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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rocky Mountain High

With an analytical approach and a love for dramatic peaks and roaring rivers, Glenn Randall lives where he gets plenty of photographic opportunities every day of the year

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rocky mountain
Gore Range, near Vail
Even with my analytical approach, it takes me 10 days in the field, on average, to produce one truly compelling image. Those odds don’t discourage me because I’ve found that the potential reward is always greatest when the odds against me are the longest. For example, the most likely outcome on a cloudy morning is a lifeless gray sunrise, but if the sun finds a tiny gap between dense clouds and the horizon, the light can be the most colorful you’ll ever see. Here’s why: On a clear morning, the light at sunrise is predictably warm, but the bright, white light from the sky around the sun tends to dilute the colorful light from the sun itself. The result is a pastel color, like mixing white paint into red. If the sun finds a gap on a cloudy morning, however, the dense clouds block the bright, white light from the sky around the sun, and the result is a pure, undiluted beam of colorful light blasting through the gap. Such amazing light usually only lasts a minute or two, so you have to be set up and ready. Unless it’s pouring rain, don’t sleep in, and don’t pack up your camera gear too soon in the evening. I’ve seen beautiful displays of light on high clouds as much as 30 minutes after the almanac time of sunset.

As much as I love Colorado, I have to admit that not all of the mountains are equally photogenic. The steepest and most spectacular peaks are found in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Sangre de Cristo, Weminuche and Uncompahgre wildernesses. These ranges vary in other ways, however, such as weather patterns, winter access, fertile soils, etc., so I tend to visit different regions at different times of year.

rocky mountain
Maroon Bells at Sunrise
The alpine wildflowers near my home peak in the middle two weeks of July. I generally avoid the well-known flower hot spots like Yankee Boy Basin near Ouray, where the flowers are good but the peaks are uninteresting and not well lit at either sunrise or sunset. Instead, I start with my collection of over 145 USGS 71⁄2-minute topographic maps, which have a scale of 2 5/8 inches to the mile. Trails Illustrated maps, which typically have a scale of 1 or 11⁄2 inches to the mile, provide a great overview, but for nitty-gritty planning and route-finding, there’s no substitute for a 71⁄2-minute quad.

As I study my maps, I’m looking for interesting peaks that rise at the head of valleys that face the rising or setting sun. For example, a mountain at the head of a valley that runs at roughly 60 degrees from its headwaters to the plains is likely to get great light at sunrise in midsummer. Once I’ve identified a promising location on the map, I backpack in and spend three or four days searching the valley for the best flowers.


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