This past week I spent several days in the John Muir Wilderness and King’s Canyon National Park with a friend and fellow photographer Raghu. On our way in we ran into another friend and fellow photographer Michael Gordon, who warned us of the veritable forests of mosquitoes we would encounter further up the trail. Great… I was hoping we still might be early enough in the season to avoid the worst of them.

Unlike the Pine Creek trail I had climbed a few weeks back, the trail to Bishop Pass is rather scenic most of the way. In fact, just a few miles in the trail takes you past one of my favorite mountains, Mount Goode. Several years ago I had the good fortunate to experience some fantastic light here from the shores of Long Lake; seeing that mountain again brought back some great memories.

“Golden Sierra” ~ John Muir Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 50mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.3 sec
Notes: 3 exposure panorama

The snow levels were much higher this year (143% of normal, thanks Michael!) – in fact the region was 2-3 three weeks behind what I had seen in my 2007 trip (for a direct comparison you can compare my Mt. Goode image above, taken 7/13/2007, and the image on Michael’s blog, taken 7/11/2010). I had memories of our destination, the Dusy Basin, being a lush and green meadow teeming with mosquitoes and flowers, but this year the snow was just finally melting off and grasses had yet to sprout. On the way up to Bishop Pass one patch of snow was so deep that the local horse outfitters had shoveled a five-foot deep trench through it so that they could get their clients through! While the late start to the summer meant we wouldn’t see any flowers in the basin, the ‘forests of mosquitoes’ also hadn’t hatched quite yet, making for an unusually pleasant mountain experience (lower elevations were a different story!).

We managed to set up our tent just minutes before the afternoon rain showers started. It was refreshing to hear that pitter-patter of raindrops on tent again – I think it’s been over a year since I was out in the mountains for some rain… that’s California for you! Over the next two hours an incredible sunset played out to the west of our camp, unfortunately the best views were to the east. Just in time for the last rays of light, however, some mist rolled in, surprising us with some very special conditions for the Sierra Nevada.

“Sierra Mists” ~ Kings Canyon NP, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 0.8 sec

The following day we took it easy, relaxing by the lake and enjoying the mosquito free paradise. Now if only we’d had a fly fishing pole… there were so many good sized trout swimming just a few feet from our toes that we could have had quite a feast (well, I could have, Raghu is vegetarian). We were again treated to some fantastic light that evening as late afternoon clouds played in the winds above the Palisades. I abandoned the composition I had picked out earlier to focus more on the dynamic light and was fortunate to find some fascinating streaks of pollen in a small tarn near the base of the peaks.

“Palisade Pollens” ~ Kings Canyon NP, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposures (2): iso 100, f/16, 0.3 sec + 1/5th sec
Notes: two exposures blended for dynamic range

After two nights and a lazy day at 11,400 feet we were starting to feel comfortable with the altitude, and decided we were ready to tackle Mount Agassiz – a 2,000 foot climb over talus (piles of big rocks) to a final elevation of 13,891 feet, the 20th tallest peak in California. We stashed the nonessentials under a rock near the base, and then started the arduous climb. Imagine climbing the staircase of a 200-story building, except where the stair steps vary between one and three feet, are never even, and sometimes move.

Mount Agassiz ~ Route, seen from below Bishop Pass

“Talus” ~ Kings Canyon NP, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, thermarest for shade
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 1/6th sec
Notes: split color balance processing to enhance the cool/warm tones of the reflected light

Along the way we saw more wildlife than I’ve ever seen in a single day in the Sierra! We passed a molting White-tailed Ptarmigan, a giant hare bounded past us, Pikas popped up behind rocks here and there, Rosy Finches made us jealous by flitting effortlessly up and down the mountain, and even a hummingbird zoomed past at 12,000 feet. Between the giant granite boulders Sky Pilots (Polemonium eximium) were blooming (yes – there were more flowers up here than down in the basin!), and filled the air with an intoxicatingly sweet smell (which, apparently, I’m allergic to). Eventually we made it to the top, and found ourselves the only flat rock in the area, which happened to be just 10 feet from where I decided to shoot for sunset.

“Sierra Summers” ~ John Muir Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, polarizer
Exposures (3): iso 100, f/22, 0.5 + 1/4th + 1/8th sec
Notes: 3 exposures blended for dynamic range, polarization on the foreground only by exposure blending, Tony Kuyper Luminosity Masks for light balancing.
Click for larger view!

“Camp Agassiz” ~ John Muir Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposures (2): iso 400, f/16, 1.6 + 1/8th sec
Notes: 2 exposures blended for dynamic range

In case it’s not clear from the images, let me tell you, the view from up there was positively incredible! We could see across nearly the entire Sierra Range, out over the White Mountains, and down into Owens Valley 10,000 feet below us. Hands down the most inspiring campsite I’ve ever had the fortune to be at. After watching the blood red crescent moon sink below the horizon we were awoken by a curious rodent that tried to steal our cookies and trail mix. I’m still not sure what it was – it looked like a Chinchilla (an incredibly cute softball-sized Pika-like critter, with a small bushy tail, big ears, and big eyes) – but Chinchillas live in the Andes, not the Sierra. If any of your readers has any suggestions I’d love to hear them! The following morning we watched the sunrise over the Palisade Crest, home to the largest Glacier of the Sierra: the Palisade Glacier. What a morning – absolutely worth the strain on our knees and lack of Oxygen!

“Sierra Backbone” ~ John Muir Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposures (3): iso 100, f/16, 0.3 + 1/6th + 1/13th sec
Notes: 3 exposures blended for dynamic range
Click for larger view!

Liability disclaimer: climbing and camping on an exposed 13,000+ mountain is not something to be taken lightly. Altitude can take an incredible toll on the body, and it is critical that you understand what is happening to yourself or you might well end up unable to safely hike back down (Acute Mountain Sickness). Storms can roll in unexpectedly, and there’s no form of shelter up there. Having 23 years of mountain experience and Wilderness First Responder training helps me make safe and intelligent decisions in these environments. I hope my images inspire you to get out and explore, but please, be safe!

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13 Comments to “Mountain Highs”

  1. Greg Russell says:

    Wow, these are some fantastic images, Floris. “Sierra Backbone” is probably my favorite, but that’s a stretch, considering that they’re all very nice.

    We’re headed to the Sierra next week to hike from Devil’s Postpile to Yosemite Valley by way of Minaret Lake and the JMT–hopefully I get as lucky with the mosquitoes AND the light.

    Greg Russell

  2. Brian Perkins says:

    I wonder if you didn’t see an American Pika (I had never heard of this before bet a little googling led me to it).

  3. Thanks Brian – I sure thought it was a Pika, but with the tail it had (also it was a bit big) it just doesn’t fit! We did see a number of Pika’s lower down, however.

  4. Wonderful and amazing photographs as usefull Floris, the light is so stunning! Really liked the one image with the pollen, really creates an interesting line throughout the image!

  5. Sierra Backbone is gorgeous. I enjoyed reading your commentary. I had no idea hummingbirds were in high altitudes.


  6. Great post. “Sierra Mists” exhibits great timing with just a tiny trace of reflection and the one bit of sunlight. In “Palisade Pollens,” I like the interlaced curves of the right snow bank and the pollen leading the eye in.

  7. Hey Floris!
    Fantastic captures and lovely stories, always make me want to reach higher! 🙂 although my companion (motorcycle) limits the heights I can reach…
    I see you use often nowdays exposure blending, do you feel its easier without GND filters? I assume the mountains are not that keen to GND usage…

  8. Floris says:

    Thanks Kostas – I still carry my GND’s, though I rarely use them these days. Blending offers so much more control that it’s my preferred method. (It doesn’t work for very long exposures (minutes) or if there’s moving objects like trees).

  9. Hi Floris, your blog is great! You’ve got some fantastic new shots too – really like Sierra Summers and Golden Sierra. I’m hoping to hit Dusy Basin in the next month. Your photos have a very authentic and unmanipulated appearance. Do you ever have trouble with abrupt transitions in contrast (like from mountains to sky) when combining for dynamic range? I’m pretty new to digital and often struggle with that…although I’m sure there’s a better way to do it than with the brush tool.

  10. Thanks Barrett! I typically try to avoid situations with abrupt changes contrast as much as possible, but when it does come up the Select Color Range tool is indispensable.

  11. floris,

    awesome photos!

    i wonder if you saw a Neotoma cinerea (bushy tailed woodrat)?


  12. Thanks Marshal – I think you might be right – the bushy tailed woodrat seems to fit what I recall seeing. Thanks!

  13. “Palisade Pollens” – the lines are very well used in the pictures.