Piute Pass – Loads Of Snow, Swollen Creeks, And Busted Boot

Mt Goethe and surrounding peaks provide a panoramic view just over Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.

In August my friend Steve and I attempted a quick four day loop through parts of Inyo National Forest. Our plan was to ascend Piute Pass, head down the other side to Evolution Valley, and loop back up Darwin Canyon through Lamarck Col to complete the loop at North Lake. Sounded pretty simple, and going through some beautiful country. What we hadn’t planned on when creating the trip was how much snow was still in the mountains from the heavy winter. Even though it was August, snow still covered much of our trail.

As our trip date approached, we saw that not only would we have lots of snow to contend with, but also some very wet weather. Monsoonal moisture was pushing up from the east side of the Sierra, looking to drench our trip. After some deliberation, we decided to push forward, hoping for at least one clear evening or morning in Evolution Valley. I’d certainly put up with four days of rain for one beautiful landscape shot to add to my portfolio.

Snowmelt feeds waterfalls on the climb up to Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.
Snowmelt feeds waterfalls on the climb up to Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA.

The climb up to Piute Pass was uneventful, passing a series of lakes on the way to the day’s high point. Glaciers clung to the northern slopes of the mountains, feeding small waterfalls. We did encounter several groups of happy campers who had spent the previous night at some of these lakes. I spoke briefly to a man named John and his son Clay who looked like they braved the nighttime rains in good spirits.

As we got closer to the top, I started seeing small fields of wildflowers. It was the right time of year for this elevation, but given how much snow was still in the mountains, I hadn’t been thinking of wildflowers at all.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

As soon as we were over the pass, we were treated to panoramic views of the mountains to the south. We had a short respite of flat ground, before the trail steepened and we descended into forest. As the rain started to fall, I donned my lightweight rain jacket and began to wonder if I was really prepared for potentially four days of rain. Soon we came across our first water crossing. The typical rock hop had swollen to a deep, fast flow, requiring the removal of my boots and a careful crossing. While the water was only up to my mid thigh, I began to worry about the crossings to come, knowing that some were much deeper.

Some days on the trail, the terrain wins the day. This was certainly one of those days. By the time we got to our campsite area, I was absolutely beat, and soaking wet from the five hours of downpour. Steve and I slogged around the area looking for a fire ring. Every spot that looked like it could work was under water. Between the rainfall and melting snow, there was so much water in the area that large pools formed in just about every flat space available. After about 45 minutes of searching, we finally found a place. I set up on a very wet slab of granite, hoping most of the water would run around my tent rather than under it. We heroically got a smoldering fire going, and tucked in for an early night.

The next morning, we woke to clear skies. However, everything I owned seemed to be soaked. Even my down sleeping back was wet on the outside, worrying me about warmth for the next cold night if it soaked through. We sat for a few minutes debating whether to push on, or just abandon and head back to the car. I was tired, wet, and worried about the difficult water crossings ahead. What finally swayed me was the discovery that my right boot was completely separating from the sole. This did not bode well for three more days of rough travel, much of it cross country. Time to head back to the car.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

Thus, with heavy hearts we repeated the terrain of day one. I tied some twine around my boot to hold it together and we climbed back up to Piute Pass from the west. Given that we had extra time to get back to the car, we stopped and took in a few beautiful wildflower displays on the western side of the pass.

Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA
Wildflowers adorn the meadows below Piute Pass, Inyo National Forest, CA

While we didn’t get to see the glory of Evolution Valley, it was beautiful country nonetheless. Even though it is always difficult when you don’t reach your goals, we still enjoyed a night out in the wilderness, 22 miles of challenging hiking, and some high elevation August wildflowers. Failed trip? Maybe. But it is hard to bemoan getting some solitude out in the natural world. It does much to replenish my soul, even when the going is tough.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Storm In The Desert

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The crackling of distant thunder woke me from a deep sleep at 4:30 in the morning. Instantly wide awake, I looked to the floor-to-ceiling windows to see flashes of light behind the thick drapes. I made my way out of the door of my bungalow to the balcony overlooking a wide expanse of the desert valley. Suddenly a lightning bolt ignited the night sky, silhouetting the 1000 foot dunes in the distance.

It was my last morning in the middle of the Namib Desert in western Namibia. I stood on the balcony in awe of mother nature’s light show. Lightning continued to split the sky as pregnant thunder clouds rolled across the endless dune fields. A dry cool wind was whipping across the desert floor, bringing respite from the African heat. All at once, the sky opened up and I stood in one of the most impressive downpours I’ve ever witnessed. This land receives only 10 mm of rain each year, and here was buckets of water drenching everything to the horizon.

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although I was now soaked, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. After twenty minutes of intense rain, it suddenly stopped. Ten minutes after that I was dry, thanks to the return of the desert’s typical aridity.

I gathered my gear and met up with my traveling companions, who I was planning to join to do an aerial shoot at sunrise. Obviously these plans were quickly scrapped, as none of us wanted to be tossed around in a small aircraft in the middle of a thunderstorm. Instead, we headed out into the desert where we got into position to capture this marvelous sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains. Clear sky to the far east allowed the sun to light up the underside of the storm clouds, painting the sky a deep red. A couple of gemsbok oryx crossing the desert floor in front of the mountains added the icing on top.

Rain falls from a storm cloud over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

With rain still pouring from clouds in places, we chased the light through the dunes, hoping to capture this phenomena.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although there was not enough accumulation to create pools of water (I was hoping to find a reflection opportunity), the wet sand lent a very different look to the massive dunes. The water softened the edges of sand cut by the wind, diffusing the contours into abstract patterns.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

After about an hour of dramatic lighting, the skies cleared up into their usual blue. I felt so fortunate to witness such drama on my last morning in the desert.

Asian Elephants

An asian elephant herd surrounds a tiny baby to protect it, Mudumalai National Park, India.

On my recent trip to Mudumalai National Park in India, I was lucky to encounter a herd of forest elephants. Asian elephants differ greatly from their African counterparts in that they are smaller, have much smaller ears, larger nails on their feet (for digging and foraging) and have two large forehead bulges.

Two asian elephants surround a tiny baby in order to protect it, Mudumalai National Park, India.

Asian elephants have been domesticated by humans for the last 5,000 years, used for transportation, to move heavy objects, and for beasts of war.

An asian elephant walks across a clearing in the forest, Mudumalai National Park, India.

In Asian elephants, only the males have pronounced tusks (commonly known as “tuskers”). When females do have tusks, they are very small and usually only visible when the mouth is open.

An asian elephant stands at the edge of a forest eating, Mudumalai National Park, India.

Unlike the elephants I saw in Africa earlier this year, which were in the open savanna, these forest elephants seemed to appear out of nowhere. Like giant ghosts, they emerged from the thick forest overgrowth and surprised us. I was very glad at this point not to be on foot. These elephants seem gentle enough from a distance, but getting up close and personal could be a very dangerous prospect!

An asian elephant with a juvenile stands at the edge of a forest, Mudumalai National Park, India.

Later in the evening after seeing the elephants, I was back at the forest camp in which I was staying. About 10:00 at night we starting hearing some loud cracking and snapping coming from the dark forest, very near to us. We soon realized it was an elephant snapping bamboo and crashing through the underbrush. After a few minutes of this, we saw a large flash in the trees. The lights of the camp flickered a few times and then went dead for good. It turns out a large bamboo tree fell against the power line coming into the camp.

About 15 minutes later, we heard people shouting, banging pots, and lighting off fire crackers in the distance. The rogue elephant had left our camp and was now approaching a nearby village. Eventually these sounds died off and the forest went back to sleep. With no power. And an upset elephant. In the dark.

Deadvlei – A Study In Graphic Forms

The clay pan of Deadvlei contains numerous camel thorn trees that have been dead for at least 600 years.

Welcome to Deadvlei, one of those mystical places on earth that simply takes your breath away. There are a few places in the world that have spoken to me this way – whether it’s 5,000 year old Bristlecone Pines clinging to life on a windswept mountain slope, or morning sea fog rolling through a quiet stand of old growth California coastal redwoods (why do these special places always seem to involve trees?). Deadvlei is certainly one of those places.

Deadvlei is a dry and dusty river bed, located in the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Deadvlei translates to “dead marsh”, taking the Afrikaans word vlei, meaning a seasonal pond or marsh. This area once lined the banks of the Tsauchab river, flooding at times of abundant rainfall. Around 600 to 700 years ago, a great drought hit the region, drying up the river. Blowing sand encroached upon the flood plain, blocking the river’s path and forming the massive dunes that cover the land today. The camel thorn trees that grew in this marsh died, but due to the extremely dry climate, none of the wood decomposed, leaving skeletal husks still standing for hundreds of years. Centuries spent in the hot African sun have scorched the remains into blackened ghosts.

600 years ago, a drought dried up the Tsauchab river, 1000 foot dunes encroached on the dried up marsh, and the river was blocked.

In order to do an on-sight scout and be ready for the light, I arrived before dawn. This involved rising about 4 AM, hopping in a hired safari vehicle (with giant tires) and taking the 45 minute ride among the largest dunes in the world. The asphalt road soon turned to dirt, which turned to sand. Low tire pressure, 4-wheel drive, and high clearance are all musts in this area – no sedans allowed.

From the drop off, it was a 15 minute hike into the dunes before I topped a rise and saw Deadvlei down below me, surrounded on three sides by immense walls of blood red sand. The tallest point is south east of the clay pan, nicknamed Big Daddy. Standing over 1,000 feet tall, it towers above everything else in the area.

I did a quick scan from my vantage point before descending to a stand of trees. I set up a composition, and waited for the light.

The wood of the dead trees does not decompose because the area is so dry.

Based on my trip research, I knew much of my shooting at this location would be a study of form and separation. Before I set up for any particular shot, I spent a lot of time looking for the right composition. I needed to avoid unnecessary converging lines, and try to separately my subjects from each other. I would walk around clusters of trees, trying to discern how I would render three dimensions onto a flat, two-dimensional plane.

I imagined the trees in silhouette, reduced to graphical elements of lines and shapes. I moved forward and backward, up and down, trying to find the angles that would convey the subjects in a compositionally elegant manner.

Sun spotlights the side of a dune wall behind a desiccated tree.

The sun moved higher in the sky, spotlighting parts of the landscape through lazy clouds. I looked for new patterns that the light played out across the desert surface.

Tree husks reach out of the clay pan toward the morning sky.

As the desiccated trees moved from shadow to light, their dark forms contrasted against the bright ground and red sand, emphasizing the graphical nature of the scene.

Pulling a three-dimensional stand of trees into a flat plane can be challenging.

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. As I was standing in that dusty, dry, ancient river bed, I could hardly believe I was there. I was half a world away from home, and my surroundings could not have been more alien. I truly relish these experiences. Being able to capture an area photographically and share it with others is rewarding, but there is nothing that could replace being there in person.