Luck in the Needle Mountains

This last week I did a 7 day backpacking trip through the high and rugged Needle Mountains south of Silverton, Colorado. See my photos from the trip here. This trip had a couple unexpected events in store for me, but fortunately, Lady Luck was really by my side this time.

A near tragedy for my camera! I woke up at 3:30am one morning, and hiked up 1200 feet in the dark to the summit of aptly-named Knife Point, a 13,265-foot spire with a killer view into the heart of the Needle Mountains. Once the dawn light started illuminating the surrounding peaks, I started to take some photos. At one point, I decided to switch spots, and grabbing my tripod I started bounding up some rocks to get to the other side of the summit. I heard an odd jiggling sound coming from my tripod, and turned to look just in time to see my camera falling off the tripod, crashing and bouncing off boulders. Oh crap. In a state of shock and denial, I jumped down to the camera, noticing shattered glass and dismembered plastic. OH CRAP!

With only minutes before an epic sunrise, and with a 2-3 day hike to leave the wilderness, I was appalled that my camera was ruined. Luck #1: I had a clear UV filter on the lens at the time, and that took the brunt of the destruction – the lens itself was slightly bent, but the glass was unharmed. Luck #2: Even though the viewfinder was broken out of the camera, the camera could still take photos! Plus, this Olympus camera has “live view” where you can frame the shot using the LCD screen instead of the viewfinder. Ok so maybe not all was lost. I couldn’t unscrew the broken filter since the threads were all bent, so I pulled out an alan wrench from my camera bag and used it to bust out all the broken shards of glass. With the lens clear and the live view switched on, I was back in action! The photo above was taken within minutes of this near-disaster. I was later able to use a knife to wedge the viewfinder back into camera, and it snapped back into place and seems to be working fine. I am so happy that the camera still worked after this awful crash, because most of the best photos from this trip came after this.

Here’s the second stroke of twisted luck. The morning after the camera crash, I again woke up pre-dawn, packed up my camp, and headed up above treeline, with the intention of taking sunrise photos at a high lake then crossing over a 13,600-foot pass to get to Chicago Basin, the final valley of the trip. As I hiked in the dark, I noticed that it was pretty cloudy. Darn, I thought, too cloudy perhaps for a good sunrise shot. Well in the darkness what I could not see was how thick the clouds really were. I soon found out when I heard the dreadful KABOOM of lightning across the basin. Oh crap. Having already hiked well above treeline in a broad tundra basin, there was nothing I could do but to run for a shallow depression where there were at least some taller knolls around me. I crouched on my Thermarest as the lightning crashed and boomed around in the basin. Terrifying. After about an hour and a half, the storm let up a bit and I scouted around, finding a deep valley with 200′ cliffs. I could camp down there and be theoretically fairly safe from the lightning, with the high cliffs to protect me. I set up my tent, and all day long wave after wave of hail, lightning, and thunder passed over. I had no chance of crossing the high pass and was thus stuck in the basin all day. I was bored, anxious, and constantly fearful of the ever-present lightning.

But, luck came again, and in the evening the clouds broke just enough to present the most glorious sunset I’ve witnessed all summer. I gleefully snapped away with my camera, and when the sunset faded away I was so stoked I let out a big hoot for all the mountain goats within 10 miles to hear. Not only that, but the next morning was another glorious spectacle, with amazing sunrise light, shining through the clouds. If it weren’t for the storms that trapped and delayed my trip for a day, I would have missed all of these sweet shots.

So, in the end, I came home with a battered but functioning camera, and a nice collection of photos, the best of which can be mostly credited to Lady Luck.

6 thoughts on “Luck in the Needle Mountains

  1. Looks like I was up from Texas just a week before you were there. We did the Elk Park to Needleton Loop. I have a trip report on my webpage if you want to check out some photos.

    I carried 12 lbs of photo gear for the trip, I’m not sure if I would take that much on a loop hike again. How much do you carry on your longer trips? I saw you were using an Olympus as a more portable body to your 4×5 setup.

  2. Hi Tommy,

    Nice trip report! The route I did was a bit different, more of a high route that stayed high in the basins, crossing over numerous passes along the spine of the range.

    On this trip I took just the Olympus E-420 and 12-60mm lens. With a smaller Gitzo tripod, the total weight is around 4-5 pounds. Pretty nice.

    Last year I did a similar high route through the Needle Mountains, and I took about 25 pounds of 4×5 gear and film. Pretty brutal.

  3. Jack,

    What a beautiful sunset! And photo thereof!! Having lived through a thunder & lightning storm in the mountains near Ouray, I can “hear” what you must have gone through. Once to get a shot that I wanted from a bridge I put my lense through an opening and then reached around and put a filter and a lense hood on the lense. I took the picture and I then, without thinking, just pulled my camerea back; guess where the filter and the lense hood went.


  4. Phenomenal images from the finest mountains in our state – it’s hard to believe that all of these great images were made in a week! The Sunlight sunrise is one of the finest mountain pics I’ve ever seen and I know how hard it is to get to that perch, in the dark no less.

    Congrats on the luck that came to you and that which you made happen through your hard work!

  5. I’m curious about this high route. My nephew and I are going in July but would like to avoid the crowds. Are these marked trails or is pure route finding required? Great pics!

  6. Hi Ryan,

    Sometimes there are “boot” trails you can use, but most of the time there are no trails, so pure routefinding is necessary. Sometimes the routefinding is not very simple either. But it is definitely doable without needing ropes.

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