Uncompahgre Peak Panorama
Uncompahgre Peak Panorama, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
One of the greatest appeals of winter is the opportunity to experience wilderness when it feels truly wild. Trails that are bustling in July are empty in January. Even in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is heavily used year-round, only 10 percent of overnight backcountry travelers visit in the coldest seven months of the year. Venture further afield in winter, into the San Juans, for example, and you can feel like you have the entire range to yourself. The lure of that feeling made me wonder if it was feasible to shoot sunrise from the summit of a San Juan Fourteener in winter. Avalanche danger and impossibly long approaches quickly eliminated all the San Juan Fourteeners but one: Uncompahgre. As the next weather window approached, I saw that it was once again going to coincide with full moon. When I checked the moon's position in the Photographer’s Ephemeris, a mapping program that I highly recommend, I saw to my delight that the moon would be setting directly over Wetterhorn Peak, a spectacular Fourteener, at the exact moment of sunrise.
In winter, the road to the Uncompahgre trailhead is only plowed to 9,300 feet. That meant I would have break trail up 5,000 vertical feet by myself. After spending the night in nearby Lake City, I began hauling my 65-pound mountaineering sled up the snow-covered 4wd road. I carried my camera gear in a chest-pack weighing 11 pounds, bringing the total gear weight to about 76 pounds. The day was gorgeous ‒ so gorgeous I was stopped in my tracks around noon when the fresh snow from the previous day turned to wallpaper paste glued to the bottom of my sled. I scrapped off the three-inch-thick layer of ice and snow, but only made it 50 yards before the sled iced up again. I decided to abandon the sled temporarily and break a trail to timberline, still an hour and a half away. When I returned to my sled at 4 pm, the sun had dropped below the canyon wall and the snowpack had re-frozen. I spent another hour and a half retracing my steps to timberline, where I camped. It had taken me nine hours to travel four and a half miles and gain 2,500 feet. I turned out the headlamp at 7:30 pm and dozed fitfully, questions swirling in my head. Had I set the alarm early enough to reach the summit before sunrise? Would the steep portion of the south ridge be avalanche-prone? Could I find the right gully through the upper rock band in the dark, and, if so, would the snow in the gully be dangerously unstable?
Just four hours and fifteen minutes later, the alarm inside my hat jarred me awake. At 1:15 am I was moving again with 2 1/2 liters of hot Cytomax sports drink in my water bottles. Every 20 minutes I drank half a cup of Cytomax and stuffed two Clif Bloks ‒ an endurance food with the consistency of a Gummy Bear ‒ into my cheeks like some two-legged alpine chipmunk. The light of the full moon made my headlamp unnecessary; I turned it off and saw that every snow crystal was sparkling in the moonlight like a highway of diamonds. The night was crisp, with a temperature of about 10 degrees and a steady breeze. I broke trail slowly across the vast basin below Uncompahgre, then climbed to the base of the steep portion of the south ridge. Fortunately, I discovered I could hug the ridge crest on a snow-covered scree slope and avoid any avalanche danger. I guessed correctly which gully to climb through the steep rock band above and found it filled with shallow powder snow over talus ‒ tedious terrain, to be sure, but not dangerous. With the final obstacle behind me, I panted up the last gentle slope and gained the summit five hours after leaving camp. After shedding my pack and catching my breath, I looked southwest. Wave after wave of snowy peaks extended all the way to Wilson Peak above Telluride. I hadn't seen such a vast expanse of wintery mountains since I summited Mt. McKinley 23 years earlier. After 17 years of shooting Colorado landscapes, it's hard to resist feeling jaded about scenery, but this sight still blew me away.
With not a minute to spare, I pulled on extra clothing, found my composition and began shooting a wide panorama as the color of the sunrise light reached its greatest intensity. All too soon, the moon vanished into the cloud band near the horizon and the color of the light faded to white. I descended slowly to camp, reminding myself in the gully filled with slippery, snow-covered talus that every step mattered. Sprained ankles and blown-out knees were simply unacceptable. Once back in camp, I ate, slept four hours, then wandered around looking for something to shoot at sunrise the next day. Convinced that the now-overcast, lifeless gray skies would never yield a photo that evening, I returned to camp and had just pulled off my boots when the sky exploded into color. I jammed my feet back into my boots without even lacing them and dashed out of the tent, my boots filling with snow. With no time to set up the tripod, I grabbed a few shots handheld as the light peaked, then faded in a matter of seconds. If I had only been disciplined enough to stay outside for another 20 minutes, I could have shot the composition I found for the next morning that evening as well, with beautiful light on the clouds. The next morning I shot a pretty but unremarkable sunrise and broke camp. It took just 2 1/2 hours to stroll back down the trail it had taken nine arduous hours to break two days before.