Sunrise from Mt. Elbert
I began my "sunrise from the summit" project in the spring of 2006 and immediately faced a decision: with 54 peaks to choose from, where to begin? I decided to start with the highest peak in Colorado, 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert. Although it is the tallest Fourteener, it is by no means the most rugged, so I decided it would be most photogenic to shoot from its summit when the surrounding peaks were still covered with snow. I waited until mid-May, when the road opened to the Mount Massive/Mt. Elbert Trailhead, then headed in with enough supplies to try for the summit two days in a row. From long experience as a landscape photographer, I knew it was all too easy to get shut out, and I wanted to have two tries to better the odds of success. Although my mainstay camera for landscapes was a 4x5 field camera, there was no way I was strong enough to carry winter clothing and camping gear, plus a 4x5, to a high camp. Instead, I brought a Fuji GA645Zi, a medium-format rangefinder that weighs only two pounds. With case and tripod, my camera kit weighed only eight pounds ‒ not light, but much less than a 4x5 kit would have weighed.
Within a couple of miles, the summer trail disappeared beneath the lingering snowbanks, so I bushwhacked the rest of the way to a high camp just below timberline on the peaks' northeast ridge. From there, I had about 2,800 feet of elevation to gain to reach the summit. I set the alarm for 1 am and turned in.
The full moon was already low in the sky over Mt. Elbert when I left camp at 2 am. Much of the summer trail had already melted out above timberline, and at first I made rapid progress. As I climbed, I could look left into the 45-degree braided gullies of the Box Creek cirque, which I had skied one spring day several years before. The increasing wind and altitude eventually slowed my pace, but I still summited half an hour before sunrise, just in time to see an orange moon disappear over the western horizon. To the west, wave after white wave of snow-capped peaks seemed to lead on forever. To the north lay the hulking bulk of Mount Massive, Colorado's second highest peak. To the south rose La Plata, with its spectacular Ellingwood Ridge, first climbed in 1921 by pioneer Colorado climber Albert Ellingwood. In snow conditions, it looked formidable indeed, which is why it did not see a winter ascent until 1974. I chose some wind-carved snow, called sastrugi, as my foreground and La Plata as the background for my favorite image from the summit of Colorado's highest peak.
My sunrise shoot the following day proved to be far more difficult than the first. I had simply been unable to recover from the first two days' exertion. I struggled to the summit, feeling wasted and out of breath, exposed a few rolls of film in gale-force winds and descended to my camp. By the time I reached the trailhead, I was so tired I slept for an hour in the driver's seat before I felt it was safe to drive home. The magnitude of my Sunrise from the Summit project had become all too clear.
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