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Milky Way from Missouri Mountain

Milky Way from Missouri Mountain, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

Milky Way from Missouri Mountain, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

When the spring of 2013 began I had fourteen Fourteeners to go in my seven-year Sunrise from the Summit project. I was determined to finish all fourteen by August, but hoped to do most of them in May and June, when the peaks still held snow. The winter had been dry, but in April a series of massive storms swept through Colorado. By mid-May there was more snow on the high peaks than I had seen at any time of year for several years. I decided to work on Missouri Mountain, Mt. Oxford, and Mt. Belford, the group of peaks in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness that is accessible from a single basecamp high in Missouri Gulch. I expected shooting three peaks in a row to be strenuous and sleep-deprived, especially since I wanted to shoot the Milky Way from each summit, which meant arriving on the summit at least two hours before sunrise. I didn’t expect the shoot to end with a desperate struggle to get out of the mountains.

I camped at the 9,650-foot trailhead to start the acclimatization process, then headed up the Missouri Gulch trail at first light. Continuous snow began at about 10,750 feet, and I lashed on my snowshoes. It took five and a half hours to haul a big load of winter camping gear and camera gear, including a multi-row panorama setup and heavy tripod, to a high camp at 12,500 feet. Even though it was spring, the temperature on the summit before sunrise would be well below freezing. Hanging out in the cold, wind, and dark for several hours would require plenty of warm clothing. I also needed a winter tent to withstand the potential winds at my exposed camp above timberline, as well as a winter stove setup with enough firepower to melt snow efficiently.

I napped for a few hours in the early evening, then got up again at 10:45 p.m. and began snowshoeing up Missouri Mountain just before midnight. I cached the snowshoes and switched to boots and ice axe when the slope steepened. Two hours after leaving camp, I reached the summit ridge at 13,700 feet. I was still about two-thirds of a mile from the summit. Surely I could travel two-thirds of a mile in an hour, I thought. I was wrong. I had never seen such deep, unconsolidated snow on the summit ridge of a Fourteener. High winds normally scour such ridges dry, even in the depths of winter. After two hours of strenuous post-holing, I finally summited at about 4 a.m., just minutes before the beginning of astronomical twilight, the moment when the sky begins to brighten and the stars begin to pale.

I threw on warm clothing and set up the camera as fast as possible. The sky at 14,000 feet on a moonless night still seemed very dark and the Milky Way glowed against its cobalt background. I managed to shoot a dozen frames before the Milky Way faded into the dawn sky. It was still an hour and half until sunrise. For an hour I danced and shuffled to stay warm, watching the world below slowly emerge from the gloom of night. Half an hour before sunrise the second light show began. With the sun still below the horizon, the clouds to the east began lighting up over Mt. Belford, Mt. Harvard, and the valley of Pine Creek. The moment of sunrise was muted as the sun rose into dense clouds, and I headed down soon afterwards, plodding back across the summit ridge, then down the east face to my snowshoes and eventually to camp. Naturally, I was ready for a long nap, but I still felt strong and healthy. One peak down, two to go!

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