Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Peaks

Mt. Adams, Mosquitoes, and the Milky Way

The night sky including the Milky Way and the streak of a meteor is seen over a tall mountain peak.
Reflection of Milky Way and volcanic cone in a tranquil lake.

Bright Jupiter rises above the summit of Mt. Adams, with the summer Milky Way reflected in the calm surface of Takhlakh Lake, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. 

Mt. Adams is a striking feature of the western skyline from here in the Yakima Valley of Central Washington. Here’s what it looked like from our neighborhood at sunrise a few months back:

Pink morning light on a snow-capped mountain peak with a full moon setting in the background.

A setting full moon and sunrise light on Mt. Adams as seen from the Yakima Valley.

The towering volcanic cone looks close enough to touch, but in reality, reaching the base of Washington’s second highest peak requires a nearly three hour drive down a labyrinth of Forest Service roads. We’ve been wanting to explore the Mt. Adams area since we returned to Washington last year. With winter’s grip beginning to ease in the higher elevations of the Cascades, earlier this week we finally got the chance.

Mostly clear skies, calm wind, and a dark moon made for some great photo opportunities. While it may be debatable, I think some of these were worth their weight in mosquito bites. Several small ponds dot the lower flanks of Mt. Adams and snowdrifts still lingered in the shadier patches of forest, making the entire landscape somewhat damp. Consequently, the mosquitoes were ferocious! Sadly, our mosquito “repellent” only seemed to attract more. I was quickly reminded that a vastly underrated aspect of living in the southwest is the lack of bugs!

Volcanic cone and wispy clouds reflected in a tranquil mountain lake.

Mt. Adams reflected in Takhlakh Lake, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. (Not pictured: immense swarms of mosquitoes.)

Several five-petaled white flowers with yellow centers and bright green leaves dot the forest floor.

White avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum), one of the first wildflowers to emerge from the swampy ground as the snow melts away. 

Orange sunset light on a tall, snow-capped mountain peak is reflected in a foreground pond.

Mt. Adams reflected in Takhlakh Lake at sunset.

Orange and pink sunset light on the summit of a tall snow-capped mountain.

The forests just to the west of Mt. Adams happen to be located nearly in the center of the four large active stratovolcanoes of the south Cascades: Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier to the north, Mt. St. Helens to the west, and Mt. Hood just across the Columbia River to the south in Oregon. A variety of relatively short but steep hikes in the area ascend lesser peaks, resulting in fantastic views of all four volcanoes, plus the dense forests of the Cascades:

Panorama of forested landscape dotted by tall volcanic peaks.

Panorama from Council Bluffs. Three Cascade Range stratovolcanoes (and the remains of a fourth) are visible (click to enlarge): Mt. Rainier (far left), the remains of the Goat Rocks volcano (center left), Mt. Adams (right), and Mt. Hood (far right). The upper portion of Mt. St. Helens’ eviscerated cone was also visible through the trees to the west.

A tall mountain capped with snow and ice is surrounded by dense, dark green forests and a dark blue lake.

The dense forests on the west flanks of Mt. Adams. Council Lake at bottom.

The real fun came after nightfall. Dark skies are much harder to find in Washington than in Utah, and this was my first good look at the Milky Way since last summer. The calm weather allowed me to capture the Milky Way’s reflection in Takhlakh Lake. Jupiter was kind enough to rise directly above the summit of Mt. Adams. And I got lucky and captured the brightest meteor of the evening in one exposure. This was certainly a case of being in the right place at the right time! (One might argue that the “right time” would have been a few months from now, when all the mosquitoes are dead, but then the Milky Way would not have been positioned so perfectly.)

The night sky including the Milky Way and the streak of a meteor is seen over a tall mountain peak.

A meteor takes aim at Jupiter as Mt. Adams and the Milky Way are reflected in Takhlakh Lake. 

A dark blue twilight sky is bisected by the glow of the Milky Way, and reflected in a tranquil pond.

The Milky Way begins to emerge from evening twilight. 


The Many Faces of Limestone

Star trails over Notch Peak
Grotesque cave formations in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Bizarre and grotesque cave formations in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Limestone is a unique character is the rock world. There are only a handful of rocks that can be dissolved in water, and limestone is by far the most common of that group (other members include salt and gypsum). Most limestones are composed of the skeletal remains of deceased marine organisms (a handful are formed by entirely inorganic processes), so their presence generally indicates that an area was home to a warm, shallow sea at some time in the past. Fossils of coral, clams, snails, and other water-loving critters are often abundant in limestone, and in some ways, a chunk of marine limestone IS one gigantic fossil!

The aforementioned critters make their shells out of calcium carbonate, which is soluble in slightly acidic water. Most water on Earth’s surface is slightly acidic (due to interactions with carbon dioxide in our atmosphere) so interesting things can happen when water and limestone interact…especially if you give them lots of time! In particular, groundwater is capable of dissolving huge voids in limestone bedrock over long periods of time, forming features such as sinkholes and caverns.

Limestone is an abundant rock in our neck of the woods, especially in the mountain ranges astride the Utah/Nevada border in the Great Basin. Throughout much of the Paleozoic Era (541 to 252 million years ago), this region was covered by a series of vast, warm, shallows seas, much like the one that now draws millions to the Bahamas every year.

A great place to see limestone in action is the area around Great Basin National Park. Tucked away in extreme east-central Nevada, Great Basin is one of my favorite national parks, far removed from the hoards that descend annually on many of the west’s more well-known attractions. You have to make an effort to get here and at first glance, the Snake Range of Great Basin NP looks pretty much like any other mountain island rising up out of the Basin & Range. Upon closer inspection, it’s actually home to a stunningly diverse array of landscapes: The 2nd highest peak in Nevada (Wheeler Peak at 13,065 feet), some of the world’s oldest trees, and arguably the darkest night skies in the Lower 48 all reside here.

Various cave formations in Lehman Caves

Stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, shields, and other speleothems (cave formations) abound in Lehman Caves.

But limestone is ultimately the reason a national park exists in this corner of Nevada. A small portion of the area was originally set aside as a national monument in 1922 to protect Lehman Caves, a stunning cavern eaten into the 500 million year old Pole Canyon Limestone. Only in 1986 was the monument enlarged into a National Park encompassing both the caves and the surrounding mountain landscape.

While small in size, Lehman Caves is exquisitely decorated with a wide variety of speleothems (cave formations). Stalactites, stalagmites, shields, draperies, cave bacon, cave popcorn, soda straws, and helectites surround you at every turn as you wander through the cave. Photos show details not immediately visible to the human eye in the dimly lit cave, revealing an underground world that looks more like a well manicured sci-fi movie set than a natural place sculpted by nothing more than the water, limestone, and time.

Small stalactites aligned with fracture patterns in the limestone

Baby stalactites on the ceiling of Lehman Caves trace out fracture patterns in the Pole Canyon Limestone. Groundwater containing dissolved calcium carbonate seeps through these fractures, eventually emerging into the cave where the decreased pressure causes the calcium carbonate to precipitate out of solution, forming stalactites. 

Caves formations in Lehman Caves

Back on the surface, no trip to Great Basin NP is complete without a hike to admire some of the oldest living things on the planet: the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva). Curiously, even these trees have an intimate relationship with the limestone that is so common here. Most of the bristlecone pine groves throughout the Great Basin are found growing on soils derived from limestone or dolomite (a limestone relative). For some reason, the bristlecones seem to prefer this rock type, perhaps because many other species do not, thus minimizing competition. The easily accessible grove on the flanks of Wheeler Peak (pictured below) is perhaps the most notable exception. Here the trees grow not in limestone, but among hard quartzite boulders deposited by old glaciers.

Scraggly bristlecone pine tree

Admiring a several thousand-year-old Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) in Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Ice and moss along a creek in Great Basin National Park

Early-season ice accumulation along Lehman Creek, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

About an hour east of Great Basin, slightly younger (~490 million years) limestone in the House Range forms another unique feature: Notch Peak. At just 9,658 feet, Notch Peak doesn’t measure up in altitude with many other summits in the region. It’s claim to fame is its 2,200 foot sheer northwest face, one of the tallest cliffs in North America. Where exactly it ranks on that list depends on your definition of “cliff,” but there seems to be little debate that it is the tallest limestone cliff on the North American continent. The peak is striking, especially when viewed from the west, where the full magnitude of its 4,000+ foot rise from the Tule Valley below is apparent.

Panorama of the House Range, Utah

The House Range and Notch Peak (right of center) at sunset. 

We spent an enjoyable evening camping in the shadow of Notch Peak and had hoped to hike to the summit the next day via Sawtooth Canyon on the east side, but unfortunately car issues derailed that plan.

Star trails over Notch Peak

Autumn star trails over Notch Peak, House Range, Utah. The mountains are lit by the light of a first quarter moon. 


Escape to the Snake Range: Great Basin National Park

light from the full moon illuminates Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park
light from the full moon illuminates Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park

Wheeler Peak by full moonlight, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

At first glance, Nevada’s Snake Range is just one out of the hundreds of long, skinny mountain ridges that comprise the Basin and Range Province of the western United States. Clarence Dutton, a geologist associated with John Wesley Powell’s geographic and geologic surveys of the western United States in the late 1800s, once referred to the Basin & Range as “an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico,” referring to the seemingly interminable landscape of north/south trending mountain ranges and intervening valleys that dominate Nevada, southern California, and western Utah & Arizona.

It is the presence of one of our nation’s least visited national parks, Great Basin, in the southern portion of the range that provides the first indication that the Snake Range might be somehow unique from its brethren. And indeed it is. Rising more than 7,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, the Snake Range is home to four of the five tallest peaks in the state of Nevada, culminating in 13,065′ Wheeler Peak, the second highest point in the state. The altitude and the lush spruce, fir, and aspen forests clinging to its slopes makes the area feel suspiciously like a piece of Colorado thrust up into the middle of the Nevada deserts.

Wheeler Peak just after sunset

Wheeler Peak just after sunset on the summer solstice

Sky pilot and Wheeler Peak

Abundant sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum) in a glacial cirque beneath Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park

Panorama from summit of Wheeler Peak

Looking north along the Snake Range from the summit of Wheeler Peak (13,065′) on a beautiful June day

Great Basin National Park is also famous for the groves of Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) found on rocky slopes near treeline. Currently believed to be the longest-living non-clonal organism on Earth, many of the bristlecones in the park exceed 3000 years in age. In an infamous 1964 incident, a Snake Range bristlecone felled by a researcher (the area had not yet been designated as a national park at the time) was posthumously determined to be nearly 5000 years old, which would have made it the oldest known tree on earth were it not for the fact that the tree was now quite dead. More recently however, a bristlecone estimated to be 5,065 years old was found in the White Mountains of eastern California, slightly surpassing the age of the doomed Great Basin tree.

bristlecone pine, Great Basin National Park

A twisted and contorted Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) on the slopes of Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park

In the final hour of my recent drive across western Utah to reach Great Basin NP, I encountered only a single other vehicle before arriving at the park entrance. The relative isolation of the park leads to perhaps its most unique attribute; Great Basin National Park is by many measures the darkest national park in the U.S., and one of the darkest locations in the country period. Sadly, my visit coincided with a full moon which, while preventing me from experiencing a light pollution-free night sky, did make for some good nightscape opportunities:

Ful moonlight over Wheller Peak and Stella Lake

Light from the rising full moon illuminates Wheeler Peak and Stella Lake, Great Basin National Park

A Western Tiger Swallowtail pollinates and feeds from a crimson columbine

A Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) feeds from a crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) along Baker Creek, Great Basin National Park

If you get sick of exploring the surface world, Great Basin also harbors a subterranean spectacle, the ornately adorned limestone cavern known as Lehman Caves. With alpine peaks, caves, ancient trees, and inky black night skies, it may seem miraculous that Great Basin remains one of the least visited national parks in the country. In 2015, Great Basin was visited by 98% fewer people than that big hole in the ground known as the Grand Canyon. Hopefully the photos on this page encourage you to stay far, far away 🙂


The View from Above: Panoramas from Colorado’s Peaks

Panorama from the summit of Mt Sneffels

Why do we climb mountains? For the sheer physical challenge. For the adrenaline rush. For the smell of danger that accompanies looking over the edge into 2,000 feet of nothing but thin air. For the mental high that comes from conquering a summit. To temporarily escape from the chaos of humanity stewing below. “Because it is there”. Your answers may vary. I climb mountains for all of these reasons, with different ones taking priority depending on my mood (although I have a limit to how much danger I am willing to smell…). Ultimately though, as a photographer, I climb mountains for the view.

With the highest average elevation of any state, Colorado has no shortage of mountains, and thus no shortage of views. Some of the best come from the summits of Colorado’s famous 14ers, a group of 53 peaks whose crests reach to more that 14,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, other than birds and oncoming thunderheads, there is nothing left to look UP at. No mightier peaks obstruct your gaze and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a plane flying a few thousand feet below.

However there is not a direct correlation between higher elevation and better views. Far from it. After all, the 14ers have done nothing special to earn their fame, they have simply been the recipient of enough geologic good fortune that their summits exceed the ultimately meaningless and arbitrary 14,000′ mark. As a result, the Mount of the Holy Cross, topping out at 14,009′, is one of Colorado’s most famous mountains, in large part due to those uppermost nine feet. Meanwhile, Grizzly Peak, just 14 feet lower (13,995′), lies nearly forgotten just a few dozen miles away (lost in the shuffle of six—that’s right six—different Grizzly Peak’s in the state) yet provides an equally majestic vantage point.

Below I’ve put together a collection of panoramas shot from different summits around the state in an attempt to present the diversity of Colorado’s mountain peaks. Every summit, no matter how high, has a distinct atmosphere and feel, from suburban hills where you can down onto sprawling subdivisions and strip malls, to remote wilderness peaks where the only sign of mankind might just be the jet contrail 15,000 feet above you.  Seeing summit panoramas always encourages me to get outside and fight Earth’s gravity once again. So go find any good chunk of rock that sticks up a bit above its surroundings, walk, hike, bike, climb, or crawl up it, and you are sure to be rewarded. My only specific advice is to find a peak without a road to the top. Views are best enjoyed in solitude and few things as demoralizing than spending hours trudging up a mountain only to find a gift shop, parking lot, or a family of six enjoying a three course meal in the back of their hummer at the top…or worse, a combination of all three.

Panorama from the summit of Mt Sneffels

Mt Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, 14,158′

Panorama from the summit of Mt. McConnel

Mt. McConnel, Poudre Canyon, 8,008′

Panorama from the summit of Twin Peaks, Ouray, CO

Twin Peaks, San Juan Mountains, 10,798′

Panorama from the summit of North Baldy Peak

North Baldy Peak, West Elk Mountains, 12,850′

Panorama from summit of Mt Shavano

Mt. Shavano, Sawatch Range, 14,236′

Panorama from Crag Crest, Grand Mesa, Colorado

Crag Crest, Grand Mesa, 11,189′

Panorama from the summit of Courthouse Mountain

Courthouse Mountain, San Juan Mountains, 12,152′

Panorama from the summit of Mt. Elbert

Mt. Elbert, Sawatch Range, 14,440′ (highest point in Rocky Mountains)

 Larger versions of all panoramas available


The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Fall color along Bear Lake Road
Peaks and Clouds from Bierstadt Lake

Clouds linger over the Continental Divide as seen from Bierstadt Lake

The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Their bold and massive forms,

Like Pyramids of age,

Defy the sweeping storms!

-Enos A. Mills, 1887

A hectic few months has kept me away from the website recently but fortunately not from my camera. My recent move to Fort Collins, CO means that my new backyard playground is Rocky Mountain National Park, only an hour from my doorstep and home to some truly spectacular scenery, especially in the fall when the aspens and willows turn golden and storms begin to dust the high alpine tundra with snow.

Fall color along Bear Lake Road

Fall colors along Bear Lake Road

My arrival in Fort Collins happened to coincide with the annual fall elk rut, in which bull elk gather large groups of females (called harems) together to mate. The many large grassy parks in RMNP are a popular gathering place for the elk and hundreds of people can be found lining the roads and trails skirting the meadows each evening to observe them in action. Even though I used to regularly see elk in our backyard growing up, this was a new experience for me.  After an evening of watching and photographing the bull elk mate, lock antlers with other males, and toss back their heads to bugle, I can now confidently check “witness an elk rut” off my non-existent bucket list. I would share some of my photos of this unique spectacle, but in order to keep this website rated PG-13, I had better pass…

Elk cow and calf

An elk cow shares a tender moment with her calf.

While snow starts to fall in the high Rockies in late September or early October, the weather usually remains pleasant well into October or even November. We’ve had a few storms the past few weeks that have dropped some not insignificant amounts of snow in the high country so every hike I’ve taken so far has been an exercise in scouting trails less likely to be covered in snow and ice.

Loch Vale in Rocky Mtn NP

The Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park

Earlier this week I decided to hike to the base of the east face of Longs Peak and Chasm Lake. I was unsure if I would actually be able to make it to the lake given its 11,700 foot elevation but I had picked Chasm Lake because I had noticed that the last (and highest) mile of trail hugged a south facing slope. A south facing slope equals more direct sun and theoretically less snow. My scouting paid off; the trail was nearly snow free save for some hard packed, but easily traverse-able snow just above tree line and the final 200 yards to the lake. The final 200 yards presented a bit of a challenge: a 30 degree slope guarding the lake that was basically one gigantic ice rink. I wasn’t going to be getting up the main trail without crampons but thankfully, a series of rock ledges alongside the trail were solid and dry, providing an alternative route up the final 200 vertical feet to the lake with only a little Class 3 scrambling required. Upon finally reaching the lake, I was met by a wonderful late autumn scene and quite happy to have avoided the the colossal disappointment of hiking 4+ miles only to get turned around with only a few hundred yards to go.

Chasm Lake and Longs Peak

The Ships Prow (left) and Longs Peak (14,259′, right) tower above Chasm Lake

The snow and ice had the added benefit of deterring the crowds that seem to linger in the park well into the fall. The previous week I had hiked to Loch Vale in a busier section of the park and just getting to the trailhead had involved being stuffed like sardines in a park shuttle bus. Chasm Lake though I had all to myself for over an hour, save for a pair of climbers descending from Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park. The east face of Longs Peak is an imposing sight, “abrupt and precipitous for three thousand feet” according to Enos A. Mills, an early resident of the area and the driving force behind the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The silence was stunning, save for the occasional high-pitched “eeeeeeeee” of a pika, the intermittent roar of the wind whipping up loose snow, and the din of fallen icicles and chunks of glacial ice crashing their way to the base of the cliffs.

At eve and morning lighted

With liquid gold all around,

Thy crests and hills and valleys

Gleam bright with glory crowned.

—Enos A. Mills, 1887

Rocky Mountain Aspen and grass

Aspen and grass waving in the wind in Horseshoe Park

Sunset and Moon from Moraine Park

Sunset and gibbous moon from Moraine Park


Speechless in the San Juans: A Day at Ice Lake

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.

I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).

As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Ice Lake reflecting Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob

Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.

While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.

Several lakes in Ice Lake Basin

Ice Lake (blue) and unnamed lake (green) with U.S. Grant Peak (13,767′) towering overhead.

Clouds reflected in a pond in Ice Lake Basin.

Late afternoon clouds reflected in a small pond in Ice Lake Basin

Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!

Pink Paintbrush in Ice Lake Basin

One of many colors of Paintbrush found in Ice Lake Basin.

Rock Mountain Columbine

Hey look! Colorado’s state flower, the Rocky Mountain Columbine!

Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak (13,894′)

Golden Horn reflected in Ice Lake

Golden Horn (13,769) reflected in Ice Lake.

Lower Ice Lake Basin

Some of the views on the way up to Ice Lake. Here Corn Lily grows rampant in Lower Ice Lake Basin.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.  

Ice_Lake_Basin_Panorama

Can’t remember ever being this sad about having to hike back to the car. Will have to come back and spend the night someday!


Mt. Shuksan in High Resolution

Introducing Mt. Shuksan:

Shuksan_Vertical_Crop

This image strip is just a small part of a 45 shot, 550 megapixel panorama I recently took of Mt. Shuksan from the Mt. Baker Ski Area. Since WordPress doesn’t offer me a way to display a picture of this size at full resolution, I’ve uploaded a (nearly) full resolution version of the image to GigaPan.com and included a link below (just click on the photo).  There are lots of cool features that you can see if you play around with the image and zoom in;  such as the terminus of the aptly named Hanging Glacier just below the summit peak, lots of cornices along the summit ridge, innumerable avalanche tracks, some really interesting linear and polygonal features in the snow (developing avalanche scarps?) and even some waterfalls and the entrance to an ice cave!

This was the first time I had made a panorama of this size and resolution. Photoshop’s Photomerge feature (which I n0rmally use for panoramas) had trouble handling so many images so I ended up using a free program called Microsoft Image Composite Editor to stitch and blend the images together. While this program doesn’t allow for editing of the final panorama, I was able to easily export the composite image and make minor adjustments to contrast and brightness in Photoshop.  The individual frames were shot in RAW mode using a ball-head tripod and a 200mm zoom lens on a Nikon D90. Exposure settings were set manually and kept mostly constant in order to facilitate seamless integration of all 45 images.

Click the image below to explore the GigaPan:

Shuksan_Final_WEB


The “Less” White One: Mt. Baker and the Ever-Shrinking Easton Glacier

View of Mt. Baker (right) and the Black Buttes (left) while hiking along the Railroad Grade moraine, left behind by the retreat of the Easton Glacier.

View of Mt. Baker (right), the Easton Glacier, and the Black Buttes (left) from the Railroad Grade moraine, evidence of the former extent of the Easton Glacier.

You’ll notice that the Sun is shining brightly in all of these photos which should immediately tip you off to the fact that I’m several months behind in posting, since getting pictures this radiant at the present time would require either a a 200-mile drive east, or a 500-mile drive south. I’ll gripe more about that in a future post, rest assured.

One of the consequences of the copious winter precipitation here in the Pacific Northwest is the simply massive quantities of snow that pile up in the Cascades, just a half hour or so to the east of my current, comparatively temperate residence. In many areas, not all of that snow can melt the following summer and having more snow than you can melt is one of the key ingredients for a glacier. Almost all of Washington state north of Seattle has been covered by glaciers or ice sheets at some point in the last 20,000 years but nowadays the only glaciers remaining in WA are those high in the North Cascades and Olympics, and the tendrils of ice that snake down from the summits of the mightiest Cascade Range peaks; Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Baker.  Although the amount of glacial ice in Washington is getting ever smaller (Mt. St. Helens’ Crater Glacier is actually one of the few in the U.S. that is actually getting larger. Can you guess why?), according to the USGS Washington remains the 2nd most extensively glaciated state, 2nd only to Alaska. And they’re WAY further north so that’s sort of like cheating anyways.

Easton2

The Easton Glacier descending from the summit of Mt. Baker.

The Easton Glacier on the southern slopes of Mt. Baker is one such glacier that has undergone rapid retreat over the past century. Covered by more than a dozen glaciers, Mt. Baker is an active volcano that was known by the Lummi as Koma Kulshan, which roughly translates to “Great White One”.  Mt. Baker experiences some of the largest annual snowfalls anywhere in the world, including a U.S. record 1,140 inches (that’s 95 feet!) during the winter of 1998-1999 according to NOAA. So how could its glaciers possibly be getting smaller with that much snow?  To understand that, we need to understand a bit more about how glaciers work. If you groaned at that last sentence and would rather skip ahead to the pictures at this point, go ahead. I won’t be offended. In fact, since this is a website, I won’t even know. But you’ll be missing a really great analogy that I use in just a bit here so you should probably just stick with me for another paragraph or two. Plus glaciers are really cool. Pun wholeheartedly intended.

Here’s the (very) quick and (very) dirty version: A glacier is a body of ice that flows downhill. During the winter, snow accumulates on the glacier, temporarily adding to its mass. When temperatures warm the next summer, the snow on the lower, warmer portion of the glacier will melt (as will some of the ice) but some of the snow on the upper, colder portions will survive and turn into ice, replenishing the glacier. If more ice is added in the upper part of the glacier than can melt in the lower part, then our glacier gets larger. If less ice is added than is lost, the glacier gets smaller. If they two equal, the glacier stays put. As hard as it might be to believe given the massive snowfall on Mt. Baker, rising global temperatures mean that in most years, the Baker glaciers lose more mass during the summer due to melting then they gain during the long, dreary, snowy winters. In geology speak, this is known as a “negative mass balance” and, if left unchecked, it spells doom for a glacier. Now, its completely normal for a glacier to have a negative mass balance year every once in a while. No biggie. Rather, it’s when negative becomes the new normal that the glacier will begin shrinking and will continue to shrink unless something changes to bring it back into balance.

Easton_Melt

Meltwater flowing down the surface of the Easton Glacier in September.

Think of it this way: let’s say you wake up really hungry tomorrow morning and you decide to make yourself some bacon. Before you know it, you’ve gone right ahead and eaten that entire package of bacon all by yourself. I’m sure you can all empathize with THAT feeling.  Anyways, while that may not be the healthiest breakfast you’ve ever had, doing so once probably isn’t going to have much of an effect on your long-term health. You’ll go for a run the next day and burn those calories right back off, much like a glacier might experience a low-snowfall year followed by a record breaking snowfall the next year to make up for it. (Note: by now you’ve hopefully noticed that this analogy starts to break down when you consider that a glacier LOSES weight during a negative mass balance year…)  But if you start eating an entire package of bacon by yourself every few days, or even once a week, well….sad as it is to say, you might start having some serious health issues. Same is true for a glacier. If you lose mass one year, it probably won’t be that noticeable. But if temperatures increase, if the summer melting season becomes longer and you start losing mass year after year after year, then regardless of how much snow falls in the winter, it won’t take long before you start shrinking, and shrinking fast.

For example, here is a more expansive view of what the Easton Glacier and its surroundings looks like today:

EastonTrough

The long valley or trough stretching across the image represents the path carved out by the ice when the glacier was much larger than it is today. Just 25 years ago, much of the trough you see in the immediate foreground would have been filled with ice. The prominent ridge on the opposite side of the trough is a feature known as a “lateral moraine” (rhymes with “romaine” as in romaine lettuce, which I can emphatically say is far less tasty than bacon). A moraine consists of loose sediment that was once trapped within the ice. When a glacier is stable, i.e. when it doesn’t shrink or grow but rather sits in the same for an extended period of time, all that sediment gets deposited in large piles around the edges of the glacier when melting occurs. The presence of a moraine here tells us that the Easton Glacier once filled the entire trough to the level of the far ridge, and did so for a prolonged period of time. Considering that the ridge crest is more than 200 feet above the floor of the trough, we can see that not only is our glacier retreating, but that it was also once much thicker than it is today.

One way to get an estimate of how long the glacier has been gone from a particular area is to look at the vegetation (or lack thereof). While the time it takes for vegetation to sprout up in an area uncovered by a glacier varies widely (depending on factors such as soil development, climate, and species), often times smaller plants will begin to reestablish themselves within about 20 years or so of the glacier’s exit. In this case, much of the bare, brown/orange colored land in the center of the image was covered by ice as recently as the 1980s.  Even more amazing: follow the valley downhill to the right. Look how far down we have to go before we encounter even the slightest sign of grasses, much less trees. Scale is a little tricky in this picture but see that greenery way way down at the downhill end of the trough? That point is over a mile away from where the picture was taken and it happens to mark the approximate terminus of the glacier in the mid 1800s, near the end of a cool period known as the Little Ice Age. The Bellingham Herald has a nice article on the retreat of the Easton Glacier over the past 100 years, with spectacular photos comparing the modern glacier to how is appeared in 1912, here. As you can see, it is now a shell of its former self. Other glaciers on Mt. Baker are in a similar predicament.

Meltwater

Easton Glacier remains one of the easiest glaciers to access anywhere in the continental U.S. The toe of the glacier can be reached by hiking for about 2 miles along a moderately strenuous but well-maintained hiking trail. Eventually this trail crosses a wooden swing-bridge over the meltwater creek that issues from the glacier. From here, you simply head off trail and hike up the old glacial trough for an additional mile and a half or so (at the time of publication at least…) until you hit ice.  This part of the hike is decidedly more strenuous but as you can see from these photos, the scenery is spectacular!  Exploring the terminus of the glacier is fascinating! Huge piles of mud and debris deposited by the melting glacier cover the ice near the toe, masking the ice and making travel treacherous. A large meltwater stream emerges from the base of the glacier through one of these piles as if by magic. The ice near the terminus is heavily crevassed so one must tread carefully when hiking on the ice itself.

So next time you’re in the area, check it out before it’s gone entirely. Who knows, maybe you’ll even burn off the calories from that pound of bacon you ate for breakfast!

Hiking down the moraine. Glacier Peak on the horizon at left.

Hiking back down the moraine towards the trailhead. Glacier Peak visible on the horizon at center-left.


Rocky Mountain High…literally

When hiking, alone and sleepy, though a dark, pre-dawn, dense forest of tall lodgepole pine, every shadow and tree stump looks like a bear. It’s a great way to get your heart rate going early in the morning. I had risen from my restful (save for some early morning screaming and yelling coming from the campground across the road) sleep at 4:30 A.M. in an attempt to climb Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, without getting myself electrocuted. I found myself mentally preparing to defend my White Chocolate Macadamia Nut ClifBar to the death at least half a dozen times over a 1 hour period. Not only is Mt. Elbert the highest point in Colorado, it is also the highest point in the Rocky Mountains as well as the 2nd highest point in the entire continental United States, just 65 feet lower than California’s Mt. Whitney.  Despite its height, the summit of Mt. Elbert can be reached via several well-traveled trails. All require a fair bit of elevation gain but the one I was forced to use as a result of not possessing a 4WD vehicle climbs 4,900 feet  in 4.5 miles, a healthy climb regardless of altitude.

Summer is generally considered a bad time to climb any peak that involves spending time above treeline because of the summer monsoon thunderstorms that are ubiquitous across the southwest. Unlike its Indian counterpart, the southwest monsoon generally doesn’t deposit several feet of rain on the surface (although they can produce some locally heavy, but brief, downpours) but they can, and often do, produce copious quantities of lightning. Lightning, as you most likely know, hits high places. Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado. A person standing on Mt. Elbert, would then, by extension, temporarily be the highest thing still attached to the ground in Colorado. Put two and two together and you can see this makes for a potentially life-threatening situation.  The problem with these lightning storms is that they can develop incredibly rapidly and without warning out of clear blue sky. Your best chances of avoiding them is to hike early….really early.

I camped about 100 yards from the Mt. Elbert trailhead the night before the hike. A developed forest service campground was located directly across from the trailhead whose “services” I could utilized for $15 per night. Option #2 was to drive across the road and set up camp in a small clearing for $0 per night. The only things I would be missing (considering that I could simply walk across the road to use the water spigots) were the fire pit and picnic tables located in each developd campsite. Considering that I was alone (thus making a picnic table a bit unnecessary) and that a complete fire ban was in effect, I decided to save my hard-earned moolah.

Venus and Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky at the trailhead

Several vehicles were in the parking lot upon my arrival at 5 A.M.  By the midway point of the ascent, I had managed to pass all of these groups, save for a pack of Boy Scouts who had ascended beginning at 1 A.M. in order to see the sunrise from the summit. Lunatics. After about an hour or so of hiking through the forest, the Sun rose above the horizon just as I hit timberline at about 11,500 feet.  If you climb mountains on any regular basis, you’re probably aware that treeline on many peaks is a welcome sight. The lack of foliage generally provides reassurance that you’re almost there, in addition to providing spectacular vistas of the surrounding countryside. In other words, treeline often tells you: “Hang in there! Just a little bit longer!”

Treeline on Mt. Elbert invokes no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather, treeline on Mt. Elbert is merely a courtesy reminder that you are less than halfway there and that you still have more than 3,000 vertical feet to climb through ever decreasing oxygen levels. And the vistas aren’t anything to write home about from this point to boot.

Breaking out of the trees at 11,500’…still 3,000′ to go!

One of the few inhabitants of the upper mountain, the American Pika is a small, elusive rodent that call the scree slopes its humble home.

Mt. Elbert also redefines the term “false summit.”  Fortunately, for my sanity, I had thoroughly read a number of guidebooks and was well prepared for this matter. Good thing otherwise I probably would have consider hanging myself after reaching  the 2nd one and finding the true summit still out of my reach (fortunately, the lack of trees would have made this a tricky proposition…). On the way down, I encountered a number of weary and inquisitive hiking parties just below the lower-most and most evil false summit (still nearly 1000 vertical feet from the true summit) whom I regrettably had to inform that they still had a good hour or more of trudging to go. Judging by their reactions and creative use of profane adjectives, they were not as well-prepared for this as I was.

Nearing the first of the false summits. This one is particularly nasty since it is in plain view from the beginning of the trail.

Skirting around the edge of false summit #1, false summit #2 comes into view….

…and then the true summit finally appears on the horizon!

The view from the summit is, as would be expected, spectacular, although not necessarily any better than a number of other, lesser peaks in Colorado. Mountains fill the field of view as far as the eye can see in all directions. Several other Sawatch Range 14ers are visible from the summit including Colorado’s 2nd highest peak, Mt. Massive to the north (Mt. Massive is aptly named, it consists of four individual peaks of 14,000+feet along a 5 mile ridge) and La Plata Peak to the south. The view on a clear day (which it was) stretches all the way to Pikes Peak outside of Colorado Springs, almost 100 miles to the southeast, and the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen.  Being the first person apart from the overachieving group of scouts to summit that morning, I had the place all to myself for about half an hour. By the time summit-er #2 showed up at about quarter to 9, clouds were already starting to build up around the mountain so I decided to head back down.

View to the south along the Sawatch Range from Mt. Elbert. 14,000 foot peaks and other notable summits are labeled.

View to the north from Mt. Elbert. The mutiple peaks of Mt. Massive are at right. The prominent ridgeline in front of Mt. Massive is the ridge followed by the Mt. Elbert trail.

Sadly, having reached the highest peak in the Rockies, my options for setting a new personal elevation record are now somewhat limited unless Warren Buffet unexpectedly names me in his inheritance or I find a big bag of money on the street (those are pretty much the same if you think about it…) and decide to go to Alaska or South America (to make a donation, you can find my contact information on the About page). Or, on a slightly cheaper thought, Mt. Whitney anyone?

14,433 feet!


Obituary for a DSLR

My trusty Nikon D70 died today after nearly 35,000 shutter actuations, in a beautiful place no less; more than 10,000 feet above sea level along the West Fork of the Cimarron River, high in the ice-sculpted pinnacles of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Given that it had pluckily survived numerous 5+ foot drops onto hard, rocky surfaces, many torrential downpours, hitchhiking across the sheep-filled land known as New Zealand, and being partially submerged in mineral-rich water as I uncontrollably floated down Havasu Creek, it seems odd that a light bump against a ratty-looking old lodgepole pine is what ultimately brought it to what in hindsight seems a rather ignominious end. Alas, this accidental tap caused the camera’s shutter to cease operating, casting the camera’s 6.3 megapixel CCD chip into a state of eternal darkness, never again to capture the majestic photons emitted by the incomparable scenery of this great Earth.

The final shot…

Not even the most exquisitely crafted prose can capture the stunning allure of the natural setting in which the D70 ultimately met its demise.  Its final hours were spent summiting the rocky, yet green and verdant slopes of 12,152 foot Courthouse Mountain, a impressive edifice that is but a mere foothill to the soaring 14,000 foot peaks of the San Juan’s above. Despite it’s striking appearance, more than 1200 other peaks in the state of Colorado exceed it in height, although after today’s passing, none will exceed it in sentimental significance. A more glorious and perfect day could nary have been found; the weather gods were beaming upon the landscape below, basking the D70 in warm, unintterupted sunlight as it ascended the mountain, strapped to the shoulders of its loving owner.

The south face of Courthouse Mountain, composed of layer upon layer of volcanic tuff and breccia.

Courthouse Mountain Trail

The last photo with a human being in it…

From the summit, the D70 faithfully recorded its final panorama; a wide swath that included the jagged crags of Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak, the dark green lodgepole stands of the Uncompahgre Wilderness, and the distant summits of Uncompaghre Peak and Mt. Sneffels, gripping tightly to their last vestiges of winter snow. To the north, beyond the exquisitely layered deposits of Chimney Rock belaying its violent volcanic history, lay the verdant Uncompahgre Valley, home to the towns of Ridgway, Montrose, and Delta. Along the eastern base of the mountain lay the valley carved by the West Fork of the Cimarron River, on an arrow straight path north to eventually meet the mighty Gunnison River.

Panoramic View from Courthouse Mountain, looking east into West Fork Cimarron River valley. Chimney Rock and Silverjack Reservoir visible at left, Precipice Peak at right.

View from Courthouse Mountain looking south and west towards San Juan Mountains.

The perilous promontory of Precipice Peak

Until such time that a suitable replacement can be procured, the D70 will be replaced by a small, yet capable Canon point-and-shoot camera. In lieu of flowers, please send Amazon.com or B&H Photo gift cards.