Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hello, Old Friend

Once upon a time, when I was living in Pueblo, passing through the Wet Mountains on my way to just about anywhere was routine. But there was never anything routine about this big, beautiful pinnacle rising from a ridge where Highway-96 passes through Hardscrabble Canyon. It's a geologic feature that stays hidden from view until one rounds a corner and - WHAMMO! - it's impossible to miss. I loved having this unnamed hunk of rock in my life so much that it became an occasional destination rather than just something to see along the way to somewhere else. I have winter photos with snow clinging to every nook and weighing on every tree branch. I have photos of fog swirling around and amongst the tower and its smaller neighbors. I have photos of the moon setting behind the ridge. If it's an interesting photo of this pinnacle, I just might have it.

In 2010 I moved back to my true home, Colorado Springs, and thus eliminated most reasons to pass this way again.

That changed this week when I headed out for a few days photographing in the Sangre de Cristo Range – another destination that fell off my radar after having been one of my go-to places during my Pueblo days. On the drive to Westcliffe, I drove through the canyon and gazed longingly at this magnificent pinnacle. It was like seeing an old friend. Time was short on the way by, as I needed to keep going if I was to make Hermit Pass before sunset. Still, I kept a keen eye out for any sign of the resident herd of bighorn sheep, figuring that they'd be reason enough to stop and snap a few pics. No luck, so I kept on going.

For the return trip I decided I'd car camp below my old friend and see if there was any interesting light in the morning. I was rewarded with just a few minutes of rich, pinkish-red alpenglow light before the clouds to the east swallowed up the color for good. Those few minutes were enough to rekindle my love for this striking pinnacle.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Rain in Spain...

Yesterday I headed to the Spanish Peaks Wilderness in the hope of getting some nice sunset photos of West Spanish Peak. It's a fairly simple matter when the weather cooperates — just find your way to Cordova Pass, and about 100 yards from the trailhead you're looking through the trees at the peak. I planned on making it only slightly more difficult by walking a little farther up the trail, where the trees give way to rolling meadows where I once saw a black bear amble across the trail right in front of me in broad daylight. No bear sightings on this trip, but not really much in the way of sunset light either. The photo above shows why. [click to enlarge] Rain clouds and the occasional clap of thunder kept me on my toes while I waited to see if the sun would sneak out from under the gray mass over Trinchera Peak to the west. No go. Oh well, it was a day in the mountains. And like I often say, a bad day in the mountains is better than a good day most anyplace else.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Close, But No Cigar!

This morning I peeked outside before sunrise and noticed some lingering fog in the area, so I grabbed my camera gear and headed to Garden of the Gods. I almost T-boned an S.U.V. on the way there when the driver apparently was still asleep and ran a red light. But that's not the close call I'm writing about.

I got to the Mesa overlook an hour or so before sunrise and there was a perfect band of fog stretching along the Front Range between the rock formations in the Garden and Pikes Peak. If it would've stayed in that position, I would've had an epic morning of photography. But no, it didn't. A breeze from the north pushed it south of the Garden, and by the time there was enough light to shoot, only the trailing edge was still within view of any compositions that included the park. Oh well, it was still a spectacular morning. This week's massive storm event (five inches of rain in Colorado Springs in 24 hours? Wow!) left a dusting of powdered sugar on Pikes Peak's tundra, and it has so far hung on. With the first day of autumn next week, maybe the snow is here to stay til next spring. We shall see! [click photos to enlarge]


A week ago an experienced climber fell to his death near Pyramid Peak, on a sub-peak called Thunder Pyramid. My thoughts go out to his family and friends who are mourning the loss. (I'll refrain from naming him, since I didn't know him, and only read of the incident in the Aspen Times a few days ago.)

In our book 14,000 Feet – A Celebration of Colorado's Highest Mountains, Walt Borneman came up with the perfect title for the chapter on the Elk Mountains, of which Pyramid Peak is part – Red, Rugged & Rotten. The rock that makes up these imposing mountains – including the familiar and beautiful Maroon Bells, just across the valley from the Pyramid Peak massif – is the kind that you can pick up in your hands and twist the sedimentary layers apart. Many people have died climbing these peaks, and as last weekend's incident shows, you don't have to be an inexperienced hiker in over your head to lose your life up there.

Then again, it doesn't take a red, rugged or rotten mountain to cause the death of a climber. Even the easiest fourteeners can turn on you when the weather moves in quick and/or unexpectedly. It's often said by those who climb Colorado's mountains that it's best to turn back if things get dicey, with the sound knowledge that the summit will be there next time. Still, when you've hiked since sunrise to get to the top of a mountain so you can check it off your list (not my reason for exploring Colorado's high country!), having the summit within sight can be too tempting. But that lure can be fatal. Mother Nature couldn't care less how many peaks you've got to go on your list.

This is a photo of clouds breaking around a sub-peak of Pyramid Peak, taken Thursday afternoon as a rough-and-tumble storm system began to ease its grip on Colorado. [click to enlarge]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


This summer I moved out of the tiny apartment I had lived in since my divorce and move from Pueblo to Colorado Springs, into a house that ironically was one street over and two houses down from the very first house our family lived in when we moved from suburban Chicago. It's a nice, established neighborhood. Even so, I awoke last week to the news that my truck's driver's side had been pelted with eggs the night before. It's not a reflection on the neighborhood, it can happen anywhere, especially since I typically park my truck on the street.

I dragged the hose to the front yard and hooked it up, and started spraying the mess off my ride. About halfway through the task I started cracking up. It suddenly dawned on me that, way back in my teen years in this very same neighborhood, I had been guilty of the same prank. My mom had befriended a woman down on her luck, and she and her son, Dieter, stayed with us briefly.

To put it mildly, Dieter was a bad influence. In the short time we hung out, we caused quite a bit of mayhem in the neighborhood. There was one of those traveling carnivals parked in the Rustic Hills Mall parking lot, and after carousing there one night, we came home and grabbed a carton of eggs, some maple syrup and various other ingredients, then proceeded to leave our mark on many parked cars nearby. We capped off our devious misdeeds by standing on the back porch and lobbing eggs at the back of the house behind ours, which we successfully blamed on my older brother, Steve, when the neighbor misjudged the time of the incident when recounting it to our mothers the next day. We couldn't have possibly done this, we posited, because we were still at the carnival at that time! But, boy-oh-boy, did we look like the bigger "men" when we graciously agreed to help the neighbor clean up the mess. In hindsight I'm pretty sure he knew we were the culprits, but at the time we thought we had pulled a fast one.

On a daylight return to the carnival the next day, Dieter hauled off and punched some kid I vaguely knew in the stomach and kept on walking. On the walk home, a car came screeching to a halt in front of us, and out popped this kid and his dad. Pops was there for vengeance, and he socked me in the stomach! He then held the much larger and slightly older Dieter's arms back and instructed his son to take revenge, which Dieter somehow managed to talk his way out of. Apparently, hanging out with such a bad seed can be hazardous to one's health! I'm just lucky Dieter's visit lasted just a few days.

Consolation Prize

After my nearly fruitless 500-mile trip to Monument Valley on Sunday, I decided against hanging around for another day to try to get my Mitten shadow shot on Monday, and headed back to Colorado Sunday night for a shot at an interesting sunrise Monday morning. I pulled into the upper trailhead parking area on Lizard Head Pass a little before midnight, dropped Tears for Fears' excellent "Seeds of Love" CD in, cranked the stereo and drifted off to sleep. As usually happens, I woke up several times to enjoy different parts of the disc as it cycled through several playings, finally turning off the music at around 5am. At 5:30 my alarm jolted me awake. No biggie, I figured I could grab a nap along the road on the long drive home.

It rained steadily all night long, finally letting up sometime in that uninterrupted 30-minute window of sleep I enjoyed. As is usually the case with overnight rain, I was pretty sure I'd awake to find some fog drifting through the valleys. The problem was deciding where to go. In the San Juan Mountains around Telluride, there are lots of options. I headed down the road towards Ophir, but the fog wasn't as prominent below the San Miguel Mountains as I'd hoped. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to head over Ophir Pass, a rocky four-wheel-drive road that drops out on Highway 550 near Silverton on the other side. As I got to the top of the pass, sunrise was at hand. As I headed over to the east side, the sun found a hole in the clouds and lit the tundra with incredibly rich tones. [photo #1 - click to enlarge] In early September the tundra up above treeline is well on its way to fall colors, and the warm light only added to the colorful palette. I also got my first glimpse of peaks around the pass, and what had been rain at lower elevations had been snow up higher — another sign of fall in the Colorado high country.

I noticed that the low clouds and fog I was after was farther down the valley towards Silverton, so I continued on. Once I got to the highway, I hung a left and headed towards Red Mountain Pass, where the clouds had taken up residence. Once on the pass I was still in the gray soup, so I took a left on the rough Black Bear Pass road, which climbs steeply from Red Mountain Pass, and was soon successfully above the clouds. The scene was even better than I'd hoped for, with Bear Mountain and Grand Turk to the south capped with fresh snow and clouds drifting in and out of valleys both near and far. [photo #2 - click to enlarge] Figuring that no one would be coming up or down the narrow road at this early hour, I parked on an uphill grade with a great view and set up my tripod. I could've shot from that spot for a long time, but thought maybe I should get up a little higher, to see what the expanded view would offer. I turned the ignition key in my truck and nothing happened. Oh crap! My mind immediately started envisioning backing down the narrow road with no power steering or power brakes. My heart raced. I turned the key several more times, and finally the engine fired, resetting my clock and spitting out my CD at the same time. Hmm, maybe I need to rethink those all-night CD rock shows I have a habit of enjoying!

With the possibility of getting stranded by a dead battery, I scrapped my plans to head home via four-wheel-drive Cinnamon Pass and Lake City to check on the status of fall colors along Highway-149 and made a commitment to stick to paved roads all the way home, making sure to leave the engine running. So much for catching a nap on the way home! But I was thankful that, after not getting the shot I had envisioned in Monument Valley the night before, I got something photographically worthwhile out of the trip.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Long & Winding Road to Little Effect

A few times a year there's an interesting shadow play that takes place in Monument Valley (that familiar place on the Utah/Arizona border where John Ford made all those great John Wayne westerns). The sun sets in such a position that it casts the shadow of one of the Mitten Buttes on the other. It's a scene I've long wanted to photograph, and happens around my birthday each year. (And again roughly six months later.) Well, I decided that the possibility of combining the Monument Valley Mitten Butte shadow with this year's perfectly timed moonrise was just too good to pass up, so I made a banzai drive down there Sunday. I totally misjudged the time it would take to get there from Colorado Springs, and even leaving at 10am, I got to Monument Valley at 6:40pm, only 20 minutes before moonrise. Phew! Close call! It was killing me going through the San Juans in southwest Colorado with clouds hanging all over the place and lots of stormy weather all around, but I was so determined to get to MV in time that even if Elvis riding a unicorn had crossed Highway 145 right in front of me, I would've kept on truckin'. Didn't really matter, since the moon was a little farther right than I had thought it would be, just left of Merrick Butte, and there were thick, lightning-spitting clouds all around that prevented the infamous shadow scene from appearing. Oh well. I tried to get some lightning shots, because it was popping off all over the place, but failed in that attempt. This is just about the only scene I came away with for my 500 miles of trouble. As always, click the image to see a larger version.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chasin' Rainbows

Over the weekend I car-camped up above North Fork Reservoir in the southern Sawatch Range near Salida. As sunset approached, I was heading down to nearby Billings Lake to try for some sunset reflection photos of the surrounding peaks. Looking over towards Pomeroy Peak, I noted that the late-day sun was backlighting a bright orange curtain of rain that looked like it was headed in my direction. I hoofed it down to the lake, thinking that if it was as brief a shower as I suspected, maybe I'd get a rainbow reflected in the lake.

The wind blew so hard that there was no chance of a reflection on the choppy surface of the lake, but sure enough, a rainbow appeared over the shoulder of Calico Mountain, just as sunset alpenglow light turned the already reddish peak to a brilliant, warm glow. In this case, half right was right enough.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Nature's Gift

I'm currently in the midst of a photo trip over the Fourth of July holiday, and yesterday I was rewarded with what can only be described as a gift from nature. I left my truck at 11am, with the intention of climbing North Star Mountain near Breckenridge. If conditions warranted, my plan was to stay til sunset and hike out in the dark.

North Star Mountain sits at the junction of the Tenmile Range to the north and the Mosquito Range to the south. From atop the peak the view takes in close-up views of a few of Colorado's fourteeners — Quandary Peak to the north and Mounts Lincoln, Bross and Democrat to the south. Not that the fourteeners are the only attraction. The headwall to the west of Quandary is an array of craggy peaks, and after the epic snow season that just ended, the basins below North Star are still choked with snow.

Being in less than tiptop shape, I took my time getting up the peak. The weather was nothing short of perfect, with puffy white clouds drifting overhead, and nary a hint of dangerous lightning storms to prevent my plan to stay on the summit ridge all day. I stopped just a hundred feet shy of the summit, due to some dangerous-looking snow cornices between me and the final pitch, but it didn't matter. The view in every direction was astounding! With many hours to go til sunset, I bided my time taking it all in, trying to stay out of the occasional stiff wind by hiding out amongst the rocks.

Well, sometimes the best laid plans can go awry. All those docile clouds that had delighted me all day began to fizzle, and one lone, dark mass of clouds to the west began to form. It wasn't bad weather I was concerned with, as it didn't really look like the type of cloud to produce lightning. I was more concerned with the possibility of hiking all that way, staying up there all those hours, and then being shut out for sunset color. I watched this cloud build for an hour, and sure enough, when the sun dipped low to the horizon, it sank into the gray morass. So much for that!

I figured the sun might peak up underneath the clouds after sunset and give me a show, but I had had enough. I began the trek back to the truck a bit before official sunset time, figuring a little extra light might be nice. I followed a sketchy trail through the rocks down North Star's east ridge as the light faded fast.

And then I got a surprise. A fox darted across the trail in front of me. To be honest, it scared the crap out of me! It seemed habituated to humans enough that I was able to sit down, change lenses, and spend almost half an hour taking pictures of it. The lighting conditions were far from ideal, so I had to bump the ISO on my camera up fairly high to capture pictures in the low light, but after being thwarted in my sunset attempts back up the ridge, finding this willing subject at 13,000 feet after thinking my day was a bust saved the day.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Deep Blue, Too

After Monday's crescent moon hunt, I decided to go out to Garden of the Gods last night for a repeat performance. This photo is one of many results. Again, no trickery to get the detail in the dark side of the moon, that's completely a product of Earthshine.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Deep Blue

There was an awesome wave cloud over the Front Range this afternoon, but it never really lit up at sunset. After sunset, I was heading home from running around, and noticed the thinnest of crescent moons sandwiched between Blodgett Peak and the trailing edge of the wave cloud. By the time I got home and grabbed my camera and tripod, the cloud had advanced far enough east that including it in the image was impractical. This simplistic approach was the end result. Keep in mind that even the relatively short, 3.2-second exposure at 200mm showed movement in the moon, making the crescent about double its size. To the naked eye it was barely discernible.

[no Photoshop magic was used to enhance the incredible amount of Earthshine you see here.]

Drive-Thru for a Laugh

Or should we cry?

Yesterday at the drive-thru window of my nearby Sonic:

Blonde Teen Cashier: "That's $2.34."
Me: [hand her $3.04]
BTC: [a look of horror on her face, calls one of her co-workers over, who promptly blows her off. Second co-worker does the same. They're busy. BTC fumbles for some change, and I notice at least one penny entering into the mix.]
Me: [as she hands me my change] "Is there a penny in there?"
BTC: "Yes."
Me: "You're not good at math, are you?"
BTC: "No. That's why I work at Sonic."

This morning, same drive-thru, same BTC working the window:

BTC: "Oh, it's Change Guy!" [funny, she doesn't seem happy to see me...]
Me: "Yeah, but I'll make it easier for you today." [hand her $3.06 for a $2.56 bill...]
BTC: [lays my coins on the counter, rummages through her fanny pack for her cell phone, starts punching numbers into its calculator function.
Me: [laughing hysterically on the inside]
BTC: Is this right? [hands me a nickel]
Me: "Um, no."

This afternoon, same drive-thru, same BTC working the window:

BTC: "It's Change Guy!" [even less enthusiastic about seeing me this time.]
Me: "Yeah, but I'm gonna make it really easy for you this time." [hand her a twenty for a $2.34 bill...]
BTC: [ah yes, the return of Mr. Cell Phone Calculator!] "Here's your change."
Me: "You don't mind if I count it, do you?"
BTC: "Nope!"
Me: "Good job, you got it right!"
BTC: "Here's your drinks." [drinks? hands me one drink, then begins to hand me a second one of equal size.]
Me: "You realize I only ordered one drink, right?"
BTC: "Oh, I read the ticket wrong."

How much you want to bet she's a straight-A student in school?