is about 120 miles long from Salida to the New Mexico border, but only ten or 12 miles wide through much of its length. That configuration, I thought, made it an ideal candidate for a grand panorama. And the best place to shoot that panorama, I decided, was the summit of 14,064-foot Humboldt Peak, which sits just east of the crest of the range directly opposite the massif's crown jewels, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.
I had photographed sunrise from the summit of Humboldt last September. It would be even better, I thought, to return in the spring, when the peaks would look still more formidable and majestic under their blanket of snow. In late April, a brief weather window interrupted the endless series of spring storms. It was an awkward time to go shoot. I still needed almost as much warm clothing and gear (snowshoes, crampons, ice-axe) as I would have needed for an ascent of a Fourteener in full winter conditions. When combined with 20 pounds of camera gear, it was too much to carry on my back in one trip. Unfortunately, the road to the summer trailhead had partially melted out, which made hauling my sled problematic. I ended up shuttling loads a third of a mile from the first impassable drift to the beginning of continuous snow cover, where I could start hauling my sled. It was already six p.m. when I started uphill in earnest. At dusk, after just an hour's travel, I camped. In the morning I dragged my 80-pound shadow to a high camp at 11,600 feet in the last tall timber. The forecast called for moderate winds the next day, when I planned to climb the peak, but increasing winds the night after my climb, so I wanted to camp in the shelter of thick woods. The Sangres, I knew, were one of the windiest ranges in the state.
My alarm went off just before midnight. The night seemed mercifully calm, and I began thinking I might have gotten lucky. But my luck quickly changed at timberline as the wind began to build. By the time I reached the saddle below the west ridge of Humboldt, the wind-driven spindrift was clawing at my face. I donned the goggles with clear lenses I carry for just such conditions and pressed onward, wondering if the wind would be so strong on the summit that it would be impossible to make sharp photographs. My luck returned just below the summit, when the wind eased to a gentle breeze. Humboldt has a long, nearly level summit ridge. When standing on the true summit, your view of Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle is partially blocked by the western portion of that ridge. I chose to photograph, therefore, from the west end of the summit ridge, still at 14,000 feet, which gave me an unobstructed view of the Crestones as they rose above South Colony Lakes. The downside of that decision was that I lost some of that "summit" feeling, but, on balance, I felt I'd made the right compromise.
After shooting five panoramic sequences at sunrise, each composed of five bracketed exposures at 10 overlapping camera positions, I began my descent. Ten minutes later, the wind abruptly returned. Gusts of 50 or 60 miles per hour began battering me, knocking me off balance. More than once the heaviest gusts drove me to my knees. "If this wind gets any stronger," I thought, repressing my momentary panic, "I'm going to have to crawl off this mountain." As soon as possible, I dropped off the west ridge, plunged down the south flank of Humboldt and escaped the strongest winds. I called my wife from my high camp that night to get the forecast, which called for gusts to 80 miles per hour the next day. After lying awake half the night listening to the wind roar through the trees, I got up at 5 am and left without trying to shoot sunrise. The final tally: nine hours of driving, three nights in the backcountry, 20 minutes behind the camera and one 220-degree panorama. Does the actual image live up to the image I imagined? More importantly, does it evoke the awestruck feeling of being there in someone who was not? That is for the viewer to decide, not me.