Winter Camping in the West Needles

Winter Camping

Lured by a full moon and a forecast of clear skies, this last weekend I went backpacking for two nights in the West Needle Mountains in the San Juans near Silverton, Colorado. This area is incredibly photogenic; from my campsite on a 12,200 ft ridgeline, I enjoyed broad vistas of the Needle Mountains, the West Needles, and all the peaks of the Molas Pass area.

After hiking about 5 miles on my splitboard, I made it to my destination – a high ridgeline with views in all directions. I was pleased to find a single clump of trees which provided a nice windbreak. Behind the trees was a large winddrift, which I easily carved out into a perfect tent platform, complete with walls around the sides. After setting up the tent, I put on all my warmest clothes, which didn’t come off for the next two days! Though the skies were clear and the days sunny, the temperatures were still very cold, and a constant wind made it feel even colder.

Each night I’d crawl into my -30ΒΊ sleeping bag with two Nalgene bottles full of boiling water. Sleeping proved very difficult with the wind pounding the tent walls. Even though I knew the tent was secure, the noise was still disconcerting. Then it seemed that right after falling soundly asleep, my alarm would go off at 5:30am. The old saying that “The crux of the day is getting out of bed” certainly held true on these frigid mornings. It took all my willpower to get out of my cozy bag, put my cold pants and boots on, and head out out into the cold windy pre-dawn night to prepare for my sunrise shots.

West Needles

Although us landscape photographers generally prefer interesting cloudy skies over boring clear skies, there is a sure exception to this rule during the winter. About a half hour before sunrise, the ambient light of dawn casts an even glow over the snowy white peaks, which, combined with the orange/pink dawn gradient on the horizon, makes for some striking scenes. The key is to be ready to shoot before sunrise. I often prefer these dawn shots over the traditional sunrise alpenglow photos, because of the soft even light and the colorful horizon skies.

Another fun subject to photograph was the “sastrugi”, or wind-sculpted snow formations. All the crazy waves and ripples make for an infinite number of compositional possibilities. Towards the end of the second day, I realized that I was running out of film and had to ration the remainder for the final sunset and sunrise shoots. I ended up shooting all 30 sheets of film, which is quite a lot for me with my large format camera. I’ll have the film back by the end of the week and if I got some good shots I’ll post them on my gallery site.

Winter camping in conditions like this is brutal and challenging. Everything is more difficult in the snow and the cold. During the trip, I realized that I would probably never do this if I wasn’t into the photography. Interesting, and another example of how photography has served to boost my motivation to get out into the mountains. This was the first real camping trip I’ve been on since my month in Patagonia in December. I’ve been so busy with my business and my house during the last few months, it really was a treat to get out there for a few days with nothing to do but relax and concentrate on photography (and staying warm). For my next trip, though, I think I will head out to the desert for some real relaxation in warm weather!


Bundled Up

12 thoughts on “Winter Camping in the West Needles

  1. Hey Jack,
    First, your blog is awesome. Second I really enjoyed this entry, and look forward to the rest of your photos (was the tent one done with a digicam? Like it!). Probably no shots of you riding down though. What an exposed place you were, just imagine if you had gotten Patagonian-like winds πŸ™‚


  2. Thanks Paul! Yeah the tent shot was a 30 sec. exposure with my little Ricoh GX100 digicam. After snapping the shutter I ran into the tent and shined my headlamp on the walls to illuminate it.

    No shots of me riding down… I need a headcam! It was sort of survival-riding with a 50-60 lb. pack on.

    The wind was a pain, but nothing compared to Patagonia! I did use that same tent in Patagonia though… it’s a champ in the wind.

  3. I just found your web site and certainly can appreciate what’s involved in getting your early morning pictures. We do a lot of winter camping ( but most of our pictures are merely to document our camping trips. Seeing just a couple of these pictures has motivated me to try to do more to set up pictures.


  4. Jack,

    Nice trip. In 2006 I did a weekend of winter camping on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Very cold (-10 degrees F), high winds, and lots of snow. I took a point & shoot film camera with me and that worked. The others in the group brought digital cameras which failed in the cold.

    Bringing your 4″x5″ up to that ridgeline was quite a feat – hope you get some great photos. How did you store the exposed film? How many cut sheet film holders did you have to bring? Can’t wait to see the shots.


  5. Hi Joe,
    I’ve heard it gets crazy cold on Mt. Washington! I use quickload film, so each sheet has its own protective sleeve. Then I only need one quickload holder for all the film.

  6. Heloo Jack! I have received all your newsletters and now this one had this great surprise – your blog – I just loved it! Now we feel more close to your adventure and I thank you for sharing it with us!
    Big hug from Portugal!

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