This article originally appeared on nwpphotoforum.com.
It's 4 AM and we wake from a short three-hour sleep just outside the West Gate of Yosemite National Park. Our rogue "campsite" was a discovery I made a few years back after realizing that civilized camping within park boundaries during tourist high season is impossible on short notice. Still barely awake, I silently drive us up the windy road, through the park's gate and into the lush forest. I love driving in Yosemite at night, the roads cleansed of monstrous RVs and radar wielding authorities. We soon find ourselves at Olmsted Point, a spot famous for hosting Ansel Adams’ photography workshops. These days, pausing here to take photos is for the tourists. We press on into one of the most glorious areas of the Park, Tuolumne Meadows. As we sort our climbing gear at the trailhead, I nervously watch the sky for signs of clouds or approaching thunderstorms. Today's adventure will require impeccable weather as we scale one of the most dramatic rock formations in the park and follow its spine for over a mile. Thankfully, the sky is clear as we pause to admire the ever-changing colors of the granite domes around us, obvious signs of the arriving day, as we begin our approach to Matthes Crest.
Being an avid climber and photographer, I constantly have to battle with conflicting priorities. The climber wants the innocent, cloudless blue sky while the photographer yearns for the drama of menacing skies, lightning, explicit colors, puffy clouds. While in Yosemite during the summer months, my inner conflict is fueled with choices: to climb or to photograph, and how to do both at the same time?
|The choice is clear today and we briskly move through Yosemite high country towards our objective. As we rise above timberline and the towering peaks come out from hiding, I feel the peacefulness of being home; my senses remember why this is, quite possibly, my favorite place in the world. Many times each year I keep coming back, never tiring of its enveloping serene beauty. And then Matthes Crest looms above us. Suddenly we are connected by the umbilical cord of the rope and anxiously peering up the steep rock face we are about to climb. Matthes Crest is one of the most unique rock formations in Yosemite and is rarely seen by people due to its lack of visibility from any park road. One must hike at least five miles into the wilderness before catching a glimpse of this natural phenomenon. Even then, one does not sense its full impact since, from afar, it looks like a misplaced, detached ridge. One must stand on its spine to fully understand its power; a few-feet-wide, mile long knife-edge crest that drops off hundreds of feet on each side. We must work our way up a few lengths of rope before we can even stand on this incredible crest. From here, the going gets easier and I can't help but pull out my camera between precarious, balancing steps along the exposed ridge. The view is heavenly; we can almost see the entire Yosemite Park from the remote Clark Range to El Capitan to the Cathedral Range peaks to Tuolumne Meadows to the hills surrounding the now defaced Hetch Hetchy valley. It is obvious that the weather won't be threatening us today as we continue our climb, overjoyed by the sense of balance between our bodies and the power of nature.|
|A few weeks pass and I start to feel the all too familiar urban congestion in my chest, longing for a cleansing breath of fresh mountain air. More spontaneously than with aim, we are packing and driving into the night. Destination, Tuolumne. This drive I can make with my eyes closed at speeds well beyond legal, if only other vehicles wouldn't make the road an obstacle course. Briefly pausing to flash our National Park pass at the gate, we are back in paradise. What will the weekend bring? This time, nature does not keep us waiting; it is barely 10am and the sky is grim with brewing drama. The first drops of rain, the roar of thunder, the Sierra I admire and fear so much is breaking open full force. I pause in the Meadows to contemplate the scenes I hope to capture here tonight; the magic hour. Despite my constant passing through the Meadows, it is more of a thoroughfare to climbs and destinations rather than a magical photo location. I rarely shoot its spectacular landscape. Settling into the reality of bad weather, I acknowledge my inability to climb and so, focus on photography. |
|Like an old slide projector, scattered images slowly flicker through my mind as I try to remember past noted sceneries yet to be explored through the lens. Here’s one, just off the road. A glassy pond of still water, Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs reflected between weeds and pine trees. Tripod out and I shoot away, moving slowly along the bank, changing camera settings, photographing and completely loosing any sense of the world outside my focus. When my eye finally gets its fix, I pan back into reality, stuff myself into the car and drive on. Next.|
|Tuolumne River runs busily next to the road while I plot the transformation of its rapidly moving stream into molten metal with camera alone. Not being able to mull any longer, I rush towards it, set up a tripod and trigger the shutter over and over...there is nothing left to shoot. Hours have passed. The Meadows begin to feel dreamy in the softening light. It is time. Back into the car, drive and park. I run through weeds and over boulders in search of the scene I have carefully nurtured all day. The sky is scattered with clouds, seams of light seeping through with shocking contrast. The pointy peaks of Cathedral Range crown the blossoming canvas of the Meadows as I snap away, adjusting camera angle, changing aperture. Holding my breath with every shutter click, I will the magic to glow just a bit longer, allowing me a lingering chance to capture its essence. And then it happens. The sky bursts yellow, then orange and, finally, red. The last glimpse of sun as she caresses the looming domes before sinking into the deep, soft shroud of night. I am submerged in this powerful force where reality meets perception. Only the slight click of the camera keeps my senses from becoming lost within myself, within the camera, within the landscape; it is my faint passageway back to reality. |
As night's velvety cloak puts the sun to rest, I hug my patient girlfriend and we walk hand in hand through the Meadows back to the waiting car. Although satisfied and complete, I feel a tinge of melancholy knowing that I witnessed a unique, rare moment of the world changing around us; changing me. Winding down the vanishing road, we rush towards our hidden rogue campsite, watching the distant flashes of lightning over Nevada. I can’t help but think, "Will I climb tomorrow? Will I photograph tomorrow?" And, of course the inevitable, "How can I do both?"