About That Photo - North Dome

Every now and then I take a photograph and it seems like the picture doesn't tell the whole story.

That's not to say that I'm unhappy with the image, but more that I want to use words to color in a border around it; to give a bit more detail or context to a picture that I think has a particularly interesting story. I'll try to keep these posts light on the technical semantics and speak more to what makes each photo one of my favorites.

For my first photo in this series, I chose my most popular photo to date, an image of Half Dome glowing in the surreal light of one of the most vivid sunsets I've ever seen. This picture seemed to leave people with a lot of questions: Where did you take this photo? (it's not your typical Glacier Point snapshot) Did you just smash all the buttons in photoshop? (no, this sunset had insane color contrast for reasons I'll explain shortly) Did you plan this photo? (there is no reasonable way to plan this sort of thing)

It was late October, and I had already been in Yosemite for a week. I had mostly been shooting photos of my friends climbing, and felt like I was getting a bit rusty and hesitant when it came to shooting landscapes. The previous day, I had hiked up to Glacier Point (pro tip: don't do this hike with 50 pounds of photo equipment, your knees will surely vaporize on the descent). While I was up there I was reminded of a vantage point that I had always wanted to shoot from: North Dome. To further draw me in, the moon was nearly full and would be rising behind Half Dome during sunset the next day.

 North Dome is the leftmost formation in the foreground of this photo (Wikimedia Commons)

North Dome is the leftmost formation in the foreground of this photo (Wikimedia Commons)

Luckily for me, the summit of North Dome can be accessed by an easy two-hour hike from Porcupine Flat. You do have to go up and down a few ridge lines to get to the dome, but it's nothing like slogging up 3000 feet of vertical on dilapidated asphalt (looking at you, Four-Mile trail). A relatively uninteresting walk (by Yosemite standards) drops you down to North Dome's summit, directly across the valley from Half Dome. It feels like the face of the great monolith is right in front of you, staring down at you with vast indifference.

Before making it to my planned vantage point, I committed most of my usual sins as a photographer. I didn't leave myself enough time to assess the scene and compose my shot. I only brought one battery, and one roll of film. I forgot my graduated filters. I got lost (I always get lost).

And so, as I finally reached the North Dome summit, I was already beating myself up about a lot of things. On top of my personal misgivings, the light was remarkably unremarkable. Low-lying clouds were muting the sun and leaving the granite walls gray and lifeless. There was also a strong particulate haze sitting heavy the valley, produced by prescribed burns in Mariposa Grove. Not many lenticular clouds. Any images I took would not only have low contrast, but would suffer from diffraction from the smoke particles. Not a recipe for success.

"Just my luck," I thought. "Oh well, why not set up the tripod and frame the scene while you're here. Maybe the light will be better tomorrow. I'm definitely not wasting any of my Velvia (slide film) on this, though. Bummer."

 Flat light and haze. Meh.

Flat light and haze. Meh.

Just as I set up my digital camera and popped off a few test frames, the sun broke free from under the clouds and set the north face ablaze with bright red light. The smoky haze that I had cursed before was rendering the wavelengths of visible sunlight as an absurd, glowing magenta. The sun had almost completely set, so only the faces of Half Dome and Cloud's Rest were illuminated, leaving everything else in a smoky blue-gray haze. It was an obscene, almost lurid display of natural beauty.

As I freaked out (as in: doing a weird spastic happy/is-this-real-life dance) and tried to dial in my camera settings to compensate for the transforming scene, a lone Japanese man walked up and crouched behind me.

"So...beautiful" he muttered.

I responded (in Japanese) that it was indeed a beautiful sight. That was all we said, all that really could be said. At least, until the climbers came.

"DUDE! HOLY FUCK! WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON???"

"I don't know, I'm so psyched, man, this is amazing. What a way to summit!"

"Fuck. I'm crying, dude."

"What? You serious?"

"Yosemite makes me cry, dude. I don't know why, this is the second time it's happened to me on a summit."

"That's weird, man, I never cry. Like, for anything"

"...well anyways dude, this is pretty cool."

"Yeah, best sunset I've ever seen. How do we get down?"

 The shot.

The shot.

All told, the color only lasted for about five minutes. I frantically assembled my Pentax 67 and managed to pop off a few frames of slide film before the fireworks subsided. After packing everything up, I sat on the summit a short while longer, masticating bites of sandwich while trying to process what I just saw. The hike back to the car seemed to fly by. My pack felt light, my weary legs felt spry and energized.

Every time I make the effort to hike to a new spot - whether the plan pans out or not - I always walk away feeling fulfilled for at least trying. This day, I got to walk away feeling a hell of a lot more than that.

 Absurdity.

Absurdity.

The Scenic Route

I might have just driven 1000 miles for a rock climb. Actually, that's unfair. I drove that distance to spend time with a close friend. I'm also keen to watch fall descend upon the Rocky Mountains, and to follow the colors around the Western territories. But more than anything, I might have driven 1000 miles simply to feel like I'm moving again.

 The need for a changing horizon...

The need for a changing horizon...

August was spent almost entirely in California. After spending July alternately languishing in the muggy heat of Massachusetts and the searing mountain sun of Colorado, I broke into a fit of giddy laughter when I stepped out of my van in Santa Cruz and felt a stiff breeze puff up my shirt with cool coastal air. Immediately I gorged myself on taqueria fare and craft beer, rode my bike through redwoods and along coastal bluffs, huffed chalk in my favorite climbing gym, got to see all of my favorite people and paid homage to their pets. And then I went insane.

 Perseid meteors burning up, viewed from Mt. Charlie Road

Perseid meteors burning up, viewed from Mt. Charlie Road

After three weeks in Santa Cruz, I felt a little seed of despair growing in the pit of my gut. A growing sense of comfort that felt incredibly discomforting. You don't quit your job and cram your life into a van only to return to the same place and indulge in the same things that kept you there for a decade. This was nice, but it was not progress (what is progress?).  There's nothing wrong with knowing what you appreciate about a place and occasionally enjoying those things, but I've grown allergic to the feeling that I'm settling down in any one place. 

 None of this is to say I don't like it here...

None of this is to say I don't like it here...

One phone call was all that it really took to get me back on the road. I got word that temperatures and leaves were dropping in Colorado, and that conditions would be prime for me to start working on The Eighth Day, a 45-meter sport climb I had tried half-heartedly in July. The climb had baffled and demoralized me earlier in the season, but after a month away from Rifle Canyon I felt (at least mentally) refreshed and prepared to lob myself at this monstrous climb.

 The Eighth Day - Rifle, CO - Photo from mikesironcladbeta.blogspot.com

The Eighth Day - Rifle, CO - Photo from mikesironcladbeta.blogspot.com

So, I sketched out a loose plan - first to attend a friend's wedding in Santa Barbara (beautiful courthouse, by the way), then to wend my way eastward in as circuitous and scenic a fashion as time permitted.

 My new "most liked" photo on Instagram, which was taken with an iPhone, incidentally.

My new "most liked" photo on Instagram, which was taken with an iPhone, incidentally.

My first stop was the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave desert. I've vowed to never make the slog on I-15 between Barstow and Las Vegas ever again, instead electing to drive most of that stretch through the Mojave National Preserve. I woke up a bit too late to fully capture the sunrise on the dunes, and two (very nice) hikers beat me to the summit. As it turns out, their footsteps made for a more interesting photograph than the blank dune-scape I had wanted to capture, and I couldn't help but expect company on Labor Day. Now I've seen both the sunrise and sunset from this vantage point, and I'm excited to return with a tripod and some slide film.

 Thor's Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park. Mature Ponderosa pine at bottom right for size reference. Earth's shadow visible in the fading sunlight.

Thor's Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park. Mature Ponderosa pine at bottom right for size reference. Earth's shadow visible in the fading sunlight.

I had grandiose plans of swinging through Zion, to tick a few things off of my totally-a-tourist bucket list, like wading The Narrows and hiking up to Angel's Landing. Alas, even after Labor Day weekend, Zion remained a zoo. So once again I found myself in Bryce Canyon, bewildered by limestone hoodoos and enthralled by the bizarre scenery.

 The canyon fins of Wall Street illuminated by the moon. It proved impossible to get a sharp image because the wind was whipping up through the canyon walls and shaking my tripod during the 30-second exposures.

The canyon fins of Wall Street illuminated by the moon. It proved impossible to get a sharp image because the wind was whipping up through the canyon walls and shaking my tripod during the 30-second exposures.

Interestingly, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all. Technically (and boringly) speaking it's a giant plateau of eroded limestone, but there are myriad small canyons formed between the eroded fins and hoodoos. Semantics aside, it's a great place to practice photography. It's really easy to be overwhelmed by the busy landscapes, and it's a place that is teaching me to compose scenes in a more careful and deliberate fashion. I only spent one afternoon taking pot-shots along trails, and I can't wait to return and invest some time exploring the "canyon" in earnest.

 Capitol Reef, Capitol Dome in the center of frame

Capitol Reef, Capitol Dome in the center of frame

The next day I awoke bleary-eyed at Panorama Point outside of Capitol Reef NP. Even further removed from the Interstate than Bryce Canyon, this park sees little traffic and doesn't get enough love. It's not as monolithic as Zion, or bewildering as Bryce, or as vast as Canyonlands, but it's worthy of at least a day of exploring. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, it's especially worth fording the Fremont River and driving the backcountry loop. The Temple of the Sun (pictured at top of this post) is an amazing, and way, way out-there place.

 Lesson learned: sometimes you should drop the tripod down a bit closer to the ground. I would've been a lot happier with this image if I had placed the far-off cliffs under the juniper tree's branch.

Lesson learned: sometimes you should drop the tripod down a bit closer to the ground. I would've been a lot happier with this image if I had placed the far-off cliffs under the juniper tree's branch.

From Capitol Reef, I booked it straight to Rifle Mountain Park and got a good half-day of climbing in. I feel out of shape and twisted into knots by the drive, but I'm genuinely excited to get to work on The Eighth Day. But while I love climbing in Rifle, I can't wait to get back on the scenic route and keep that horizon changing.

Indy Pass

It's difficult for me to sit idle and watch my friends climb while I try to wait out a rest day. Too often I give in to the temptation to join the fun, and I inevitably find myself laying prone and exhausted on the ground, with a few new holes in my fingertips and a freshly bruised ego. 

The only way I've found to prevent this from happening is to simply leave my climbing shoes in the car, and remember to bring a camera. The light box gives my twitchy fingers something to do, and I find that any time I spend six hours behind a lens, I learn something new. I restricted myself to a single focal length (35mm) and found that I learned a lot in a few hours of shooting. Mostly that my friend Jim has shoulders the size of cantaloupes, and my friend Joseph has a gift for hanging on to grips that looks suspiciously like razor blades.