Updated: Apr 1, 2021
For many years I thought that the only way to do multi-day shoots in the mountains in winter was to haul a mountaineering sled stuffed full with camera and camping gear. Prior to 2008, when I was still shooting 4x5 film, that meant dragging close to 100 pounds of gear. Switching to digital capture in 2008 lightened my load considerably, but I still faced the problems that hauling the sled had always presented. Hauling a sled is like driving an 18-wheeler: tight turns, such as on a trail that switchbacks, are very difficult, and hauling a sled on dry ground if snow coverage is inadequate near the trailhead or on a south-facing slope is almost impossible. As I started my seventh decade on planet Earth, multi-day winter backcountry trips began to seem out of reach.
Then, about a year and a half ago, I decided to see if I could lighten my load enough to do multi-day winter shoots without hauling a sled. Everything would have to fit into a pack that I could reasonably carry. The question became, how light can I go in winter, and still come back with professional-quality images?
I began throwing money at the problem. First up, a new Warmlite 2CR winter tent that weighs just over three pounds and will stand up in a 50-mph wind. Next, a new Marmot Lithium sleeping bag that weighs just 2 pounds 15 ounces and is rated to 0 degrees. It was a good start, but the biggest weight savings came from new camera gear. I bought a Sony RX100 VII, which packs 20 megapixels and a 24-200mm Zeiss lens into a camera weighing just 11 ounces. I also picked up a MeFoto Backpacker S carbon-fiber tripod tipping the scales at 2 pounds 4 ounces. Total camera weight, including case, accessories and extra batteries: 3 pounds 14 ounces. By comparison, my standard camera kit, a Canon 5D Mark IV, three lenses, and a Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod, weighs 16 pounds.
Had I saved enough weight to make a multi-day winter trip feasible? With my 64th birthday just one day away, I packed for a three-day shoot and drove to Rocky Mountain National Park to find out. My destination was Sandbeach Lake, just four and a half miles from the trailhead. I thought I was being reasonable. After all, my dream destination was Thunder Lake, about nine miles from the same winter trailhead – too far, I decided, given that the park had received 21 inches of wet, heavy spring snow just four days earlier.
I spent the next six hours and 15 minutes snowshoeing through deep, sticky snow and finally arrived exhausted at Sandbeach Lake. The answer to my question, “How light can I go?” seemed to be, “Not light enough.”
My plan for photos near Sandbeach Lake included shooting sunrise from the summit of Mt. Orton, an 11,724-foot bump of a peak along the southeast ridge of Pagoda Mountain. After making camp, I began exploring my surroundings and got my first good look at what climbing Mt. Orton would entail – 1,400 vertical feet of trail-breaking through trackless snow and deep woods. Finding my way up that, in the dark, looked like a formidable challenge. I went to bed with an altitude headache and the alarm set for 3:15 a.m. When I woke up at 1 a.m. and the headache had not subsided, I reset the alarm for 5:50 a.m. and committed myself to shooting sunrise at Sandbeach Lake rather than Mt. Orton’s summit. I didn’t want a repeat of my dangerous battle with pulmonary edema during my sunrise shoots from the summits of Missouri Mountain, Mt. Oxford, and Mt. Belford. I knew that a sudden jump in altitude, coupled with hard exertion and sleep deprivation, had triggered serious high-altitude illness that had forced me to abandon my gear and spend seven hours gasping for breath as I fought my way downhill with nothing on my back to the trailhead just three and a half miles away.
Sunrise at Sandbeach Lake on my 64th birthday was pleasant but nothing truly special. After breakfast I spent two and a half hours breaking trail to the summit ridge of Mt. Orton. Reaching the actual summit in winter looked difficult, since it entailed finding a way up huge boulders covered with snow – perfect terrain for breaking an ankle or spraining a knee. I called my wife Cora from the summit ridge and sang a verse for her from my rewritten version of the Beatles’ When I’m 64:
“Now that I’m older and lost my hair
Many years ago
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?”
She laughed and said, “Yes. Always.”
My sunset shoot at Sandbeach Lake was underwhelming but at least I was feeling much better. After rewarding myself for good behavior with decaf coffee and three ounces of fancy chocolate, I went to bed with the alarm set for 3 a.m. This time I was determined to shoot sunrise from the summit ridge of Mt. Orton.
The wind was screaming over the summit ridge when I arrived an hour before sunrise. I hunkered down in the lee of the ridge crest and waited for dawn. A large cloud bank to the east threatened to block the hoped-for sunrise light.
At last the sun rose over the horizon. For just a minute or two it shone through a thin spot in the band of clouds, allowing soft pink light to bathe the foreground as I shot photos of Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker. Then I planted my tiny tripod atop a boulder on the very top of the ridge, right in the teeth of the gale, and shot a Hail Mary panorama with no nodal slide. It seemed like a risky gamble that was unlikely to pay off. After making a few other images, I headed down. It took just an hour to reach my campsite, and just two hours and 50 minutes to big-foot down the trench I had created two days earlier and reach the trailhead.
I had proven to myself that I was still strong enough, and had lightened my load enough, to do a three-day winter shoot at 64 years old – just barely. To my surprise and delight, my panorama from the summit ridge of Mt. Orton stitched successfully and was reasonably sharp. I had shot the panorama with the tripod legs fully retracted so that the tripod would be as resistant to wind-induced vibration as possible, a strategy which proved effective, at least this time. Though none of the images from the trip meet the high aesthetic standard required to offer them for sale as a print, I had at least shown I could come back with publishable photos. And I had spent my 64th birthday deep in the wilds of one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. Perhaps next year I'll celebrate my 65th birthday at Thunder Lake.