Quandary Peak Panorama
Quandary Peak Panorama, Tenmile Range, Colorado
I first tried to shoot sunrise from the summit of Quandary Peak in May 2008 and failed miserably. Not only was I late arriving on the summit, but a massive band of clouds hid the sun and ruined any chance of interesting light. Further map study revealed that the best time of year for a rematch was probably winter rather than spring, when the rising sun would put texturing side light on the dramatic peaks north of Quandary.
Climb a Fourteener in the dark and shoot sunrise from the summit in the depths of winter? Was I nuts? I hadn't climbed a Fourteener in winter for 30 years. True, Quandary would be a lot easier than the Notch Couloir on Longs Peak, but I wasn't 22 anymore either. I imagined myself breaking trail in bottomless depth hoar while I dragged my sled over deadfall on my way to a high camp at 11,600 feet, then imagined getting up at 1 am on a bitterly cold, windy night and struggling to keep my face from becoming frostbit as I fought my way to the summit in gale-force winds. Feeling thoroughly intimidated, I waited for a good weather window. When it arrived, I packed up, drove to the trailhead and found a surprise.
The parking lot was full. A wide, packed trail led up the snow-covered road leading to the summer trailhead. I hitched up my sled and started upward. Soon I met the first of a series of climbers descending from the summit. "Forty people summited Quandary today," the climber told me. "There was something about climbing Quandary today on 14ers.com. I guess the guy who runs the website organizes this every year." I continued upward in the warm sunshine, following the well-packed summer trail, and reached my high camp in just an hour and a half. "Surely it can't be this easy," I thought. Bitterly mindful of my tardy arrival on the summit on my first attempt, I set my alarm for 1 am, determined this time to summit at least half an hour before sunrise.
A packed trail led me all the way to the summit the next morning ‒ or maybe I should say, that night, since I arrived on the summit an hour and 45 minutes before sunrise when it was still thoroughly dark. I whiled away the time before sunrise experimenting with star field photographs, discovering too late that I had ruined all of them by not setting the camera properly in the dark, then pulled myself together when dawn light began to spread across the sky. Now I set up to shoot a 260-degree panorama starting with Mt. Lincoln to the south, sweeping past the Maroon Bells, Mount of the Holy Cross and Pacific Peak and ending with the valley of the Blue River leading north towards Breckenridge. In my determination to avoid further errors, I didn't notice something that became clear once I'd stitched together the finished panorama: the line formed by the horizon was straight, but the upper edge of the blue shadow of the Earth cast on the western sky a few minutes before sunrise was perceptibly curved. Like all school kids, I'd been taught that the Earth was round, but this was the first time I had ever seen the curvature of the Earth with my own eyes. Above the blue shadow, which is called the twilight wedge, was a rich band of pink light. (For a full explanation of the atmospheric optics of the twilight wedge, see the story behind my image Twilight Wedge from Sunlight Peak. And for the story of how I discovered that my simplistic explanation of the curvature of the twilight wedge turned out to be wrong, please see my February 16, 2011, blog post.)
When I finished photographing this marvelous display of natural light, I packed up and got ready to descend. Just as I was about to hoist my pack, I heard a clattering noise behind me. Slightly annoyed that my solitude had been disturbed by what I assumed was the first of a horde of climbers, I turned and saw three mountain goats stroll casually across the summit and along the summit ridge. Frantically I dug my camera gear back out of my pack and tried to get a photo. What on earth were three mountain goats doing on the summit of a 14,000-foot peak in January? They seemed perfectly at home in their three-inch-thick fur coats. After locating some flat, snow-free rocks, they settled down for a nap. I was ready for a nap, too, but fought to stay awake so as not to miss the moment when they awoke. After half an hour, the goats got up, posed obligingly for photos with Mount of the Holy Cross in the background, then descended cautiously down a steep gully on the south face. I descended too, down the east ridge, pausing at 13,000 feet to remove gloves and strip down to long johns. I'd seen worse weather on Quandary in May than on this January day when fortune seemed to smile at every turn.