Snowmass Mountain Panorama
The sight of Snowmass Mountain from the summit of Capitol Peak in June convinced me I had to take a day during my July flower shoot to photograph sunrise from the summit of Snowmass, one of Colorado's most remote Fourteeners. I decided to start from Lead King Basin, near Marble, and spend two nights in Hasley Basin shooting flowers before heading over 12,400-foot Trail Rider Pass to Snowmass Lake, basecamp for Snowmass Mountain.
When I awoke on my third day, the summer monsoon had arrived in earnest. Low clouds wreathed the peaks and drizzle fell intermittently. I broke camp and headed for Trail Rider Pass in full rain gear. Rain overnight had left the willows lining the trail soaking wet, and I didn't want to get drenched even before the rain began again.
After descending from Hasley Basin and wading the north fork of the Crystal River, I headed up the North Fork Cut Off Trail. As I climbed toward Trail Rider Pass, still more than 1,000 feet above me, a thick, charcoal-gray cloud rolled over me and a relentless rain began. Soon the wind kicked up. Evaporation of icy rain water from my bare hands as they clutched my hiking poles began paralyzing my fingers with cold. The hood of my well-worn rain jacket began to leak. Frigid rain water started dripping down my back, adding to the condensation that was already making me damp and uncomfortable. I debated the best course: stop and camp? The timberline trees were already too short to offer any protection, and the inside of the tent would be soaked before I could get the fly on. Put on more clothing under my rain gear? The dry clothing inside my pack, which would be so necessary once I stopped, would be wet before I could get my rain jacket back on. I pressed on as fast as possible, crested Trail Rider Pass in a gale and began the slippery, muddy descent to Snowmass Lake with the rain still pouring down.
The rain finally let up when I arrived at Snowmass Lake, but clouds still hung heavily over the peaks, and it looked like a downpour could begin again at any minute. I pitched my tent and began unloading my pack. All the extra clothing inside one heavily used stuff sack was soaked and useless. I dug deeper and pulled out my tiny down sweater. The stuff sack felt oddly heavy. I gave it a squeeze and water ran out like I was squeezing a saturated sponge. Truly alarmed, I dug still deeper and unearthed my sleeping bag. Portions of it, too, were soaked.
I crawled into my tent, still wearing my rain jacket to avoid getting still wetter from contact with my wet sleeping bag, and dozed uncomfortably for half an hour. Then something bright woke me abruptly. Sunshine! I took down the cord I had used to hang my food, strung two 25-foot clothes lines and hung everything out to dry. Fortunately, I had put all my camera gear into plastic bags, so it had survived without damage.
Two hours later, only my wool socks and portions of my down jacket were still damp. The sun vanished as the next wave of charcoal clouds began rolling over Snowmass Lake. I put everything away and went to bed about 7 pm with the alarms set for 11:45 p.m.
An hour later, the rain began again and I thought, "This is nuts. I'm not going to climb a Fourteener in the dark in this kind of weather." I reset the alarms for 5 am so I could shoot sunrise at Snowmass Lake and tried to go back to sleep.
But I couldn't. An hour later, the rain stopped. I decided to get up at midnight and check the sky. After all, the next day might be one of those magnificent clearing-storm days with brilliant sunshine on the peaks and lingering mist in the valleys below. I reset the alarms for 11:45 pm, now less than three hours away.
When the alarms woke me, the sky was mostly clear, with brilliant stars. The few clouds that remained were broken and hardly looked threatening, from what I could see in the dark. "Got to try," I thought, and the urgent need for speed put my hands into high gear, packing up to head out.
After thrashing through the wet, head-high willow thickets alongside the lake, I started up the initial talus and scree slope. In the dark, I went too high before crossing the big stream and had to struggle through some willows before spotting some cairns and regaining the route. The route-finding error had cost me precious minutes, and I pushed hard on the easy tundra section to make up for lost time. I found my way through the last cliff bands and reached the southeast ridge at 13,800 feet around 4 am.
For the first time I could see to the west. What I saw looked ominous: lightning along the distant horizon. I couldn't hear thunder, however, nor see the bolts themselves, only the clouds glowing momentarily as the cloud-to-cloud lightning erupted, so I pushed onward to the summit, arriving an hour and a half before sunrise when it was still completely dark.
The lightning seemed to have ceased, at least for now, but the band of dark clouds to the west still seemed to be growing ever larger and closer, swallowing up more and more stars as it advanced steadily. Should I start down right now without even trying to shoot sunrise? Certainly that would be better than getting hit by lightning. I waited nervously, debating my options. Finally I decided to stay, at least until sunrise, and managed to find a way to set up my tripod and panoramic head on the very summit of the six-foot-high granite spike that is the highest point. My headlamp began picking up bits of mist swirling up from the valley below and the clouds to the west swept closer and grew still darker. As dawn approached, cloud caps began forming over the nearby peaks. Thick banks of mist swept over me, then dissipated. As the sun rose, I began shooting 360-degree panoramas, but the clouds were moving so fast I doubted that I could rotate the camera fast enough to produce images that Photoshop could stitch together. There would be too much difference between the overlapping portions of the adjoining frames.
I finished shooting several panorama sequences as the clouds settled over the summit for good, leaving me in a gray void. With rain imminent, I started down. Fortunately, the rain held off until I was below the steep scrambling and was descending the upper talus slopes and cliff bands. I battened down the hatches as rain began falling in earnest and hurried downward, not wanting to get caught in a lightning storm far above timberline.
To my surprise, the rain began to ease off just half an hour later. By the time I got down to Snowmass Lake, the sun was shining, although the peaks were still smothered in clouds. Back at camp, I reviewed the images on my camera's LCD. As I had feared, it looked like stitching together anything usable might be impossible. I went to bed early, with the alarms set for a repeat attempt. When I got up at midnight, however, dark clouds were already blotting out the stars over Snowmass Mountain. Every minute or so, cloud-to-cloud lightning lit up the clouds momentarily. I'd already tempted fate once on that trip. Faced with such obviously threatening weather, I decided to go back to bed. Within half an hour, heavy rain was pounding Snowmass Lake. Even with my eyes closed, inside my tent, the lightning flashes were unmistakable, and soon the crash of thunder was following the flash of lightning by just three seconds. The lightning bolts were hitting a mere half a mile away. Secure and dry in my tent, I knew that a second try on Snowmass Mountain would have to wait. When I got home, I discovered to my delight that I was able to stitch together the best portion of one of my big panorama sequences, creating the image you see here.
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