Top Rock

Trekking the jagged and often desolate high country, a master of the landscape finds challenge and renewal

The White Mountains, a range of peaks just east of and parallel to the Sierra Nevada in California. Separated by the Owens Valley 10,000 feet below, one of the deepest in the U.S., White Mountain Peak (14,242 feet) is less than 300 feet below Mt. Whitney.

The last bit of rocky trail crunches beneath your boots. You’re winded—who wouldn’t be after scrambling up 5,000 vertical feet with a heavy load of camera gear?

The day-to-day worries that chattered away at your mind have fallen aside. You let them go, one by one, with each meadow crossed, each new mountain vista unfolded before you.

Ahead, the joys of photographing your old friend, the granitic cathedrals of the Sierra Nevada. In your mind, on the ground glass, through a viewfinder, you’ve seen these vaulting rock faces so many times.

Yet here you are again, hiking these foot trails. After half a century, all the challenging treks from below, the innumerable timeless moments captured and preserved—why keep coming back?

Maybe it’s the way Time itself loses its hold on your perceptions.

Maybe it’s how rock and bone and spirit fuse into one immutable force of creative inspiration.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: You never feel more fully alive than at the tops of the world.

Named after Samuel Pierpont Langley, the aviation pioneer who nearly beat the Wright Brothers, Mt. Langley is the seventh-highest peak (14,032 feet) in the Sierras. It’s near Mt. Whitney, the highest elevation in the contiguous U.S.

Points Of View
Rivers of Top Rock run through David Muench’s soul.

Alone or with family members, friends or workshop students, he has worked his way up the high passes into the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Wind Rivers, Hawaiian chain—all the major and minor American mountain ranges—for more than 50 years.

He has no interest in being thought of as an authority on any specific place, though he has trekked and indelibly photographed more grand landscapes than possibly any person alive.

So, by now, you’d think he has seen it all. No way.

There’s no “been there, done that” in the Muenchian worldview.

It’s renewal, the promise of excitement, that brings him back to the high country. “The rarity of the air, the challenge of the situation,” he says.

“Something’s always going on up there.” Some days, the unearthly calm of a clear, cobalt sky greets his ascendance, where sudden swarms of summer flies draw flocks of feasting birds up the mountain flanks. Sometimes, quick-forming black clouds just overhead throw Olympian thunderbolts. Always, there’s something new.

“That’s what high-country work brings: the surprises,” he offers. “And they’re all visible, right there in my images.”

Of his lifetime of mastering landscape photography, Muench simply says, “It has been a long career. Early on, it was a personal thing. I felt the raw achievement; I related to all the energy it took just to get up there.”

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Buckwheat blooms. Mt. Timpanogos, North Peak, Wasatch Range, Utah. At 11,749 feet, Mt. Timpanogos is the second-highest peak in the rugged Wasatch Range.

Over time, his need to go to the high country morphed into a desire to save all the living memories through photography. For most of us, the prodigious effort required to gain a high ridge of “fourteeners”—those peaks 14,000 feet and higher in the Rockies, Sierras and other ranges—would present daunting challenges. Yet, though he’s midway through his seventh decade, Muench continues to make the pilgrimage to Top Rock every year.

In recent years, he has worked with a 35mm SLR. Lately, he has been smitten by the spontaneity and instant feedback afforded by digital cameras. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 and other models have brought him full circle, back to a young photographer’s excitements of discovery.

But for decades, his artist’s brush was a Linhof 4×5 view camera with its complement of rails, bellows, tripod and film magazines.

“It was always an arduous undertaking,” says Muench.

When you consider the exacting requirements of 4×5 photography, you begin to understand Muench’s prodigious commitment to his art.

Image Genesis
Over time, Muench, like Moses, has brought back his own immutable laws governing working at the roof of the world.

First, avoid the common. “You can’t help being attracted to dramatic vistas,” he says. “You have to watch that. That’s the ‘postcard’ thing.”

Then there are always the laws of personal limitation.

Muench recalls the trip to the Sierras while a student at California’s Art Center. Driving up from sea level, he camped at Whitney Portal, the 7,851-foot head of the summit trail. Next dawn, he was already partway up the trail, loaded up with a Speed Graphic camera and gear. Somewhere above 12,000 feet, he passed out cold. Coming to, head aching but determined, he pushed on—a bit more slowly—to the 14,505-foot summit of Mt. Whitney—a total climb of almost 7,000 feet.

Another law: Gauge the light.

“I learned early that the light at the middle of the day, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., isn’t the time to do these things!” reflects Muench. “With late light, you’re capturing a mood. It’s a sense—the genesis of an image that the special light pulls out of you.”

These seminal experiences came at the time serious color landscape photography had just begun to make its mark in fine-art circles. But the notion of “golden hour” light was far from today’s ubiquity—the black-and-white world of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston still reigned supreme.

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With mountains ranging from 7,500 to 14,265 feet, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area in Colorado is full of Top Rock photo opportunities. In this image, the distinctive peak of Snowmass Mountain at 14,092 feet is seen in the distance.

Siren Song
The view atop the White Mountains stirs your soul. You stand on the long, curving ridgeline, picking out the seven peaks you know by name that rise above 13,000 feet.

You feel the drama in the magical evening light. Everything is in balance: the warm glow from the evening west, the dead-still air. But in the lull, tension: A major cold front is coming.

Underexposing the film a 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 stop, as always, you’ll have the lab push-process it a 1⁄2 stop to heighten the contrast and brilliance.

You work steadily through one 4×5 setup after another, seduced by the siren song of magical light.

Time forgotten, you work feverishly. The sun touches Mt. Whitney, sharp against the golden sky. You should have packed up earlier. Too late—hiking down 8,000 vertical feet in the dark is nuts.

“There are those times you have to stay right with it, like mountain climbers do,” says Muench. “Stay in it. Stay overnight if you have to! Your reward is the changing of the guard from dusk to dawn. Go back down in the middle of the morning. Stay up another day. Sometimes that becomes the challenge—what to do—and when you meet that challenge, your reward is often a photograph you’d never imagined at all.”

A Lifetime Of Meccas
Like Johnny Cash belting out his classic, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Muench rattles off the names of peaks as if they were his own children: Whitney, Langley, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Fremont, Appalachia, Uncompahgre, Tindall, Mt. Sill, Humboldt, Wheeler Peak, Needle Peak. Oh, he’s been everywhere. “The names are like baggage I carry around with me,” says Muench. “Peaks and passes feel like individual personalities.”

And what glorious baggage. Muench’s litany of Top Rock locations speaks to a singular religion: the common spirit that lives in the high places.

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Top Rock: Mt. Sill
Mt. Sill is one of the fourteeners of the Sierra Nevada. Part of the Palisades, a stunning group of peaks with small glaciers, it rises 14,150 feet.

“During the day, I’d watch climbers come up the face of Sill,” says Muench. “In the warm, evening light, I used a fisheye lens to give the earth that rounded look. Just gazing out across the Palisades to Mt. Agassiz was big. Earlier, looking up from below, I’d wondered how my son Marc and I—he was around 12 then—would ever make it up!”

Years later, Marc returned the favor. “[Marc] guided me up Mt. Agassiz [13,891 feet]. It was like a StairMaster workout!” The view was an exchange, as well; this time Mt. Sill rode the craggy distance. “When I take in these rocky places sculptured by ice, rain and wind, it’s my communion. Peak tops are sacred. It’s hard to find the right words. I prefer photographs to describe what I feel. It’s all there in the image. All of it. When I look at the image later, what comes back is how rare and special it is up there.”

Top Rock: Fremont Peak
Fremont is named for American explorer John C. Frémont, first to climb it in 1842. It’s part of the Continental Divide, the second-highest peak—13,745 feet—in the Wind River Range, Wyo.

Muench describes the scene: “I remember a hike in late summer. I used melted snow for drinking water and went straight up a meadow toward the peak. There are powerful moods, then: storm clouds, god beams of light, deep shadows. I learned to scramble up as soon as possible for the morning light. You can get nasty lightning storms if you hang around after noon. It’s all luck and patience—but you don’t want to plan on staying up there too late.”

Top Rock: Mt. Langley
Langley, on the crest of a favorite high place—the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada range, which gives California its north/south mountain backbone—is one of the easiest fourteeners to reach. But physical challenge is often the least remarkable part of a hike up. Something as innocuous as a single clutch of yellow buckwheat blossoms clinging to life on a barren, knife-edge ridge can trigger a creative surge of awe and mystery. “I’ll rediscover this deep wonder and mystery: How can living things endure at these barren places battered by storms?”

Top Rock: The White Mountains
The grandaddy of Muench’s deliberations on survival has to be the ancient bristlecones he has immortalized so majestically on film. His photographs of their twisted, storm-blasted bark powerfully evoke a magnificent desolation. Perhaps these ancient life forms reigning over the high rock are his artist’s identification with the painful solitude of creativity. To stand out, you often stand alone.

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Conjoined with three other volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa form the island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea, rising 30,000 feet from its sub-Pacific floor, is the world’s tallest mountain. Nearby Mauna Loa is the world’s most massive.

Top Rock: Mauna Loa And Mauna Kea
“Native Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea a sacred mountain,” says Muench. “On top, I found a graphical image of scalloped snow against the black cinders. It’s a rare, almost abstract design that I’d only seen once before, on Mt. Kilimanjaro.” Muench conducted two workshops in Hawaii in 2008. “What shocked everybody was the dramatic change from the 80º, 90% humidity down below to the arid, otherworldly expanse on top, where it was 28º! It was like sticking your head out of an airliner at altitude.”

Some of his students suffered nausea from the sudden oxygen deprivation. When he offered to lead the group up the next night to photograph the moonrise, “I couldn’t get anybody to go!” Undaunted, he worked the precise patterns in snow. They drew him back to one of his favorite forms from Utah’s Canyonlands: “The big drifts melting onto black cinders were like arches.”

Born of Fire. Tamed by Ice and Time. This is Top Rock at its most otherworldly.

Breathing rapidly in the thin air at the summit, you’ve discovered again what you’re made of.

You look out across the massive island. Commanding the distance, another monster rises: Mauna Loa, largest volcano on earth. Here you stand, anchored between the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last of mountains, high above the magical isles.

Top Rock is more than a place.

It’s the evocation of desire. A reward for struggle, vision—and surrender.

Sometimes you wonder: Will my work endure? Will it stand, in memory, like the bristlecones?

In that way, Top Rock is the ultimate pilgrimage. A place you go to wrestle with immortality and know yourself anew. It’s the height you reach, but never own.

David Muench has photographed the landscape in all its grandeur for half a century. Lately, he has been experimenting with digital cameras as a result of his work photographing World Heritage Sites for UNESCO and Panasonic. Visit