This year has been rough for winter sports in the Sierra. As I write this, most areas have received between 20%-40% of their typical snowfall. The drought has crippled the winter economy in areas like Mammoth and Tahoe, and it’s definitely made shooting backcountry skiing and snowboarding more challenging.
Despite the challenge, there still have been a few good days out there. This past week I spent a few days with a friend around Donner Pass near Truckee, and I was able to get in some good turns through the trees and some fun shots of him boarding in the backcountry. Getting up in the mountains was such a great change of pace. Recently, I’ve felt like all I shoot is the Bay Area and surfing. I’m not complaining, but I’ve been itching to breathe some cold air, hear the rhythm of my skis and breath as I hike up the snow and see the world transformed under a blanket of white. This week, although the storms were small, I did get my wish.
Wilderness moves us. Our emotion towards the grandeur, drama and purity of wild places lurks in the background of our consciousness, embedded in our genes as a species. Wilderness calms and inspires us, bringing us back to the sacred and pure elements from which we once emerged. When we return to wilderness today, it liberates and purifies–the most elemental resource for our being, we are never independent from its influence.
Yet beautiful and pure wilderness around the world is ever more scarce. These scenes from California and Patagonia are still wild and protected–just barely. Even wilderness with legal protection faces the challenges of becoming fouled by growing pressure for resource exploitation. And those places still far off from drills, pollution and tourists experience the limitless destruction of global climate change. Nothing stands alone and pristine. The expansive grandeur, purity and freedom of our elemental wilderness is… limited.
Last week I headed back to the Sierra for some alpine climbing for the first time in a few months. The cost of gas and a lack of partners with my work schedule has kept me away for a bit. Rather than getting high off the ground, I’ve focused on surfing and shooting along the coast. Getting back to my “home field” felt amazing, even though my partner and I did not get up our desired objective, the East Ridge on Mt. Humphreys, nor did the light cooperate as much as I had hoped.
When we arrived to the Sierra, massive thunderstorms littered the horizon and we quickly noted that an attempt on an almost 14,000ft ridge didn’t seem likely. Rather than heading right for the trailhead, Ryan and I stopped into Bishop to see if we could come up with an alternative mountain that wouldn’t leave us so exposed to the weather. After pouring over maps and speaking with a guy that worked at the store, we turned our sites a bit lower and found a beautiful granite ridge on a lower mountain, Hurd Peak. We now had a new plan: wake up early, climb Hurd and if the weather turned sour, we would bail off of the peak and quickly be back in the relative safety of the meadows and forest below.
When Ryan and I arrived at our new trailhead, clouds and weather still hung over the horizon, but it appeared that the night would be dry. We cooked dinner, I shot a few mediocre photos–the light never really came–and we went to sleep underneath a rising moon and distant lightning in the western sky.
Morning dawned clear and promising, but we knew that the forecast still called for more afternoon storms. We hastily made coffee, packed our bags for the climb and set off up towards Bishop Pass and the Treasure Lakes Basin.
The approach to Hurd Peak was easy and fast. A trail led to beautiful lakes in the Treasure Lakes Basin and ever larger peaks in the background. At the highest lake, the trail ended and our route stood before us: a sloping granite rise that sharpened and steepened as it rose towards the high peaks looming on the Sierra Crest to the West.
The climbing was fun, easy and exposed. At a few points, we negotiated some exposed traverses and downclimbs, but nothing ever required us to rope up. As we climbed, the clouds built and Ryan and I checked in with each other to make sure we were comfortable with the impending risk of thunderstorms.
As we continued making progress along the ridge, the clouds above us thickened and lowered. We reached a high point and found a notch below where we could bail if needed. When we reached the notch, Ryan and I discussed our options. The clouds continued to build overhead so we agreed that we had had a great morning to that point, and decided to bail off the mountain shy of the summit.
During out descent out, Davis and I discussed what to do with our remaining time on the Eastside. With such unstable weather in the forecast, the best option seemed to descend down to the desert for some bouldering and photography in the Buttermilks.
The bouldering in the Buttermilks is always spectacular and hard and the photography can be equally as rewarding. I was hoping that now out of the storms, I could get some nice shots of the Sierra with clouds and weather overhead. If lucky, maybe the clouds would ignite in a brilliant red, orange or pink glow above the peaks.
It never really came either. With the exception of this favorite of mine, the light never cooperated over the Sierra Crest to the West. The shot above came when focusing in on the mountains and waiting patiently for the light. I noticed to the South some faint glowing in the cloud bottoms out of the corner of my eye. I turned around and saw the clouds over the Owens Valley aflame. I quickly repositioned my camera and tripod, pulled out my filters and shot for the two or three minutes that the light stuck around.
For the rest of the morning, the light never materialized. It got close, began to glow, then seemed to give up.
Despite the light not quite coming and the weather being subpar for an alpine climb on Mt. Humphreys, just being back in the Sierra is great. My trips to the mountains rarely play out just as I envision them ahead of time; and that’s the point. Life in the City is too planned out and I don’t want to bring that to the mountains. I like to have goals and general direction in the mountains, but the unexpected and having to create opportunities from it makes time in the wild so enriching. Even though the light didn’t come together perfectly for photography, the practice shooting these landscapes and inserting foreground elements like sage continues to help me hone my skills and develop my eye so that when the light does come together, I’ll be ready for it.
Tomorrow, I’m headed back out for three days. Time to put those skills to work… and hope for that perfect light once more.