Valley of Gold
After having gone a couple weeks without taking any pictures, I was itching to get out again. The weekend was quickly approaching yet I had no idea where to go. All I knew was that I wanted to photograph fall color at the upper elevations while still possible since there is only a short window of time during which color there is at its best. Weather forecasts were showing rain for the entire weekend all across the Northwest. After carefully evaluating the pros and cons of hikes I had only read about, it seemed that the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was the best bet for catching the beautiful alpine larches that grow in the granite basins and hillsides throughout the region. This was a hike I have had on my list for years and if the weather didn’t cooperate for photographs, at least I would get a chance to see and experience it.
The three of us – Dene Miles, Orion Ahrensfeld, and myself – arrived at the trail head at 2:00 AM. Shortly thereafter we were on our way. For three and a half hours we trekked uphill through cold, rainy, and windy conditions. We were thoroughly drenched and freezing but kept pushing on, despite the low expectations that we held for the view awaiting us at the top.
The rain didn’t let up as we hiked, but from time to time there were patches of clear sky above revealing the stars on this dark, moonless night. It’s hard to be optimistic while hiking in the rain through an unfamiliar, aphotic landscape, but the stars gave me hope that the clouds would part just enough to give us a sunrise to remember. After hiking up the side of a mountain for what felt like an eternity, we finally reached the top. Given the conditions, our intended destination which remained another mile and a half down trail, seemed impractical so it was decided that we would search the basin for compositions instead. In the focused dim beams of our headlamps, we could barely make out our sought after larch here and there alongside the trail. In short time the eastern horizon began to grow brighter than the surrounding terrain and sky, indicating a horizon free of clouds. I began to grow increasingly excited at the prospect of the sun rising directly down canyon and illuminating the clouds from beneath. I took a few test exposures at high ISO and long shutter speeds to try and gain a sense of what my surroundings looked like. Looking at my camera’s LCD screen, I was stunned to see an entire valley of golden larches beneath us – something I couldn’t yet make out with my eyes. The massive 9,415-foot Mt. Stewart was mostly hidden above the low cloud deck but I wasn’t concerned.
After patiently waiting with frozen limbs, the sun began to rise. I ran from spot to spot, trying to find the best composition and settled on this place as the sun’s reddish-orange arms extended across the valley, sprinkling golden light on the granite cliffs behind me. Wiping rain drops from the lens after every few exposures, I kept clicking the shutter to ensure that each shade of rapidly changing color was captured in the scene before me. The undersides of the low clouds were illuminated by direct rays from the sun, giving deep saturated colors, as the larches beneath glowed golden. The color was so intense that even the rain-soaked rocks of the foreground reflected reds from above. Seconds later, rain and fog descended into the valley from the north, killing the color and turning everything to gray. The glorious sunrise was over in an instant but knowing that it had been recorded to my flash memory card, every bit of the miserable conditions we had to endure suddenly felt worth it.