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Sunrise from La Plata Peak

Sunrise from La Plata Peak, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from La Plata Peak, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

I had already failed ignominiously on La Plata a year before. I had gone right after a spring snow, in May, and planned to shoot sunset. There proved to be much more snow than I expected, both fresh and from the winter snowpack. I lost the trail at about 11,300 feet and was obviously moving too slowly to make the summit before sunset. La Plata’s reputation for long talus slopes also discouraged me. Fresh snow over talus is surely the most dangerous kind of non-technical terrain. It’s all too easy to slip off a snowy boulder and sprain a knee or break an ankle. It would be even easier to get hurt coming down in the dark.

I returned in June the following year. Large snowfields still blanketed the route, but at least the snow was well-consolidated. The trailhead for La Plata is quite low, at 10,000 feet, and the route meanders a bit at the beginning. All told, it requires about 4,500 feet of elevation gain. I decided that was too much to blitz in a day, so I packed up one night’s food and gear and hiked to a campsite at 11,040 feet in La Plata Gulch. I arrived at my campsite a little before noon, napped, ate, and napped some more, then hit the trail at 10:30 p.m. I planned to summit at 3 a.m., which would give me about 40 minutes to shoot the Milky Way before astronomical dawn.

Repeatedly I lost the summer trail under the snowfields, but I was able to pick it up again using the GPS route I’d created from the track available on when the trail emerged from under the snow. I summited at 2 a.m. under clear skies and immediately began shooting Milky Way photos. Composing a Milky Way photo is a matter of trial and error, since you can’t see through the lens to compose the shot. All that you can do is shoot a test frame, check the LCD, guess at the correction required, and try again. I noticed that the Milky Way really seemed to fill the frame, much more than usual, but didn’t really think much about it. When I checked sharpness on the LCD, I noticed the stars had streaked slightly, but blithely assumed that the tiny streaks I could see were normal at the 30 second shutter speeds I was using.

Around 3:15 a.m. clouds began rolling in from the west, obscuring the Milky Way and shutting down my photography until – and if – the light became interesting around sunrise. A stiff breeze was blowing across the summit and the temperature was 25 degrees. I still had two hours to wait. I had been doing the sunrise shuffle from the moment I arrived. Now I started doing jumping jacks and running in place. Even with near-constant movement, I was gradually getting chilled. To distract myself, I listened to my audio book, The Righteous Mind. I was grateful when the first glow appeared to the east about 5 a.m., fully 40 minutes before sunrise. 

I pulled the camera out of its bag again and noticed that the focal length on my 16-35mm zoom lens was set to 35mm. I had shot the entire Milky Way sequence at 35mm when I meant to shoot it at 16mm. The images would still be sharp and well-composed, but I had used too long a shutter speed for that focal length, which meant the stars would be short streaks rather than points of light. It was one of those brain-dead blunders I’d like to blame on hypoxia and sleep deprivation, but for which there really was no excuse.

There was no time to waste berating myself right then. Within a few minutes the glow had strengthened, and I began shooting in earnest. Gradually the golden glow spread to more and more clouds until the sky was lighting up in three directions. I might have lost my Milky Way shots, but I certainly was going to get something spectacular from my effort. All too soon the light faded. A snow squall settled down over the Maroon Bells 30 miles to the west and began advancing toward me. I waited nervously for another hour until the sun rose above a cloud bank, grabbed a few shots of god beams as the sun found holes in the gathering clouds, and headed down. In just two hours and twenty minutes I was back at my camp. I packed quickly. A peal of thunder hastened my steps as I continued down the trail. Fortunately, the nascent thunderstorm only produced sprinkles, and I arrived at my truck in brilliant sunshine. Nine peaks left! After six years of effort the remaining peaks could finally be numbered in single digits. I headed for Leadville and my hotel, desperately craving sleep.

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