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Sunrise from Mt. Princeton

Sunrise from Mt. Princeton, Collegiate Peaks, Colorado

Sunrise from Mt. Princeton, Collegiate Peaks, Colorado

Although Mt. Princeton is considered one of the easiest Fourteeners, I had already failed on it twice, once in February 2011 and again in May that same year. On both attempts I had turned around at 2 a.m. when confronted with high winds and ground blizzards at 12,500 feet. In early June 2013 I tried again. I drove down from Boulder, parked just above the radio towers at about 11,000 feet, pitched my tent, and lay down for a siesta about 6 p.m. I wanted to shoot the Milky Way looking south over Mt. Antero from the summit. Astronomical dawn would be at 3:40 a.m., which meant I needed to arrive on the summit at 2:40 a.m. – the earliest I had ever planned to reach the summit of a Fourteener. That meant leaving the truck at 9:40 p.m.

Repeated rain squalls had punctuated the drive from Boulder to Buena Vista. The point forecast for 13,000 feet on Princeton called for a 40 percent chance of rain and snow showers that night, mainly before midnight. Fortunately, the sky was free of clouds when I got up at 8:45 p.m. One of my whimsical rules for landscape photography is, “Never eat breakfast before midnight. If you have to get up before midnight to do a photo shoot, eat dessert.” So I made a cup of strong coffee, ate four Pepperidge Farm double-fudge cookies, and hit the trail at 9:30 p.m.

Three hundred yards from the truck it started raining. The last thing I wanted was to get caught above timberline in a lightning storm. I debated returning to the truck to wait it out, but decided that since I was still well below timberline, I would continue, at least for a while. A few minutes later the rain stopped and the skies began to clear once more. 

By 11 p.m. I was well above timberline and working my way across the rising traverse on the northeast flank of Mt. Princeton. The stars vanished again and a few pellets of graupel began to fall. I scanned the skies anxiously, but heard no thunder and saw no lightning, so I continued. Slowly the stars re-emerged. I was feeling the altitude when I finally reached the summit at 2:10 a.m.

A stiff wind was whipping across the summit, and I was grateful for every bit of clothing I had brought, as well as the heavy tripod. I set up the camera and immediately began shooting the Milky Way over Mt. Antero. As I reviewed the images on the LCD I noticed that a tongue of fog seemed to be creeping up the valley south of Buena Vista. When the stars became too pale to be photogenic, about 30 minutes after astronomical dawn, I sat down to wait for the first glow to the east. As the darkness slowly lifted I saw that the tongue of fog was advancing steadily northward. A golden glow began along the eastern horizon as the fog bank continued to expand and deepen until it swallowed up Buena Vista and filled the entire Arkansas River valley. The sky above me was completely clear. To the northeast the isolated summits of the Buffalo Peaks emerged from the fog and were silhouetted against the golden sky. Fog banks surged and ebbed at the base of Mt. Antero and tried to climb up the eastern flanks of Mt. Princeton. I felt privileged to be standing on the summit of a Fourteener, bathed in sunshine and reveling in the magnificent view, while the good citizens of Buena Vista far down below awakened to find a gray and gloomy world.

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