March Milky Way Madness

Updated: Mar 28

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 interesting seen from the west than from the east.

Sunset from the summit of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
Sunset from the summit of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado

Then I remembered a trip I’d done many years ago to the Peter Estin Hut, which sits on the western edge of the Holy Cross Wilderness. Charles Peak, 12,050 feet, rises just east of the hut. The Estin Hut is busy enough that it was highly likely a broken track would lead from the Yeoman Park trailhead to the hut. It was also likely that skiers at the hut would have broken a track leading to the top of Charles Peak. I knew from my previous trip that the view looking east from the summit of Charles Peak toward Gold Dust Peak was spectacular. The Sphere module in Photo Ephemeris Web gave me the approximate azimuths of the left and right ends of the Milky Way arch as well as the maximum height of the arch. The arch would easily rise above the highest peaks to the east and perfectly frame the peaks to the north and south.

I packed up, drove three hours to the trailhead, shouldered my enormous load, and headed in on a perfect calm, sunny day. Immediately the perennial question popped into my mind: do I really need everything I have in this bloody heavy pack? The answer, unfortunately, was yes.

As I hoped, an obvious beaten trail led from the trailhead to the hut. After five hours of hard labor I stamped out a tent platform a hundred yards from the hut (which was sold out) and pitched my tent. Then I hurried to the summit of Charles Peak, again following a broken track, arriving a scant 30 minutes before sunset.

A quick check of the compass showed that my planning had paid off. The weather was perfectly clear. Now I just had to summon the stamina to get up at 1 a.m. after a hard day hauling in all my gear.

I descended to camp, ate dinner as quickly as possible, and turned out the headlamp about 9:00 p.m. Four hours later I climbed out of my sleeping bag, made coffee, ate some cereal, and headed up once more. I arrived on the summit of Charles Peak about 3:15 a.m., about two hours before astronomical dawn, giving me plenty of time to dress for the cold and set up to shoot a Milky Way panorama.

Under normal circumstances I use a Really Right Stuff MPR-CL II nodal slide to prevent problems with parallax when parts of the subject are close to the camera. Unfortunately, my 14mm lens has such a wide angle of view that the lens “sees” the end of the slide. The slide was perfect for the rest of my lenses, but too long for the 14mm. I had neglected to buy a shorter one before this trip. So I had gambled that I could find compositions where nothing was closer than about 100 feet from the lens. In those circumstances, parallax is not an issue. Unfortunately, the only composition I could find on the summit of Charles Peak had foreground elements just 20 feet from the camera. It was possible that I might work very hard on shooting the component images of a panorama and find out too late, after my return home, that the photos wouldn’t stitch together.

Milky Way panorama over Gold Dust Peak from the summit of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
Milky Way panorama over Gold Dust Peak from the summit of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado

I shot the first panorama sequence with the camera positioned horizontally, then quickly realized that the Milky Way arch was already too high in the sky for the lens’s field of view to include it comfortably. I switched to a vertical orientation and shot several more panorama sequences, exposing each sequence using the correct exposure for the sky. If I had been shooting a scene with little or no snow, I would have had to shoot a sequence with a longer exposure to correctly expose the land. The sky at night is typically about two stops brighter than land with no snow on it. In this case, nearly all the land in the frame was covered with snow, which coincidentally is about two stops brighter than dry land. That meant I should be able to get all the detail I needed in the frames exposed correctly for the sky. As insurance, however, I tried shooting some longer exposures. To my surprise, my Sony a7R IVa completely locked up when I tried a one-minute exposure. The red “active” light came on and would not turn off. I could not display the captured image, make a new image, or display the menus. Turning the power off, then on again, failed to unlock the camera. Finally, in desperation, I turned off the camera, removed the battery, reinstalled it, and turned the camera back on. At last the camera resumed normal operation.

All too soon the sky to the east began to brighten. The window for Milky Way shooting had closed. I hadn’t found any promising sunrise compositions, so I headed back to camp. I invented a new meal, “dreakfast,” (dessert for breakfast), then tested my invention by downing a giant chocolate bar and a mug of decaf coffee. Then I crashed for four hours.

That afternoon I snowshoed back to the summit of Charles Peak and then continued south along the ridge toward Fools Peak. As I explored, I spotted a promontory jutting east from the main ridge that looked like it might provide an even better vantage point for a Milky Way panorama than the one I’d just shot. As I got closer to the promontory, I discovered what I thought would be an excellent sunset location, with a beautifully sculpted ridge in the foreground and Fools Peak in the background. A casual glance at the western horizon seemed to show that both foreground and background would be bathed in golden light at sunset. Unfortunately, my Milky Way promontory formed a prominent part of my sunset composition. If I snowshoed out onto the promontory to confirm my guess that it would be a great place to shoot a Milky Way panorama, I would create tracks that would mar my sunset shot.

Fools Peak at sunset from the ridge south of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
Fools Peak at sunset from the ridge south of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado

I stayed put, leaving the promontory untracked, and set up for sunset. As I waited, I began worrying about what I was planning to do. Sunset was at 6 p.m. By the time I packed up after sunset, snowshoed for an hour and a quarter back to camp, cooked and ate dinner, it would be 9:00 p.m. I had gotten up at 1:00 a.m. that morning. True, I had gotten a four-hour nap, but I would need to get up again no later than 1:00 a.m. if I was going to return to this location to shoot the Milky Way. Sleep deprivation, a sudden jump in altitude, in this case from Boulder at 5,000 feet to my campsite at 11,200 feet, and heavy exertion had led in the past to serious bouts of altitude illness, including one incident where I had to abandon my equipment and spend seven hours struggling to descend three miles to my truck with nothing on my back. The weather forecast called for perfectly clear skies that night. The forecast for the following night was iffier. It called for clear skies early in the night but increasing clouds by dawn. Should I skip shooting the Milky Way that night and wait 24 hours, hoping the weather window would stay open long enough for me to shoot a Milky Way panorama then?

As the sun got lower, I suddenly realized that it would be setting far enough to the right of where I expected that it would disappear before sunset behind a nearby knoll. Not only that, but several large trees would cast shadows over what I had expected to be snow lit by golden sunset light. Suddenly I was scrambling, trying to find a new composition that would work with the lighting as it was actually playing out.

When the light left the foreground, I concluded that the best shooting opportunities had passed. Quickly I snowshoed over onto the promontory to check out my Milky Way composition and found it would indeed work well. As I was shooting compass bearings, an intense twilight wedge developed over the peaks to the east. Too late I realized I should have stayed at my sunset location a little longer. I grabbed a few shots handheld, cursing my lack of foresight, then hastily packed up and headed down.

Milky Way panorama over Gold Dust Peak from the ridge south of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
Milky Way panorama over Gold Dust Peak from the ridge south of 12,050-foot Charles Peak, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado

I turned out the headlamp around 9:00 p.m. with the alarm set for 1 a.m. To get a little more sleep, I decided to skip my usual cup of coffee and bowl of cereal. I was snowshoeing again by 1:30 a.m. and reached my shooting location an hour and 40 minutes later, in time to set up and begin shooting Milky Way panoramas again on a magnificently clear night with intense green airglow. All too soon the sky began to brighten to the east once more. I packed up and headed north along the ridge to Charles Peak again, then began the long descent to my campsite, pausing to reexamine the spot I’d previously chosen to shoot sunset. This time I looked more carefully at precisely where the sun would set and where the nearby trees would be casting shadows. Once I reached camp, I ate breakfast and crashed until 1 p.m.

The sky was perfectly clear at sunset except for one thin band of cirrus sitting on the western horizon at precisely the point where the sun set. Those clouds dulled the sunset light, and my four-day shoot ended with an anticlimactic whimper. When I climbed out of my tent the next morning, thin cirrus clouds covered the sky. If I had skipped shooting the Milky Way during my second night, opting for more sleep, gambling that the perfect weather would continue and that I could shoot the Milky Way my third night, I would probably have been disappointed.

I packed up and put the hammer down for home, reaching my truck in just two hours and 25 minutes. As soon as I finished the three-hour drive back to Boulder, I downloaded the images and ran a quick test. Would the Milky Way panoramas stitch, even though I had not used a nodal slide and parts of my foreground were much less than 100 feet away? The answer was yes, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. A few weeks later, I found a short nodal slide in stock at B&H and ordered it. Now I could shoot Milky Way panoramas with my 14mm lens and be confident they would stitch. Launching out on a four-day winter Milky Way shoot is already a huge gamble of time and energy. I didn’t want to gamble ever again that a shortcoming in my shooting technique would prevent me from capitalizing on such a rare opportunity -- the opportunity to shoot Milky Way panoramas soaring over the Holy Cross Wilderness in early March.

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