Lately I’ve a a run of photographic bad luck. Before Christmas, I visited Mount Rainier National Park and came away with no photos. I followed that up this past weekend with a hike up to Artist Point for sunset. Forecasts called for clearing skies an hour before sunset so dramatic skies could be in play. I was welcomed by wind and near whiteout conditions at Artist Point. Adding insult to injury, the skies did begin to clear out but that happened well after I had turned around and made it back to my truck. I couldn’t get shut out a third time, could I? To test that theory, I returned to Artist Point on New Years Day where the forecast was for “mostly clear” skies. On my way there, I couldn’t help but stop along Highway 9 to photograph the Twin Sisters Mountains. As I have learned, clear skies and sunshine may not be great for color photographs but they can be great for black & white photos.
I arrived at the Heather Meadows parking lot at the Mount Baker Ski Area and skies weren’t clear. To be more specific, they were “mostly overcast” and actually trending towards cloudy. Where the hell did this come from?? A bad omen but I still had a couple hours til sunset so anything could happen. Doning my snowshoes and a sense of deja vu, I headed yet again up towards Artist Point. It looked like many other people had the same idea (watching sunset from Artist Point) because I noticed just as much uphill traffic as people heading down. After a couple more days of sun and no new snowfall, the snowshoe routes were packed down a bit more and quicker. Even with the 30+ pounds of crap in my backpack, I made good time and reached the Artist Point parking lot in 1 hour 15 minutes (roughly 1.3 miles and ~1,000 feet of gain). The route up to Artist Point is, for the most part, benign but I am constantly shaking my head in disbelief as I watch people hike the direct route up towards Huntoon Point through the most dangerous terrain possible. The ridge between Huntoon Point and Artist Point gets SEVERELY wind loaded. Now throw in the switchbacks of the summertime road and you now have terrain traps. You’re asking for trouble by crossing this zone. In fact, in 2003 three people were caught in a slab avalanche which ultimately killing one of them. This is why I always head straight towards the parking lot, taking the short, steep headwall just left of the Blueberry Chutes or contouring around the headwall and doubling back at the first chance.
Anyways, at Artist Point, I admired the view south down the Swift Creek valley towards Baker Lake but also lamented the change in the weather. It was now completely overcast everywhere except towards the far south. My dreams for a colorful sunset were dashed. I still had time to kill before sunset so I headed out towards Huntoon Point. Along the way, I scoped out the various trees encased in ice just like the trees in the Finnish Lapland. Eventually, I topped out on Huntoon Point’s 5,247 foot summit. Despite skies which still weren’t clearing out, I was determined to take at least some photos. I began my hike back towards Artist Point but stopped along the way to photograph the gigantic ice trees. One grove in particular hand a number of interestingly shaped limbs which I used to frame Mount Baker in the distance.
The only color to be seen was over 50 miles to the south/southeast and so I made the judgement call to head back to my original viewpoint over the Swift Creek drainage where I figured I could come up with some sort of composition. I passed another couple enjoying the views with some hot beverage and set up my camera to begin shooting. After a while, the couple near me headed back to their car and the clouds above Mount Baker had the faint hint of reflected color. More time went by and the color began to slowly build up. I couldn’t believe it- the color turned a fiery, vibrant red! I was cold to the point of my teeth almost chattering but I quickly attacked the developing scene in front of me. This metamorphosis of color lasted about 15 minutes. It faded away and I felt extremely lucky to have witnessed it. I should know better, especially since I have been witness to these types of displays before. None the less, it always leaves me in awe when it does happen.
Awe doesn’t keep you warm so it was time to go! It was already dark enough to don my headlamp for the hike out. My hike out was peaceful except for the crunch of snow beneath my snowshoes. Across the Bagley Lakes basin, I could make out the headlamps of two skiers making an ascent of Mount Herman for some night time turns. This was a fabulous way to start the new year!