Sunrise from Blanca Peak
Sunrise from Blanca Peak, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado
Two days after summiting Kit Carson, I hiked up the Holbrook Gulch jeep road for nearly 3,000 vertical feet and found a beautiful campsite in tall timber on the east side of Lake Como. Lake Como is the basecamp for three spectacular 14,000-foot peaks: Blanca, Ellingwood, and Little Bear, perhaps the most formidable and dangerous of all the Fourteeners. My first shoot would be on Blanca, the tallest of the three.
The night was starry when I left camp at 1 a.m. The full moon helped light my way up the excellent trail built by the selfless volunteers of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. I had timed the shoot so I could photograph the moon setting over Little Bear at the moment of sunrise. The moon was still shining brightly when I summited Blanca at 4:30 a.m., over an hour before sunrise. It looked like my plan would succeed. A golden glow developed to the east about 40 minutes before sunrise, and I started shooting. Every minute or two I glanced over my shoulder to see if color had begun to appear in the sky to the southwest, above Little Bear.
Ten minutes into the shoot, Little Bear abruptly disappeared. A silent wall of mist had suddenly boiled upward from the western valleys below. The moon and stars vanished. Fog began filling the valleys to the east, rising until it almost covered Mt. Lindsey, another Fourteener, then ebbing. As the sun crested the horizon, I got fleeting glimpses of a red orb through the gloom. The scene in front of me was amazing, but also nerve-wracking. The steady breeze flowing in from the southwest carried enough moisture to condense into fog as the abrupt uplift of the Blanca Massif forced it to rise some 6,000 feet. What if that moist air was conditionally unstable, as the meteorologists would say, and continued to rise until it turned into a thunderstorm? The summit of Blanca was no place to be standing if that happened. I checked the point forecast for 13,000 feet in the Sangres on my smart phone. The forecasters were now calling for a 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms, a big jump from yesterday's forecast that today would have a 20 percent chance of storms. As the mist continued to thicken and the sky well above the mist became solidly overcast, I hurriedly packed up and headed down.
Mist still capped the highest peaks when I got down to 13,000 feet, but sunshine was beginning to break through the overcast into the valleys below. Gradually the skies cleared completely. The rest of the day was gorgeous and tranquil. Not a single drop of rain fell. Though the air mass had obviously contained enough moisture to condense into clouds when forced to rise, the rising column of air must have remained colder than the surrounding air, a condition meteorologists call conditionally stable. As the air mass continued over the crest of the range and began its descent, it warmed and the clouds evaporated again. Fortunately, the air mass never formed the explosive updraft that would have triggered a dangerous thunderstorm.