First Light of Winter, A Dream Lake Sunrise
Photo by Shaun Downey Photography, LLC
In the early hours of predawn, I parked my car at the empty trailhead. I guess no one else has the same silly idea as myself. It was 4:30 am on a cold February morning when I packed up my camera gear and headed into the darkness. About two feet of snow covered the ground at 9,500ft and my mission was to make it up to 9,905ft an hour before sunrise. Sounds easy right. Haha, I giggle as I step into the snow and sink waist deep. This hike aint gonna happen if I have to post-hole the whole way, or even a little for that matter. Good thing I have snow shoes. The distance I want to travel is only a mile, mile, and a half, so it isn’t bad, but it is completely dark, no moon out, and I’m alone. With that thought in mind, off I go into the forest.
I had driven up the mountains this morning from that flatland about 5,000ft in elevation. Right away I’m feeling the elevation in my lungs. Carrying 20lbs of camera gear and two tripods, it wasn’t a quarter mile before I needed to stop and catch my breath and of course to reassure myself I was making the right decision. Darkness, wind, freezing temps, being alone. Ha, I still felt good, so I pressed on. I hiked further and further and soon began to see the first glimmers of daylight. Upon arriving at my destination, the wind was howling. Blowing snow across the lake ice like desert sand during a windstorm. I checked the ice for sufficient thickness and all seemed fine. I ventured out onto the ice as the sun began to light the sky with soft pinks. I had about 15 minutes before the sunlight would touch the tip top of Hallett Peak and the cliff face of Flat Top Mountain. I set up my tripod low level and twisted an ice screw into the ice attached to a chord, to keep my camera from moving. Even with spiked tripod feet, the wind was blowing so strong my camera setup could have easily moved or blown over, ruining the entire exposure. I only get one shot at this, so I better make it right.
The sunlight began to appear and for about 30 seconds it illuminated just the very tops of the peaks and lifted the dull grey color from the ice exposing a soft deep blue. Then it was gone. Had I got the shot? I had no idea. I attempted 3 exposures because even when you do this all the time, things can easily go wrong. The first two were blurry and out of focus. The wind had actually pushed the zoom on my lens back on the first exposure rendering it useless. The second image was blurry as well due to camera shake. The winter wind is so consistent up here that it forms smooth rolling waves on the ice surface. The third exposure however, was gold, and this is the image I walked away with.
With the light disappearing behind the clouds I knew I was finished. I turned to put my camera away in my backpack only to see the backpack had slid 25 feet away in the blowing wind. I laughed. When everything was put away safely, I made my way back toward the treeline at the edge of the lake. Without thinking, I was headed off the ice in a slightly different direction than I had come early in the morning. As I stepped close to some rocks which were peeking through the ice. I plunged through. The ice broke so fast all I could do was throw my weight forward and stick my picks in. I carry ice picks attached to a chord that runs around my back and out through my jacket sleeves. They enabled me to gain a solid hold on the slippery ice and pull myself out of the hole. Luckily for me I only went in about waist deep and everything I was wearing as an outer layer is made of Gore-tex or similar. So only my outer shell was really wet and the freezing wind turned it into ice very quickly. I checked my camera equipment and for the most part all was good. I then gathered my thoughts and began hiking back down the trail. Thanking God most of the way that I did not just die!
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