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"Nothing Like Winter to Beat You to a Pulp"

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

Black Peak from the summit of Peak 12,360, Gore Range, Eagles Nest Wilderness, Colorado
Black Peak from the summit of Peak 12,360, Gore Range, Eagles Nest Wilderness, Colorado

It was early January, and the weather forecast called for strong high pressure over Colorado for the next several days. Perhaps it was finally time to attempt a multi-day winter shoot at Thunder Lake, in the Wild Basin region of Rocky Mountain National Park. I had hoped to shoot at the lake last January, but a major storm had blocked the road to the winter trailhead, and I had gone to Sandbeach Lake instead. I called the park to check on road conditions.

“We’ve gotten four feet of snow in the last week with 70 mph winds. The entire park is closed at the entrance stations,” I was told. “We have no estimate when the park will reopen.”

With one plan thwarted, I started searching for an alternative. After my trip to the Gore Range in December 2019, I had scoured the map for nearby locations that might offer additional possibilities and found what looked like a safe and feasible way to reach the summit of an unnamed 12,360-foot peak above the Piney River. I expected the summit to offer a magnificent view of the peaks to the north. Although the peaks in the Gore Range are relatively low by Colorado standards, with the highest topping out at just over 13,000 feet, they are quite rugged. The Gore Range is also the westernmost range in that part of the state, so there are no taller peaks to the west to shadow the Gore Range peaks at sunset. With luck and the right composition, my entire subject, from the wind-sculpted snow at my feet to the distant peaks, would be bathed in golden light. And there is a backcountry cabin called the Eiseman Hut nearby, which meant it was likely there would be a trail broken most of the way to where I planned to camp at 11,000 feet. I knew from my 2019 trip that even with the lightest possible camera and winter camping gear, breaking trail by myself was arduous.

On January 9th, I drove to the 8,480-foot Spraddle Creek trailhead just outside Vail. The temperature was about 5 degrees under perfectly clear skies when I headed in with four days of food and fuel, my Sony RX100 VII, and my MeFOTO tripod. As I had hoped, the trail was broken, but it still took me six hours and 45 minutes of hard labor to reach 11,000 feet. January days are short. Already it was 3 p.m., which meant I had only two hours until sunset. I left the track leading to the Eiseman Hut and began breaking a trail north through the woods. After a few hundred yards, I found a cozy site nestled between tall trees that would block the wind. I hastily stamped out a tent platform with my snowshoes, pitched my Warmlite tent, threw my gear inside, and continued breaking trail upwards through the woods. I hoped to reach a good view from the saddle between Peak 12,360 and its 11,770-foot satellite to the west before the light peaked.