This last weekend we went on a little road trip to the Great Sand Dunes, followed by a couple nights of camping and hiking in the Sangre de Cristos. We arrived at the dunes in the afternoon on Friday and started the hike into the dunes under a sky full of wild ominous clouds, along with sandblasting winds.
With the heavy clouds above and a clear horizon to the west, I knew that we were in store for a special sunset. I was not disappointed! We found a high west facing dune with a nice vista over the ocean of sand, and waited in the wind until the sun dipped below the clouds and illuminated the scene with intense sunset light. Pretty freaking amazing…
After sunset the clouds cleared and the wind calmed down enough for us to stroll around under the moonlight and enjoy our bottle of wine! Not the best night of sleep, though, with sand blowing in our sleeping bags for most of the night. But it’s hard to beat waking up in the middle of the dunes on a glorious bluebird morning!
Hiking out in the morning. I was excited to show Claudia the Great Sand Dunes, one of my favorite places on the planet. She was impressed, and is already looking forward to our next visit.
On Sunday, Claudia and I hiked up a mountain here in the San Juans to get a view of the solar eclipse! This eclipse was particularly exciting for us photographers in the western US because it occurred right around sunset time. After some research with Stephen Trainor’s indispensable sunrise/sunset tool, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I decided to hike up Hayden Mountain near Ouray in order to hopefully get a shot of the eclipse over Mt. Sneffels and Potosi Peak, two of the biggest and most rugged mountains in the San Juans. 3600 feet and several hours later, we were atop Hayden North at 13,139 feet just in time to eat our sandwich and wait a few minutes for the eclipse to begin.
While I was shooting the eclipse with my 70-200mm lens, I was surprised and thrilled to see that the eclipse was clearly visible as colored refractions in the lens flare! Normally I go to great pains to minimize or eliminate all lens flare, but this time I quickly experimented with different focal lengths, angles, apertures, and shutter speeds in order to fully maximize the lens flare and the eclipse refractions.
I’m stoked to have lucked out with clear weather to witness this rare astrological event in my favorite mountains!
Jake and I went back up to Yankee Boy Basin here in the San Juans this morning. The 1-inch of fresh snow from a day ago has softened into a perfectly buttery topping on the smooth spring corn snow, and we savored some sweet high speed carves on the descent.
I’ve never seen so little snow in YBB for this time of year. All the south faces are basically dry and unskiable. Nevertheless, the north facing slopes are still holding snow and it’s clean and smooth… for now!
I’ve been itching for an adventure lately, so early this morning I hiked up Mt. Sneffels in the moonlight again! I left Ouray at 1:30am (ouch!) and started hiking into Yankee Boy Basin at 2:30am. The “supermoon” – aka, the full moon at its closest orbit to Earth – was incredibly bright, and I had no troubles finding my way without headlamp. I arrived at the summit at about 5:15am, just as the first orange and blue light of dawn illuminated the eastern horizon.
I am pleased to announce the release of my new screensaver “Mountains of Colorado” featuring 120 of my favorite photos from throughout the Colorado Rockies. The images are big, sized up to 1800 x 1200 px, so they will look nice even on larger monitors. It is pretty sweet to view them so much larger than on the website, if I say so myself!
On Saturday I tried snowkiting for the first time! Notice I said “tried”. I more or less got my ass handed to me! My friends were ripping it up though… I can see how this sport could get addicting. I can’t say I got the hang of it yet, but I was on the verge of the cusp of starting to ride a little bit with the little trainer kite. Then I tried the 9 meter kite and almost got blown to the Front Range. I need a massage. And more practice.
I finally got out again today to shred some powder… such good snow out there right now after a week of on and off snowfall. But, the avalanche conditions are still very dangerous so we remain on the easy routes. Over the last two days, CAIC has been blasting some of the larger avy paths along the highway with both howitzer and helicopter, and the resulting avalanches and debris are impressive – including some huge slides off Mount Abrams which are even visible from Ouray, as well as big natural slides on the bigger slopes throughout the area.
Colorado’s awful avalanche season has even made it into the news on Huffington Post, where Dale Atkins, president of the American Avalanche Association, is quoted: “We have to go back 30 years to see this kind of widespread danger. It’s dangerous inside ski areas, outside ski areas. A lot of folks who have only been here two, five, 10 years haven’t ever seen or experienced a snowpack like this.”
UPDATE: Check out this incredible video shot near Red Mountain Pass the same day as our above outing. This is what I’m talking about! Can’t believe these guys were railing this terrain in these conditions, but all’s well that ends well, I guess. NSFW!
As I mentioned in my last post, the avalanche conditions are extremely tender right now in the San Juans. Our snow pits revealed 2-3 feet of recent snow clinging precariously to 2-3 feet of rotten sugar snow – the worst winter avalanche ingredients possible. There is widespread “whoomphing” and shooting cracks. We took a conservative descent route, practiced our best safety protocol on the way down, and managed to stay out of trouble.
Here’s a picture of a slab avalanche in the gully on our way out (it had already slid naturally before we got there). In conditions this bad, any steep slope, not matter how short, has the potential to bury a person. We skied out of there on pins and needles, feeling that perhaps it’s not the time to be out in the backcountry at all, no matter how fluffy and tempting that powder is.
The snowpack is so fundamentally screwed that I can’t imagine the conditions improving anytime soon. It may be months before we can ride steeper lines again – maybe not until spring. The good news is that I’ll get a lot of work done this winter!