Northern Lights above our camp at Yurtville - Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada
I have always wanted to explore the Yukon Territory in Northern Canada. The Yukon is about the same size as California but only contains 34,000 people. From abundant wildlife to dramatic landscapes to the Northern Lights, it is a photographer’s paradise. Several months ago I was lucky enough to receive an assignment that would take me into the heart of this amazing landscape.
One thing I didn’t know existed in the Yukon was world-class mountain biking. My assignment was to team up with my good friend and fellow Novus Select photographer Trevor Clark for a 10 day video project documenting the lesser known mountain bike trails throughout the territory.
As Trevor and I began planning our trip, the first thing on both of our minds was how we were going to carry all of the photography and video equipment while logging long days on mountain bikes in extremely remote locations.
We let the good folks over at Lowepro know about our dilemma and a couple days later received the not-yet-released Rover Pro 45L AW and the Rover Pro 35L AW. As soon as we saw the packs it was clear that they were going to be absolutely perfect.
The larger Rover Pro 45L AW that I carried
I carried the larger Rover Pro 45L AW and Trevor took the Rover Pro 35L AW. Before leaving, we laid out all the photo and video gear we would be carrying (about 50 pounds apiece) to see if we could get everything in the packs. Not only did we have no problem getting the gear to fit, but there was room to spare for the necessary outdoor gear we would require.
Here is the breakdown.
Camera/video gear that went into my pack (the Rover Pro 45L AW):
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
Nikon 50mm f/1.8
Tokina 12-24mm f/4
Nikon TC-14E-II Teleconverter
Genius 8 stop ND filter
Nikon Circular Polarizing Filter
Dynamic Perception Stage One Motorized Slider/Dolly System
2 Flashpoint Carbon Tripods
2 Go Pro Cameras and Mounts
Zacuto Z Finder Loop
Manfrotto 55 Mag Photo-Movie Head
Sennheiser MKE 400 External Mic
San Disk Extreme Cards
LowePro Memory Wallet 20
Two Liter Camelbak Bladder
2 Tahoe Trail Bars
First Ascent down jacket
REI Event Rain Shell
Spare Inner Tube
Innertube Patch Kit
Water Purification Tablets
All of this gear made for a heavy load but thankfully Lowepro took this into consideration and equipped the bag with a trampoline-style suspension system that performed beautifully. Having 50+ pounds strapped to my back during rough 3,500 foot mountain bike descents was a true testament to this bag’s capability. The bag handled all of the weight with ease and the pack always felt snug on my back.
Aside from the way the pack fit, one of the things I really loved about the Rover Pro was the ability to access all of my camera gear from the front hatch. This meant not having to unpack and repack all of my outdoor gear every time I wanted to set up a shot. That, in conjunction with the customizable modular compartment system, created key timesaving elements that allowed me to move faster and maximize my shooting.
The Rover Pro was an essential part of our Yukon mountain bike film project. It carried all of our gear comfortably and reliably. In the end it did what a great bag is supposed to do – let us focus on making killer content!
Make sure and check out Trevor Clark’s review on his Rover Pro 35L AW on his blog and take a spin through his website to enjoy all of his fantastic work!
For the full skinny and specs on the new Rover Pro visit the Lowepro website. They hit the ball out of the park with this one.
Stay tuned for our short film on our incredible experiences mountain biking in the Yukon. Coming soon!
Watching the sunrise from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA.
It is almost the middle of January in Lake Tahoe and by now I should have a ton of new ski and snowboard images under my belt. Unfortunately this season Mother Nature has other plans. We are currently experiencing one of the driest winter seasons on record and it looks like it is going to last at least another week. It feels more like May than January. There is no snow on the mountains and to sum it up in a word is “depressing.”
To curb my overwhelming desire to bundle up and cram myself into my refrigerator with a few cold ones and pray for winter, I grabbed my fiancée and we headed down to the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley National Park to brighten our mood.
My first goal of the trip was to photograph the Bristlecone Pine trees high in the White Mountains near Bishop, CA. I have photographed the Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin National Park quite extensively, but have never had the opportunity to visit the groves in the White Mountains of California. I wasn’t sure if the road would be open (it usually closes in October after the first snow) but I figured I would give it a shot. Luckily, and completely abnormal for January, the road was good to go.
We got a later start than I wanted to leaving Lake Tahoe and didn’t arrive to the Bristlecone Pine Forest until just after sunset. At first I was upset that I hadn’t given myself time to find some proper compositions but there was still some ambient light left. I did some quick exploring and came up with a few ideas. I knew I would have some moonlight to work with once it got dark and I was counting on using that to make some compelling imagery.
Once the sky was dark enough I began shooting. I shot a few exposures using the available moonlight but after previewing a few, something was missing. I decided to try something new, at least for me. I have shot under moonlight and played around with light-painting quite a bit with great success. I hadn’t however, combined the two. This was the perfect opportunity to give it a try!
An ancient Bristlecone Pine tree in the White Mountains, CA
I put together a composition of an impressive gnarled Bristlecone that I really liked. I set the camera to Bulb mode and opened the shutter for 160 seconds. While the shutter was open I used my headlamp to paint the tree from the side for about 45 seconds. I painted the tree from the side to give it some added depth. If I had lit the tree head on it would have given it a flat effect. After the first exposure I checked my preview and was thrilled with the results! I was really pleased with the combination of ambient moonlight and artificial light from my headlamp. The Bristlecone pines are such an oddity in nature to begin with (they are the oldest single living organisms on earth) and I have always wanted to make an image that really conveyed that. I finally felt like I succeeded.
With a winner in the bag, we made our way back down to the valley floor and headed for the Alabama Hills outside of Independence, CA. There, we set up camp.
I awoke early the next morning below the shadow of Mount Whitney and hiked over to Mobius and Lathe Arch to photograph sunrise. Both provide an excellent feature to photograph at sunrise. In the case of both arches it is possible to frame Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous US) and Lone Pine Peak perfectly in the negative space of both arches. As the first rays of light spill over the horizon lighting up the entire Eastern Sierra, it is truly a site to behold.
The Mobius Arch frames Mount Whitney and the Eastern Sierra Nevada at sunrise in the Alabama Hills, CA.
After shooting for about an hour I had everything I needed. We drove down to town, grabbed some breakfast and continued on to Death Valley National Park.
Having photographed in Death Valley before, I had a good idea of what I was looking for. On my previous trip most of my time was concentrated on photographing the famous Racetrack and the Zabriskie Point area. My goal with the limited time I had on this trip was to put my efforts towards creating some fresh imagery of Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the North America) and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Regina (my fiancée) was really excited to do some yoga in a spectacular location and I thought a late afternoon photo shoot in Badwater Basin would be perfect. I could photograph her in a variety of poses in a surreal setting and could then switch gears and photograph some dynamic landscapes once the sun set. We styled her out in some clothing that I liked and off we went.
Regina performing Lord of the Dance Pose (Natarajasana) in the Badwater Basin area of Death Valley National Park
The shoot went better than expected. The white salt surface of Badwater Basin provided the perfect natural reflector (similar to snow) to soften the harsh shadows of the late afternoon light. It balanced the scene out perfectly. The combination of the surreal landscape and yoga made for some great imagery that will surely sell in the commercial stock photography market.
Regina performs the One-Legged Inverted Staff Pose (Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana) in the Badwater Basin area of Death Valley National Park
After the sun set I stayed out on Badwater Basin for another hour composing a variety of landscape images. What a dreamlike place! Absolutely spectacular!
Badwater Basin at sunset
The next morning Regina and I awoke early and made our way over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We arrived early enough to give ourselves time to hike out a good distance on the dunes and scout a location to shoot before the actual sunrise.
We found a few spots we were happy with and began shooting. Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to shoot on the sand dunes. When the sun is high overhead it illuminates all sides of the dunes and it doesn’t translate very well photographically. The drama of the shadows at the beginning and end of the day provide the best chance to create dramatic imagery. We shot for over an hour until I was happy with a variety of different scenarios. It was a really fun morning.
Running down the sand dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park
After photographing on the sand dunes it was time to drive home. For two days of shooting I was extremely happy with the results. I was the most pleased with my frame from the Bristlecone Pine Forest. I am excited to use the technique of combining moonlight and artificial light in more photo shoots down the road. There is a lot of possibility for unique imagery using that technique and I’m excited to explore it further.
Once again I sit back in my office in Lake Tahoe getting all of these images out into the market. As much as I enjoyed this trip I would really like to start seeing some snow fall in Lake Tahoe. If any of you readers out there have some free time be sure and wash your car, do a snow dance and PRAY FOR SNOW! Until next time…
Usually at this time of year I am already extremely busy shooting all of my winter photography projects in Lake Tahoe. However, Mother Nature hasn’t delivered the goods yet. Lake Tahoe is about to have one of the driest Decembers on record and the forecast looks dismal. Everyone in town (including myself) is going stir crazy.
With everything on hold, I decided to get out of town and create some new work for my fine art and stock portfolio. I hadn’t shot any city scenes in awhile and decided that I would point my lens towards Reno, Sacramento and San Francisco.
My first shoot was in Reno. I didn’t have any images of Reno in my portfolio so I thought shooting an overview of the skyline was a good place to start. I drove down in the early afternoon to scout a good location to frame the city. Within a few hours I found a great vantage point on the top of a hill. The sun wasn’t going to set for another couple hours so I used the rest of the time to scout several locations in the city that I would photograph after I had captured the skyline shot. Everything was shaping up great.
The Reno skyline at dusk
After finding several other good shooting locations in the city I drove back out to the hillside location I scouted earlier. The sun was just setting and the buildings were starting to light up.
Dusk is one of my favorite times to photograph city scenes. There is still enough ambient light to give the sky a nice tone and maintain some detail throughout the scene. Additionally, the vantage point I picked was great but it was also a good distance away from the city itself. The longest lens I carry is a Nikon 70-200 2.8mm. The workaround I use a lot when I want to get a little closer to something is simply shoot with my Nikon D7000 instead of my Nikon D3s. The cropped sensor on the D7000 immediately turns my 70-200mm lens into a 105-300mm giving me the extra reach I need.
A detail of the Reno skyline
After about a half an hour of shooting I knew I had what I needed. I quickly packed up my gear and drove back to the downtown area to capture a few more scenes. My main goal was to get a good shot of the famous Reno Arch. I knew that a good shot of the arch would have a lot of salability, especially in stock. I worked the scene down at the arch for awhile and got what I was looking for. I drove back up to Lake Tahoe confident my time was well spent and that I had some great shots in the bag.
The famous Reno Arch
The next day my fiancée and I drove down to wine country where she had some business to take care of. Over the next several days I used my time to scout and shoot different versions of the San Francisco skyline and bridges.
So much of photography, especially landscape and travel photography, is all about scouting. I definitely spend a lot more time scouting locations than I do shooting them. I usually scout everything during the middle of the day when the scenes are less interesting and the light isn’t as dramatic. Then when all of the elements line up I know exactly where I need to be to make a great image. A lot of my creative process is all about pre-visualization and scouting is a huge part of that.
The first shot I was after was a panorama of the San Francisco skyline with the Bay Bridge. The easiest place to shoot that scene is from Treasure Island, which sits just across from the city and is easily accessible by car. The only downside to shooting from Treasure Island is that I have never felt like the scene is very dynamic. In my mind, the best place to shoot the scene was from the top of a hill on adjoining Yerba Buena Island.
The only problem with shooting from Yerba Buena is that all of the good locations are technically off limits to the public. Luckily things like that don’t usually stop me from doing what I need to do. I spent some time on the island prior to sunset finding a good place to set up my shot. After coming up with some good options I went back over to Treasure Island to wait for the light to get good. I didn’t want to hang out at the locations I scouted on Yerba Buena and draw attention to myself possibly getting me kicked out before I could get my shots.
The sun set and I quickly drove back over to Yerba Buena and began shooting. The scene was spectacular! I shot well into the darkness using a variety of lenses and shutter speeds to get different effects. I shot some of the scenes using a low ISO and slow shutter speed to get the cars streaking across the Bay Bridge. I also shot some of the scenes using a very high ISO (up to 4000) to freeze the cars on the bridge giving the shots a different feel. The capability of the Nikon D3s to produce unbelievable files at such high ISOs has never ceased to amaze me. In fact, I don’t even consider 4000 to be that high of an ISO any more. In the last year I have had several photos published that were shot at a whopping 12,800 ISO!
The San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge at night from Yerba Buena Island
With all of the shots in the bag from Yerba Buena I went back over to Treasure Island and captured a few more scenes. There is a new sculpture on the island that is lit up at night that makes for an excellent subject.
The San Francisco skyline at night from Treasure Island
An amazing sculpture on Treasure Island illuminated at night
The next day my efforts were concentrated on the Golden Gate Bridge. I had shot the Golden Gate once before from the Marin Headlands with great results. I wanted to mix things up a bit though. I really wanted to create an image of the Golden Gate that was colorful and moody. I also didn’t want to shoot the bridge from any of the “classic” locations over on the Marin Headlands. It is easy to get great shots of the bridge and the city from the Marin Headlands but all of the locations are overshot and you would be hard pressed to come away with anything original.
After driving around for awhile I found a great location with a different perspective at the Presidio Yacht Club. Not only did the location have a great view but I also noticed that the tide was starting to go out.
Low tide was going to coincide perfectly with dusk which gave me a great tool at my disposal for creating the kind of image I was looking for. I knew the exposed rocks at low tide would make great foreground subjects with excellent texture. The moving water around the rocks during a long exposure would add to the mystic feel that I was going for.
The Golden Gate Bridge
As it began to get dark and the bridge began to light up, I crept down on the slippery rocks and set up my shot. I took some quick tests and after a few adjustments I was happy with the composition. The only thing I didn’t like was how dark the foreground was compared to the bridge and the sky. To correct this problem I used a 2 stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density filter. I adjusted my exposure accordingly and was extremely happy with the result. I stayed down on the rocks and took shot after shot to ensure I had what I was looking for. The motion of the waves hitting the rocks created a slightly different effect with each exposure and I wanted to make sure that I had the best possible version of the image. After about 30 or so shots I knew I had what I was looking for. Ironically, when I processed all of the images the first shot in the batch was my favorite.
The next day I joined back up with my fiancée and we began our drive back to Lake Tahoe. We didn’t leave until later in the afternoon so we could stop in Sacramento and photograph the famous Tower Bridge on our way home. It worked out perfectly. We hit the bridge at just the right time and I had the chance to take some general overview shots of the bridge as well as get a little more creative. It was a wonderful end to a great couple days of shooting.
Cars pass over the famous Tower Bridge in Sacramento at dusk
Now, back in my office in Lake Tahoe, everything is processed and submitted to the agency I shot for, Aurora Photos. Ultimately I was able to put about forty new images into the market. On top of that I have several new shots that will be sold as limited edition fine art prints. I would call that a productive week!
Unfortunately there still isn’t any snow in the forecast. I haven’t figured out what my next short term project will be to get me through this lull in the weather but trust me, the wheels are turning! Stay tuned.
Juan gallops his horse through the Chiapas countryside
Hiking along the Mammoth Crest and descending down into Red’s Meadow in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains, my backpacking partner and I were about to pick up our last resupply on the Sierra High Route. We arrived at Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station in the afternoon, picked up our provisions and secured a cabin for the night. I turned on my phone for the first time in almost two weeks and gave my beautiful fiancée a call.
After catching her up on our trip she informed me that some decisions had been made on my behalf while I was gone. She explained that while I was out hiking I had been awarded the ATTA (Adventure Travel Trade Association) Visual Storytelling Scholarship. Since I hadn’t “applied” for this scholarship I actually had no idea what she was talking about. She explained to me that the scholarship entailed going to Chiapas, Mexico and photographing an adventure trip (on horseback) for the ATTA and also attending the Adventure Travel World Summit. “Sounds great,” I said, “When is it?” “Well, that’s the kicker,” she said, “you leave next week, the travel arrangements are already made. All you need to do is finish the Sierra High Route quickly and safely and then you depart for Mexico straight away." Needless to say, I was stoked!
Immediately after concluding the most epic backpacking trip of my life (more on that here) I was on a plane headed to the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas. Upon arriving at the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport I was met by a very friendly man holding a sign with my name on it. He informed me that he was to drive me out to the hacienda in the countryside where I would meet up with the rest of my group. We loaded the gear and off we went.
The church at the hacienda illuminated in early morning light
After several hours of driving, we pulled onto an unmarked dirt road and in the distance I spotted the hacienda. We drove into the courtyard where we were immediately greeted by Juan and Gloria, our guides for the trip. I then had the pleasure of meeting the rest of the folks in the group that I would be photographing and traveling with. We had a wonderful dinner and turned in for the evening.
Enjoying dinner at the hacienda
The next day I awoke early to begin documenting our adventure. For the next two days we would travel by horseback across the Chiapas countryside. After that, we would drive down to the Pacific coast to explore a mangrove forest and enjoy the comforts of a small beach resort. The mangrove forest and the beach resort sounded great although I was a little unsure about how the horseback section would go.
Photographing a horseback adventure presents several problems. The number one problem for me was that I had virtually no experience riding horses, let alone photographing from the top of a moving one. I knew that things were going to get interesting.
With the horses saddled up and ready to go, we took off riding through the countryside. Since my job was to document this adventure, not just enjoy it, I was already feeling the pressure. Right away I realized the limitations of photographing from a moving horse. You can only bring a limited amount of gear and the constant action of bouncing up and down makes it very difficult to compose shots. Combine all that with learning to ride a horse and you have a recipe for disaster.
Riding my horse on a dirt road through the Chiapas countryside
As we trotted through the stunning scenery I did my best to take what pictures I could. I knew I wasn’t going to get much but I had to get something. About halfway through the day I discovered that I could have, in fact, been in the back of a pickup truck the entire time chasing the group and getting tons of shots. Unfortunately, this wasn’t communicated to me at the beginning of the day so I was stuck on the horse and had to make the best of it.
Riders on a dirt road in the Chiapas countryside
By mid-afternoon we had completed our first day of riding. We sat down to a magnificent lunch with fresh fish and traditional Mexican cuisine. From there we were driven back to the hacienda to relax from the day’s events. As everyone headed into their rooms, Juan and Gloria informed me that they were headed into the nearby town of Cintalapa de Figueroa to pick up some supplies. They also told me it would be a great location for photographs. I jumped at the opportunity.
Two smiling women relax by their snack stand in Cintalapa de Figueroa
Cintalapa de Figueroa was beautiful and quaint. We walked around the square and visited several shops and markets that made for excellent imagery. I started feeling much better knowing I had some shots under my belt.
A traditional hat shop in Cintalapa de Figueroa
After we returned to the hacienda I could tell it was important that I had made the trip with Juan and Gloria to photograph Cintalapa de Figueroa. Juan explained to me that the town was not a tourist destination and he was looking to change all that. It was easy to see why. The friendly people, warm atmosphere and old-world culture created an environment that any traveler would welcome.
The next day I awoke, eager to get out and start shooting. I only had one day left to capture the horseback portion of our adventure and I really needed to nail it. Luckily I had access to a pickup truck that I would be riding around in shooting from the tailgate. The day went much better. We traveled through more amazing countryside passing old hacienda ruins, small villages and spectacular vistas. For any avid equestrian it would be the trip of a lifetime.
Horses and their riders approach a herd of cattle
Two horses looking through a fence
Juan and Gloria ride their horses on a trail through the Chiapas countryside
One of our guides, Oliverio, takes a well deserved swim with his horse
We finished the ride and headed back to the hacienda to grab our belongings and drive down to the coast.
After several hours of driving towards the Pacific Ocean, we pulled into a fairly obscure dirt parking lot in the beginnings of a mangrove forest. We were greeted by several nice young men who loaded us and our gear into a small boat. After a quick ride through the mangrove forest and across a fairly large channel we arrived at a small peninsula of land with a dirt path leading to the ocean. I headed down the path following the sound of the surf. It only took me a second to realize that I was in absolute paradise and life was about to be really good.
The endless beach in beautiful afternoon light in Madresal
After being given a key to my own private bungalow steps away from the beach, I dropped my luggage, grabbed my camera and started shooting. The light was already as close to perfect as it gets and the setting was surreal.
As the sun set, we sat down at a table, literally on the beach, and were treated to yet another amazing meal including fresh fish and exquisite local cuisine. Of course, we also had a few cervesas!
Beach, surf and sky
Dinner progressed and a large well-dressed man approached our table to introduce himself. It turned out he was the mayor of Madresal, the small town that was just across the water from the resort. He and his wife had come over to thank all of us for taking the time to visit his beautiful town and country. It was immediately obvious that he wanted to get the word out to people in the rest of the world that they needed to come experience Madresal and all it has to offer. I couldn’t agree with his sentiment more.
Just when I thought the night was winding down, several of the resort’s staff approached our table to let us know that there was a surprise waiting for us down on the beach. I had no idea what that meant but I did know I probably should have my camera.
We walked in the direction of the crashing surf towards a large group of people. As I came upon the group I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked down to see two large buckets filled with twelve hundred baby sea turtles that we were about to release into the ocean. It was incredible!
Children use flashlights to examine two containers filled with twelve hundred baby sea turtles
A baby sea turtle sits in the palm of someone's hand before it is released into the ocean
After we released all of the turtles into the ocean, I returned to my bungalow and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves and a calm ocean breeze.
Early the next morning we met at the boat dock for the final portion of our adventure. We were traveling by boat through a magnificent mangrove forest to view thousands of birds and hopefully spot some crocodiles. Again, we were not disappointed.
Traveling by boat through the mangrove forest
A flock of Great Egrets soar through the air
Our guides skillfully navigated our small boats through a virtual maze of channels deep into the heart of the mangrove forest. The cries of thousands of birds served as the backdrop to this amazing experience. While we did spot a few crocodiles, they definitely wanted to keep to themselves and we never got close enough to get any good photos of them.
After touring the mangrove forest, we returned to the resort and got to relax for a few hours. With all my shots in the bag I took the opportunity to take a well-deserved nap in the hammock provided in my bungalow. It was the perfect end to the perfect adventure.
Children play soccer on the beach at sunset
Later that day my companions and I were dropped off in San Cristobal where we spent the next four days attending the ATTA’s Adventure Travel World Summit. Over 50 countries were represented and I had the pleasure of meeting and networking with amazing people from all over the world excited about adventure travel. I also had the opportunity to photograph Felipe Calderon (the president of Mexico), sip tequila with a remarkable group of new friends and explore the fantastic cultural hub of San Cristobal. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Next year the summit is in Switzerland and you can bet that I will be there!
The famous Cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas illuminated at dusk, Chiapas, Mexico
To learn more about Enduro Equestre and the trips they offer visit their website at:
Ascending Cirque Pass looking down towards Lower Palisade Lake in Kings Canyon National Park
Earlier this year, my adventure partner Sean Cronin and I were looking to do an extended trip in the backcountry and any location in the world was fair game. After much deliberation we chose to forego an exotic overseas destination in favor of our backyard, The Sierra Nevada. The obvious choice was to tackle the John Muir Trail, the famous 211 mile path stretching from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney.
Several weeks of planning went by and I walked out to my mailbox on a sunny July afternoon to find the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine. In it, I found an article that was about two guys who had just completed the JMT by headlamp in the middle of the night. The premise was that the JMT was so over traveled that the only way to gain a true wilderness experience was to hike it at night. My decision was made right then and there. We were scratching the trip. If I have to hike something in the middle of the night to find solitude in the mountains the rest of the general public can have it.
Immediately my brain started churning on what trip we should undertake instead. Sean and I still really liked the idea of doing something in the Sierras, but what would it be? Several years ago I had heard about an alternative to the JMT called the Sierra High Route. From what I understood, most of the route was completely off-trail, stretched 195 miles from Kings Canyon National Park to Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport, CA, traveled mostly above 10,000 feet crossing 33 mountain passes, had less than 20 people a year thru-hiking it and to sum it up in a word, was “burly.” I ran the idea by Sean over the phone and he said he would start looking into it. Five minutes later my phone rang. “Why didn’t we think of this in the first place!” he said, “I’m in!” And that was that. The second week of September we got dropped off at Road’s End in Kings Canyon National Park to start our journey.
Descending down to Upper Glacier Lake in Kings Canyon National Park
While the beginning of the route started on a trail, it was immediately apparent that it was going to live up to all of the hype. By the end of the first day we had reached Grouse Lake and had already climbed over 5500 feet. As we set up our first camp in a hail storm I started laughing. “This is going to be awesome,” I said to Sean. “Yep!” he replied.
Upon waking up the next day we began our first big day of cross-country travel. After leaving Grouse Lake we wouldn’t see a single soul until three days later when we joined the John Muir Trail for a brief stint to get us up and over Mather Pass. The scenery was spectacular.
Hiking from White Pass to Red Pass in Kings Canyon National Park
Over the course of those three days we traveled through one pristine valley after another in the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. Many of the lakes we encountered didn’t even have names, even though they were some of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. It became extremely obvious that if there isn’t a trail to a location, people aren’t going there. We were in heaven.
A beautiful unnamed lake near Frozen Lake Pass on the Sierra High Route in Kings Canyon National Park
On the morning of the fourth day we awoke at the base of Frozen Lake Pass (12,400 feet). Considered to be one of the hardest passes on the route we weren’t really sure what we were in for. We stared up at the steep endless field of boulders to a small notch on the horizon. At first glance it looked intimidating but as are with many things in the mountains, whenever you’re looking across at something it always looks worse than it is. Our ascent was tedious but in the end we cruised up and over with little difficulty. The route was steep, mostly Class 2 and 3.
Holding an altimeter on the top of Frozen Lake Pass in Kings Canyon National Park
After descending Frozen Lake Pass we arrived at the John Muir Trail. While the Sierra High Route travels mostly off established trails, it piggybacks on the JMT and several other trails out of necessity for short sections. This is simply because it is the most efficient way to navigate the landscape.
Within a half hour of being on the JMT we began running into things we hadn’t seen in awhile, people. After a short period of time we climbed up Mather Pass. Thanks to the extremely well constructed switchbacks, the pass turned out to be trivial compared to several of the mountain passes that we had already tackled. From the top of Mather Pass we gazed down on Palisade Lakes and in the distance was our next obstacle, Cirque Pass. After a little over an hour on the JMT we were at the outlet of the Lower Palisade Lake and ready to leave the trail once again.
Collecting water from a small tarn
We ascended a few hundred feet in elevation to a small tarn below Cirque Pass and made camp for the evening. Our camp site was magnificent. To the south was Lower Palisade Lake and Mather Pass and to the east was the impressive Palisade Crest (a series of peaks all over 13,000ft). The best part about our view was being able to see the difference between the Sierra High Route and the John Muir Trail. If we had stayed on the JMT we would have been forced down into a valley with less than spectacular views. Instead we were headed up and over 12,000ft Cirque Pass back into the true Sierra high country. Again, we were the only people around.
Our tents are illuminated at dusk near Cirque Pass
The next day we climbed up and over Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass and Knapsack Pass ending up at the top of Bishop Pass amidst a typical fall afternoon thunderstorm. While it was uncomfortable hiking through the hail and rain at the end of a long day, as a photographer I couldn’t have been in a better situation. Upon reaching the top of Bishop Pass and making camp the storm began to break and Sean and I got to witness one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The light hitting the clouds was so intense that it literally illuminated the entire landscape. I always feel so lucky to be in the right place at the right time when Mother Nature decides to put on her show.
A spectacular sunset from a clearing storm lights up the peaks surrounding Bishop Pass
While Bishop Pass isn’t technically on the Sierra High Route it was a necessary stop for us. We had a resupply waiting down at Parcher’s Resort we had to retrieve so we could continue our journey. The next day we descended several thousand feet down to the resort and began sorting through the resupply. After organizing our gear more weather began moving in. We had a decision to make. Pack up everything and head back into the high country in extremely bad weather or get a cabin for the night and have a couple of beers. We chose the cabin and the beers.
The next day, after climbing back up and over Bishop Pass, we began our next section of the High Route. Rejoining the JMT we traveled through Le Conte Canyon, crossed Muir Pass, and descended into Evolution Basin. At the end of Evolution Basin we finally left the trail once again and began climbing towards the next major High Route obstacle, Snow Tongue Pass.
Walking by the famous Muir Hut on the top of Muir Pass on the John Muir Trail
We had heard a rumor over the course of our travels about Snow Tongue Pass. We ran into one guy who claimed that it would be impossible to descend without ice axes and crampons. The guy claimed to be a Mammoth local and gave us advice on Snow Tongue Pass and about every other location in the Sierras, most of which I’m pretty sure he had never actually been to. We quickly realized it wasn’t a wealth of knowledge he possessed but a strong will to impress his buddies that he was guiding aimlessly into the wilderness. Needless to say we took his advice with a grain of salt.
Luckily, and not to my surprise, our Mammoth “local” turned out to be completely wrong. After cresting the top of the pass and looking down, the descent looked discouraging but was far from impossible. After several hours we made our way safely down, completing another one of the formidable barriers of the High Route.
Navigating using a topographic map from the top of Snow Tongue Pass looking east towards Mount Humphreys
The next day of the trip was probably my favorite. We had the extreme pleasure of traveling through Bear Lakes Basin, one of the most remote locales in the Sierra Nevada. After a long and trailless climb over Feather Pass we descended into Bear Lakes Basin. We were immediately greeted with babbling brooks, cascading waterfalls and 360 degree panoramic views of spectacular Sierra Nevada scenery. Mark Twain once wrote that Lake Tahoe was the "fairest picture the whole world affords.” I think if he had the opportunity to travel to Bear Lakes Basin he may have changed his mind.
A spectacular afternoon view overlooking Bear Lakes Basin
As the days went by we crossed pass after pass through one amazing valley after another, finally descending down to Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station where we picked up our final resupply. Again, lured by the comforts of civilization, we grabbed a cabin for the night to recharge our batteries for the final leg of the journey.
Ascending back into the high country we made our way towards the Minarets and camped at one of the most dramatic camp sites of the trip, Iceberg Lake.
A beautiful sunrise over Iceberg Lake and the Minarets
The following day was, by far, the hardest of the trip. Making our way around the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak we hiked towards the boundary of Yosemite National Park. The terrain was so rough that in the afternoon we were only able to move a little more than a mile over the course of four hours. It was frustrating to say the least, but with one foot in front of the other we pushed on.
Navigating through one of many endless fields of boulders
A mandatory stream crossing at Twin Island Lakes
The next day we crested over Blue Lakes Pass and into Yosemite National Park. For both Sean and I it was the first time either of us had entered the park without using a car. It was a pretty cool feeling.
We descended cross-country finally picking up a series of trails that pointed us in the direction of Tuolumne Meadows. Little did we know that Tuolumne Meadows would be the termination of our journey.
Taking a rest in the grass next to Rosy Finch Lake
The night before reaching Tuolumne Meadows the wind really started to pick up. Sean and I are very familiar with high winds in the Sierra and it usually means one thing - a big storm is on the horizon. When we arrived in Tuolumne Meadows the next day, we began asking around about the status of the weather. A ranger informed us that there was in fact a big early winter storm on the horizon that was supposed to hit in the next several days. We got on the phone with some of our friends in Lake Tahoe to verify the information. All of them had the same answer - bail out. So at mile 167 we had to pull the plug.
As it turns out we definitely made the right call. Two days later an unseasonable winter storm hit the Sierra with a vengeance and dropped over a foot and a half of snow in the high country. If we had decided to continue we would have been hosed. That much snow would have made travel pretty much impossible and put us in a very dangerous situation. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can only take what the mountains give you. When Mother Nature decides to put the hammer down it is best not to be in the impact zone.
Getting a much needed drink of water near Feather Pass. We didn't purify or filter our water for the majority of the trip.
Relaxing at camp at White Bear Lake
Even though we were unable to complete the last twenty-eight miles of the route, I don’t really feel cheated. On a previous climbing trip I had traveled on some of the terrain that we would have encountered. The scenery and terrain is impressive but, in my mind, doesn’t compare to some of the earlier sections of the route we had already completed. We definitely experienced the best the Sierra High Route has to offer.
In the end, the Sierra High Route lived up to all the hype. The country is huge, the terrain is rough and the views are spectacular. Almost every day we were tested with our physical ability, route finding skills and mental fortitude. I feel so lucky to have been able to experience such a grand adventure. Now only one question remains, what’s next?!
A silhouette of Sean next to one of the Minarets