The thought of “paradise” usually conjures up warm sunny beaches, palm trees, lush green waterfalls, and tropical birds. But there is a certain beauty and purity that I find in the barren Sierra alpine zone that moves me more than the typical vacation destination. For me, the ability to see for miles and miles over empty rock piles, rugged peaks, and cold blue lakes brings with it a calming sense of freedom, awe, and inspiration. And yet I’ve found that capturing that depth with a two dimensional photograph is exceptionally challenging. Most mountain images I’ve seen and taken all “stop” at the mountains – be it a classic pointy peak, or a rugged range. When I think of the High Sierra, I think of miles of explorable terrain. Sitting on a cool chunk of granite I could spend hours roaming the landscape with my eyes, but the truly exciting part, is that I could (and do) then actually walk there (ok, perhaps scramble and climb sometimes).
This past weekend friend and photographer Steve Sieren and I made a quick trip up to the Sierra highcountry to experience, and photograph, just that. I wish we could have stayed for a week, but alas, one night was all we had. Before starting our trek we spent some time exploring the early signs of fall color near North Lake and Bishop Canyon, which has started at higher elevations (10,000 feet).
“Autumnal Grace” ~ Eastern Sierra, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod, ford explorer, headlamp
Exposure: iso 400, f/8, 25 sec
Notes: While the lighting may appear relatively natural, this was taken around midnight, using the high beams on my car (parked a hundred yards away), and a headlamp to ‘paint’ light on the tree. The distant and low angle of the car headlamps provided a uniform light, not unlike low angle sunlight. Meanwhile I used the headlamp to supplement the primary light to highlight certain portions of the tree, and provide some fill light to even out the shadows that I wanted to.
Saturday morning we parked at the trailhead at 7,400 feet and started the long trek up into the barren high country of the John Muir Wilderness. On our way up several hikers coming down asked as, “you know how bad this trail is, right?”, “do you know what the word eternity means?” After 3 hours of non-stop switchbacks, we were finally over the first hump. Fortunately some clouds were brewing, meaning that we weren’t subjected to the hot Owen’s Valley sun all the way up. After passing two more lakes we left the trail and climbed the last 1,500 feet off trail over rough talus fields, until finally we arrived at our destination: the Royce Lakes Basin at 11,700 feet. What an incredible place! The giant blue lakes are surrounded by some of the most picturesque peaks in the Sierras, and an endless expanse of granite talus fields; alpine beauty at its finest. We set up camp and headed off to find spots to photograph at sunset. Mine involved another 700 foot climb, to just under where Feather Peak became worthy of some technical gear. On the steep granite slabs a plethora of water stains provided one of the most exciting mountain foregrounds I’ve ever had the opportunity to use. Meanwhile clouds were dancing over the two peaks, catching slowly evolving evening light. It wasn’t, however, until after sunset and the formation of the brilliant pink Earth Shadow, that the scene crystallized in my mind as one of the most beautiful mountain sights I’ve witnessed. If you look carefully, you can see the White Mountains (across Owen’s Valley to the East) between the two peaks and under the white cloud bank, 40 miles away as the Ptarmigan flies (there weren’t any crows around).
The following morning we turned our eyes to the spectacular Merriam Peak, surely the granite diamond of the Sierras. The crystal clear skies and calm waters made for a memorable High Sierra morning. On the way back to the tent, a pair of Ptarmigans proved to be cooperative. There’s really nothing alive up there, other than some faded patches of grass, a few fish, and those birds. A rough life, but I can’t blame them for sticking it out up there – what more beautiful place to call home?!