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Windom Peak Panorama

Windom Peak Panorama

Windom Peak Panorama, Weminuche Willderness, Colorado

I attempted one Fourteener in mid-May of 2008, Quandary Peak, but failed to reach the summit before sunrise. Not that it mattered ‒ a dense band of clouds blocked the sunrise light. Photographically speaking, I came back almost empty-handed. Then, in early June, after 14 active months with no symptoms whatsoever, my herniated disc problems resurfaced. By July 1, the initial twinges had progressed to real pain. I started intensive physical therapy and began making excruciatingly slow progress. In early August, however, I suffered a major setback that reset the healing clock back to zero. It became clear to me that I was unlikely to beat the problem on my own a second time. In late August I underwent back surgery, reherniated the disc three days later despite taking utmost care to prevent just such a catastrophe, and had to go through the whole surgical procedure again. Shooting sunrise from a Fourteener that fall was obviously out of the question. During the fall and winter I gradually rebuilt my strength, flexibility, and endurance and by the time the summer flower season rolled around in mid-July, I was ready to go.

My first stop was a repeat visit to Chicago Basin, where I had spent five days three years earlier, in the summer of 2006. On that trip, I was working with a 4x5 field camera, and shot only images composed in the traditional rectangular format. In the three years since, advancing age, advancing technology, and two back surgeries had finally persuaded me to switch to digital capture, and I was now working with Canon's flagship DSLR, a 21-megapixel EOS 1Ds Mark III. Although not light, the camera system was much lighter than my 4x5 setup. The switch to digital had opened up a new possibility for a Fourteener sunrise shoot: a 180-degree panorama from sunrise to moonset, stitched together from multiple, overlapping frames. I had first started exploring this idea the previous November, studying maps in search of suitable vantage points and trying to visualize the best way to compose such a long and skinny panorama. Each full moon for the last six months, I had tried to shoot some variation of this idea, but had always been defeated by dense clouds that hid the moon, or sun, or both. I was itching to get my first crack at shooting such a panorama in summer, when I hoped the weather would be more cooperative.

Digital capture had a further advantage: it would allow me to shoot three frames at each camera position and use HDR (high dynamic range) software to combine the three exposures into one image with the best shadow and highlight detail possible. After merging the three frames shot from each camera position in Photomatix, the HDR software I use, I could use Photoshop's Photomerge utility to stitch the merged frames together and create a seamless, 180-degree panorama with excellent shadow and highlight detail despite the extreme range in brightness across the scene.

Before doing any of that, however, I first had to climb Windom again in the dark. Significant snowfields were still draped over portions of the summer climbing route. Fortunately, I had hauled an ice axe and crampons in with me because the snowfields at 13,000 feet at 4 am were rock-hard, and there was no way to kick a step. Properly equipped, however, the climb was easy. I had timed my shoot, of course, to coincide with the full moon. On my first try the moon was just barely above the horizon at sunrise, and its pale white disc was almost lost against the bright white sky near the horizon. I tried again the next day, when the moon was higher in the sky at sunrise, and was rewarded with this image, which shows, from right to left, sunrise over the valley of Vallecito Creek, then Sunlight Spire, Sunlight, North Eolus and Eolus, followed by moonset over Chicago Basin. This is the first successful sunrise-to-moonset panorama I have ever shot.

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