Updated: Feb 8, 2022
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.
I was still 100 vertical feet below the saddle when the sun set. The light was pink and vivid, but the composition was boring. I snapped a few frames anyway and put the camera away. Then I heard a distant rumble. At first, I thought it was a passing jet. Then movement caught my eye. Avalanche! A slab some 300 yards wide had pulled loose on the west-southwest face of Peak 12,360. The sight put me on edge even though I realized immediately that I was not in danger. The massive debris flow was perhaps a quarter of a mile away. There had been no obvious trigger – no recent storm or high winds to load the slope, no cornice fracture to trigger the slide. I had checked the avalanche forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before leaving. The danger was rated moderate. Furthermore, nearly all reported slides were on north to east to southeast aspects – not west-southwest. Clearly there were more hazards than the avalanche forecast had led me to expect.
I called my wife Cora and told her about the slide. “Is your campsite safe from avalanches?” she asked immediately. I assured her I had camped in dense, tall timber. Clearly no slab avalanche had overrun my campsite for at least 100 years. It didn’t occur to me that there might be other types of avalanches I should worry about.
The temperature that night dropped into the single digits. I spread my down jacket over my sleeping bag to add a little more insulation, put on all my clothes except my shell gear, and cinched down the hood of my sleeping bag until only my eyes and nose were exposed to the frigid air. To ensure that I woke up in time to get somewhere interesting for sunrise, I tucked my Braun travel alarm into my fleece hat. Unfortunately, my movements during the night accidentally switched off the alarm. By the time I woke up, it was way too late to shoot sunrise anywhere. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I’d been in my sleeping bag for 10 hours. On several occasions on past trips I’ve developed high-altitude pulmonary edema, a terrifying disorder in which your lungs begin filling up with your own fluids. This has happened even at the relatively low altitude of Colorado. The most dangerous episode was during a May trip to shoot sunrise from the summits of Missouri Mountain, Mt. Oxford, and Mt. Belford. For me, the trigger is a combination of three factors: sleep deprivation, very heavy exertion, and a rapid trip to high altitude, with no time to acclimatize. Though I had hardly slept soundly for the ten hours I was in my bag, I got enough sleep that I woke up feeling strong, with a good appetite.
After breakfast I snowshoed to the saddle that I’d tried to reach the day before, then continued breaking trail up the west ridge of Peak 12,360, carefully staying away from any steep slopes that might avalanche. I arrived on the summit around 11:00 a.m. The day was perfect, with calm winds and a rich blue sky. By the time I finished exploring the summit ridge and a nearby shoulder of the peak, looking for the best sunrise and sunset compositions, it made no sense to spend over an hour descending to my campsite, then immediately turn around and spend two hours climbing back up. I whiled away the afternoon setting up test shots, nibbling on granola bars, enjoying the view, and watching the sun sink slowly toward the southwest horizon, praying no clouds appeared at the last minute to ruin the sunset light.
The sky at the horizon remained clear. After six hours on the summit, I was able to capture beautiful golden light igniting the dramatic peaks filling the skyline to the north. As quickly as possible after sunset I descended to my campsite, ate dinner, and snuggled once again into my sleeping bag. This time I even donned my shell clothes over all my insulating layers to ward off the chill of another single-digit night.
My alarm rang at 3:30 a.m. This time I had taped the switch so the alarm could not be turned off accidentally. An hour later I began climbing back up my snowshoe tracks. I reached the summit nearly an hour before sunrise. I had slept with my spare camera batteries in a chest pocket but put the camera with a battery installed in its padded case beside me in the tent. Within minutes after putting the camera on the tripod, the low battery signal began flashing. With numb fingers I swapped out the cold battery for a warm one. To my surprise, it too began threatening to die within minutes. Was the camera going to freeze up just as the light peaked?
Fortunately, the new battery had just enough juice to let me shoot the beautiful magenta glow that illuminated the foreground snow when the clouds to the east and north lit up before sunrise. I descended to camp, ate some ramen soup, and settled into my sleeping bag for a midday nap.
I had just dozed off when I was jarred awake by a tremendous thud. A heavy weight was pinning my feet to the floor. I unzipped the bag, looked toward the foot of the tent, and saw what had happened. In the weeks prior to my trip, big storms had loaded the branches of the trees above my tent. Over time, that snow had consolidated. Now the warmth of the midday sun had loosened the bonds holding this dense snow to the treetops. A giant snowball perhaps two or three feet in diameter had broken loose from somewhere high in a tree and fallen on the rear of the tent.
From inside the tent, it looked like the rear pole had simply bent in two places. The tent was still standing. With a little luck, the nearby trees wouldn’t drop any more white cannonballs on me. I went back to sleep.
When I got out of the tent an hour later, I saw immediately that the damage was much worse than I thought. The pole had broken in two places, and the jagged end of one broken pole had ripped a hole through the pole sleeve. The tent was standing, yes, but just barely.
Now I had to decide what to do. Could my wounded tent survive another night? I wasn’t worried about a big storm dumping enough new snow to further damage the tent – the sky was still clear – but what if the wind came up? It was already 2 p.m. It would take at least an hour to pack everything up and start down. I estimated it would take at least five hours to reach the trailhead. If I started down at 3 p.m. I would arrive at least three hours after dark. I was prepared to travel at night, of course, but wasn’t eager to slog along in the dark for three hours. Most importantly, if I left now, I would sacrifice the last sunset and sunrise shoots I had planned.
I decided to gamble that the tent would survive another night. I wrapped the broken pole sections in duct tape, eased the damaged pole back into its fabric sleeve, and headed upward toward the west ridge of Peak 12,360. I planned to shoot about 100 vertical feet below the summit, using some wind-sculpted snow as foreground.
The wind was picking up and the temperature was in the teens when I arrived at my shooting location. Thin cirrus clouds at the southwest horizon robbed some of the warmth from the sunset light, but the composition was better than the one I’d shot the night before. “I’m glad I stayed,” I thought. “Or at least, I’ll be glad I stayed if my tent survives the night.”
After descending to camp I reinforced the tent as best I could by staking out the two rear corners, then went to bed on another single-digit night with the alarm set for 3:45 a.m. With my track now well compacted, I expected to be able to return to the summit of Peak 12,360 a bit faster than on my previous three ascents. This time I slept with both the camera and the spare batteries tucked into pockets in my fleece jacket.
I reached the summit of Peak 12,360 about 45 minutes before sunrise the next morning. The wind was building. Spindrift began slashing at my cheeks. I put 10 pounds of granite boulders into a stuff sack and hung the sack from the hook on the end of the center column to stabilize the ultra-light tripod. The forecast had called for clear skies, but menacing clouds were rolling in from the west and descending to obscure the tops of the highest peaks. Even with a warm camera, the battery began showing signs of distress after only 15 minutes atop the tripod. Fortunately, the battery held out long enough for me to shoot a spectacular sunrise, with clouds lighting up pink over the peaks of the Gore Range. Now I really was glad I’d stayed.
When the sunrise light faded, I started down wearing every scrap of clothing I’d brought. It was not until I reached the trees that I finally warmed up enough to remove my heavy down jacket. I returned to camp, packed up, and started the long, weary trek back to the trailhead. The adrenaline rush generated by racing the rising sun to the summit, then shooting a magnificent sunrise, had long since ebbed. Four days in the winter backcountry, three cold nights of restless sleep, two very early starts, and a lot of trail-breaking had taken its toll. The six-and-a-half-mile trek out took five hours, but it felt endless. Half a mile from the trailhead, I encountered a snowshoer, the first person I’d seen in four days. At long last I reached my truck and called Cora. “I made it!” I said, and she laughed. Both my knees and my lower back stiffened up as I drove home, and I was feeling all of my 64 years when I walked up the stairs to give Cora a hug. “Like I always say,” I told her, “there’s nothing like winter to beat you to a pulp.”