Sunrise from the Summit Portfolio
Photographs from the summit of Colorado's Fourteeners (Part 1)
Summits are magical places. Reaching the summit of a high peak gives me the exhilarating, humbling and awe-inspiring experience of being a tiny speck on top of the world. To me, mountaineering is a metaphor for the human condition. It embodies in concrete form the way we reach for the sky, yet can only climb so high. In the spring of 2006, I began working on a series of images I hoped would capture these complex emotions. Most photographs I'd seen that were taken on summits were, to be frank, rather boring. How could that be, I thought, when the emotional experience of reaching the summit is so enthralling? Then I thought about when those photos were taken: at noon, in midsummer, when the sun is as high in the sky as it will be the entire year. Most summit photos taken at that time of day show distant, hazy peaks almost lost in the white glare of the midday sun. In an attempt to give my images an impact that matched my emotional experience, I decided to start shooting sunrise from the summits of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks.
I started with 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado, in mid-May of 2006, and immediately realized that I had set myself an enormous task. My initial estimate that I could do all fifty-four Fourteeners in two years if I worked hard at it quickly ran into reality. Camping on the summit is a poor option. Even if I could carry all the necessary food, water, camping, and camera gear up 3,000 or 4,000 vertical feet to the summit, I would then be camped atop the tallest lightning rod in the vicinity and would be likely to wake up with a killer case of acute mountain sickness ‒ if I could sleep at all. Instead of camping on the summit, I began climbing the peaks in the dark, with only the wind and stars for company. To summit a Fourteener before sunrise, starting from the road or a high camp, usually requires getting up at 1 a.m. or even earlier. With my 50th birthday looming less than a year away, I found it difficult to recover from a night of lost sleep, followed by a strenuous climb, while camped at altitude. Climbing one peak a day for several days in a row exacted a heavy toll. But taking a rest day between climbs seemed like a waste of time, with summers so short, the list of peaks so long and the pile of work back in the office so pressing. Faced with these challenges, I have done sunrise Fourteener shoots in spurts, as time, energy, injuries, and two back-to-back spinal surgeries have allowed.
A huge project like this could obviously be defined in any number of ways. Where do I start each ascent? How do I decide when I've "done" a peak? Here's how I have defined this project. I start each climb where the road stops. For two peaks -- Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans -- that means I drove to the top. For Fourteeners in winter, that means parking where the plow stops. In some cases, such as Mt. Elbert and Mt. Yale in January and Uncompahgre Peak in March, that meant starting as low as 9,300 feet. For the rest, I drove to the end of the four-wheel-drive road -- or at least as far as a stock vehicle can safely go. And while I made it easy for myself in one respect -- driving to the top of Evans and Pikes -- I made it harder in another. In several cases, it's straightforward to climb two Fourteeners in a day. Grays and Torreys, Sunshine and Redcloud, and Oxford and Belford are three of the most obvious pairings. However, I decided that to "do" a peak meant being on the summit at either sunrise or sunset. The best photo might not be taken at the almanac time of sunrise or sunset, but I had to be there at one of those times to feel I'd done that peak. Climbing a second peak the same day and shooting a few photos two hours after sunrise wouldn't count.
In August 2013, after seven years of effort and sixty-seven shoots, I finally completed my Sunrise from the Summit project. The photos I've chosen to show here are the closest I've come to capturing the joy, excitement, and wonder of climbing a Fourteener. I'm grateful that I was able to complete the project before bad knees or a return of my spinal problems made finishing the project impossible.
I've listed all fifty-four Fourteeners alphabetically below. Each peak name in the list links to a page that shows my favorite image from the shoot and tells the story of how I made it. If I've done a peak more than once, I have listed each shoot separately.
All of the images in this portfolio are available as prints in a variety of sizes and presentations. Sizes range from 11x14 to 40x50; available presentations include loose, matted-only, matted-and-framed, gallery-wrap canvas, high-gloss metal, and gallery float. Prices start at $79 for a loose 11x14 print and scale upwards with size and type of presentation.