My favorite time of year in the Sierra is monsoon season, which typically happens in July. During this time, hot, moisture-laden air rises high into the atmosphere and cools down, condensing and creating awe-inspiring thunderstorms. This behavior typically occurs like clockwork, with each day starting out crystal clear. By mid-morning a few puffy clouds appear in the sky, and they continue to grow into the early afternoon until there is an unbroken ceiling of ominous gray. Then the rain, lightning, and thunder start, unleashing meteorological drama across the landscape. By evening the temperature gradient that creates the storms has evened out and the clouds begin to break up, often disappearing completely by sunset. Because of the regularity of this atmospheric mechanism I never expect to see clouds at sunrise during monsoon season. Nevertheless, I always wake up early just in case.
This particular morning was no exception. It was the 5th and final day of a solo backpacking trip deep into the John Muir Wilderness, which comprises some of the most spectacular terrain to be found in the Sierra. Throughout the trip the weather had been as stormy and dramatic as I could have asked for. In fact, during the previous afternoon I had been confined to a makeshift tree shelter for three hours while the heavens unleashed torrents of rain around me.
When that afternoon storm relented I continued hiking a few more miles until I finally reached the stunning Pioneer Basin. The ground was soaked and I pitched my tent on the least-soggy patch of dirt I could find. I spent the next few hours exploring the basin and trying to create photographs. However, the clouds remained so thick that very few slivers of photogenic light were able to sneak through. Once darkness fell I returned to camp to eat a warm meal, realizing that the extra moisture in the air meant promising things for sunrise.
The next day arrived quickly and I shook myself awake as soon as my alarm went off. Peering out through the flaps of my tent I spotted exactly what I’d hoped to see: the atmosphere was still rich with water vapor and it had cooled down just enough overnight to fill the sky with cotton ball clouds. Grabbing my camera, I slipped into my hiking shoes (which were still soaked from the day before), and jogged to a nearby lake which boasted an incredible view of the mountains beyond.
The sun rose and began painting the scene with gorgeous warm light. I was in disbelief as a wedge of clouds slid into my frame, creating a perfect natural line leading to the mountains in the distance. The colors were astonishing, the reflection mirror-smooth, and aside from the occasional mosquito, the scene was utterly blissful. My eyes and my heart told me this was the moment to shoot, and I tripped my shutter, capturing this photo.