I just got home a few days ago from a long trip to West Texas and Colorado. My ultimate goal was to climb Mt. Harvard, Mt. Columbia, and Huron Peak, all 14,000-foot peaks, with some friends. However, to justify my little climbing adventure I had to take a few photos along the way. I started in the Davis Mountains of West Texas by shooting a large ranch up in the mountains and another smaller ranch with an incredible house down in the Marfa grasslands. The area has had a wet summer, so the mountains looked more like Ireland than West Texas. Shooting the two ranches was a pleasure, even if I hadn't been getting paid for it. I had beautiful country, dramatic skies, and great light, key ingredients for any good photo.
On the second morning at the ranch in the mountains, I got up well before dawn and stepped out of the guest house expecting clear skies, typical on summer mornings. I was greeted with a flash of lightning and rumble of thunder. Could be interesting, I thought. I head out in the predawn gloom on the dirt ranch road that I had scouted the day before with the foreman. I parked at the base of a ridge and started scrambling up onto the ridge top, hoping I wouldn't step on a rattlesnake. I'd already seen two the previous two days. The grass was so tall that I couldn't see where I was putting my feet. However, I made it to the top unscathed as a little pink light was hitting the storm to my west. The storm was moving my way, but fortunately was losing strength. I didn't want to be chased off by lightning. I quickly started shooting. With 360-degree views, the view was tremendous. The clouds were lighting up and soon the first rays of golden light struck my ridge and the tall grass. I couldn't move around fast enough, shooting in every direction. The summit was covered with boulders and tall grass, so I had to be careful as I ran around. Breaking an ankle would not have been a good thing. As with many places I photograph, cell service was nonexistent.
Eventually the sun climbed up into some clouds and the light faded, so I packed everything up, picked my way down the treacherous slope back to my truck, and called it a morning. I loaded my gear at the guest house and headed back into Fort Davis. That evening and the next morning I photographed an incredible house lost on a lonely hilltop in the grasslands surrounding Marfa. It was incredible enough that two people were there scouting the house for a party scene for a movie. Unfortunately the light and weather weren't as cooperative this time, with clouds and rain. I did get some good interior shots, however, and some dramatic shots at sunset and with the house lights on at dusk.
The next morning, I tried to shoot the house again at sunrise, but clouds blocked me out again. The photo biz is like farming. The weather makes or breaks you. I headed back to Fort Davis to my friend Steve Kennedy's house, tossed my stuff into Steve's truck, and off we went to Colorado. We made it as far as the mountains above Taos that night, stopping along the way for lunch in my old hometown, Carlsbad, with some friends there. That evening we stopped and shot an old adobe church in La Cueva just before sunset. The sky was a little bland for photos, but the light was good, and the handsome church, isolated all by itself in a meadow, made a good subject.
The next day we headed up to Great Sand Dunes National Park. We snagged a campsite and then relaxed a bit as we waited to see if there would be sunset light. It wasn't looking hopeful, with storms to the west over the San Juans. We weren't itching to drag our heavy camera packs all the way up to the top of the 700-foot dunes if we weren't going to have any light. Finally, about an hour and a half before sunset, it looked like we might get a few breaks in the clouds to the west, so we gritted our teeth, donned our packs, and headed across Medano Creek and up the dunes. One step up, 3/4 step back. What a slog, especially at close to 9000 feet elevation with heavy packs. Puffing and panting, we made it to the top of one of the highest dunes right as the light started breaking through. I started shooting, dripping sweat all over my camera and breathing hard. Storms hovered over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above while golden light slanted across the dunes, highlighting every ripple. Then a thunderstorm started to build overhead. The wind start blowing hard, pelting me and my camera with sand. Now I really had some grit in my teeth. When the rain piled on, I stuffed my camera in the pack, and stood there squinting into the blowing sand and rain, hoping that lightning wouldn't be following. Here I was, on top of one of the highest dunes with a nice electrically conductive tripod.
Eventually the wind calmed a bit and I started shooting again. We went until the last color faded from the sky. We hustled back down, hoping we could find our truck in the dark. We managed, emptying sand out of our boots several times along the way.
The next morning was boring for photos--blank blue sky--so we packed up and headed for Buena Vista. We drove to the N. Cottonwood Trailhead, loaded our backpacks, and hit the trail into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Up we went into the thin air, camping gear, food, clothes, and cameras strapped to our backs. Three and a half sweaty miles later, we reached our 11,300-foot campsite in the Horn Fork Basin at the base of Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia. Later that evening, just as it was getting dark, three of our friends from Colorado Springs arrived at camp, tired from hustling up the trail as it was getting dark.
None of us slept well that night and the chilly morning came early. We dragged out of our tents before dawn, forced some food down, and headed up the trail to Mt. Harvard, at 14,420', the third highest peak in Colorado. We puffed and panted our way upwards as the rising sun tipped the peaks around with color. I took photos as we went, driving my hiking buddies crazy. I was reminded once again that living in Texas at low elevation is not conducive to climbing high peaks.
The last part of the climb involved some scrambling up ledges and low cliffs, but by a little after 10AM we were there. There was nowhere higher to climb. I took photos, we ate some snacks huddled up out of the cold wind, and observed the building clouds.