First off, the 2010 calendars have arrived! They look spectacular, and no doubt would look fantastic on your wall all throughout next year. They’ll also make fantastic christmas presents, so be sure to get enough for you friends and family (and of course save on shipping cost per unit). And, the sooner you order, the sooner you can admire the wondrous images and read the little stories accompanying each month’s picture. You can see the details, and place your orders, on my website here: calendars!

Ok, now on to the epic story. You may recall I visited Minaret lake about three weeks ago, under some rather magical conditions. Well, this past weekend it was time to visit again – the general neighborhood at least, a rather more challenging view, however. A good friend of mine from my days at Cornell, Raghu, and I made a back country trek into some spectacular and remote terrain. We started off the trip with a night in the Bristlecone Pine Forest, for images as well as acclimatization (the ‘forest’ is at 10-11,000 feet). In my previous visits to this place I’ve managed to get images I was happy with of all the great trees I have thus far found. So, this time around we visited a rather famous tree in the Schulman Grove (all my other images are from the Patriarch Grove).

It’s important for every artist to evolve and grow, so occasionally I like to try something new. This trip one of my goals was to take some images featuring people as accenting elements, to help add meaning and tell a story. I suppose you could say the inspiration comes from Galen Rowell, who did a wonderful job of telling stories of outdoor adventure using human figures in his mountain landscapes. So I’ll start off with one I took of this tree, and Raghu in a state of awe and respect.

“Awe, and Respect” ~ Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 100-400mm @ 250mm, tripod
Exposure 1: iso 800, f/11, 1/5th sec
Exposure 2: iso 800, f/11, 1.3 sec
Processing: two exposure blend for the sky and foreground. I used a higher iso to minimize motion blur of Raghu.
Note: If you prefer, I do have a person-less version as well, which you can see here.

As the night approached I searched for a unique angle on this tree that would take advantage of the wispy clouds, and of course some stars. As you’ve probably noted in some of my other images, these trees really have quite a bit of character, like petrified people stuck in twisted, menacing, or tortured poses. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve tried to survive the harsh White Mountain conditions for over 5,000 years. In the last year (it appears wind data has only been collected in the last year) the record was 162.4 mph, on December 19th 2008. While the Bristlecones aren’t quite brave enough to tough it out up on the summit, I imagine the winds on the ridge by Patriarch Grove are pretty high as well! Up close the wood almost looks like sandstone from the wind and sun blasting. Anyways, here’s the view of that wicked tree, conjuring up some spell in the early twilight.

“Wicked Witch of the West” ~ Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII @ 29mm, tripod, LED headlamp
Exposure 1: iso 400, f/8, 30 sec (sky/natural light on tree)
Exposure 2: iso 800, f/8, 5 min (light painted with reflected LED lamp on tree)
Exposure 3: iso 800, f/8, 3 min (light painted with LED lamp on foreground)
Exposure 4: iso 1600, f/4, 20 sec (stars)
View this one large! (click on it). Of course, you should view all of them large!
Processing: As you can tell from the long list of exposures, this was a challenging and creative image. The best I can do to explain is to link to my article, though this was more of an art of blending and light painting. To achieve the soft and natural look of the light I combined exposures for natural twilight glow on the tree with ones where I used an LED headlamp reflected on the nearby ground to proved a soft illumination on the tree.

Like I mentioned, these trees can live for over 5,000 years, and if you are up to date on your biblical history (which I am not, but google is), then you’ll realize that the existence of these trees actually challenges Creationism. Apparently a satisfying counter theory to the tree’s age has yet to be fully formed and verified. Another interesting tidbit, one of scientific and artistic importance, is that while they are all the same species, Bristlecones in the White Mountains and other mountainous areas in the Great Basin show significant genetic variations. In fact, individual trees that might be right next to each other in the White’s can look very different, largely due to their genetic variations. So yes, being evil looking is an inherited genetic trait.

Having satisfied our need for wicked trees, we found a nice spot to camp outside the forest (you can’t actually camp among those trees, probably a good thing too). The following sunrise was rather beautiful, but we were watching it from our sleeping bags as we hadn’t found any other spots the evening before to take advantage of it. Plus, we had a long hike ahead of us, and likely would need all the time we could get! After watching the clouds dance in the light for a bit, we headed off to Mammoth. The first half of our trail was the same as I had hiked three weeks ago – nice, easy, and straightforward – you just follow the trail. Trails.. are a luxury. At 9120 feet elevation, we veered off to the north, our goal: the summit of the Volcanic Ridge. Supposedly there is a trail that goes up to Minaret mine, which is part way up, but that trail was pretty much obscured. We scouted the terrain by eye and map, and picked out what looked like a good direction to go in. After a few minutes of hiking we actually did run into the ‘trail’ – it was rather faint, and more like an ancient wagon trail than a footpath (which makes sense, seeing as it goes to a mine). Round about this point Raghu’s knee starts mysteriously hurting. I offer him my hiking poles, and he man’s up and decides it’s okay to push on… so on we go (later it turns out it was tendinitis.. that doesn’t sound like fun!). Once at the mine, we see the pass we need to climb.. it looks rather steep, but doable. Fortunately there’s a footpath that winds it’s way up the 40 degree slope. A hundred feet or so below the pass we found a nice flat spot to set up camp. It was pleasingly soft, a little grassy, and there was even water! Oh well, guess we carried those extra 8 pounds of water up that slope for nothing. This beautiful little alpine paradise was, of course, also a perfect environment for mosquitoes. And lo and behold, at 10,400 feet the mosquitoes were out for blood! But at least they were somewhat manageable here… more on that later.

The goal of this sort of crazy trip was to photograph the Minarets from the summit of the Volcanic Ridge, at sunrise. Given my experience of climbing a peak in the middle of the night last time (ie. we didn’t follow the right route), I decided it would be prudent to scout the route before dark. So after a quick rest, I made the scramble up to the top, carefully remembering my path. The last section involved some steep snow.. my hope was that it would remain soft enough to be safe to ascend in the pre-dawn with an ice axe, but no crampons (I didn’t have crampons with me). The snow had had plenty of time this summer to form some deep ‘sun cups’ – dips in the snow caused by uneven melting. They provided a nice way up, like climbing a steep staircase. Still, if frozen solid, it would be a bit too scary without crampons. But boy, the view up there… I just had to be there for sunrise! Poor Raghu wouldn’t be able to make it with his knee, at least his consolation view wasn’t half bad – an excellent perspective on the imposing 13’ers Mt. Ritter and Banner peak.

At 3:45am the alarm went off, and in short order I was off, into the dark of the night. We were just a day or two away from new moon, so it was all headlamp and starlight for the next hour and a half. It had been a warm night… would the snow still be soft? At the first patch I anxiously tested the snow with my ice axe… soft as butter! (partially refrigerated butter that is.. ie. I could dig my feet in easily!) Overhead I could see quite a bit of clouds dancing around – just enough for a chance at a stunning sunrise… let me tell you, that’s a rare sight on a summer day in the Sierras! I made good time following my scouted route (I’d never have made it had I not hiked it previously), and by 5:15 I was on top. My, what an inspiring sight! And… there were perfectly formed clouds just above the peaks. I can’t describe how eager I was to see that sun to come up… and I had half an hour to anticipate it.. that was one long half hour. The first to catch light was the Sierra Wave hanging over the Owen’s Valley, lighting up like a giant carpet of fire. From my perch I could see as far as Mono Lake, the flashing light of the cell tower on Mammoth Mountain, and a sea of mountains to the South. Slowly but surely the sun crept up in the sky… would it light my clouds? Would the peaks get first light? Or would some stray cloud block the passage of the light? Well, these mountains must like me… as for the second time in less than a month I was treated to dreamlike conditions. To provide scale for the immensely grand and inspiring scene I scrambled into the picture and took this self portrait.

“The Range of Light” ~ Minarets, from the summit of Volcanic Ridge, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII @ 17mm, tripod, 3-stop soft grad ND
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 0.5 sec
View this one large! (click on it). Of course, you should view all of them large!
Notes: I took two exposures here, one for the scene with the grad filter, and then another where I set my timer remote on a 2 minute timer, scrambled over to pose in the picture and waited for the shot. Then I just blended me in to the properly exposed image for the rest of the scene. Again, a manless version is available.

What you see there are the imposing and rugged Minarets, the tallest of which is Clyde Minaret. Many, many feet below and on the right is Iceberg Lake, and partially obscured on the left is Cecil Lake. In addition to the beautiful light and rugged terrain, this is a nice example of a glacially carved valley – you can clearly see where long ago a giant chunk of ice carved out Iceberg Lake and the valley downstream. All that remains of that glacier now is a tiny patch of permanent snow and ice, and some seasonal icebergs in the lake.

I think generally the advice is to save the best for last, unfortunately it’s rather unlikely you’ll find that the images that follow will surpass the previous two. In fact, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to match up to either of them.. but life goes on, and in the chronological order of this story, we’ve still got some ways to go. A long ways down that is. Along the way back from the summit I stumbled upon a pair of White-tailed Ptarmigan, which I’ve never seen in the Sierra before. They were introduced in the early 1970’s, and apparently a few have managed to survive. I had only taken my ultra wide angle to the top, in order to save weight, so I took the opportunity to try to get an environmental portrait.. which proved to be rather challenging.

Ptarmigan ~ Volcanic Ridge, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII @ 35mm, handheld
Exposure 1: iso 1600, f/16, 1/80th
Exposure 2: iso 1600, f/16, 1/250th
Processing: I aligned the two images and blended detail back into the sky from the darker exposure. I opted not to use a grad here as I already had my hands full with the camera!

The way down was, well, epic. We thought it was just going to be the stretch to a flat area we could see, and it looked tough, but doable. After scrambling on rocks and snow for two hours, we arrived at that flat spot. Neither of us got injured aside from some scratches and bruises, but we each took a slide on a rather steep patch of snow.. the ice axe came in handy there for a short but snowy and exciting self arrest (with a 65 lb pack). Don’t worry, we made sure the run out was safe! Anyways, after lunch we started the second leg, which turned out to be worse. 45+ degree slopes of loose rock and dirt, and for much of the way a snow melt stream proved to be the best grade, but of course that meant the rocks were wet. You can see the route on this google map – green was the way up, blue the summit pitch, and red the way down. Also, check out the view from the bottom (below the map), though the wide angle lens and the flatness from the 2D representation make it look a lot less scary than it was.

Map and route. Green was the way up, blue the summit pitch, and red the way down. The little tents indicate our two camps. Doesn’t look far, but boy that terrain was rough!

Route, as seen from below, this was the 2nd pitch.. it’s hard to see how awful it was from the photo.. but it was rough. Photo by Raghu.

Our prize for safely arriving at the bottom? Millions of mosquitoes. Yes…

Mozzies.. in each of the green circles you’ll find one. Evil little buggers. Photo by Raghu.

The meadow we ended up in was rather photogenic, enough so that we decided we would brave the mosquitoes. In truth they’d probably have been just as bad if not worse at Ediza Lake a little further down. That afternoon thunderstorm clouds roiled and toiled above giving us just a little sprinkle, though by sunset they had mostly cleared out to the east. Fortunately there was a nice spot to take advantage of the show.

“Newcomer on the Waterfront” ~ Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII @ 35mm, tripod, 2-stop hard GND, polarizer
Exposure: iso 200, f/18, 6 sec

So far I’ve mostly shared ‘grand scenics’, with a few twists. But, one of the things I pride myself on is photographing a diverse range of work. So, when I saw this patch of grasses next to our camp (literally, we basically slept on the grasses next to this), I knew this would be a great opportunity for an intimate abstract. Nearby, within 10 feet or so, there were tons of little orange and brown pinecones.. now if only they were lying in my composition of the grasses! Well, that was pretty straightforward to fix: I collected a few handfuls and psuedo-randomly scattered them about, mimicking the patterns they had fallen in just a few feet away.

“Wild Zen Garden” ~ Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII @ 35mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1 sec

On our way out, we hiked past Shadow Lake, and this particular downed tree caught my eye. It’s a bit different from my usual, and unlikely something that most would hang on their walls, but I found it made for a thought provoking scene.

“Drowning Shadows” ~ Shadow Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 70-200mm @ 200mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/11, 1/25th sec

And for good measure, just one more shot of the mosquitoes trying to get through my gloves. No, it wasn’t cold, the deet just wasn’t cutting it.

Gloves… and mosquitoes. Evil creatures.

And… last but not least, I thought I’d share this one, which is actually from my previous trip to Minaret Lake, but I hadn’t yet processed it at the time of my blog posting. This cute little marmot devilishly chewed up my hiking poles… the least I could do was get an environmental portrait of him at sunset to make up for the damages.

“Enjoy the View” ~ Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII @ 31mm, tripod, 2-stop hard GND
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 1/10th sec

I hope this gives you an idea what I go through to get these unique viewpoints, in truth.. I enjoy waking up hours before dawn and finding myself staring at some of the most incredible scenery and lighting on the planet. I do not, however, enjoy mosquitoes. But they are a necessary evil. The advantage for you is of course that you can have prints of these fantastic places hanging on your living room wall, and all you have to do is turn on the light and sit on the couch to experience it without the cold, effort, and blood sucking skeeters. Next up: Colorado high country, in the peak of mozzie season!

14 Comments to “Epic Views, Epic Travels”

  1. aswirly says:

    I’m enjoying all these images. I like people in landscape scens as it gives such a personal touch as well as scale…and that tree with the stars, WOW! I visited the Sierras just a couple weekends ago so I know the mosquitos are horrible right now!Glad you braved them to get these awesome shots! Oh, and I just LOVE that marmot. Haha, they’re too cute, even if one did chew your pole!

  2. Dave Taylor says:

    I’ve seen a lot of Bristlecone shots, but “Wicked Witch of the West” is my favorite yet! Great blending of the separate images, very artfully done. The image whispers eternity.
    Also really liking “Newcomer on the Waterfront”. Very nicely done, great curves, color, and composition.
    Great stuff!

  3. Dave Taylor says:

    I’ve seen a lot of Bristlecone shots, but “Wicked Witch of the West” is my favorite yet! Great blending of the separate images, very artfully done. The image whispers eternity.
    Also really liking “Newcomer on the Waterfront”. Very nicely done, great curves, color, and composition.
    Great stuff!
    Sorry, should have added good post! Waiting for the next post!

  4. Jo says:

    To be fair … has Creationism ever presented a satisfying counter theory to ANYTHING? 😉

    ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ is phenomenal. Gorgeous shot. Wow.

  5. John Wall says:

    Wonderful stories and images. As Dave said, that Wicked Witch shot is stunning and original. Please forgive me for saying so, but I would not call a leafless, expired snag a “tree”, as it gives the impression that those beautiful skeletons are the living elders one speaks of.

  6. Dave Taylor says:

    Jo, very good point:) Also, love your sketches!

  7. Ariel says:

    So in awe of your stories, devotion, and photographic talent. Beautiful work Floris, as always!! 🙂

  8. Guy says:

    Superb work, Floris, and it sure makes me want to drop everything and head for the mountains. I see a well deserved guest exhibit at Mountain Light in your future.


  9. Chris says:

    I have to say your picture from volcanic ridge of the Minarets is amazing. Like Guy I am now inspired to head for the mountains! I think I know where I will be going a bit later this month!



  10. Thank you for taking me along with you. This is by far one of the best vicarious vacations I’ve experienced. Your photos are fantastic. I still can’t figure how you managed to get in the “Range of Light” image. Did you fly?
    As for the mosquitoes, I think I’ve found the solution for my vicious blood sucking insect problem, the “Bug Shirt.” It really works.

  11. Rich Miller says:

    ABSOLUTELY STUNNING photography. Were Galen Rowell alive, you would certainly give him a run for his money! And talk about vicarious living: your blog took me along on your trip …. well written and exciting.

  12. A very enjoyable read with some beautiful pictures too! Those mosquitos look particularly vicous!!

  13. Kim Barton says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your trips and seeing the wonderful images! And Creation makes total sense, unlike evolution.

  14. Hamish says:

    fantastic images, great read and despite being almost eaten alive the results certainly seem worth the effort of survival! next time take a spray, or a swat to whack them with as you wait for the light 🙂