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Winter: The Season of Solitude

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

Cornices along the west ridge of Bald Mountain, in the Gore Range near Vail, Colorado
Cornices along the west ridge of Bald Mountain, in the Gore Range near Vail, Colorado

At a time when the growing crowds in the national parks and wilderness areas threaten to ruin the experience of visiting these magnificent places, winter remains the season of solitude. True, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are growing more popular every year, but those tracks usually end just a few miles from the trailhead. Venture beyond the tracks—and learn how to winter camp—and you can experience a solitude that is all too rare in our crowded world. You can also create unique images, without a dozen new-found friends standing by your shoulder capturing the same shot.

For many years I used a mountaineering sled designed for hauling loads to carry all the clothing, camping gear, and camera gear I felt I needed for winter camping and photography. Sleds have several disadvantages, however. They’re heavy, can’t be hauled on dry ground if snow cover is inadequate near the trailhead, and are virtually impossible to haul up a trail that switchbacks. That greatly limits feasible destinations. At 62, hauling a sled, even on a snow-covered 4wd road, has become increasingly difficult. For the last two winters I did no multi-day winter shoots at all.

As the winter of 2019-2020 approached, I decided to see if I could radically lighten the gear needed to camp comfortably and safely in the winter as well as the camera gear needed to make professional-quality images. For starters, I retired my worn-out winter tent and bought a Warmlite 2CR that weighs just over three pounds. The Warmlite’s unique design and pre-curved, large-diameter poles give it the strength needed to stand up in high winds if properly anchored. Next, I put the Sony DSC RX100 III that I had been using as a casual family-snap camera through its paces. After shooting test images of a highly detailed brick wall, I concluded I could make an acceptable 16x24 inch print from its 20-megapixel files—very impressive for a 10 ½ ounce camera. Next, I bought the lightest affordable carbon-fiber tripod I could find, a MeFoto Backpacker S Travel Tripod. At 2 pounds, 4 ounces, it certainly won’t support my Canon 5D Mark IV with a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, but it does just fine with the RX100 III. To keep an already short tripod from sinking down in the snow and forcing me to shoot from lower than I might want, I made some “tripod snowshoes” out of empty Noosa yogurt containers and 7-Up bottle caps. Total weight for three: 1.4 ounces. I also picked up Sony’s Remote Commander RM-VPR1 cable-release so I could shoot auto-bracketed HDR sequences without touching the camera. The HDR approach is frequently necessary with the Sony’s pixel-packed one-inch sensor, which doesn’t have the dynamic range of bigger sensors.

Frosted trees at sunset along the west ridge of Bald Mountain, in the Gore Range near Vail, Colorado
Frosted trees at sunset along the west ridge of Bald Mountain, in the Gore Range near Vail, Colorado

A tiny camera has tiny buttons, and the RX100 III is no exception. Since it would clearly be impossible to push those buttons with gloved hands, I packed a pencil with an unused eraser. I would use the eraser end to push the buttons while still wearing heavy ski gloves.

Finally I was ready to see if I really could carry everything I needed for a multi-day winter shoot on my back. In early December a major snowstorm rolled through Colorado. After three hours of white-knuckle driving on icy I-70, I parked at a trailhead near Vail and headed into the Gore Range for a two-night trip. After about seven hours of breaking trail on snowshoes, I camped amidst evergreens laden with nine inches of fresh snow at 11,000 feet. The storm gradually cleared out the following day, allowing me to shoot beautiful sunset light on frosted trees at timberline that evening and a spectacular sunrise from the summit of 12,136-foot Bald Mountain the next morning. Then I packed up and headed down the trench I’d created two days before, reaching my truck in under three hours. I encountered the first people I’d seen in three days when I was just a mile from my truck.

The Gore Range at sunrise from the summit of Bald Mountain, near Vail, Colorado
The Gore Range at sunrise from the summit of Bald Mountain, near Vail, Colorado

Convinced that my plan was feasible, I made two more upgrades to my winter camping and photography kit. I retired my 30-year-old Sierra Designs sleeping bag, which was rated to -15F but weighed over four pounds. I replaced it with a Marmot Lithium bag with 800-fill down that is rated to zero yet weighs only 2 pounds 12 ounces. And then I retired my RX100 III in favor of a RX100 VII. The VII’s wider zoom range (24-200mm instead of 24mm-70); better dynamic range at low ISOs; better low-light performance at high ISOs; upgraded menus; and more convenient ergonomics (the pop-up viewfinder is much easier to handle with gloves on), all seemed to make it a worthwhile upgrade. Despite the wider zoom range, the Zeiss lens and 20-megapixel sensor will still produce an acceptable 16x24 inch print. True, as with the III, the corners are a bit soft at the short end of the zoom range, even at the optimum aperture of f/8, but it’s still the camera to beat in its class. I can’t wait for the next storm, so I can head out into the mountains again for another taste of the season of solitude.

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