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Swing for the Fences

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

Quandary Peak from Hoosier Ridge at sunrise, near Breckenridge, Colorado
Quandary Peak from Hoosier Ridge at sunrise, near Breckenridge, Colorado

Veteran travel photographer Bob Krist once said, “In photography, your batting average means nothing. It’s only the home runs that count.” In other words, your strikeouts don’t matter. No one will (or should) ever see them but you. In fact, given that people will shoot an estimated 1.4 trillion photographs in 2021, your singles, doubles, and triples don’t count for much either.

My conclusion from all this? Swing for the fences and accept the high risk of failure that is the inevitable price of such a strategy. Here’s a case in point.

On May 26, 2021, the first total lunar eclipse in over two years occurred. The problem for photographers in Colorado was that the moon was only 5 degrees above the horizon, setting to the southwest, when totality began. Totality is the phase of an eclipse when the moon is fully inside Earth’s umbra, so that no light from any part of the sun can reach the moon, and the moon turns red. As I began planning a shot of this rare event, I realized the moon’s low altitude during totality meant that I needed to find a shooting location where the elevation of the horizon to the southwest would be the same or only slightly higher than the elevation of my shooting location. I either needed to find a location high in the mountains or to go far out on the eastern plains so the mountains to the southwest wouldn’t block my view of the moon during totality.

I started exploring possible locations using Photo Ephemeris Web Pro, which now has lunar eclipse information. I soon learned that to see the fully eclipsed moon over Longs Peak from the plains meant I would need to be some 35 miles away from the peak – too far, unless the air was very clear, to get a good shot of Longs. What if I hiked to the top of Twin Sisters Peaks, which offers a stunning view of Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak and is much closer to the peaks? Photo Ephemeris Web showed that the moon would set behind Mt. Meeker just before totality began. How about shooting from the summit of a Fourteener? The roads to the summits of Mt. Evans and Pikes Peak, the only two Fourteeners accessible by vehicle, were still closed by snow. So what Fourteener was close to Boulder and had a trailhead that was accessible in May? The logical choice was 14,265-foot Quandary Peak, just south of Breckenridge. Photo Ephemeris Web showed that from the summit of Quandary Peak the totally eclipsed moon would be just to the right of 14,429-foot Mt. Massive, the second-highest peak in the state, during totality. If the skies were clear, I should be able to make a spectacular photograph that would be unlike any eclipse shot I’d ever made. Shooting from Quandary would give me a chance to make the best photograph of the eclipse that I could imagine.

I checked the forecast. forecast clear skies in Breckenridge during the eclipse. The National Weather Service point forecast for 13,700 feet on Quandary called for about 25 percent sky cover during the eclipse, with clouds increasing quickly after sunrise.

Now the challenge was getting to the summit of Quandary Peak in time. I drove to the trailhead the evening before and lay down in the back of my 4Runner. The alarm jarred me awake at 11:45 p.m. after three hours of restless sleep. I was on the trail at 12:23 a.m. I had 3,425 feet of elevation to gain. I hoped to gain 800 feet per hour. My pack, with a 5D Mark IV, 16-35mm f/2.8, 50mm macro, 70-200mm f/4, full-size tripod, and lots of warm clothing, weighed about 40 pounds.

Many more clouds filled the sky than either forecast had predicted, but there were still a few large patches of starry skies. At 3:44 a.m., the Earth’s shadow began to take a bite out of the moon, still visible through a hole in the clouds. Four hours and 15 minutes after leaving my truck, at 4:38 a.m., half an hour before totality began, I reached the summit of Quandary Peak. I had averaged 806 feet of elevation gain per hour.

Lunar eclipse over Mt. Massive from the summit of Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge, Colorado
Lunar eclipse over Mt. Massive from the summit of Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge, Colorado

A stiff wind was raking the summit. The temperature was 22 degrees. The partially eclipsed moon was barely visible through thin clouds. I pulled on every stitch of warm clothing I’d brought, set up, and grabbed a few insurance shots. Then, just minutes before totality began, the moon descended into a thick cloud bank and vanished. I waited, hoping for a break in the clouds, but none came. The minutes ticked by, but the moon never reappeared.

I turned my attention to sunrise, now just minutes away. Perhaps I could shoot a consolation prize. The clouds began to light up, first to the east, then north, then northwest, then west, and back to north again. I dashed around the summit, switching lenses frantically and trying to catch the fleeting color before it faded. Ten minutes after the first clouds lit up, the light show ended as the sun rose into dense clouds. I lingered on the summit for a while longer, then finally gave up and headed down. Three hours later I reached my truck, thoroughly exhausted. After a desperately needed 45-minute nap, I drove home.

Cirrus clouds over Mount of the Holy Cross light up at sunrise as seen from the summit of Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge, Colorado
Cirrus clouds over Mount of the Holy Cross light up at sunrise as seen from the summit of Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge, Colorado

Was it worth it? The obvious answer would seem to be no – I wasn’t able to make the magnificent image I saw so clearly in my head. But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up trying to imagine the best possible image, then laying everything on the line to try to capture that photo. Failure is just part of the game, frustrating, undoubtedly, but also inevitable. Even after 28 years of full-time landscape photography, I know I’ll have to remind myself of that fact the next time I imagine a great image and have to force myself to set the alarm for the middle of the night to try to make it happen.

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