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.