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Great Sand Dunes National Park

Yesterday, I took off for the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I had to stop at REI, so I took my route through Colorado Springs and then down Interstate 25. I exited at Highway 160 and headed east, and then I made the turn north on Highway 150 that would take me into the park. As I made the turn, I noticed the beautiful Blanca Peak towering ahead. I stopped and got a quick shot.

Blanca Peak

I arrived at about 2:00pm to find that a strong wind and a lot of snow were blowing around. But with determination and a few curse words, I got my tent up. My tent site had an outstanding view of the dunes, and I had the tent door facing that way with the intention of waking up and seeing the dunes at sunrise.

I transferred my gear into the tent, then sat at the picnic table to make a meal. I assembled my Jetboil, cranked the gas, and pushed the igniter. *CLICK*…*CLICK*… Nothing. Apparently, I wasn’t going to get a hot meal. Okay. I had a bunch of granola bars and energy bars and V8 juice. That became dinner.

The wind was blowing so hard that I had to tie my tent off to my Jeep to keep it relatively upright. That completed, I headed out for a walk to plan for the next day’s photos. With the heavy snow, visibility was about nil, so I didn’t take my camera.

Upon returning to the tent after my exploration, I zipped it open to find that it was snowing in there. The wind was blowing so hard that it shoved snow up under my rain fly and through the vents on the top of the tent. Everything was soaked, including all my bedding. So the intrepid adventurer (me) tore everything down, chucked it all in the back of the Jeep, and drove 30 miles to the nearest hotel. So much for my adventurous first night and sunrise with the dunes.

But up and out early the next morning, I found the day was beautiful! It was still chilly, and a fair wind was blowing, but visibility was good. And I was the only person standing at the dunes! So with a thermal layer and a rain shell to block the wind, I was off.

To get to the dunes, I had to cross Medano Creek. My GoreTex lined boots proved their worth! A very little water splashed in the top of the boots, but my wool socks just laughed that water off. Standing in the creek, I looked north and was given a beautiful view of Cleveland Peak.

Medano Creek and Cleveland Peak

After crossing to the other side of the creek, I found fascinating areas of snow tucked out of the surface wind, creating beautiful patterns.

Sand and Snow

The flat stream basin made for easy walking and great views of the dunes in front of me.

Approach

Then it was time to walk up. Conventional wisdom says to zig-zag up the dunes to climb more easily. But I found that, with the sand shifting beneath me, I had a little trouble staying balanced. So I walked straight up the sides of the dunes. Along the way, I found more fascinating examples of snow sheltered from the wind.

More Sheltered Snow

Sheltered Snow

One of the other things I found interesting is how water interacted with the sand to form patterns, particularly in areas exposed to the wind.

Wet Sand

I continued my climb to a high point, periodically setting my tripod-mounted camera in place for a shot or two.

Another Sand Ridge

Sand Ridge

At a high point while admiring the view, I checked my watch. I needed to make the decision of whether or not I could stay one more night. I really wanted to continue to explore, and another night’s stay would allow me to do that. The weather was going to be more gentle, so tent camping was again an option. I quickly made my way down the dunes and returned to my Jeep. I checked my tent and bedding to find them all still wet. So, not wanting to dish out the cash for another night in a hotel, I put my camera stuff in my Jeep and headed out of the park.

On the way south on Highway 150, I saw a sign for Zapata Falls. Well, why not. So I followed the signs to a trailhead for a short trail.

The trail looked like a winter wonderland.

ZF Winter Wonderland

A half-mile after leaving the trailhead, I arrived at a stream. Apparently, I need to hike in the stream to get a view of the falls. Again, my GoreTex-lined boots were AWESOME! I also learned that walking on submerged rocks is better than walking on rocks above water. The rocks above water had an unseeable layer of ice on them. Slippery.

ZF Boots in the Stream

The walk up the stream took me into a grotto, into which the falls came down. It was a beautiful site, with the falling water and the ice formations. My picture is pitiful and doesn’t do it justice. But I will post it because I can’t talk about the falls and not post a shot of it.

ZF Zapata Falls

Falls seen, I turned and walked back down the stream, then down the trail to my Jeep. Then I headed home.

Grand Canyon Epic Hike, Part 4 – Camera Accessories for the Pack

I’ve finally gathered most of the stuff that will go into my pack for the hike down the Grand Canyon this July. The pack I am using is an older Boundary made by Mountainsmith. For those of you that knew me during my 2009-2010 deployment to Afghanistan, this is the pack that took me on my mid-tour leave to the four corners of Thailand. The items I have remaining to acquire and put in the pack are nearly negligible in number, size, and weight. So I can get a really good feel for the overall setup I will take into the canyon.

The first priority of this trip is to find a new adventure. The second priority is to get great pictures. To answer to the priority number two, I have been exploring ways to mount my camera for hand’s free carry with quick access. In this situation, putting the camera into the pack while on the move is a non-starter as an option. I’m thinking of wildlife with this. Should I be visited by one of the canyon’s inhabitants, removing the pack and digging out the camera could either take too much time or produce enough movement to scare off the creature.

The camera configuration will be my Nikon D800 with attached battery grip and Sigma 150-500mm lens. This setup is HUGE. So I explored two options for camera mounting.

Camera Clip Mounted

The first one I looked at was the Keyhole by Backcountry Solutions. This was a very attractive option that I seriously considered. I like the idea of having the camera centrally mounted on my chest, and I like the simple attachment and removal that the Keyhole system allows.

From www.backcountrysolutions.com

But in the end, I decided against the Keyhole for three reasons. First is that chest mounting is the only option. If I want to hang it from a belt or a single shoulder strap, I would be required to buy other accessories. The second is the loss of the tripod mount while the Keyhole cleat is in place. I’d have to remove it and screw in a plate for a tripod head if I wanted to use a tripod for stability. I’m too impatient for that. The third reason is that, as I walk in 100+ degree heat, I do not want a large pad in the middle of my chest, trapping heat.

The second option I looked at was the Capture Pro Camera Clip from Peak Design Limited. If you read my previous blog post about Red Rocks Canyon Open Space, you know this is the one I chose. I purchased this one for two main reasons. First, it can be mounted anywhere I have a strap or belt. Second, instead of having a cleat that will only interface with the mounting system, like the Keyhole, it uses a plate for an Arca-type tripod head. Now, stuff from Arca is prohibitively expensive. But a second Capture Pro is relatively inexpensive and can be mounted to any tripod head to receive the plate. I know… One of my reasons for not buying the Keyhole is that I would have to buy accessories to mount it in other ways. But the Keyhole cleat doesn’t mount to any tripod systems. Also, I typically like to have mounting plates screwed into both the bottom of my camerabody and the feet of longer lenses. So considering that I’m going to buy another plate anyway, I might as well go for another whole mount.

I briefly discussed my satisfaction with the Capture Pro in my Red Rocks Canyon Open Space post. I tested it mounted to a Camelbak M.U.L.E. and was supremely happy with the results. I’ve now removed it from the Camelbak and mounted it on the shoulder strap of my Mountainsmith pack.

Camera Clip Close

I haven’t yet taken it out for an extended test while mounted on the Mountainsmith. I will do that in the next several days. I have, however, walked around outside the house with it. Over very short distances, it’s pretty comfortable. So I’m looking forward to stretching that test out.

For additional stuff that I will need to get quick access to, I decided to try an inexpensive lens pouch made by Pearstone (essentially B&H Photo Video’s house brand) and a filter pouch made by Tamrac. The Pearstone pouch is well built and well padded and fits either my 24mm f2.8 AIS lens or my 35mm f2 D lens well. It attaches easily and securely to the pack’s waist belt. My only gripe is that the interior has too much extra material over the padding which gets into the zipper when trying to zip the pouch closed. So no one-handed closure. The Tamrac pouch is great! Of course, it’s a Tamrac so good quality is the norm. The pouch also easily and securely attaches to the waist belt and holds five filters including my 86mm circular polarizer. In addition to that big CPL, I will have several other filters including an assortment of other CPLs and neutral density filters for use with both the 150mm-500mm lens that will be on the camerabody and the 24mm that I will have handy in the lens pouch.

So with the tripod stuffed into the side of the pack, here is what the setup looks like without the camera mounted:
Backpack

Red Rocks Canyon Open Space – A pleasant surprise

This morning, I took some camera stuff and headed for Red Rocks Canyon Open Space, on the western edge of Colorado Springs. In Colorado, an “Open Space” is essentially a free natural space that is owned by the local city or county and administered much like a small state park. As the Red Rocks Canyon Open Space is right on the edge of the heavily populated Colorado Springs, I typically avoided the place like the plague. I thought that the place would be packed with people who don’t understand why cotton kills or that good wool isn’t itchy. But instead, I found an outdoor multi-sport destination with hikers, runners, and mountain bikers

Red_Rocks_Open_Space_02

It is true that the place does indeed have the city types who damage the environment with trash and graffiti and chase wildlife around offering handfuls of bread and sunflower seeds. But I also found that I could quickly escape the young men trying to impress their girlfriends with incorrect information about surviving in the “wild” by avoiding the main trails and climbing in elevation to less traveled places. And in going to these out-of-the-way places, I found the best sights and views in the park. I also found wildlife that didn’t feel they needed to run, because some fool wasn’t chasing them offering food.

Red_Rocks_Open_Space_03

Red_Rocks_Open_Space_04

Red_Rocks_Open_Space

For this trip, I traveled really light. I had an older Camelbak M.U.L.E. on my back. I strapped my tripod to it for carry. On the right shoulder strap, I mounted a lens bag which held my Nikkor 24mm f2.8 AIS lens. On the left shoulder strap, I mounted my Peak Design Capture Pro Camera Clip which held my Nikon D800 DSLR with attached Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 lens. I was using today’s walk in the open space as the first test for the comfort and effectiveness of the Camera Clip for potential use on the upcoming hike through of the Grand Canyon. It performed great! But I will be putting it through more paces in the future to work out all of the kinks.

Grand Canyon Epic Hike, Part 3 – Learning to Breathe Again

After retiring from the Army in June 2013, I got pretty lazy in terms of physical training. Sure, I continued to hike and snowshoe. But that is not the same as keeping myself ready for the needs of the service. As a result, my cardiovascular fitness dropped while my waistline increased. I needed a kick to get myself working to get back in shape. With 24 miles of hiking the Grand Canyon ahead of me, I have the kick I need. I’ve been working pretty hard for a about five weeks to slim down, tone up, and improve my breathing and heart rate. The workouts have been a mix of weight training, targeted cardio, and increasingly long hikes involving hills. As a result, I’m pleased at the progress I’m showing in the mirror, and I feel generally a whole lot more energetic. But I’m still chubby, and I still have a long way to go in my cardiovascular readiness.

The biggest obstacle to faster improvement is the result of a bout that I had with a disease in 2002 that would become known as SARS. My experience with SARS left me with between 75% and 80% lung capacity, destroying many alveoli by drowning them in the fluid that filled my lungs. As a result, I hit lung capacity problems before I hit maximum heart rate when exercising. When I get to that point, I start to suffocate. I must admit, that’s pretty terrifying. But my workouts have been including exercises to carefully bring me up that point so my body can adapt. Three things seem to be happening. First, my lung capacity seems to be coming closer to maximum heart rate. Second, my resting heart rate is lowering. And third, I’m learning that I’m pretty effective at using will power to lock down on panic. Also, all this training is taking place at around 9,000 feet above sea level. So when I’m hiking out of the Grand Canyon to maximum elevation of just under 7,000 feet above sea level, I’ll feel like I have all the air in the world!

Regardless of the outcome of all this, I feel great! And I think that soon I’ll be resuming activities that I used to really enjoy like bicycling. So I’m looking forward to where this leads.

Grand Canyon Epic Hike, Part 2 – Packing Lists, Dirty Rooms, and Footwear

For some reason I love making packing lists. Maybe that’s because packing lists are an early part of my preparations to travel. And I LOVE to travel.

So I’ve essentially typed up two packing lists for the Grand Canyon trip. The first I made is for what I will carry on my person and in my backpack on the way down. The second is for the stuff I will use while camping at the North Rim Campground that will stay behind when we make our thru-hike.

I sent the walking packing list to my fellow traveler, Chris for a reality check. I’d hate to get there and find that I’ve overlooked that one critical thing that could make or break the hike. With great input from Chris, I wrote the list out on a piece of paper (using a wood pen I turned – booyah!) because my packing lists always morph over time.

Walking Packing List

Then I found all of my camping and hiking gear and threw it into my spare bedroom. Hopefully, I have no overnight guests anytime soon. With backpacks ranging in size from 42 to 100 liters, I will be able to take everything I need. Of course, if I go over 65 liters, my pack will be way too heavy for the climb out, and I will owe myself a face punching.

Dirty Room

By the way, the carpet shampooer and my Mom’s hat are not part of the packing list.

After packing and repacking and revising my packing list and repacking again, I’ve indeed found that my 65 liter pack is more than adequate. I could probably fit everything into a 55 liter pack, but my two options in my current bag stable are a 42 and the 65. So my compression straps will be doing their job.

With the weather warming and the need to start prepping proper footwear for the trip, my thoughts turned to boots. I had a pair of Lowa Renegade boots that I swear are the best boots known to man. But after years of faithful service from them, I finally destroyed them late last summer. Over the colder months, I was good with using my heavier Lowa Tibet boots.

The Army issued me a pair of Danner Combat Hikers. For some reason, I keep giving these boots a chance (and regretting it every time). I’ve come to the conclusion that friends don’t let friends do long hikes in Danners. Usually when I hike in these, I get some unexplained very cold feeling in my feet (regardless of outside temperatures). This time, after only a short 2-ish mile hike, I was experiencing something I’d never experienced before: Plantar Fasciitis.

Danners suck

I think the next step is to put these boots into the trash, something I should have done a long time ago.

Not long after the hike, I had the good luck to receive my REI member dividend statement in the mail. With that and a 20% off coupon, I was off to my local REI for another pair of Lowa Renegades. Several hikes later, my feet couldn’t be happier. So I’ve got my footwear for the trip.

Lowas are great

So the issue of foot comfort has been addressed.

As to the overall packing, I suppose I won’t fully finalize the list and do my final packing until late the night before I leave. It usually seems to go that way.

Grand Canyon Epic Hike, Part 1 – Early Planning

So it seems that fellow photog, Chris Brandt of M. Chris Brandt Photography has become my epic adventure brother. Snowshoeing Rocky Mountain National Park? Done! Wandering Monument Valley, Utah? Check!

Now, we have our next adventure in the hopper. In mid July, we will be hiking the Grand Canyon from the North Rim through to the South Rim. “Why mid-July? Isn’t that crazy?” you ask? We’re doing it mid-July because that was the last available time to get a place to stay at the bottom of the canyon. And yes, it’s probably totally crazy. At least that is what my UPS delivery driver told me when I told him what the Campmor boxes were for.

Our route will take us from the North Kaibab trailhead on the North Rim, down Bright Angel Canyon to Phantom Ranch, then up one of two routes to either the South Kaibab trailhead or the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim. For reference, you can click the map below for a new window with a larger version. The map comes from the NPS Trip Planner.

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 10.36.18 AM

For reference, if you’ve visited the Grand Canyon, you’ve likely been to the South Rim. That is where the lion’s share of the facilities are, and it’s open year-round. By comparison, very few people visit the North Rim. Since the North Rim is unexplored territory for the both of us, this is where we will start our adventure. Here is the schedule as we have it sketched out:

Day 1: Chris meets me at the South Rim. I drop off my Jeep, I chuck all of my camping and hiking gear into his Jeep, and we make the drive to the North Rim. Our first overnight is camping at the North Rim Campground.
Day 2: We spend an entire day exploring the North Rim. As this will be the first time on that side of the canyon for the both of us, it promises to be a rewarding day. Also, the day will allow us to get an idea of the kind of heat we’ll be dealing with (since it is, after all, going to be mid-July in the desert). Then a second overnight in the North Rim Campground.
Day 3: We’ll be up early, throwing packs on our backs, and making our way into the Canyon. 14 miles from the start, we will arrive at our home for the night, Phantom Ranch. We will have food and bunks waiting for us when we get there. We will explore the bottom of the canyon, and we will most like find a few good day and night photograph opportunities.
Day 4: Up early again, we will make our way up the southern wall of the canyon. Depending on the route we take, we will either have eight or ten miles of UP! When we get to the top, we’ll take a quick break, look at all the tourists, and then hop in my Jeep for the 4-hour drive back to the North Rim Campground where we will rejoin the rest of our stuff and have our final overnight.
Day 5: A hearty handshake, and Chris will head south to his home and family while I make my way northeast to Chez Tommy.

I can’t wait!

Pictures in Rocky Mountain National Park – Day 3

Another 4:30 wakeup to get another sunrise. We rolled into the park, found the spot that we scoped out yesterday, and set up tripods and cameras. The temperature, by the way, was around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Normally, this isn’t such a big deal since we were bundled up properly. But the 25 mph wind gusting to 50 mph really made the morning a challenge (especially since we’d worked our way on top of an exposed hill to ensure a good view).

01 Sun on clouds

Yeah the view was nice, but with a wind chill adjusted temperature between 4 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit and wind blowing so hard that it was attacking any openings in the insulation, I was feeling a little unpleasant. But the sun soon came. And when the light hit the tops of the peaks, it was beautiful.

02 Sun hits highest peak

03 Sun hits highest peak 1a

Soon enough, it was time to leave. Really. Time to leave. We were freezing. And at that point, our plans changed. We were initially going to head to a trailhead and start snowshoeing. But since we were both frozen, we decided to go to breakfast instead. It was my fault. At least Chris convinced me to do real breakfast instead of donuts.

On the way out of the park, we stopped for a few shots. For those that have known me for a while, the bench in the picture below is where I took the video of a bunch of elks honking at each other.

04 Table 1a

Then came breakfast! Chris worked through a healthy meal while I was killing chicken egg, cow, and salt-cured pig. After that, we were back into the park. Here is the first after-breakfast shot:

05 Four peaks

As we climbed towards Many Parks Overlook, Chris had a little trouble deciding where he wanted to take his next picture. This led to a bunch of U-turns. We finally decided to take pictures both places. I liked this spot where I kinda poached the shot that Chris wanted to take:

06 River of ice

While I was setting up for this shot, Chris couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to leap over the stream. I was waiting with my finger on the shutter button for him to go. But in the end, he decided to turn and walk away from the stream. When I started to whine about it, he spun around and jumped:

07 Chris leaps the frozen stream

Chris headed off to shoot a beaver pond. When he returned, we started to work our way out of the area. Chris has floating nicely on top of the snow. But about 10 feet before he reached the roadway, he sunk his whole leg in.

08 Chris leg deep in snow

So I worked my way along a different route. I thought I was going to make it all the way. I was formulating snappy comments in my head when I punched through the snow all the way up my leg. My witty comments evaporated in my head as Chris burst out in laughter. Both Chris and I made our ways out of our sunken predicaments by laying on our backs and wiggling our ways out to the road. We got back to the Jeep and headed up to Many Parks. Though I got some shots I was happy with the other day when I was there, today turned out to be not so great. So we headed back down the hill. I got some nice shots on the way:

09 Peak and rocks

Then we headed down and out of the park. On the way, I took a cheesy Jeep picture:

10 Cheesy Jeep shot

We got back to our lodge, and since we are leaving tomorrow, we both went to our rooms and packed our stuff. Then we went to the local brewery for chow and beer. That turned out to be a good way to close the trip.

Pictures in Rocky Mountain National Park – Day 2

At 4:30 this morning, the time had come to wake up. I’d spent a nearly sleepless night because I was so excited about getting out for some snowshoeing. I finalized the stuff in my pack, dressed in my layers, and went to warm up the Jeep. At 5:45, I ran into Chris coming out of his room, and we packed the Jeep for the day ahead. At about 6:15 we rolled into the parking lot for the Sprague Lake Loop trailhead, ready to get sunrise pictures. I pulled my thermos of coffee out and was getting ready to pour myself a cup when Chris exclaimed, “We should get some pictures of the moon setting over the frozen lake!” He was, of course, absolutely correct. So out came the cameras and the tripods, and we were then headed over to the ice. We took the loop trail to the far side of the lake and set up our rigs and began to fire away. Here is my favorite of my moonset pictures.

Moonset over Sprague Lake

After photographing the moon and its reflection on the frozen lake, we worked our way around to the west side of the lake for sunrise shots.

Sunrise over Sprague Lake 01

Sunrise over Sprague Lake 03

Once I was satisfied with my sunrise shots, I pretty much packed up and headed for the coffee that was in a thermos in the Jeep. Chris, looking for good pictures of the initial morning sun hitting the mountain tops, took off in a sprint to the other side of the lake.

Our next destination was the Glacier Gorge trailhead. Out came the snowshoes, poles, and backpacks. Ahead of us was a two-and-a-half mile hike to Mills Lake. The route required a bunch of uphill shoeing on our part. Mills Lake was a place in the park that I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time. And once we reached it, I was beside myself with excitement. I think I described myself as a “Jack in the box”. The view across the frozen lake was beautiful as it led my eye to the high snow-blown cliffs on either side.

Mills Lake

Chris at Mills Lake (Small)

We were the first people of the day to make it to this point in the park. For some reason, I found that thrilling, adding to my euphoria at reaching the lake.

Then it was time to head back down. We made quick time back down to the trailhead, occasionally stopping for an uphill shoer or to take a quick picture.

Starved, we jumped in the Jeep and headed straight for lunch. Lasagna. Delicious!

We took a break for a couple of hours and then headed back out around sunset. The night’s sunset wasn’t really that spectacular. But we got a couple of shots. Chris saw something he wanted to get a shot of and took off at a sprint, again. This time, he lost his footing and ended up on the ground. But a quick laugh later, he was back on his feet and headed for his prime shot. Here is a shot I got at that time (no, not of Chris recovering from his fall).

Dead tree at sunset

Pictures in Rocky Mountain National Park – Day 1

It has been too long since I took a road trip. So when my good friend and fellow photog Chris Brandt said that he would be in the Boulder, CO area, I suggested a trip to one of my favorite places, the Rocky Mountain National Park.

I showed up in Boulder on the night of 14 January and crashed on the couch in Chris’s hotel room. Then we got up in time to catch pictures of the Flatirons as the morning’s first light hit them.

Morning Light Flatirons (SM)

Then we were off to the north. We arrived at RMNP about noon. Our intent was to scout the place out and decide where we wanted to start our photography snowshoe adventure the next day. But we couldn’t resist a few pictures. The wind was gusting up to around 50 miles per hour, and it was stinging us with ice crystals. Here is a picture of Chris, challenging nature as she threw sheets of snow at him.

Chris at Bear Lake

I was dumb and forgot my gloves and snow hat at the lodge. But I was still able to get my hands out of my pockets and get a few shots…

Cloudy Peaks 02

Cloudy Peaks

A great photoshoot with a great young lady

Regan and her mother, Nancy, showed up at about 11:30 in the morning, and we were ready to shoot. Our plan was to shoot pictures or Regan in both of her cheerleading outfits and then in her street clothes. I used a two-light set up, one light with a 24″x24″ softbox and the other with a softbox of 18″x50″. Initially, I used the 18″x50″ as my key light and the 24″x24″ to illuminate the background. I also had several reflectors set about, and the background was white as the first part of the shoot would be high-key. I shot my Nikon D800, mostly using my Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens. I also used my Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G for a few shots. Regan prepared herself in her first outfit. To get her used to positioning herself as per my direction, I started with only headshots. Then as she relaxed, I backed off to get more of her uniform.


Then she changed into her second uniform, and we repeated the process, first with headshots and then backing off for more of the outfit.

We decided to take down the high-key background and put up blue seamless to match Regan’s school colors. I swapped the 24″x24″ softbox for a standard 10″ reflector and used it as a hair light to separate Regan from the background. I then had my partner, Lauren (who was kind enough to act as my assistant that day) hold an off-camera flash to provide illumination for the blue seamless.

When we were done shooting Regan in her uniforms, she changed into her street clothes. While she was doing that, Lauren and I swapped the blue seamless for a black background so we could shoot some low-key shots. For this, we only used one light (the one with the 18″x50″ softbox).



We even got Nancy in a few shots.

And we finished outside in the trees. Outside, I permanently switched from my 70-200mm to my 50mm lens. However, the snow kept us from spending a lot of time out there. So we only got a few shots, with plans for a future outdoor shoot.