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Chasing ERNIs

Updated: Feb 14, 2021


The Sangre de Cristos Range from the summit of Star Dune at sunset, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The Sangre de Cristos Range from the summit of Star Dune at sunset, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

For many years, I chased ERNIs: exceptional renditions of natural icons. I lined up with a hundred new-found friends on the shores of Maroon Lake and waited for sunrise light to hit the famed Maroon Bells, near Aspen, Colorado. When my first shoot was a disappointment, I went back again and again, day after day and year after year. I made nine pilgrimages to Delicate Arch with a 4x5 field camera on my back, trying to nail that perfect sunset shot, with golden light on the arch, snow on the La Sal Mountains, and beautiful clouds filling the sky. (After my ninth try, after finally making a decent but not exceptional image, the guy standing next to me piped up and said, “That was kind of nice. This is the first time I’ve ever been here.”) I made the long drive from my home in Boulder to the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado year after year during late September and drove up and down County Roads 5, 7, and 9, Last Dollar Road, and Owl Creek Pass, searching for aspen groves at the peak of fall color nestled beneath snow-dusted 14,000-foot peaks.

In some cases, it paid off. My very best images of the Maroon Bells (Midsummer at the Maroon Bells and Maroon Bells at Sunrise) and Longs Peak (Bear Lake Sunrise and Longs Peak from Bear Lake in Autumn) became durable best sellers as prints. Some of these images are still in my line, and still selling, a decade or more after I first shot them. But I shot other best-selling images in far more obscure locations. The only named peak in Columbine along the Trail to Arapaho Pass, my all-time best-selling image, is Mt. Neva, a 12,814-foot knoll that is the 720th highest peak in Colorado. Recently I donated a print of the image to Conservation Colorado’s annual Rebel with a Cause fundraiser. As a parlor game, I asked attendees if they could identify where I shot the photo. These were all Colorado residents with a strong interest in the outdoors. The trailhead for Mt. Neva is only an hour and a half drive from downtown Denver. Only one person could identify the location, and even that person needed several broad hints. The location for Sunrise Aspen, probably my most popular fall-color image, is so obscure it took me four days to find it. My second-best-selling wildf