I have more photographs of Mt. Whitney than of any other mountain. Not only is it distinguished by being the highest peak in the contiguous United States, but it’s also strikingly beautiful. Its towering east face and attendant pinnacles seem to pull light and atmosphere to them as though they were magnetically charged. There is an endless variety to its temperament, and I never tire of photographing this beautiful granite monolith.
Over the past few years, as I’ve studied the light and mood of the mountain, I began to seek out a photograph that conveyed a very specific moment and feeling: the magnificent glory of Mt. Whitney at sunrise, when the first rays of the rising sun paint a ruby glow across the peak’s granite face.
But my vision for this photo required more than just red light. To capture the image I saw in my mind, I needed to photograph in winter, as the angle of light better shows off Whitney’s striking contours. I also needed the right amount of clouds. Too many clouds would obscure the sun or the mountain. Too few would allow the sun’s rays to shine indiscriminately across the entire landscape. But just the right amount of clouds, in just the right place, would provide spot lighting on the peak, and give extra dimension and color to the sky.
In pursuit of this photograph, I camped overnight in the Alabama Hills many times, hoping to wake up to these kinds of conditions. But the magic I was looking for never quite materialized, until late February 2022. After studying the weather and forecast, I determined there was a strong chance for clouds on the morning of the 27th. The night before, I drove to the Alabama Hills and set up camp in the chilly air, hoping (but not expecting) to see something beautiful in the morning.
I awoke early on the 27th, long before dawn. Peering at the skies, I saw the potential for a spectacular sunrise: clouds to the east were already radiating every shade of pink, orange, and red. And while Mt. Whitney had a thick bank of cloud above it, the peak itself was completely unobstructed. I felt my adrenaline pumping as the sunrise drew closer and the colors in the sky intensified. Sensing a critical moment, I fine tuned my composition, focus, and exposure. Just then, the sun broke free from behind the clouds to the east, and Mt. Whitney’s face erupted in a fiery glow.
Realizing this light would be gone as quickly as it arrived, I triggered my shutter, capturing this frame. Barely two minutes later the light had completely faded from the mountain. As I reviewed the back of my camera, a feeling of deep joy coursed through my body, as I saw that this shot had far exceeded what I had hoped to capture.