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Lunar Eclipse over Longs Peak

Lunar Eclipse over Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Lunar Eclipse over Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

A lunar eclipse is a rare and magnificent sight, but photographically, it’s a challenge. Although the moon looms large in our perception, it’s optically quite small, subtending an angle of only half a degree. Filling the frame with the eclipsed moon requires a telescope. As the lunar eclipse of April 2015 approached, I decided to take a different tack and shoot it by making a series of photographs five minutes apart, each with the same composition, starting when the moon was full, then continuing through the eclipse until moonset. I would then put all the images together in Photoshop to show the progression of the eclipse.

I knew such an image would be better if I could place my series of moons over some dramatic landscape. After a lot of planning (see this blog post for the details), I decided the best shooting location was the summit of Twin Sisters, where I could photograph the moon as it slowly traced an arc over Longs Peak.  The catch? The summit of Twin Sisters is nearly four miles and 2,500 vertical feet above the road, and I would need to arrive on the summit around 2:45 a.m.

I knew that a big spring storm had dumped about eight inches of fresh snow on Rocky Mountain National Park, so I allowed plenty of time for the hike. I lay down at 8 p.m., dozed lightly until 9:15 p.m., drove to the park, and was snowshoeing up the trail by 11 p.m. I had estimated the approach would take 3½ hours, but deep drifts at timberline slowed me down. With the trail almost completely obscured, I headed straight up but guessed wrong on which of the knobs looming above me was the true summit. I ended up on the wrong side of the actual summit and had to scramble over large, snow-covered blocks of talus and through cliff bands to the top, arriving only 25 minutes before I knew I had to start shooting. As soon as I finished dialing in my composition, I began clicking off frames. For the next three hours I shot a bracketed set of images every five minutes as the moon slowly went into eclipse. Dawn light was spreading across the sky when the moon, still partially eclipsed, dropped below the western horizon. A few minutes later the sun crested the eastern plains, and I started down.

As I was descending, I ran into an ardent amateur photographer from Fort Collins. He had left the road two hours later than I had, without snowshoes, and had to fight through the timberline drifts on foot, reaching a good vantage point too late to shoot the full eclipse sequence. I was glad I had made it in time despite my route-finding error, and even more glad to get home and collapse into bed after a 29-hour day.

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