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Sunset from Mt. Elbert

Sunset from Mt. Elbert, San Isabel National Forest, Colorado

Sunset from Mt. Elbert, San Isabel National Forest, Colorado

The idea of a winter photo shoot on Mt. Elbert intrigued me for several reasons. The first was obvious: surely the summit of the highest mountain in Colorado would yield spectacular photographs at sunrise or sunset in the depths of winter. Equally important, the route via the South Mt. Elbert Trail seemed free of avalanche danger, and the road to the summer two-wheel-drive trailhead was plowed. Although I had shot sunrise from Mt. Elbert four years before, that trip had been in May, via the North Mt. Elbert Trail. I was shooting film at the time with a medium-format rangefinder, and I thought I might be able to better my results with my Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III DSLR and a lens selection with a much wider range of focal lengths.

As the next window of good weather approached, I saw with delight that it was going to coincide with the evening when the full moon would be rising to the east just as the sun set to the west. Now came the real question: could I actually get there to witness what promised to be a very rare event? The Colorado snowpack in January, particularly down in the trees, is often composed of the bottomless, sugary snow called depth hoar that makes trail-breaking an ordeal. However, there was no way to know if my plan was feasible without trying, so I drove to the trailhead with my gear in a mountaineering sled just as the last storm was clearing out. I planned to camp about two and a half miles in when the easy sled-hauling ended, then climb the peak the next day.

A well-packed trail led me to a pleasant camp in an aspen grove just before the trail began to climb in earnest. Drifted tracks led upwards from my camp. Did they continue to timberline? If I stepped off the trail, even on snowshoes, I plunged knee-deep into the depth hoar. If the tracks ended, and I had to break trail in that kind of snow, I might beat myself to a pulp and give up long before reaching the summit. In the morning I started up the half-buried track. Trench might be a better word; I was quite grateful to the iron men (or women) who broke that trail. The trail twisted and turned, but seemed to stay on the summer route, then finally faded as I emerged from the last trees. No matter; sun and wind had consolidated the snow above timberline, and the snowshoeing was straightforward, if still strenuous. 

After six hours and fifteen minutes of hard labor, I finally stood atop the highest mountain in Colorado. I hoped to shoot a 360-degree panorama from the summit, but I immediately saw that I had at least three problems. The first was contrails, those prominent white scars on the blue sky formed when moisture condenses around the tiny particles called condensation nuclei found in jet-engine exhaust. The second was the many footprints in the snow left from the previous visitors. And the third was three large poles ‒ aspen trunks stripped of their branches ‒ that some misguided soul had hauled to the summit and planted deeply amidst the rocks a few feet from the summit cairn. To me, these poles were essentially "trash," and moving them was akin to picking up a candy wrapper some careless hiker left behind.

There wasn't much I could do about the contrails or footprints, but at least I could remove the poles and set them somewhere out of sight of my photos. That proved easier said than done. After much straining and rocking back and forth, the largest pole came loose, then the smallest. I turned to the third and began rocking it back and forth. Nothing budged. I rocked harder. Still no progress. I was pulling backwards with all my strength when, without even a warning creak, the pole snapped off suddenly at the base and smashed into my forehead. I fell over backwards into the snow and landed on my butt. For a few moments, my head hurt intensely. When the pain eased, I had to laugh. If anyone had been there to watch, I'm sure my Three Stooges re-run would have been hilarious.

That evening, as the sun dropped lower and lower, I shot five 360-degree panoramas, each composed of 12 sets of three images that I would later merge in the HDR software called Photomatix, then stitch together in Photoshop. At sunset, right on cue, the moon rose over the Mosquito Range and into the pink band of light forming along the eastern horizon. After one last 360-degree panorama, I switched to a telephoto and shot some tight images of the moon and twilight wedge as well as the Sawatch Range to the south, whose peaks receded endlessly into the distance under a soft pink sky. 

When the light show faded, I packed up and started down. The moon was so bright I didn't even need a headlamp until I reached the trees. It was an eerie feeling descending the highest mountain in Colorado, alone, by moonlight, in January. I reached my camp in just two and a half hours. A big knot had formed on my forehead where I had whacked myself, and when I got home the next day, I found I was sporting an impressive black eye. To add insult to injury, my efforts to stitch together a satisfying panorama not marred by contrails and footprints were unsuccessful. I could, of course, have removed both flaws in Photoshop, but I chose not to. For me, the appeal of nature photography is that, at its best, it is an authentic record of truly memorable moments. I tell my clients, "What you see in my prints is what I saw through the lens." Living by that philosophy means that sometimes my hopes are dashed. Fortunately, I still have the beautiful image you see here to remind me of the rare and wonderful experience of climbing Mt. Elbert in January and witnessing sunset and moonrise from the highest point in Colorado.

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