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March Milky Way Madness

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Twilight wedge over Fools Peak from the ridge south of Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
Twilight wedge over Fools Peak from the ridge south of Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado

I had been waiting seven weeks for a weather window as good as the one I enjoyed during a four-day shoot in early January in the Gore Range near Vail. As it finally approached in late February, I checked moon phase. The weather window was going to coincide perfectly with new moon. Dark, moon-free skies meant an opportunity to shoot the Milky Way if the galactic center, the most photogenic part of the Milky Way, rose high enough above the horizon before astronomical dawn to give me a reasonable amount of time to shoot. I checked Sun Surveyor, my favorite mobile app for data on the position of the sun, moon, and galactic center. At 4:17 a.m. the galactic center would reach an altitude of 10 degrees, my rule of thumb for when the galactic center is high enough to emerge above the bright band of sky that always exists just above the horizon. That meant I would have just under an hour to shoot before astronomical dawn at 5:10 a.m., when the rising sun would reach 18 degrees below the horizon and the sky would begin to brighten once more. And not only that: because it was late winter, I would be able to shoot a complete Milky Way panorama stretching nearly 180 degrees across the sky. The question was where.

Sun Surveyor told me that the highest point of the Milky Way arch would have an azimuth of 71 degrees – just north of east – when the galactic center reached 10 degrees above the horizon. That meant I needed a shooting location with interesting peaks to the east. I also knew that my shooting location needed to be fairly high. If there were tall mountains to the east that were much higher than my shooting location, the Milky Way would be hidden behind them during my narrow shooting window. By the time the Milky Way rose over the peaks, sometime after astronomical dawn, it would be invisible in the brightening sky.

I also knew that if I went somewhere that few other people visit in the winter, I would have to break trail by myself. With winter camping gear, four days of food and fuel, and camera gear on my back, I would be traveling one mile per hour or less. My pack would be even heavier than normal for a multi-day winter shoot because I needed to bring a more sophisticated camera. During my three most recent winter shoots I’d brought my Sony RX100 VII and MeFoto tripod. The total weight of that kit is 3 pounds 14 ounces. It’s an extremely light system that lets me make professional-quality prints up to 16x24 inches if I’m shooting in daylight. Unfortunately, the RX100 VII isn’t capable of shooting at the high ISOs necessary to capture the Milky Way. That meant I had to bring my Sony a7R IVa, which has much better high-ISO capabilities, but is also much heavier. I also had to bring my Sony 14mm f/1.8 lens for shooting the Milky Way, as well as my Sony 24-70mm f/4 lens for general daylight shooting. And I had to bring my new Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 tripod. That meant my total camera weight more than doubled, to 9 pounds 9 ounces. An extra five and half pounds may not sound like much, but it would certainly make a difference as the miles added up.

I needed to find a place where other skiers or snowshoers would have pounded a track into the snow, but where I could still find untracked snow to shoot. It was a tall order. I couldn’t think of a suitable location in the regions closest to my home, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness, despite my extensive knowledge of both areas. If I was on the east side of the Continental Divide in either area, I would be looking east out over the plains and the extensive light pollution generated by Front Range cities. Access to the west side of the Continental Divide is very difficult in the winter, and the peaks are much less interesti