Photographing the Santa Cruz Coast

Dramatic and Stormy Photos from 5 Days of Photographing the Santa Cruz Coast

The California Coast near Santa Cruz will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the first place I moved after deciding to try to forge a career as a photographer and it’s where I actually learned how to shoot. Over the four years I lived there I spent hundreds of nights at the beach, practicing my photo skills and getting smashed by waves. I broke multiple cameras and almost broke myself a time or two when I misjudged a sneaker wave. Aside from being a great place to learn photography the Santa Cruz coast is a world-class seascape playground, with dozens of rocky coves, seastacks, tidepools, and arches becoming fantastic subjects for photos.

I hadn’t been back to seriously photograph the Santa Cruz coastline since I left in 2013, and during this past fall I decided it was time for a visit. I watched the weather forecast and when a series of storms was predicted to hit the coast the week after Thanksgiving I hopped in the car and headed to the beach.

I spent the next five days photographing around the edges of the storm, chasing light, color, and drama at many of my old favorite locations. What follows is a selection of photos I shot during these five days. (Note that due to increased visitation leading to environmental damage in the form of vandalism, graffiti, trash, erosion, and tide-pool disruption I have chosen not to share the exact location of these photos).

If you enjoyed this article be sure to join me on my newsletter and you’ll get more like it sent right to you. I’m not going to spam you with a bunch of crap, and I’ll never sell your name to anyone else. Join the 12,000+ other people getting photos, inspiration, tips, and more delivered right to their inboxes.

About the Author

Josh Cripps is a wilderness landscape photographer living in beautiful Mammoth Lakes, California. He shoots campaigns and gives presentations for Nikon. His work has been featured in publications like Outdoor Photographer, Pop Photo, and Landscape Photography Magazine. Josh also runs photography workshops, teaches online courses, and runs the popular YouTube channel Pro Photo Tips. Sometimes he talks like a cowboy and can grow an enormous beard when the need arises.

You can read more about Josh here.

Gardiner Basin, Kings Canyon Trip Report


In 2017 I hiked into the Kearsarge Lakes area of Kings Canyon National Park. During the trip I climbed to the top of the 4th Kearsarge Pinnacle and gazed in wonder at the wild backcountry of Kings Canyon. In that instant Kings Canyon cemented itself in my mind as one of the most beautiful regions of the world. I pulled out my topo map and began noting the huge peaks and beautiful granite cirques in front of me. One place in particular that caught my eye on the map was the Gardiner Basin. It looked so remote, so wild, that I figured it had to be a place of great beauty.

After that trip ended and I was back at home I pulled up Google Image Search on my computer and typed in the words “Gardiner Basin.” Although there weren’t many photos from the area there were enough to convince me that my intuition was right: here was one of those supremely magical places in the Sierra. And so I began to plan a 5-day trip to visit the Basin and see its beauty for myself.

Fast forward almost a year to late July 2018 and conditions for just such a trip were looking beautiful: I had a good chunk of free time in between projects, I was fit and in good health, and critically, massive thunderstorms were battering the the Sierra. In my opinion there’s no better time to be in the High Sierra than monsoon season, and so it was with great anticipation that I parked my car at the trailhead at Onion Valley and began what would become one of the most extraordinary backpacking trips of my life.

Rather than attempt to do justice to the experience with my poorly written words, instead I’d like to invite you along on the trip with me through a series of video journals that tell the tale of what happened each day. For my sensitive readers, please note that I do use some foul language in these videos. After all, there was nobody out there to hear it except me and the f#cking mosquitoes.


Day 1


Day 1 highlights include getting lost on Dragon Pass. Sketching myself out, not one, not two, but three times while trying to get over it. Seeing bighorn sheep at the top. 1000 feet of scree boot skiing. And a beautiful sunset over the Rae Lakes Basin in Kings Canyon National Park.


Day 2


Day 2 highlights include: Rae Lakes Basin, thunderstorms and mammatus clouds on a cross-country pass. Incredible rainbows, and a barn-burning sunset over the monumentally beautiful Gardiner Basin.


Days 3-5


Day 3-5 highlights include more explorations of the Gardiner Basin, idyllic country living in the 60 Lakes Basin, monster views from Glen Pass, an afternoon hiding from the rain under a rock overhang, and one of the most blistering backcountry light shows I’ve ever seen.


Photos


Now, I know y’all are wanting to see the resulting photos, so here are a few behind-the-scenes images and some fine art photos from the excursion.



Did you enjoy this kind of trip report video journal? Let me know in the comments!

~Josh



p.s. If you enjoyed this article be sure to join me on my newsletter and you’ll get more like it sent right to you. I’m not going to spam you with a bunch of crap, and I’ll never sell your name to anyone else. Join the thousands of people getting photos, inspiration, tips, and more delivered right to their inboxes.






About the Author



Josh Cripps is a wilderness landscape photographer living in beautiful Mammoth Lakes, California. He shoots campaigns and gives presentations for Nikon. His work has been featured in publications like Outdoor Photographer, Pop Photo, and Landscape Photography Magazine. Josh also runs photography workshops, teaches online courses, and runs the popular YouTube channel Pro Photo Tips. Sometimes he talks like a cowboy and can grow an enormous beard when the need arises.

You can read more about Josh here.


Flying Over Fiordland: Two Days of Sublime Beauty.

Fiordland National Park in New Zealand contains some of the most rugged wilderness in the world: impassable mountains, cartoonishly-dense rainforests, glaciers, and fjords fill the landscape there, allowing the intrepid traveler to enjoy a solitary, personal experience with nature like no other. But truth be told I’d only ever been to front-country destinations in the park, like the world-famous Milford Sound. So when I had two days to kill before leading a New Zealand Photography Tour I decided to strap on my trusty backpack and trek up into the Mistake Creek area of the park. Little did I realize I’d never make it there, getting waylaid by other entrancing adventures…



On the morning I intended to start my hike I woke up in Te Anau, feeling refreshed and invigorated after seeing the Aurora Australis appear over the lake the night before. Unfortunately the cloud cover was too thick to get anything but documentation photos of the phenomenon. But the weather gods were feeling generous and blessed the morning with a double rainbow over the lake. In fact, as I drove toward the park the rainbow followed me for a good 30 minutes.




The road to Fiordland follows the shoreline of Lake Te Anau until it reaches Te Anau Downs, where it veers inland. From there it winds its way past paddocks, trees, and farms until it rounds a bend and gives you a fantastic view into the Upper Eglinton Valley. As I came around said bend in my rental car I screeched to a halt on the side of the road. Laid out before me was the front of the storm that created my morning rainbows. The day was fairly warm and as the storm retreated farther into the valley, billowing clouds of moisture plumed up from the ground. Sunlight penetrated the thinning cloud cover at the same time, leading to one of the most impressive displays of atmospheric crepuscular rays I’ve seen.




I photographed for awhile but then hopped back in the car, eager to begin my hike. As I drove into the park the first splatters of rain hit my windshield and soon I was under a full-on downpour. The storm was meant to break up as the day wore on so I wasn’t worried about the weather. In fact, I timed my arrival at the trailhead to give me an hour in which to eat lunch and take a quick nap in the car before the skies cleared. Yet the rain continued to pour downward. I had given myself a cut-off time of 3 pm to start the hike and as it drew nearer without any slack in the precipitation I began to have second thoughts. Weather in Fiordland is notoriously fickle and the fact that this storm wasn’t following the forecast didn’t mean much. It could break later in the day, or turn the other direction and rain harder. Most days I don’t mind hiking in the rain; I’m happy to put on my big boy pants and go splashing off down the trail. But on that day for whatever reason I just wasn’t feeling up to it, so I scuttled my backpacking plans and retreated a few kilometers down the road to the Upper Eglinton campsite.

The nice thing about rain is that it keeps most people away, meaning that as I pitched my tent on the least soggy patch of ground in the camping area I was the only person around. Around the same time the storm actually did begin to break up, but rather than dash back to the trailhead for an overnight trek I opted to have a relaxing afternoon of car camping and photographing the clouds, rain, sun, and mountains as they all danced and played together.




After dark as I lay in my tent I thought about the fact that I had never hiked up to the Gertrude Saddle. It’s one of Fiordland’s best day hikes, and in one of those curious displays of coincidence at least 6 people in the previous week had told me how much they had enjoyed that particular hike. So before I drifted off to sleep I resolved to wake up early and hike to the top for sunrise.

Around 3 am I woke up feeling downright cold, which surprised me as the previous day had been plenty warm, not to mention I was tucked cozily into my sleeping bag. My bladder made itself known and as I climbed out of the tent to have a scenic whiz I realized why I was so chilly: the storm had broken completely and above me were a thousand scintillating points of light. The previous day’s moisture was evaporating like crazy and the temperature had dropped into the mid 20’s. In fact everything around me, from the grass under my feet to the rainfly over my tent, had frozen solid. I tossed on a layer of long johns and dropped back to sleep.

Before long my alarm was jabbering in my ear that it was time to get up. Plenty dark and plenty cold outside still, I shrugged out of my bag and into my hiking clothes. I’d already prepped my hiking pack for the day so it was quick work to jump into the car and head out. Well, it would’ve been were it not for the fact that the windshield was a solid sheet of ice. I didn’t have any kind of scraper with me so I grabbed a debit card from my wallet and began hacking away at the ice. After 5 minutes I had a human head-sized hole cleared in the windscreen, so I popped into the driver’s seat and gunned it out onto the road.

Once the engine was warm the defroster made quick work of the rest of the ice and I could drive without squinting through a tiny porthole like a near-sighted sailor. Despite the hour there was a decent amount of traffic on the road and I zipped right along with the other cars until I reached the Gertrude Saddle parking lot.


By this point my car’s thermometer told me the day had warmed up to a toasty -1°C. Thinking about this, as well as all the precipitation from the previous day, I decided I would toss my crampons in my pack just in case. I then set out from the parking lot, getting lost almost immediately. It was still 40 minutes before sunrise and as dark as a cave in winter. And even with my headlamp at max brightness I couldn’t see the blazes that marked the trail. But with a little deductive hunting about I located one and bombed off down the track.

Despite the cool temps I was wearing shorts, assuming that some brisk walking would get me toasty in no time. But the Gertrude Saddle track is heavily overgrown and my bare legs were getting slapped by ice-covered brush with every step. I could feel myself getting colder and so after only two or three minutes of walking I swapped out my shorts for long johns and overtrousers then set off again. After only a few more minutes I came out of the bush and to a river crossing. And though wading barefoot through a snowmelt river in freezing air temps before the sun was even up was not exactly appealing to me, I didn’t want to turn around and stop the hike before I could build any momentum.

Off went the shoes and socks. Plop, plop went my feet into the water. I could feel my toes aching by the time I crossed the 20 steps to the other side and it was with the utmost relief that I re-donned my merino wool socks and did a few jumping jacks to get my blood pumping to those little piggies.



With all the starts and stops I had given up the idea of getting to the top of the saddle before sunrise. I didn’t think I could even make it by 30 minutes after, when the sun would start to peek into the gigantic Fiordland canyons. So I turned my pace down a notch or 10 and simply enjoyed the stroll up the magnificent valley. A wee while later as I approached the head of the valley I spied a blob of orange on the far side of a wash. At first I assumed it was a lichen-covered boulder but as I drew closer and saw black shapes moving around near it I realized it was a tent, and the black shapes were a couple of campers.

I hailed them and they called hello back. Taking that as an invitation I crossed the wash to their camp and struck up a conversation:

“Do you guys know anything about the conditions up on the saddle given the storm yesterday?” I asked.

“Bloody awful!” they (Anita and Tom as it turned out) replied cheerfully. “We went up that way yesterday but turned around because of snow, ice, and crap visibility. So we’re planning to tackle it again today with our mountaineering kit.” And as I watched they strapped crampons, ice axes, and helmets to their packs.

“Well I brought crampons, but not a helmet or an ax,” I admitted, “….. so do you mind if I accompany you to the dodgy bit, then I’ll make a game-time decision about whether it’s prudent to go on?”

“Sure thing, the more the merrier,” they replied, and so our little trio set out toward the saddle. From their camp we ascended quickly up the talus and past the signs warning of the exposure and potential danger of the trail ahead.



After 15 or 20 minutes we came to a small stream which was frozen over in many places, providing a very satisfying ice-smashing opportunity. Crossing the stream and continuing the climb we found the trail changing character. Large boulders and talus gave way to frozen scree, the small pebbles held in place by the rain and freezing weather overnight. A few more minutes led us to snow, though in the early morning chill the snow was crisp and high-traction under our boots. Shortly thereafter we reached the part of the climb where Anita and Tom had turned around the day before. And I could see why:

Above us were a series of granite slabs ascending a broad bowl. The slabs were maybe 10-15° at the bottom, gradually steepening to 25-30° at the top. Every surface was covered with a thick crust of hard ice, along with patches of snow here and there. Down the center of the bowl cascaded a small stream, which trickled over a 100-150 foot drop at the lower edge of the granite slabs. I got the shivers: this was a scene with a high pucker factor, where a slip would surely lead to an uncontrollable slide to a death fall.



With perfectly clear and calm skies above us the ice under our feet was the only environmental factor we had to contend with on the climb. So at this point we donned our crampons and went on a small, safe foray to test them on the thin ice. The steel points bit into the crunchy snow and ice like tiger’s teeth and we found the walking to be incredibly secure. Nevertheless, we took our time and made each step carefully as we ascended the slabs, simply because of the high consequence of any kind of slip.



At this point we looked behind us and saw a young backpacker making his way up the start of the slabs, wearing shorts and tennis shoes. He was slipping and sliding with every step, seemingly oblivious to the death fall just below him. We stopped him and strongly encouraged him to turn around, citing our own experiences in the mountains, the fact that he was already slipping and sliding on the ice, the consequences of a fall, the wisdom of living to hike another day, etc. Not even the fact that another young backpacker had died from a fall in this exact spot the previous week dissuaded him. His idiotic response to our recommendation that he turn around: “this is not the first time I’ve walked on snow.”

“You are being really stupid,” we bluntly told him. But as someone who once was a young man, I know that there is no getting through to a young man who is sure he knows everything about the world. So we left him behind as he moved precipitously from snow patch to snow patch, and we crunched our way up easily in our steel crampons.



After a few more minutes we reached the crux of the climb. The top of the bowl had narrowed down to a small gully next to a waterfall, and from there the route climbed up a series of rocky blocks. Because of the steepness of the climb here, along with the exposure next to the falls, the Department of Conservation had installed a series of cables to help with the ascent. Still, the blocks were completely iced over and even with our crampons and the cables we took lots of care to climb this part, as once again, a fall would surely result in grave bodily harm.



The three of us safely reached the top and found ourselves next to a small, mostly-frozen lake, with an extraordinary view of Mt Talbot. We snapped some photos and chatted about the young hiker we tried to turn around. We felt sure he would see the cables, the ice, and the fall and prudently decide to stop. But when we looked back over the edge we saw that our idiot friend had been joined by another idiot friend, and the two of them were beginning to climb the cables. Not wanting to watch them fall to their deaths we turned the other direction and started the last short climb to the saddle.



This part was straightforward, lower consequence, and the snow was much deeper. Travel was easy, though we kept our crampons on just in case.



And within a matter of minutes we emerged from the shade into the sun and onto the saddle itself. And from there we were presented with such a magnificent view that my shitty writing skills will fail to do it justice. Razor-backed peaks leaped away from us in every direction, and though we were thousands of feet above the valleys below us the summits of the mountains climbed thousands of feet higher still. To our northwest lay a sheer drop down into Gulliver and Donne River valleys. And beyond that, in the distance, we could see Milford Sound, one of the scenic wonders of the world, with Mitre Peak poking its crown into view. We were buzzed a few times by flight-seeing helicopters and the machines gave a wonderful sense of scale to the scenery.




The views in the other direction were no less impressive, with Mt Crosscut rising mightily into the heavens, making an extraordinary contrast to the cobalt sky with its fresh coat of white.



We spent a wonderful 30 minutes on the saddle enjoying the sunshine, the views, and the absurd amount of cookies and chocolate-coated caramels we had individually brought. To our great surprise the two young backpackers made it up all the way to the saddle as well and we congratulated them on their youthful obliviousness as we began our descent. We enjoyed an easy trek back down to the lake below, with outstanding views to guide our way.




We then enjoyed a careful but easy downclimb on the cables, and a quick final descent across the icy slabs. At this point in the day a number of other hikers were heading up the trail, but we successfully dissuaded all of them from continuing up the ice if they didn’t have crampons. The two young backpackers were not far behind us and I think seeing them lurch, slip, and crab-walk down the ice also discouraged people from going on.

As we descended the trail and ran into more and more people we realized just how under-prepared the average hiker was. When we saw a group wearing nothing but shorts and t-shirts (I don’t remember if they were even carrying water bottles), we just about gave up our crusade to be the trail parents making sure everyone got home safely. Instead everyone got a curt warning: “It’s warm down here in the sun, but up in the shade it’s sketchy and icy. Don’t be dumb, don’t do it.” How many listened, I don’t know.

Back down at Anita and Tom’s camp we changed out of our mountaineering clothing and into comfortable duds. I then bid them goodbye and set off down the trail to the car, enjoying the sunshine and monumental views along the way.



And though I would have loved to have spent the rest of the day wandering around the wilds of Fiordland I needed to get back to Te Anau. A few days earlier I had booked a scenic flight for later that afternoon with Fly Fiordland, hoping to take in the views above Doubtful Sound. Of course, scenic flights are highly weather-dependent and their go/no-go call time for the flight I booked was 3 pm. So I gunned my rental car back to town, arriving back in the land of cell service just as my phone started to ring.

“Hello, this is Daniela from Fly Fiordland. Are you still keen on the flight? Well, the weather is closing in a bit above the fjords so if you want to go come to the airport RIGHT NOW!”

I ripped down the last 20 km to the airport, hastily grabbed a couple of cameras and lenses, and went sprinting into the lobby.

“I’m ready!!!” I cried. “Where’s the plane???”

“Well the plane is ready to go,” replied Shaun, the pilot, “but we’re waiting for a couple of people whose car just broke down.”

Ah, a classic “hurry up and wait” situation. Shaun and I chit chatted for another 20 minutes until his phone rang. The other couple’s car was well and truly hosed, no way they’d make it to the airport. So Shaun hopped in his own car and set out to find the stranded couple who were on the side of the highway about 10 minutes away. And though I was feeling a little irritated that I hurried, hurried, hurried to make it on time and was now subject to a 40-minute delay while the weather continued to close in above the fjords, it turned out that the timing couldn’t have been better.

Once Shaun came back with the couple, we immediately headed out to the tarmac and jumped into the plane. Shaun cranked the engine and we buzzed down the runway and into the sky.

“A storm is continuing to close in about the fjords,” he told us. “So we can expect a little bit of turbulence as we climb above the mountains. And though we’re probably going to see a fair bit of rain of the south side, we’ll look for windows and breaks in the weather and maximize our flying through those.” Then, eyeing my camera gear: “And if everyone is feeling warm enough we can open the windows for a few minutes at a time so you can all get some clear photos, directly out onto the landscape.”

At those words my heart began to pound as I’d always wanted to shoot aerials from a doors- or windows-off flight. Though Shaun did warn us that it would be cold, with an air temperature of around 25°F, plus a 140-mph wind chill. Yeah, brrrrr. And while my heart was thumping hard from the prospect of a windows-open flight, it truly began to hammer as we climbed above Lake Manapouri. The skies had indeed begun to close up and the air was thick with moisture. The late afternoon sun, at this point about 90 minutes away from the horizon, was sending endless crepuscular rays through the sky to interact with the landscape in a dance of light and shadow. We threw open the window of the plane, the cockpit flooded with frigid air, and I hammered my shutter button as fast as possible, a gigantic smile plastered on my face.




We flew southwest for a few minutes then turned north and encountered thickening rain as we buzzed our way up a valley toward Mount George. And though the window was closed again at this point our mouths were hanging wide open as we cruised above tiny lakes nestled high in the mountains, each drained by its own 2,000-foot waterfall. We crossed a pass and turned westward, flying directly to Doubtful Sound (and temporarily out of the the rain). We emerged over the fjord above Elizabeth Island, and here I saw something I’ll remember for the rest of my days: Doubtful Sound was almost as calm as an alpine lake at dawn and was reflecting the patterns, textures, and colors of the clouds above. Long, sinuous waterfalls snaked down the mountainsides, and distant rain and moisture gave the view a mystical atmosphere. The sun painted the scene with wine-colored notes, and off toward the horizon more crepuscular rays punched through the clouds to hit the water below. I even spotted the Fiordland Navigator, giving its complement of passengers a surely magical experience as it plied the waters of Doubtful Sound.



Shaun then took us on a zig-zagging course up the fjord and out to the Tasman Sea. And with every subsequent swoop I threw the window open and whooped and hollered as I rattled off frame after frame.




From the Tasman we curved back along Bradshaw Sound and up Cozette Burn before turning back toward the Te Anau airport. I got in one last view of the fiord and popped my camera out the window (while holding it in a death grip so as not to lose it to the 140 mph winds) for a final shot as Doubtful Sound was lost to view.



A few minutes later we were landing back on the runway with grins stretching each of our faces wide, entrancing images seared into our memories, and billions of beautiful pixels burned into our memory cards. My dopamine levels were soaring and I was ready to book out the entire plane for another trip around, but the weather was getting worse, and the sun was just about to set. So instead I gathered up my gear and headed back to my car, awash in high emotions, and excited for my next opportunity to fly through such grandeur.

In fact as darkness fell and I drove to my hotel for the night I reflected on the previous two days and felt a deep sense of gratitude for one of the most beautiful 48-hour periods of my life. New Zealand is full of magic and I felt incredibly fortunate to have experienced so many deep breaths of it during those days.


Liverpool Hut and French Ridge Hut

Three days, a decent weather window, and a desire to hike. That’s what drove me to pack up my backpack once again and mosey off down the trail into Mt. Aspiring National Park. After weighing a number of options and getting some local advice, I decided to hit up the West Branch of the Matukituki River to check both the Liverpool and French Ridge Huts off my New Zealand ticklist. I’d heard the scenery from both was spectacular, but that the climbs to each hut were leg- and lung-busters. I wanted to find out for myself if the hype was true.



Day 1


The trail up the west branch of the Matukituki starts at the well-known Raspberry Creek carpark, about an hour’s drive NW of Wanaka. As I drove up the road in my trusty rental car I picked up two hitchhikers and we chatted amiably while burning down the miles to the road end. Recent rains had swelled many of the creeks that cross the road and dozens of travelers had decided it was safer to park their cars before the first ford and walk the extra 3 km to the trailhead. Imagine their looks of surprise when I and my hitchhikers went blazing past them in our Toyota Yaris, sending gargantuan rooster tails spraying out from the tires at every creek crossing. Remember kids, every car is a 4×4 if you drive fast enough.

At the carpark I made a final bag check then proceeded to sculpt an air of disarray in the car, covering up all my extra camera equipment, laptop, and valuables with a precise arrangement of dirty socks. No thief would ever expect that a pile of stinky laundry was actually covering up a few thousand dollars in gear, right? At least that’s what I hoped as I shouldered my bag and traipsed off down the trail.



The West Matukituki Track (hereafter abbreviated as WMT) follows the enormously popular Rob Roy Glacier trail for about 20 minutes before it splits off to follow a rough 4×4 road miles up the glacial valley. And if you haven’t done your research this is also the point where you realize you’ve got some distance to cover. I got a late start on the track, around 2:30 in the afternoon. With just over 5 hours till sunset could I make it all the way to Liverpool Hut before dark? I was about to find out.



The WMT is a strange trail in that it is divided very cleanly into two distinct parts: the first part is flat and long, with virtually no elevation change over its roughly 9-mile length. The second part is, well, I’ll get to that after describing the first part in more detail. Because it’s worth noting that this section of the track hardly feels like a trail at all. Like I mentioned earlier this bit follows a 4×4 trail, meandering through cattle-grazed farmland and dipping through the occasional creek.



The scenery is nevertheless spectacular, as I was surrounded on all sides by jagged peaks. The cobalt-blue Matukituki River flowed right by my side. And I spied icy glaciers (as opposed to those non-icy glaciers) in the distance. Still, as I walked along the road, dodging cow-pies, and baaaaa-ing at sheep, I couldn’t help but feel that this was all a little too pastoral to be a proper tramping track.



Still, the flatness of the glacially-carved valley made the walking mindlessly easy and fast, and in what seemed like no time at all I’d covered the 9 km to the Aspiring Hut (leaving the farmland and crossing into the actual National Park 20 minutes prior). Aspiring Hut is a jump-off point for trampers going up over the Cascade Saddle and down into Glenorchy, and is quite honestly the nicest hut I’ve ever seen in New Zealand. It’s big, it has flush toilets, it’s got heating and gas cookers. This thing is luxurious. But for me it was only a pit stop to see the hut warden and inform him of my plans.



The warden was a guy named Stu. A tried and true good Kiwi bloke with a particular affinity for the word “yeh.” As in “you want to go to Liverpool and French Ridge, yeh? Yeh, that’s fine, yeh. Just yeh, tell me where you went, yeh, on your way back out, yeh, and we can settle up your bill for the huts. Yeh? Yeh.” With that arrangement agreeably sorted I hefted my pack and set off on the next leg of the trip.



From Aspiring Hut the track wandered in and out of beech forest, over a couple of swing bridges, down past waterfalls, and along the Matukituki.



And after an hour of fairly fun and fast hiking I found myself at Pearl Flat, where the trail splits in three directions. To the right was the track to French Ridge. Straight ahead was the trail to the head of the valley. And left, left was calling my name: the track to Liverpool Hut. Here is where the mystery of the track, the second part in that clear divide I mentioned earlier, began. You see, it took three hours to hike that first 14 or 14.5 km. Now there was only a kilometer or two remaining till the hut, and yet the sign told me to allow another two hours. How could it possibly take two hours to cover 1.5 k’s?



The answer of course is quite simple: the first three hours of trail were flat as could be. This final section went straight up. And I, having left my anti-grav boots at home, had to do all the climbing the old fashioned way, with two legs, two lungs, a grunt, and a curse. 700 meters of ascent in 1.5-ish kms. For those who speak more comfortably in imperial units, that’s 2300 feet of gain in one mile. And for those who speak more comfortably in colloquialisms, that is steeper than old Abe Lincoln’s top hat.



But there was nothing for it except to go up, so up I go’ed. Thankfully over the years I’ve developed a surefire approach to climbing hills that gets me to the top quicker than you can explain to a child why the sky is blue. It’s a simple system, one that relies less on pure fitness and power than you might think, and I’m gonna share it with you now:

  1. First, take tiny steps. The smaller the better. Think about lifting weights in the gym. How many reps can you do lifting a weight of 100 lbs vs lifting 1 lb? Same idea here. It’s infinitely easier to lift yourself over one thousand tiny steps than it is to do one hundred full-depth single-leg squat thrusts.
  2. Two, go SLOWLY and keep moving. Find a pace that you can sustain without stopping and stick to it. If you find your legs or lungs reaching fatigue then you are going too fast. Tortoise and the hare here, folks. You make much better time moving slowly and consistently than you do by rocketing up till your lungs are screaming and then being forced to take a 10 minute break.
  3. Three, get yourself a pair of trekking poles. The poles allow you to pull hard with your arms as you push with your legs. If you are using them correctly a pair of poles will offload your legs by around 30%, meaning your 30 lb pack now feels like a 21 lb pack, a difference your quads will thank you for with every step.
  4. Music and podcasts and good conversations with hiking companions are your friends!
  5. In the off season, run up and down Everest a few times. When you can do this without breaking a sweat then any climb will be easy for you.


With my head down, my legs churning, and good tunes popping in my ear buds I found myself above the bushline in about 45 minutes. Shortly thereafter I glimpsed the bright red toilet of the hut not far in the distance. Of course in the world of Kiwi trekking the fact that you can see the hut means precisely dick. Sometimes you might be two minutes away, sometimes you might be 20. Or even two hours.



And in classic Kiwi fashion this first glimpse of the hut was a tease. Arrival at the hut was dangled out there in front of me like a delicious carrot (mmmmm boy, carrots!), then the trail gave me the stick by arcing up and away another 25 minutes over a prominent hump. Thankfully the views were splendid and when the hut finally did appear just a wee ways down the trail I was in a good mood, having not minded the detour at all.



At this point I flashed back to something Stu had told me a couple of hours earlier: “Liverpool Hut, yeh? It’s a 10-bunk hut, yeh, and there are already 15 people on their way up there. Yeh, you can still go, but it’s going to be floor space only, yeh.” And sure enough, when I rocked up to the hut, dropped my bag, and stepped inside I was greeted with a raucous chorus of hellos and laughter. At least a dozen people were crammed around a table made for 8 or 10, and wet clothing, camera equipment, and sleeping bags covered every conceivable flat surface. Luckily the crew was in a joyful mood and laughter rolled out of them as they squeezed tighter and tighter around the table.

And astonishingly, as I stepped up to the table, someone greeted me by name. Two photographers and travelers, Jack and Marta, whom I had met three years prior while shooting around the Wanaka Willow, were sitting right there at the table. What a fun, crazy coincidence. (Side note: Marta and Jack run In a Faraway Land, a wonderful travel blog with heaps of great tips for Canada and New Zealand).

The mood was convivial, everyone was in high spirits, and as the sun went down nearly the entire hut crew spilled outside to watch the last light of day in Mt Aspiring National Park.



Once darkness fell our primal rhythms kicked in and inside the hut a brief flurry of teeth brushing, sleeping bag unfurling, and floor space clearing ensued before we all dropped to sleep.


Day 2


The next day began with a burst of light and a burst of life as everyone in the hut scrambled out of their bunks (or off the floor in my case) to watch the sunrise. Exclamations of color bounced up and down the valley, bathing the clouds and mountains in pinks and oranges.



As the color faded from the sky a mad scramble began in the hut as 16 people attempted to cook breakfast in a kitchen designed for four. Lighters, gas canisters, and banana chips were shared freely as the scents of oatmeal, isobutane, and noodles filled the air. The scramble continued as most of the hut dwellers stuffed sleeping bags and wet socks back inside their backpacks then set off down the trail. The few of us that remained took a more leisurely approach to packing, enjoying the extra elbow room as the hut emptied out.

Being the last few people in the hut also meant we did all of the final cleanup, and after the sweeping and scrubbing was done we were left with a forgotten pair of dirty undies, three or four unmatched socks, a spare gas canister or two, a half-empty jar of alfredo sauce, and other odds and ends. Some irresponsible party in days past had also left a bucket of watery food leftovers under the sink and as we cleaned we discovered that disgusting disaster, now cloaked in a thick blanket of mold. Way to go, people!

After the cleanup was done and the bags packed I wandered around the tussock grass outside the hut looking for a glove I had lost the night before. I figured it was long gone, plucked away by gusty winds or a curious kea. But to my amazement I found it easily, sitting peacefully in a clearing in between the bushes. Score one for the Crippster.



After the chill of the morning day was quickly turning bright and warm and though the warm sun was caressing my face in a most wonderful way the temps were also bringing out the sandflies. Their biting meant it was time to stop lounging and make a move. Originally I had considered spending two nights at Liverpool Hut and scrambling around the area during the day. But I’d spent much of the morning staring up at the French Ridge Hut (a tiny red blip on the opposite side of the valley) and decided I needed to satisfy my curiosity about what it was like.

That meant the plan for the day was to bomb back down the 2300 feet to the valley floor, cross the river, then climb back up the other side. This time a full 1000 m (3300 feet) to French Ridge Hut. Thankfully my quads were feeling good, I was in high spirits, and I had Jack and Marta to chat with on the way down. Moving down a steep trail is certainly more precarious than moving up and I neglected to take any photos of the descent, preferring instead to use my hands to grab roots and rocks.

In no time at all (well, really more like 90 minutes) we were back on the flats, enjoying the sunshine, grabbing a snack, and crushing the hovering sandflies into a slimy pulp. Jack and Marta had other plans for the rest of the day so they set off back down the valley, leaving me to swap my shoes for crocs to cross the Matukituki river.

Cold, but neither deep nor fast flowing at this point, the Matukes was an easy crossing and I chucked back on my hikers to began the long climb up French Ridge. Much like the Liverpool track, this trail climbed up through the beech forest, though it wasn’t quite as steep or as wet, and I enjoyed the ascent immensely.



Above the bushline however the track did take on a different character, unfolding with bomber, up-close views of glaciers and peaks. Puffy cumulus clouds intermittently screened the sun and made a patchwork of light on the landscape below. As I climbed the drool was running out of both sides of my mouth as I gazed at the thousand-meter cliffs, tussock-blanketed hillsides, and cascading waterfalls surrounding me.



Nevertheless, the climb was fairly stout (ascending roughly 1000m / 3300 feet in about 2.5 km / 1.5 miles) and after two hours of tramping I was happy to see the bright red hut toilet (why is that always the first thing you see?) pop into view on the ridge just above me.



I gained the hut itself and happily shucked off my backpack, shoes, and socks. I intended to rest for a little while and go out to explore the area more later. But as I luxuriated inside the hut (with no one else around) drinking the beer I lugged up for just that occasion, clouds began to thicken, all but blocking out the view of the mountains above the hut.



Without the views of the peaks nearby my plans of exploration lost their lustre and instead I chose to have a quick and chilly sponge bath outside. Of course the exact moment of my peak undressedness was the exact moment that two other trampers decided to show up at the hut. Hello and how do you do? But modesty has little place in the mountains and no one’s sensibilities were offended. We spent the afternoon swapping stories and trail recommendations with each other, drinking tea, and eating chocolate.

Around sunset the clouds across the valley began a beautiful dance with the mountains, and as waves of cloud were lit up in fantastic patterns by the low-angle light I enjoyed an invigorating hour photographing the ever-changing conditions.



Darkness fell and the three of us cooked and ate dinner. Much to our surprise two additional trampers showed up, but hardly speaking a word of English they kept mostly to themselves. Thus the five of us had a peaceful night in the hut, with plenty of bunk space for everyone, and no one on the floor.


Day 3


After a great night’s sleep with only two mid-night trips outside to pee (because I swear my body osmoses water out of the friggin’ air) I woke up to my alarm bleeping at me about 45 minutes before sunrise. I had a quick look outside, saw nothing but thick cloud and drizzle, and promptly went back to sleep. And since turning off your alarm and going back to sleep is one of the greatest feelings in the world I was pretty happy to start my day that way.

But eventually I did wake up on my own and though lounging in the hut in the rain felt awfully relaxing I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had about six hours of walking ahead of me. With the forecast looking showery and turning to rain in the afternoon I wanted to get back to the car and over the creek crossings before they swelled too much and trapped me.

I ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal and tea, packed up my bag, and headed off to the toilet for my morning ritual. And to my pleasant surprise I was greeted by two squawky keas hopping around on the roof of the long drop and generally making a ruckus.



After I finished my duty and fed the keas the rest of my leftover food (just kidding!) I shouldered my bag and started down the trail. Thankfully the clouds had lifted a bit and light was breaking through, dotting the landscape with bursts of brightness.



The temperature was chilly, the winds were brisk, and my nose was dripping like a faucet as I picked my way down the trail. However, my body has an internal heater that activates after precisely 15 minutes of movement and soon I had warmed up to a comfortable degree.



Soon afterwards I entered the forest and began to sweat in earnest as the trees blocked the wind and the temperature rose. The rest of descent was fairly mundane: carefully placing footfalls on roots and stones until I reached the valley floor. I did my footwear swap one last time to cross the Matukituki and started down the track.



Although clouds filled the sky I didn’t see much rain on the way just yet so I took a more leisurely pace back to Aspiring Hut, accompanied by the two trampers from French Ridge Hut I had been chatting to at dinner. When we reached Aspiring Hut they went on ahead while I stopped to eat lunch (Hawaiian pull-apart bread, salami, banana chips, pretzel sticks, and chocolate for dessert. Gotta love short trips and bringing a ton of food!).

I paid Stu my hut fees for the previous two nights (yeh, yeh) then grabbed my pack and started out for the final two hours back to the car. The walking was easy and pleasant, and the cloud cover made for gorgeous dappled light. I walked most of the way in silence, quietly contemplating and enjoying the serene nature of the area.



Only when the track merged back with the Rob Roy Glacier trail did I pop out of my reverie, as I passed dozens of other people, their general hubbub changing the feel of the moment.

Soon after I was back at the car, loading up, and sluicing through the creek crossings back to Wanaka. The rain had held off and it was easy travel back to town.

Thus, my curiosity about these two famous huts satisfied, I wrapped up another great trip. And now, knowing the place a bit better, on my future trips I’ll plan to spend more time at French Ridge (with some mountaineering equipment in tow) to explore the more spectacular terrain there. Thanks for reading!


Top Forks Hut Trip Report, Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of this trip report covering my first two days at the Top Forks Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park in New Zealand, go back and read that first!

Top Forks Hut Trip Report

Day 3

Despite the lack of a fire the night before the hut stayed warmer and after a marvelous, slept-like-a-dead-man 8 hours of slumber I awoke to a mixture of cloud and thicker cloud. I hemmed and hawed about getting out to shoot the sunrise when the weather made up my mind for me by sending down sheets of rain. Sunrise hopes dashed I went back to sleep for another 2 hours thanks to the sonorous ambience of raindrops falling on a roof over my head. Around 9:30 am the sound of rotor beats pulled me from my dreams and I got out of bed in time to watch a helicopter disappear up valley the way I had hiked the day before. That was followed shortly by a fixed wing plane and then just a few minutes later by yet another chopper. This one circled a bit before settling down and discharging three Kiwi hunters who planned to set up residence in the hut for the next week during a quest to bag a deer or Chamois. Alas, no longer alone in the hut I decided the best thing to do was be alone somewhere else. So I threw some clothes, food, and camera gear into my pack and bounced out of the hut and onto the track to Rabbit Pass.

Rabbit Pass is a challenging route that connects the south Wilkin River to the east fork of the Matukituki, which means you could have a fun, multi-day trip starting in Top Forks and ending in Wanaka. Trampers familiar with New Zealand will see the appeal. However, I had no such plans since I hadn’t laid out the logistics for such a trip. And arguably more importantly: the DOC staff, the helicopter pilot, the track brochures, the posters on the wall of the hut, and even the little bunnies I saw I said something along this lines of “if it’s raining, we really really strongly suggest and could not recommend more that you do not go over Rabbit Pass because part of the route is sketchy enough when it’s dry; when it’s wet you are tempting death.” And since I’m pretty happy when dying doesn’t enter my daily plans I decided that I would go as far as the sketchy part (known as the Waterfall Face) but no farther.

The trail started out with a moderate climb on a decently-formed track through the gorgeous beech forest. A quick 10-minute jaunt brought me to a break in the forest with wonderful views of the northern fork of the Wilkin. Rain and cloud obscured the tops of the peaks but the grandeur was still obvious.

From there the track reentered the forest, narrowed down, and climbed up over wet and slippery roots for the next 45 minutes. This is where the track entered the alpine scrub zone and became more fun (or less fun, depending on your point of view). At many points the trail entered stream channels and climbed vertically up them (after all, why waste taxpayer money on building a track if the stream has already done it for you!). When the trail wasn’t coinciding with a creek it was sidling through the bushes, barely wider than a deer path. Just like the day before I had to carefully watch every footfall in order to prevent a slip and slide into the bushes below me. The narrowness of the trail also meant that I was constantly plowing through sodden shrubs and despite wearing my rain gear I was soaked from the knees down.

I may not be as fast a hiker as I was 10 years ago but I am good at maintaining a steady pace, even while climbing steeply. I had the wonderful beats of Lake Street Dive pumping through my headphones and I marched up through the brush for an hour until, suddenly and without much fanfare, the track become horizontal and I entered the Waterfall Flats area. This is a spot where inexplicably the river flows horizontally for a few km before crashing down the narrow ravine I had just climbed up. As a consequence there is a gigantic, flat-bottomed cirque there surrounded by enormous walls and waterfalls.

From just past the entrance to the flats I could see the head of the valley about 2 km in the distance. It was a somewhat tedious, yet straightforward, 45-minute bush bash and river crash through the tussock and river to reach the valley terminus. The rain had slackened considerably and I sat down to eat lunch with the sounds of two massive waterfalls (one over 1300 feet high) serenading me. As soon as my bag was off my back though the rain and wind picked up again and I could feel hints of snow in the air. I retreated to the semi-protected shelter of a nearby rock bivvy to down my salami sandwich and pretzel sticks. I also found a strange, worm-like creature in my water bottle so had a bit of extra protein as well.

With dying not on the menu for the day there was little else to do at this point but head back down to the hut. After the 45-minute pound across the flats I was treated to what was becoming a very rare treat on this excursion: sunlight! The clouds broke open for about 5 minutes and beautiful, warm, golden light streamed through, illuminating the distant peaks and allowing me to pretend it wasn’t as cold out as it was.

As quickly as the sunlight appeared it vanished, replaced once again by brooding clouds. With little reason to stick around the area I descended the trail with single-minded purposefulness, passing the next 2 hours 30 minutes by having a series of nonsense conversations with myself like what I would do if I had bought a bunch of bitcoin back in 2010. Answer: spend most of the earnings on scenic flights in New Zealand, probably.

I arrived back at the hut with a few hours of daylight left so I thought I’d play around with some underwater photography. I did wade into the river and rattled off a few shots but condensation on the inside of my dome port left the images cloudy and uninteresting. So I disassembled everything back at the hut and left it out to dry completely.

Shortly thereafter the Kiwi hunters returned and with the wood I had laid out to dry they got a good serving of coal ignited and the little stove cranked up the temperature in the hut to comfortable t-shirt levels. We sat around and bullshitted while the hunters attempted to deep fry steaks in a makeshift fryer, and I enjoyed a freeze-dried something or other before crawling into bed and zonking out for the night.

Day 4

Day 4 kicked off once again with the hopeful goal of photographing at sunrise. When my alarm went off about 45 minutes before sunrise I peeked out through the window of the hut and saw that the sky looked promising. I slipped back into my sleeping bag to squeeze a tiny bit of that sweet early morning snoozing out of life and within five minutes there was a thunderous downpour outside. Sunrise goals crushed I fell back asleep for another hour.

When I woke up for the second time the rain had well and truly stopped and there was, too my great delight, ACTUAL SUNSHINE coming out of the sky and hitting the mountains.

Thanks to the fire the night before my camera and underwater housing had completely dried out. The temperature outside the hut was already somewhat warm, which helped prevent condensation as well when I brought my kit outside and assembled it. I then slipped into my soaking wet shoes (one night in front of the fire was unfortunately not enough to dry them out) and squelched off down to the river.

In my previous attempts at split under/over photography I had been frustrated by depth of field issues: focusing on a subject under the water meant the background was often out of focus, even at f/16 or f/22. But at those apertures either shutter speed or ISO has to skyrocket in order to provide a good exposure, but both come with their own set of technical issues I don’t want to get into here. Instead I had an idea that I could shoot at f/5.6 and simply shoot two exposures, one focusing on the background, and one focusing underneath the water. I reasoned that as long as the compositions roughly lined up (I was shooting handheld so no perfect alignment here thanks to a tripod) I could easily blend the shots later in Photoshop to get the best of both worlds. That morning’s shoot was a conceptual test of that idea and I didn’t hold out much hope for a good photo; I simply wanted the proof of concept.

Thankfully the beautiful light on the mountains and the electric blue of the water meant that I had good raw material to work with. And after a little trial and error a few days later in Photoshop I was able to create my vision of a split shot of the Wilkin River near the Top Forks Hut.

After shooting till my toes started to go numb, as well as killing the requisite number of sandflies (42), I tromped off back to the hut and was greeted by the mouth-watering smell of frying bacon and eggs. The Kiwis were up and cooking. I contented myself with the much less delicious but arguably morally superior breakfast of bland oatmeal.

Then it was time for me to pack up. My pickup the next day was by jet boat, approximately 10 miles down the trail. Which meant I needed to mosey off to the Kerin Forks Hut, which sits at the confluence of the Wilkin and the Siberia Stream. Two of the hunters, Doug and Damian, were heading off in that same direction to find a suitable spot to spend the day hunting (read: looking through the scope and drinking beer). So the three of us spent an amiable 45 minutes tramping downstream talking about things like the NZ army and the NZ dairy industry until the guys peeled off to wander up to a clearing on the hillside.

Hiking solo again I tried to follow the marked track but after finding it to be nothing more than annoying bush bashing I hopped down into the river and followed the gravel banks, crossing the river as necessary. It was already flowing fast and deep; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like all the way down at the confluence with the Siberia Stream. Not long after the river became too deep to continue along on foot and I spent an ugly hour slopping through wet tussock and falling in the occasional pit before gaining drier and better track as it entered the beech forest.

20 minutes later I stopped to pee, and feeling utterly isolated I stood just on the side of the track and peed right there. Imagine my surprise then when I zipped up and turned around and saw five people walking up the track toward me. Thankfully they had been too busy looking at their feet to notice me whizzing 20 feet ahead and seemed as surprised as I was when I said hello. We chit-chatted about trail conditions and tramping plans then I was off again, enjoying the good track through the forest and stopping to marvel at the outrageous mushrooms growing out of the rich soil.

Soon the trail came out of the forest, over a stream, and emerged in a gigantic clearing. I had arrived at Jumboland. A beautiful, grassy plain sitting at the confluence of the Wilkin River and Wonderland Stream, Jumboland was named after a famous horse who roamed the area with some of the early explorers. It was so lovely and pleasant there I stopped for a quick lounge in the sun. But after dozens of sandflies found me and began swarming around I was quickly on my feet and walking again.

Somehow I had forgotten my baseball cap on this trip, and with the amount of rain I’d seen so far it hadn’t been a problem. But the skies over Jumboland were mixed rain and sun and I could feel my scalp cooking in the clear moments. I tied my bandana into a makeshift head covering and was surely an odd sight, dressed in bandana, plaid shirt, and full bib rain pants. 20 minutes later as I hiked back into the forest the rain had all but stopped, the sun was beating down, and taking those rain pants off urgently became the most important task I could imagine in life.

Legs freed and a quick lunch downed I shouldered my pack and spent the next few hours cruising through the marvelous beech forest. The track became better maintained with every step and I was flying along despite trying to not walk very fast. Tunes, thoughts, and river crossings all blurred together over the next three hours in a wonderful, dreamlike hiking melange and I found myself reluctantly arriving at the Kerin Forks Hut at 5 pm. I walked inside to find the most spotlessly clean hut I’ve ever seen (thanks to the diligent efforts of those five trekkers I passed early) and thought, “I can remedy that!” and promptly threw my belongings all over every conceivable surface.

I popped back outside to spend a few minutes surveying the area near the hut but I saw more sandflies and got more bites in those few minutes than during the rest of the trip in total. During my lookabout I spied a giant pile of cordwood in the woodshed and despite the fact that it was fairly warm out I decided to start a fire in the hut so I could dry my shoes out. With stacks of wood and kindling I got the fire going licketysplit and stuffed the woodstove full of tinder. Soon it was so hot inside the hut I was sweating just sitting there in a t-shirt and shorts. Oops. But damn if my shoes weren’t drying out in record time.

After a few hours I made a spicy curry for dinner and was sweating even more from internal heat. That may have been a mistake but saving my largest ration of chocolate for the last night certainly wasn’t. No one else ever arrived at the hut so I spent the evening lounging, reading tales from other travelers in the hut log, and journaling the day’s experiences.

Day 5

My last day of the trip started with the Mystery of the Phantom Mouse. In the wee hours I was awakened by a scritch-scratching in the walls of the hut. Then without warning something plopped onto my pillow (pillow is a loose term I am using to describe anything you can rest your head on; in actuality it was my down jacket jammed inside a stuff sack). I sat bolt upright and grabbing my headlamp I sprayed a beam of light across my bed and the floor of the hut. Nothing. Absolutely nothing moved or made a sound. The phantom mouse had come and went. So I rolled over and nodded off.

When I woke up for good around 8:30 am it was to more rain. Sitting warm and comfy inside the hut I reflected gratefully on the moments of nice weather I had experienced. A few coals lingered in the stove so I stoked the fire back up and leisurely packed up my things, reorganized and stacked the wood, and cleaned the hut.

Around 1:15 I heard the roar of a jet boat coming up the river so I grabbed my pack and walked down 10 minutes to the river’s edge to meet my ride. I hopped in the boat alongside a few other trekkers that had come down from the Siberia Valley and we had an exhilarating 25 minute ride back to the town of Makarora, along the way picking up a man and his dog who were happy to get out of the river and into the boat.

Back in town I jumped in my car, cranked up some music, and drove back to Wanaka. Another great trip in the books!

Top Forks Hut Trip Report

When I’m traveling I’m always on the lookout for local favorites. Whether it’s restaurants, shops, or swimming holes I make a point to ask people in the know about their favorite experiences. This is what led me, two years ago, to ask Mark Morrison of Wildwire Wanaka what his favorite backcountry hut was. Mark was a mountain guide for years in the Southern Alps and I figured he’d have the goods. His recommendation: the Top Forks Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park. “Hardly anybody goes there,” he said, “the scenery is incredible, and the best part is you can helicopter in and take a jet boat out.” Now that sounded like a hiking adventure worth experiencing but I was at the end of my time in New Zealand on that trip so I put the idea on hold. Until 2018 when I returned to the country for 8 weeks of travel and leading photo tours. Hitting up Top Forks was the #1 thing on my priority list so when the weather forecast showed a stretch of acceptable weather (read: anything less than solid rain) I contacted the folks at Wilkin River Jets to ferry me into the backcountry for what was to be five days of exploration, hiking, and photography.



Day 1


I had originally planned to fly into a place called the Siberia Valley and then hike up to Top Forks but after some boots-on-the-ground wisdom from the local Department of Conservation staff (“you’ll have to cross the Wilkin River if you do that and it’ll be in flood. Be prepared to swim.”) I opted for a lift directly into Top Forks itself. Rain pelted the chopper as we flew up the glacially-carved valleys of the national park but the flight afforded a few foreshadowing views of the scenery.




The pilot dropped me about 10 minutes’ walk from the hut then took off in a blast of spray. I skipped up the rough track to Top Forks in the rain, getting soaked from the knees down from the wet grass, all while the rotor beats of the chopper receded behind me.



Reaching the hut I stepped inside, dropped my pack (easiest 16 miles I ever hiked), and took stock of the situation. There wasn’t a single other soul in the hut and a quick peek at the hut log showed only 9 visits in the previous 12 days, usually by small parties of 1s and 2s. Considering the weather and low visitation numbers I figured I had a fair to middlin’ chance of being the only person to arrive at the hut that day and took the liberty of exploding the contents of my pack all over the interior of the 10-bunk shelter. Rain gear went on one bunk, sleeping bag on another. Spare clothing on a third. No, wait, I actually didn’t have any spare clothing. I had packed somewhat frantically that morning and neglected to bring any base layers. It didn’t seem an issue as I stuffed gear into my pack a few hours earlier but with the driving rain outside and the temperature inside the hut hovering around 40 degrees I was beginning to regret that oversight. Ah well, what I had brought in excess was chocolate and banana chips and intended to make up for my lack of warm clothing by eating snacks.

But first I intended to get a fire going. Top Forks is a serviced hut, which in DOC parlance means there is a fireplace inside. Unfortunately for me all the firewood was outside in the rain. There was a wood shed but upon raiding it it became immediately clear that previous hut dwellers had used whatever dry wood there was and replaced it with sticks and logs from the forest. Which is exactly what you are supposed to do, but it still doesn’t help me when all those logs are drenched from the previous week of rain. Eventually I found a little dry brush at the bottom of the shed (stumbling along a creepy dessicated possum carcass in the process), broke it into small bits, and stuffed it into the stove. Then using my cookstove as a blowtorch I sent the tinder up in a flurry of ash and sparks.

Over the next 90 minutes I wooed that fire like it was the prom queen, and eventually got it going steady. I spent the rest of the afternoon caressing and loving it, feeding it the driest wood I could find, and using it to burn the chill out of the hut. I also enjoyed a few lovely hours nibbling my aforementioned snacks and reading Antics, a compendium of some of the best stories of the Otago University Tramping Club, where it seems misadventure is celebrated just as much as adventure.



Around 5 pm the rain relented and I went for a foray through the neighborhood, so to speak. As the clouds lifted I descended into idiotic euphoria and began singing “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story at the top of my lungs. I could see bare hints of the snow-dusted tops of the mountains, and the Wilkin River running by the hut was the color of turbulent seawater. Soon rain began to fall again in earnest and I retreated to the comfort of the hut.



Looking hard at my meager collection of semi-dry wood inside I realized I wouldn’t have enough to keep the fire going for the night. I went back to the woodshed for a desperate scrounge of anything burnable and discovered with a bit of a jolt that the shed had another compartment around back. I was hoping to find stacks upon stacks of cordwood but instead discovered sacks upon sacks of coal. Honest to goodness coal. The trampers at Top Forks Hut must have been very naughty to receive the hundreds of kilos of coal lying there.

In theory I knew that coal burned but I’d never personally lit a coal fire and didn’t know how to do it. “How hard could it be?” I wondered and tossed a couple of lumps in on top of my smouldering kindling. Unsurprisingly it didn’t instantly burst into flame. I figured I needed to get the fire to a certain critical temperature and add a certain critical mass of coal before it would really crank. Unfortunately it didn’t seem possible given the current wettish state of all my wood. However, that didn’t stop me from trying to seduce some heat from the coal by blowing relentlessly on it, which I’m sure took about a 5-year toll on my life span as I breathed in the foul-smelling and greasy smoke. Rather than calling it a failure I chose to think of it as a delayed success and left the fire to its own devices, hoping the wood I brought inside would dry out overnight. Meanwhile I contented myself with being warm from the inside out, serving up a dinner of rehydrated chicken and potatoes, followed by cups of hot tea.



Day 2


After a somewhat chilly first night in the hut I awoke at first light, keen to shoot the sunrise. I peeked outside to find the sky completely clear and frost covering everything in sight. If I had to guess I’d wager the outside temperature was somewhere around 28°F. And though I had forgotten my baselayers I found my rain clothes and balaclava to make a nice outer layer to protect against the morning chill. As I suited up clouds started popping into the sky like fluffy polka dots and mist from the previous day’s rain steamed out of the forest. Sunlight lit up the landscape in bright punctuation marks and that along with the precisely zero sandflies buzzing about (too cold?) meant I enjoyed two hours of fine shooting in the area around the hut.



Returning to the hut for a breakfast of what was supposed to be “Triple Berry” oats but what could have been more credibly called “Cardboard Berry” oats I enjoyed a slow-as-molasses pack up before starting out on a day trip at the obscenely leisurely hour of 11:45 am. By this point the sky had become completely overcast, a state of weather which would end up lasting all day.

Two minutes from the hut was the first of 10 river crossings for the day and in a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to keep my shoes dry I popped my feet into a pair of crocs and waded across the chilly water. From there a quick 15-minute hop, skip, and jump along the river’s edge brought me to another crossing and another croc-for-shoe swap. At this point the trail entered the beech forest and climbed steeply up a ridge to emerge at Lake Diana, my first destination for the day. Along this segment of the journey I enjoyed every possible shade of green in the forest, with mosses and leaves mingling in an abundant display of vegetative richness.



Lake Diana seemed to be more of a pond to my eyes and I was eager to see the more dramatic lakes of Lucidus and Castalia further up the trail so I put one foot in front of the other and pounded off down the track. I soon emerged from the forest and onto a boggy tussock landscape, which the DOC had thankfully bridged with a wooden boardwalk. With easy walking and good tunes playing on my iPod (this time it was a blast from my college past, an energetic ska band called Rx Bandits) I once again descended into that idiotic euphoria and went sprinting down the wooden slats of the boardwalk.



From there it was a quick ramble up through dry grasslands to Lucidus Lake, a glacial body of water fenced in by the moraine of the historically much larger Lucidus Glacier. By this point the clouds had thickened considerably and the iridescent hue of the water had been damped down to something more like a wet sponge. I had brought my underwater housing to photograph rocks in the lake but without the sparkle of the water I wasn’t excited about the potential and didn’t shoot. I did however take the opportunity to grab a snack (a bumber, builder, buster, banker bar?? Can’t remember but it was tasty!) and kill a sandfly or two just for fun.



At this point I was feeling great and nowhere near ready to turn around for the day so I set off for Lake Castalia, a further two hours up the trail. “Two hours???” I thought, “how could it possibly be two hours?? It’s only a couple of miles away…” Well, when tramping in NZ you quickly learn that distance is not a good proxy for time.

Almost immediately there was another river crossing, and still striving for dry shoes I once again slipped into crocs to cross the river, changing back into my hikers on the other side. Failing to check the map at this point I didn’t realize there was another crossing two minutes later. Once again, a footwear switcheroo. At this point the trail conditions devolved from a track to something more like a goat trail cut into the side of the hill. 40 minutes of bibs and bobs, ups and downs, wiggles and waggles brought me to my fifth river crossing of the uphill journey. I paused for a quick lunch before dashing across the river and up into alpine shrub vegetation.

At this point I happened upon one of the most interesting kinds of trail I’ve ever followed: thick bunches of tussock grass grew together in a seemingly unbroken field. Yet the trail itself did wind around the bases of the plants. It was fascinating but meant that visibility of the trail was nil and every step had to be placed with care. That didn’t stop me from falling in a hole here and there though.

Coming out of this “tussock tunnel” I gained a boulder field and it was a fun 20 minutes scramble to Castalia. The gloomy weather had gotten gloomier and other than a quick documentation snap I didn’t do any photography.



Soon after it started sprinkling so I skipped a few rocks across the smooth surface of the lake and began the trek back. All was going well until I reached the tussock tunnel again. The grasses were now damp from the rain and the sting of endless fronds of grass slapping my legs with their needly wetness sent me into a torrent of cursing and shouting. I think I can understand Chinese water torture a bit better now as those thousands of minute injuries set me on edge, pushing me closer to actual anger and frustration than almost any other hiking experience ever has.

So it was with obvious relief that I popped out of the grasses again and onto the more tedious (but less annoying) goat trail down along the river. At this point I was getting a bit sleepy and my footsteps were getting clumsy and I took a slip or two over the next hour of hiking. Soon after crossing back over the river for the 8th time that day I lay down to take a brief nap but was prevented from sleeping by sandflies buzzing about my closed eyelids.

Still, even a few minutes of rest felt heavenly. That, with the fact that I was now back on a better trail, rejuvenated my spirits and I bombed down the rest of the trail to the hut (still diligently changing my shoes at every crossing), arriving around 7 pm under genuine rain. I changed into dry clothes, whipped up some hot food and settled in for another night alone in the hut.


Days 3 – 5


To read about the second half of the trip, check out part 2 of this trip report.


2017 – Year in Review, Part 3

2017 has blown past us and we’re already steamrolling deep into 2018. January 2018 was so busy for me I barely had a chance to reflect on the previous year as I like to do. So now that I have a bit more time I’m taking a look back at 2017 and some of the wonderful moments and experiences I had. Enjoy the reminiscing! This is Part 3 of this article, which looks at September through December.  Check out Part 1 for my travels in South America, and Part 2 for my summer travels in the US.


September


September is my birth month so it’s always a favorite time of year for me, but September 2017 also started off with a fun new project: full moon photography. I’d avoided the genre for years but after that photography seminar I taught with Rafa from PhotoPills my eyes were opened to the possibilities. So I got a nice long lens, figured out a plan of attack, and headed out to the Minarets on a beautiful morning to shoot the full as it set behind the mountains. If you want to learn more about how I created these photos, check out the article here on how to shoot the full moon.

After that I surprisingly took a week away from photography and headed down to San Francisco to spend the weekend with friends at the Brews on the Bay Festival. Much pleasant drinking and eating ensued.

Soon I was back in Mammoth and headed down the east side to the Alabama Hills, where I had 2 private clients for a night photography workshop. We ended up light-painting the beautiful Lady Boot Arch as the Milky Way traced out its path overhead.


October


October began with another enjoyable full moon shoot, this time with friends Brandon Russell, Greg Weaver, and Samantha Deleo. The shoot was a bit easier as the geometry worked out perfectly to shoot from the Minaret Vista parking lot. As a consequence we ran into legendary Sierra photographer Vern Clevenger who was leading a workshop. After the shoot, Brandon, Greg, Sam, and I rode our mountain bikes down the super fun Mountain View trail and nearly froze to death due to crisp, early winter temperatures. 🙂

That same day my friend Melissa and I loaded up my car and drove back to San Francisco for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Much pleasant drinking and eating ensued.


In the middle of the month my mom and I set out on my first-ever cross-country road trip. The purpose of the trip was to go visit family in Indiana, as well as pick up some furniture and drive it back to California. I know, exciting stuff. But the timing was right as I needed to be in New York at the end of the month, and we used the trip as an excuse to spend a bunch of time in Utah. Since it was my mom’s first visit to that amazing state we took our time and visited Zion, Bryce, Escalante, and Moab before hightailing it across the plains to Indiana.

Once in Indiana I immediately hopped on a flight for New York to attend PhotoPlus Expo, the largest photo trade show in the US. I was very fortunate to once again be presenting for Nikon. I spoke about my work for the fisheye lens launch, as well as unusual approaches to landscape photography. Of course, there was much socializing, eating, and drinking. From there I flew back to Indiana and my mom and I began a grueling 4-day trip back to California, with a trailer full of furniture in tow.


November


November was thankfully a quiet month; much needed after the manic intensity of October. There were, however, three things of note: one was Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays of the year. Not so much because of what it signifies but because I get to spend time with family, eating, drinking, and merrymaking. Two: I was fortunate to be featured on both Matt Payne’s and Nick Page’s photography podcasts. Great discussions on both about the state of photography, how to progress as a photographer and a human, some storytelling, and much more. Be sure to give those a listen.

And three: I went on a killer overnight backpack with my friends and photographers Elisabeth and Jude. Despite the fact that it was mid November they had a wild idea to backpack into Thousand Island Lake. Due to road closures that wasn’t feasible in their time frame, so I suggested we hit up the Sabrina Basin instead. The Sierra hadn’t received much snow yet, but we expected an overnight low of around 10°F. So we packed up LOTS of warm clothes. Thankfully it didn’t drop much below 20°, and so we enjoyed a relatively warm night, and insanely gorgeous conditions with the partially frozen lakes in the basin near Sailor Lake.


December


December started off with a bang: I met Jim Patterson in Death Valley for our annual photography workshop there. It’s always a treat to go back to the desert, especially when you have an amazingly fun group of photographers to teach. We were also treated to a full moon rise, and a mind-blowing banger of a sunset over Cottonball Basin.


The remainder of December was nice and mellow. I got an underwater housing and set out to experiment with that in the frigid waters of the Eastern Sierra’s lakes. Still working the kinks out of how to get a good photo but I’m enjoying the process so far.

I spent the end of month with family for Christmas. And I got myself a present: a new Nikon D850, which I put to the test during a colorful sunset overlooking the Eastern Sierra as I drove back home to Mammoth.

And that sums up the year! Looking back I can barely believe I had time to breathe, let alone go on all these trips and create all these memories. But if there’s one thing I can be grateful to photography for, it’s packing my life more full of experiences and beauty than I ever thought possible. Thanks for reading, for your support, and here’s wishing you a great 2018!

2017 – Year in Review, Part 2

2017 has blown past us and we’re already steamrolling deep into 2018. January 2018 was so busy for me I barely had a chance to reflect on the previous year as I like to do. So now that I have a bit more time I’m taking a look back at 2017 and some of the wonderful moments and experiences I had. This is Part 2 of this article, which looks at May through August. Check out Part 1 for my travels in South America, and Part 3 for my year end wrap up.


May


May was a really wonderful month. Even though I arrived back in the US after my South America trip on May 1st, I didn’t head immediately home. I was once again traveling with my friend Jessica, who is from a small French island called Reunion. On our previous trips together I had talked up the beauty of California and Utah and she decided to spend a few weeks to see if I was full of shit or not. So once we landed in LAX we did some touristy crap around Hollywood for an hour, and then hightailed it for the desert southwest.

Our first stop was Zion National Park. Jessica is an ultra runner, having completed 50-km, 70-km, and even 160-km foot races, so I knew she wouldn’t be content with simply riding the shuttle bus and looking around. Instead we opted for hiking, hiking, and more hiking. On day 1 we roamed around off-trail near the Checkerboard Mesa. On day 2 we hit up Observation Point and Hidden Canyon. Day 3 was Angel’s Landing, and on our last day in the park we won the lottery for a Subway permit and splashed out to that geologic marvel.

After our days in Zion we headed for Escalante, where I promised Jess days of slot canyon adventures. “But Joshua,” she said, “I’m not sure I’m interested in that many canyons.” Well, let’s just start and see what you think. Needless to say, she was hooked and we had a grand time exploring some of the classics like Zebra, Peek-a-boo, and Spooky. We made a day of exploring the semi-technical and extraordinarily fun Egypt 3, and we day-hiked the 20 miles from Red Well to Coyote Natural Bridge and back. Someone also stole my tripod, left it in a parking lot, someone else found it (along with a note I had left under the windshields of all the cars in the parking lot), drove it to Panguitch, and left it for me there in a motel. Odd things happen in Utah.

All in all we spent about 10 days in Utah, not nearly enough, but nevertheless we had to leave because I wanted to show Jessica the beauty of California as well before she had to fly back home to France. Our first stop was Death Valley and by this point in mid May the temperatures were already toasty. The evening we rolled in it was 99°F when we stopped at Zabriskie Point. Neither of us minded though as there was a breeze blowing which felt incredible. There were also incredible clouds in the sky and when we ventured down onto the cracked mud flats for sunset we were treated to a barn-burner of a light show.

From DV we made a quick pit stop in Mammoth before heading over Monitor Pass to the western Sierra to visit Yosemite Valley.

Thanks to some luck and good timing we were able to score a campsite for a few nights in the Valley, a virtual miracle in May. Because the park is starting to get really busy at this time of year I thought I’d take Jessica to a few of my favorite off-the-beaten path locations. We hit up the Merced Grove of Sequoias, Sierra Point, Fern Ledge, and the Diving Board. All great adventures with some spine tingling exposure (except for the grove).

Sadly, I then bid Jessica adieu as she made her way to San Fran to fly home to France, and I returned to Mammoth to enjoy the beginnings of summer.


June


Of course the enormous winter meant that summer was a little slow to get off the ground. In fact on May 31st my friend Lane and I went out for an overnight ski trip into the Little Lakes Valley, where we found everything at 11,000 feet frozen solid and covered with gads of snow.

After a slightly chilly night I jumped out of my bag in the morning to photograph the intense alpenglow on the mountains above Ruby Lake.

As soon as the sun came up the temperature rose and Lane and I went skinning off in search of corn snow, which we found in buttery abundance. Not a bad way to kick off the 2017 backpacking season!

In the middle of the month I flew up to Washington State to hang with a good homie for a few days before heading out with Jim Patterson to lead our annual Palouse Photography Workshop in the eastern part of the state. With incredible, dramatic conditions (including getting caught in a backlit rainstorm) and a wonderful group of participants it was a fantastically fun way to enjoy a few days of photography.


About 10 days after I got home from Washington I was on another plane, this time to Chicago. I had been invited to present and teach at the Out of Chicago Conference, a superfun melting pot of different genres, different people, and different ideas in photography. That was a unique experience being a landscape photographer in the heart of Chicago, but I believe it’s always good to push yourself, your boundaries, and your comfort zone, so I embraced the experience. Made a lot of good new friends, learned a ton, and had a blast.

Almost immediately after getting back to California I was invited on a quick overnight backpacking trip by my friend Elisabeth. She wanted to visit Temple Crag and though I’d already been I have a hard time saying no to a night spent in the Sierra. The skies were 100% clear during the trip, which meant it was a great opportunity for some Milky Way photography. I set up a composition, went to sleep, and woke up at 3 am when the core of the galaxy was in position where I wanted it. The shooting star was pure luck.


July


July is arguably my favorite month in the Sierra, and this year was no exception. Things got off to a great start when Jim Patterson flew down for our annual High Sierra Summer Monsoon Photo Workshop. We romped all over the East Side, Mono Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, and the Central Sierra with our group enjoying the monumental scenery and all-time conditions. The sunset from the top of Pothole Dome was a true highlight, as were the fields of flowers in Big Pine Creek, and our final sunrise from Minaret Vista.

The day the workshop ended beautiful clouds started brewing so I took myself back down to Big Pine Creek and was treated to a gorgeous monsoony sunset.


A few days later I enjoyed one of the greatest backpacking trips of my life. My friends Josh and Mark were hiking into a remote Sierra basin and invited me to join. It was a long, hard, hot climb full of mosquitoes, but once we arrived in the Royce Lakes area it was like we’d stepped onto a planet made of ice and rock. We were also treated to striking light shows, and a rare sunrise rainstorm that led to an extraordinary session of photography.


Toward the end of the month Rafael from the amazing PhotoPills app came to visit and we put on a fun, educational seminar about how to use the app and how to do Milky Way photography. We had almost 75 excited photographers join us for the event, which was capped off by a night of photography at Minaret Vista and then Mono Lake.

A few days later Rafa and I ventured into the nearby mountains to do a little personal shooting. Over the course of 2017 up to this point I had been letting my beard grow and it was getting pretty wild after almost 8 months of unchecked growth. I was tired of it and ready to shave it off but first I wanted to shoot a classic “mountain man” portrait of myself in full beard.


August


August was a time for backpacking, and I managed to squeeze in four separate trips over the course of the month. The first was with my friend Patrycja into the South Fork of Big Pine Creek, which involved fording a waist-deep creek raging with icy snowmelt. That was, uh, a chilly experience. Ultimately we ended up in a basin surrounded by the southern peaks of the Palisade range.


The next trip was with my friend and fellow photographer Ryan Alonzo. He’d been smitten by the northwestern Yosemite wilderness and wanted to share the joy. We set out on a mellow 3 day trip, looping out of Green Creek and ending at Virginia Lakes. Along the way we enjoyed the serenity of Green Lake, cruised over rugged Virginia Pass, fished in a meadow below Virginia Peak, saw carpets of wildflowers, and did some fine bootskiing on lingering snow patches.


Exactly a week later I was headed out on another Sierra trail for an overnighter into the Kearsarge Basin in SEKI. I’ve already written a full trip report about the experience so I’ll refrain from repeating myself. Instead I’ll post a few highlight photos.

Kearsarge Pinnacles at twilight. Kings Canyon Panorama University Peak at sunset, Kings Canyon National Park.


And a week after that I was out on another 3 day trip with my good friend Joe. For this one we trekked into the northern reaches of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Again, I have a full trip report on that experience already, so here are some photos from the trip.

Backlit paintbrush at dawn


Beams of light shining out through wildfire smoke above Mt Lyell.


Meadows and streams and clouds, oh my!


More invisible pony riding.


Joe celebrating our high point for the day at roughly 12,000 feet.


Afternoon drama reflected in the placid tarn.


Did the water taste as green as it looked? Yes, yes it did.


Sunset above Rush Creek in Marie Lakes basin.


Parts 1 and 3


2017 – Year in Review, Part 1

2017 has blown past us and we’re already steamrolling deep into 2018. January 2018 was so busy for me I barely had a chance to reflect on the previous year as I like to do. So now that I have a bit more time I’m taking a look back at 2017 and some of the wonderful moments and experiences I had. Enjoy the reminiscing! This is Part 1 of this article, which looks at January through April. Check out Part 2 for my summer travels in the US, and Part 3 for my year end wrap up.


January


January of 2017 was one of the biggest months of one of the biggest winters in recorded Sierra Nevada history. There was a period of three weeks where it snowed an average of 10″ day in and day out. That might not sound like a lot until you realize it adds up to 210″, which is almost 18 feet. In Mammoth roofs were collapsing and the National Guard was called in to help remove the snow from town. During the midst of this I escaped to Death Valley for a few days and went on an adventure to one of the most incredible and unique places I’ve ever seen in the park. But due to the sensitive and delicate nature of the area I will refrain from describing or showing any photographs of the place. Suffice it to say that Death Valley holds some incredible magic if you’re willing to look for it. On the same trip I observed incredible lenticular clouds over the Panamint Range, and I’m happy to show a photo of that instead:


The winter of 2017 was also when I taught myself how to ski, not so much because I wanted a new sport (I was already very happy with snowboarding), but because I wanted to be able to create unique opportunities for photography. One of those opportunities was skiing up to Minaret Vista a number of times to photograph the stars. The first few attempts didn’t yield usable results, mostly due to high winds shaking my tripod. But toward the end of the month I made a solo trip up to the Vista with a vision of a star trail photo in my head. Finally the night was calm enough for me to take a single 31-minute exposure and create this image:

Minaret Vista Star Trails


February


February started off pretty mellow: I continued to learn how to ski and took advantage of the insane snow conditions we were receiving.

Sierra Nevada Winter 1017 Snow

And truth be told that mellowness was a nice way to build some energy up, because at the end of the month I left for a 2.5-month, bucking bronco of a trip in South America. Initially I had planned to meet my friend Jessica in March for some serious hiking but that plan got slightly derailed when Nikon contacted me to shoot some sample photos using their at-the-time-unreleased fisheye lens. So I rebooked my tickets three weeks earlier and headed off to Southern Patagonia for a couple of weeks on assignment with the lens.

Alabama Hills Full Moon Night Fisheye

I started off the assignment in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile’s most famous NP, and home to one of the most striking landscapes on Earth.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

The park served as a wonderful playground for a few days as I explored, hiked, and photographed.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile


March


In early March I continued with the Nikon fisheye assignment but decided on a change of location, so I got in my rental car and drove to El Chalten and Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. Along the way I stopped in El Calafate and enjoyed a few visits to the extraordinary Perito Moreno Glacier.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Once in El Chalten the weather was a mixed bag. It started off beautiful but turned stormy and rainy, which prevented much hiking or photography. However I was able to get out for a quick and moody overnight trek to Laguna Torre, as well as a great day hike to Lago De Los Tres.Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina Near Laguna Torre, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

With the weather looking continually bad I decided to return to Torres del Paine in Chile to finish off the assignment for Nikon.

Torres del Paine, Chile Torres del Paine, ChileTorres del Paine, Chile

I finally wrapped the assignment around the middle of month and focused on my personal travels. And of course, while doing an assignment for Nikon is an incredible experience and opportunity, it’s also very intense and stressful. So with a large selection of images in the bag it was time for a little R&R.

For that I opted to take a ferry from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams, which is the southernmost town in the world. This ferry (basically a commuter service) was extraordinary. For 32 hours we navigated the fjords of southern Chile and saw endless glaciers and mountains, multiple species of whale, dolphins, penguins, sea lions, and more albatross than you can count on your fingers and toes. Once the ferry arrived in Puerto Williams I spent a few days relaxing, doing some easy day hikes, and chatting with other travelers. Then I jumped back aboard the ferry for another sensational 32 hour ride to Punta Arenas.

At the end of March I spent a few days in Valparaiso, Chile, petting stray cats and going to Chilean karaoke bars. Good times.


April


In the beginning of April I decided to visit the complete opposite end of Chile, both metaphorically and geographically: the arid north. Fearing the mind-numbing nature of a 26-hour bus ride from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama I instead hopped on a 2 hour flight to the bizarre mining town of Calama, and from there rented a car to visit the Atacama. Extremely dry and windy, the Atacama is like no other place on Earth. Well, except maybe Death Valley. Throughout my time there I was struck by how similar these two places were, despite being on opposite ends of the planet.

Of course, the Atacama has a few things Death Valley lacks, like 19,000-foot volcanoes, flamingos, and vicunas to name a few.

And this incredible altiplano spans two countries: Chile and Bolivia. And it’s a fairly simple matter to get from one country to the other to experience the weirdness of the world’s driest desert.

In the latter half of April I flew to Colombia and met my friend Joe in Cartagena for two weeks of exploring. We began in the hot, sweaty north, spending a little bit of time in Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Tayrona National Park. The jungles and beaches were cool, but we weren’t stoked on much else there, including the weather (think 99° with 99% humidity).

Tired of sweating, we then flew down to the town of Salento in the coffee growing region of the country where conditions were much more pleasant. We also found wonderful scenery in the wax palm forests, as well as the highlands of the Los Nevados National Park.

At the end of those two weeks, and the end of April, I met my friend Jessica at the airport in Lima and we flew back to California.


Parts 2 and 3


Kearsarge Lakes – High Sierra Trip Report


I’m not exactly sure why I had such an acute urge to backpack into the Kearsarge Lakes Basin this August. Perhaps it was because I had just purchased a new ultra-light backpack and wanted to try it out. Perhaps it was because I had only been there once, ten years before, and wanted to revisit as a photographer. Or perhaps it was because I only had one night free and knew the hike in wasn’t very long. Whatever the reason, I found myself on a beautiful, sunny afternoon locking up my car in the Onion Valley trailhead and stomping off into the Sierra on another gorgeous trail.



Like many trails in the Eastern Sierra, Kearsarge Pass starts out as a hot and dry slog. Mixed pumice and dirt switchbacks lead up through the sage and juniper forest. And while there are trees, they aren’t dense enough or tall enough to provide much relief from the sun. However, after 30 minutes or so the trail begins passing a series of lakes and the views quickly take your mind off the sweaty work of climbing. The first is Little Pothole Lake, beautiful with its two waterfalls cascading into it. Next is Gilbert Lake, another of those impossibly-perfect Sierra Lakes nestled in a mix of meadow and pine trees, with massive granite mountains jutting out in every direction.

Above Gilbert the landscape becomes a bit starker as the trail climbs above tree line. Here the lakes are plopped in basins made of talus, and the trails snakes its way past gigantic granite blocks and cliffs.



Above Heart Lake I quickly came to Big Pothole Lake and at that point I had left all the trees behind. Here is a landscape of rock. But it’s not completely devoid of life; in fact the ground was covered with small flowering plants eking out a life in the short summer grow season. These plants serve a vital purpose as well: in addition to breaking down the soil into forms that other life can use the plants help prevent erosion and keep the hillside in place. This is a major reason that cutting switchbacks is a major hiking no-no, because if you do this you are trampling fragile plants, killing them, and leading to erosion and environmental degradation. So please don’t!



Many people will tell you that Kearsarge is a tough hike, mainly because it starts at 9,200 feet, then climbs rapidly to the pass at 11,700 feet. And if you aren’t used to the altitude it can certainly kick your butt. But I am lucky to live in Mammoth, at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. So I am almost always acclimated to the altitude. I’ve also found that the fastest way to get to a pass is the tortoise philosophy: pick a pace that you can sustain indefinitely and just keep moving. Trying to hike too fast leads to over-exertion and exhaustion, and even if you are taking rest breaks ultimately this fatigue will take its toll on your legs and lungs. But that slow and steady pace will get you where you need to go. In such a way I found myself on top of Kearsarge Pass barely two hours after leaving the car, with a monumental view of the Kearsarge Pinnacles to the west.

At this point the trail enters Kings Canyon National Park, a wilderness lover’s fantasy land. King’s Canyon is a massive park with almost no roads in it. It’s one of the best places to get off the beaten path and enjoy intense solitude. But for this trip I didn’t have the time to get deep into the park. Instead I was heading for those beautiful shimmering lakes at the foot of the Pinnacles.



Thunderclouds had been building during the afternoon and I wanted to set up camp before any rain started. So after a short dawdle on the pass I dropped over the west side and chewed through the trail down to the lakes.



On the way down the trail I was struck by the beauty of the landscape: grasses and wildflowers covered the hillside. Erratics and rocks left behind by slides punctuated the open spaces. And small streams and cascades trickled down the slopes.



I decided to camp on the hill above the largest Kearsarge Lake and found a beautiful, totally secluded spot to pitch my tent. As it was only mid afternoon and no rain had fallen yet I thought it would be good fun to head out for a wander. My topo map told a tale of another large lake up the canyon to the south and I wanted to see what it was like. I dropped down from camp to the shores of the largest Kearsarge Lake then found a series of boulders that allowed me to rock hop across a narrow part of it. Looking out to the west I could see some serious weather threatening. Still, I had my raincoat and a warm hat so I wasn’t too bothered.



Continuing up the canyon I found it to be a treasure trove of beautiful sites: large reflecting pools, endless cascades and sinuous streams, and craggy peaks towering above it all. I quickly realized the photography problem here wouldn’t be not being able to find a composition, but rather having to choose between all of the amazing compositions present.



After meandering and exploring for a good hour I finally came to the upper lake, a long, string-bean-shaped body of water sitting in a cul-de-sac of granite. At the head of the lake: imposing University Peak. I moseyed along the east side of the lake until I saw a lone fisherman out on a distant spur of rock. Not wanting to disturb his peace I turned around and wondered what to do next. It was almost two hours until the sunset still and I didn’t want to spend that time simply holed up in my tent. Instead I decided I’d climb up one of the gullies between the Pinnacles to see what I could see on the other side.



Hopping over the stream in front of me I began the climb. It was easy going at first: simple ambling up 2nd class slab. But soon the route crossed a river of talus composed of huge, tractor-sized boulders. Navigating through that required a little tricky scrambling with some careful steps over 25-foot deep pits. Coming out the other side put me back in more navigable terrain made of smaller boulders and a fair bit of scree. From there it was simply a matter of making the slog to the top. Head down, feet up. Don’t look, just move. And sure enough, after about 15 minutes of this I broke out onto the pass.



The vista was extraordinary of course, with clear views to the south as far as Forester Pass (the highest pass along the John Muir Trail), and to the west down Bubbs Creek toward Fresno. My view to the north was block by the Kearsarge Pinnacles looming up above me. But after inspecting the rocky flank to my north I realized it was an easy 3rd class scramble, so on up I went. After a few minutes of that I came out on the pseudo-summit plateau of the lowest of the Pinnacles.



As good as the views were from the saddle, now they were nothing short of legendary. The panorama of green valley to the south, East Vidette peak directly in front of me, and the Kings Canyon backcountry laid out before me was utterly gobsmacking.





After wiping the drool from my chin I wanted to see if I could actually summit the Pinnacle I was standing beneath. I started climbing a mix of 3rd and 4th class terrain until I was about 100 feet up, just below the actual summit. And hear I stopped because although I was only 6 feet under the summit block, to gain it would have required an awkward, low-5th-class move up a corner and onto an overhang. It didn’t look that hard in all honesty, but the move was completely exposed and a fall would surely be lethal. So I contented myself with the almost-summit before scrambling back down.

At this point sunset was only about 40 minutes away and I wanted to be back down in my dreamland of streams and pools for that. I quickly descended the talus and scree of the gully I came up until I chanced upon a long runout of snow. I jumped on and boot-skied back down in a matter of minutes. I was just in time too, as when I got to the bottom the sun snuck out from the clouds to the west and illuminated University Peak with some of the most intense, ruby alpenglow I’ve ever seen.



Alas, other than that intense break, the clouds didn’t allow as much sunlight through at sunset as I’d hoped, so what could’ve been a spectacular light show turned into something rather drab. After shooting a few uninspired images I began to make my way back toward camp. Along the way I noticed that the clouds suddenly started breaking up, allowing a little twilight glow to ooze in and bathe the landscape. Back came out the tripod and camera and I was able to create a few more interesting, long exposure photos of the cascading streams below the pinnacles.



A few stars had begun to twinkle by this time and during the two-minutes that each exposure took a few small star trails appeared in the shots.



By the time I wrapped up these last exposures it was utterly dark and starting to get cold (I had been wearing shorts this whole time so far), so I bundled up my gear and trekked the 15 minutes back to my camp. I was eager to put on a pair of pants but when I got to my tent I discovered that I had completely forgotten to bring any! So there I was in a down jacket, furry hat, warm gloves, and lightweight running shorts. Ah well, at least it wasn’t windy. And after cooking dinner I snuggled into my sleeping bag and slept well, dreaming of bears and chipmunks and sunrise.

Early the next morning, about 40 minutes till sunrise, I slithered out of my nice cozy bag and into the chilly temps of the pre-dawn. Layering up with all my clothes to help compensate for my skimpily-attired legs I gathered my camera equipment and stalked back off to my favorite patch of streams and pools. Although the morning was 99% cloudless I was still happy to be out shooting. I knew that the warm glow of sunrise would soon hit the Pinnacles and light them up. It was simply a matter of waiting, squashing mosquitoes, and watching until the sun was in a good spot for an image. It took a surprisingly long time, over 40 minutes from first light on the peaks until the light was well down their flanks.



I spent the next 45 minutes or so meandering through the meadows looking for pleasing compositions and found a few that I enjoyed.




Before long the light grew too harsh for large-scale scenes, so I headed back to camp. Along the way I spied some trees backlit beautifully by the morning sun, and I was glad I had schlepped my telephoto along on the trip.



After a quick breakfast of oatmeal I pondered what to do with the day. It was early still and even a 3- or 4-hour dayhike before breaking camp would give me plenty of time to pack up and get to the trailhead by mid afternoon. I had become so entranced by the monumental views west from the top of the low Pinnacle that I decided to explore that area on foot. Tucking a few snacks and a jacket into my backpack I set off cross country into Kings Canyon NP.

After 20 minutes or so I came upon Bullfrog Lake, a remarkably scenic spot with views of East Vidette, Deerhorn Mountain, and a few other striking peaks. There I also rejoined the trail, which made the going much faster.



After another short, easy stretch through flooded and wildflower-laden meadows the trail met up with its more famous big brother: the JMT / PCT. It was immediately obvious something was different about this trail and opposed to the solitude I’d had for the previous 16 hours I was now passing other hikers in 10 minutes intervals. Which just meant I had to tone down my backcountry singing.

Moving south from the JMT trail junction the trail dropped altitude rapidly: losing over 1,000 feet in less than a mile. Every hiker I passed was heading uphill with a look that said, “I’m trying to have fun, but it’s not working.” For me, with a light pack on my back, and the easy downhill travel, all I could do was smile, laugh, and shout at the breathtaking views out over the Bubbs Creek canyon.



Descending down the trail I couldn’t help but notice the innumerable canyons and basins shooting off in every direction. Ah, to be a bird and to have easy access to these spectacular places. Clearly I need to spend more time trekking through this remarkable part of California.



A short while later I reached the bottom of the trail and continued to follow the JMT to the south for another mile or so till I reached Vedette Meadow. This was a good turn around point as any so I wolfed down the last of my Clif Bar, took a swig of water and began the trek back to camp. Soon enough it was my turn to lament the steep section of trail, but I only had 10 pounds on my back (most of it camera equipment) so fairly flew up the climb, passing a few hikes I’d seen on the way down.

Reaching camp a short while later I packed my bag up and cruised back over the pass and down to my waiting car. All in all a fantastic 24 hours in the backcountry. Be sure to watch the video account of this trip as well for some behind the scenes goodness. Apologies for the vertical video…I filmed most of it on my phone.

Interested in how I created these photos?

You can learn how I process and develop my photos in my video course, “Lightroom: Master Raw Processing.” And be on the lookout for my full length in-the-field photography course to be released soon!



Marie Lakes Basin – High Sierra Trip Report

It doesn’t take much to convince me to go on a multi-day Sierra backpack, so when I received a text from my friend Joe that read, “leaving my job, but planning to take a little extra time before starting the new one in order to do some backpacking. Do you want to go?” there was no way I was going to say no.

“Got anywhere specific in mind you want to go?” I asked.

“No, I trust your judgment to plan a trip.”

“Cool. I have a spot in mind that I’ve been wanting to get back to for a couple of years that should make a pretty good three day trip. The approach is kind of long, about 12 miles, but I think if we go in out of Rush Creek we don’t have to climb all that much to get in there.”

“Great. Let’s do it.”

Fast forward a couple weeks down the way and we were cinching down our waist belts and filling up water bottles at the Rush Creek trailhead near June Lake. I rechecked the topographic map and confirmed my earlier suspicions: from the trailhead altitude of 7300 feet we had to climb about 2700 feet to get to the basin where we were headed. 2700 feet is not nothing, but when you do it over 12 miles it’s really not that steep of an incline. However with that second glance of the map I realized that a huge part of the climbing was right at the beginning, directly out of the trailhead: nearly 1000 feet up over the first 2 miles in full, direct sun. This was going to be a hot one.

Looking across Gem Lake to Mt Lyell and the high Sierra.

“What’s the name of the place we’re going again?” Joe asked.

“Marie lakes, “I said, “which is different from another Marie Lakes farther south on the John Muir Trail. We have to walk about five or six miles past three reservoirs, then we’ll head up and meet up with the JMT for a short time, then we keep on climbing up into the basin. Should take us six hours or so to get there.”

“Cool,” Joe grunted as we trudged our way up the steep switchbacks below Agnew Lake.

First break. Above Gem lake.

The first part of the trail was pretty, if not exactly spectacular by Sierra standards. Lots of exposed rocky slopes falling off into the three reservoirs: Agnew lake, Gem lake, and Waugh Lake. Afternoon thunderstorms were building as well, giving some cloudy relief to the direct sunlight. It was nice, but the trail was incredibly loose and dusty and I found myself frequently parched. I was really looking forward to getting up into the Alpine zone, where we’d be among the pine trees and rushing creeks.

Heading west past Billy Lake, breeding ground for not a small amount of skeeters.

A few hours walk brought us to Billy Lake where we stopped to chat briefly with some cowboys and were promptly swarmed by mosquitoes. We DEETed up and skedaddled. A short while later we found confronted by the dam of Waugh Lake. As we followed the trail around the dam, the lake itself came into view. Or should I say some muddy flats came into view. For some reason unknown to us the lake had been drained leaving behind a huge expanse of mud, rocks, and sawed-off tree trunks. We decided that crossing the lake would be faster and easier travel than staying on the sinuous trail through the woods, so we scrambled down onto the mud. The going was really easy, and we found ourselves ankle-deep in mud only once or twice. Reaching the head of the lake we bushwhacked up through the forest for a few minutes till we rejoined the trail. From there another 20 minutes brought us over some cool log bridges to the John Muir Trail.

Crossing the Waugh lake mudflats. Gave me the same kind of feeling as being in an abandoned building.

“Almost there!” I shouted. “Just about another mile of climbing up the JMT till we reach our trail junction.” We’d been on the trail about five hours at this point so the news that we only had another hour to walk was very welcome. At the same time we still had another hour to walk, almost all of it uphill. I should mention that it had been drizzling for the past hour and a half or so and as we started to get higher in altitude we noticed more and more tents pitched hurriedly along the side of the trail. Apparently the storming up here had been much worse then we had experienced. We quickly reached the trail junction for our basin and grabbed a snack of dried apricots and dried pumpkin seeds, both of which tasted like manna from heaven. But we weren’t to our destination quite yet so we shouldered our packs once again and started up more switchbacks till we reached the Marie Lakes basin.

Classic Marie Lakes scenery: paintbrush, reflecting pool, and mountains.

I’d been to this Marie Lakes basin once before on a hike from Tuolumne Meadows to Mammoth in 2013. And what struck me about the basin then still held true: it’s an endless expanse of meadows, shallow pools, bifurcating streams, and small cascades. The natural landscaping is so perfect it looks like a landscape architect planned the whole thing. “And we have it all to ourselves. I highly doubt anyone but us is in this basin right now,” I told Joe instants before we came upon a small settlement of four tents. D’oh. “Ah well, I’m sure we can find a camping spot far away from them.” But after 15 minutes of searching it was clear that this cluster of tents was in one of the only flat patches of ground in the area suitable for camping. “Welp, I guess we’re sharing land tonight.”

At this point it was only a few minutes before sunset so I shed my backpack, grabbed my camera and tripod, and practically ran down to the creek coursing through the center of the basin. The afternoon showers had broken and the sky was beginning to open up. As the settling sun streamed underneath the clouds they turned a lovely pink, and the mountains behind me lit up with a brilliant ruby color. I found a pretty cascade and snapped off a few shots. Then as quickly as it had come the color faded out and I retired back to the campsite to help prep dinner.

Sunset above Rush Creek in Marie Lakes basin.

After a steaming hot dinner of mac and cheese followed by Reese’s Pieces for dessert, Joe and I slid into the tent and crashed out. Next morning we woke to a cloudless sky and yawned our way out of the tent, slapping at mosquitoes and pondering the day’s activities. “See that big mountain at the head of the valley? That’s Mt Lyell, highest peak in Yosemite. It’s only a couple of miles from here, and about 3,000 feet above us. I think there’s a 3rd-class way to the summit, so do you want to try to climb it?” I asked Joe.

Mt Lyell, visible as a darkened triangle to the left of the apparent high point of the ridge.

Now Joe is a fit guy but he lives at sea level, so the idea of scaling a 13,000-ft peak didn’t exactly have him doing cartwheels of joy. Nevertheless he was up for the challenge. So we packed some snacks and lunch, filled our water bottles from the insanely clear and delicious stream at our feet, and set off across the granite slopes.

Did the water taste as green as it looked? Yes, yes it did.

Embarrassingly, I had forgotten my map of Yosemite on this trip so I wasn’t sure of a recommended route to the summit. Instead we opted to scramble up to the east ridge and traverse toward the summit from there. We set a leisurely pace up the granite apron northwest of our campsite but soon gained the saddle beneath the east ridge of Lyell. From there it was simply a matter of walking up granite blocks as we climbed higher and higher.

Joe doing the old block traverse. Off to the left is Donohue Pass which leads into Yosemite National Park.

After an hour and a half from camp we came across our first snow field. The sun was already high and the snow was mush. On one hand that meant it was easily traversable without crampons. On the other hand, it meant the going was slow and slippery. We set our sights on a saddle barely 1/4 mile distance and started plodding, sliding, and cursing. 20 minutes later I was off snow and climbing up the class 3/4 rocks to the saddle. Joe joined me a short while later.

Heading out across the snowfield to the saddle in the middle of the photo.

Reaching the saddle gave us an excellent idea of what the rest of the climb would entail: likely 3 more hours of snow travel to a distance ridge, where we’d have a class 3 climb to the summit. We’d been setting a relaxed pace for the day so far and we realized that 3-4 more hours of ascending would put us on the top in late afternoon. With thunderstorms beginning to brew and Joe feeling some effects from the altitude we decided this wouldn’t be a prudent course.

Lyell in the distant left, the middle of the three high peaks in the photo. Maclure to the right. And a lot of snow and ice between us and the summit.


Seems like a pretty good stopping point.


Riding an invisible pony.

Instead we opted to head up and over a saddle to our southeast and find a cross-country route past the upper Marie Lakes and back down to camp. The saddle was completely snow-filled and we thought it would be quick and easy to follow it all the way up. But the steepness was deceiving from beneath and as we climbed it quickly increased from 25° through 35° and approached 45°-50° at the top. Along with the steepness the north-facing aspect made the snow much icier as we climbed and it was difficult to kick footholds in our hiking shoes. So we opted to jump off the snow onto the crumbly rock on the side of the gully. What followed was a heart-thumping 4th-class ascent through the shittiest, loosest, crappiest rock I’ve personally been on. I could see thousand pound boulders ready to break free from the wall and go tumbling down the hill. In fact, during our lunch break we saw one do exactly that, seemingly with no reason. And now here we were, yanking hard on the same decomposing crap. Needless to say we were both pretty pumped to finally ascend out of the choss and onto the saddle above.

Joe celebrating our high point for the day at roughly 12,000 feet.

Of course the monumental views of the Ritter Range to the south of us also help buoy our spirits.

More invisible pony riding.


Amazing how much ice is still present on these lakes around 11,000 feet at the end of August!

Now we’d done the hard part: going up. It was time for the fun: going down. Without any specific route in mind we generally descended down easy 2nd class terrain toward the Marie Lakes, occasionally having to down-climb a class 4 chute, or boot-ski across a snow field.

Joe climbing down a fun class 4 chute.


Let’s ski, weeeee!

The clouds had been thickening up and we were both pretty happy to be heading lower instead of higher as the sky got darker.

Dramatic and atmospheric conditions descend on the landscape.

We stopped for a quick lunch break on some flat boulders and enjoyed a classic Sierra meal of tuna on bagels. How can it taste so good??! Then we were off again, dropping lower and lower. There was a small tarn in the bench below us that was completely rimmed by snow on its south side.

What in tarnation?

And while the tarn was eye-catching from afar, it was absolutely breathtaking from up close. The mirror-smooth surface reflected the billowing clouds in the sky, while the clarity of the water allowed the rocks beneath the surface to shine through.

Mirror smooth water.


If it had been 20 degrees hotter outside this would have been the perfect place for a swim.


Afternoon drama reflected in the placid tarn.

Descending further from this tarn we had two options: skirt the large, lower Marie Lake to connect up with a maintained trail, or try our chances at route finding a way directly over the slabs above the basin. We opted for the route finding. We started on rock, but after 5 minutes we able to access a gully still full of snow. It was steep and long and after five minutes of glissading we had dropped another few hundred feet.

Here’s Joe getting ready to glissade the final few hundred feet of this snowy gully.

From there it was back onto mixed talus and vegetation. Even some fun, 2nd-class slab. Every step brought us lower and lower and before we could blink we were back in the meadows of our basin.

Afternoon views.

Instantly I was struck again by the impossible perfect landscapes of the Marie Lakes basin. The next five minutes were spent hopping over endless small cascades and small patches of flowers.

High Sierra beauty in the Marie Lakes Basin.

Then we were down in the flats, surrounded by meandering streams, meadows flush with wildflowers, and roaring waterfalls.

Meadows and streams and clouds, oh my!


One of hundreds of cascades in the basin.

As we stream-hopped our way back towards camp I continually turned around to check the sky behind me. We were getting on to sunset and even though the dark clouds of an hour ago had begun to evaporate, smoke from fires to the west was starting to fill the sky. As a result, mighty beams of light began to stream upward through the sky as the sun dropped lower.

Beams of light shining out through wildfire smoke above Mt Lyell.

Around the same time we spied another living creature in the basin, though we weren’t sure what it was. Was it a horse, or a fat person, or a person wearing a horse costume? Turns out it was none of those things, but simply a cold hiker wearing every layer of clothing she brought, including a black plastic garbage bag over the top. We had a lovely chat for a few minutes then trekked that last 1/4 mile to our camp. By that time the sky had cleared and it was starting to get cold. So we whipped up some surprisingly delicious dehydrated Pad Thai, scarfed some more Reese’s Pieces, and went to bed.

The next day, our final day, dawned once again clear and cloudless. And though I wasn’t excited about the possibility of photographing grand landscapes in those conditions I was really keen to get some shots of the innumerable paintbrush that littered the valley floor. I wriggled out of my warm sleeping bag, grabbed my camera, and head up the valley to some of the densest patches of flowers. As the sun came up over the horizon it lit up the heads up the paintbrush with intense oranges and reds. And I had a very enjoyable morning shooting intimates, a kind of photography a rarely indulge in, although I love it.

Backlit paintbrush at dawn


Good morning, sun!

As the sun gained elevation the ambient temperature skyrocketed and I swapped my down jacket and pants for a t-shirt and shorts before heading back to camp. Joe and I cooked a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and squished mosquitoes before packing our bags up for the long hike out. The first few miles were quite lovely but soon some minor trail woes arose: it was getting damn hot for 10,000 feet, my old old old shoes were giving me blisters, and Joe was feeling tired from the previous day’s activities. Needless to say, neither of us relished the final six scorched and dusty miles of trail on the way back to the car. And we decided for future trips to this basin it would be much better to extend the trip one or two more nights in order to start from a less-sloggy trailhead slightly farther away. But now we know! And there’s great value in that.

Looking back across Waugh Lake to where our day began.

In the end the 40 hours we spent in the Basin was well worth the scrubby hike to get there. It is a landscape of impressive and serene beauty. And while the basin isn’t quite as superlatively dramatic as some others in the Sierra it’s nevertheless one of my favorite places. The endless pools and cascades, the flowers, and the manicured landscape all give the area a very unique and stunning character.