Artist Point

Huntoon Point

Now that winter is firmly under way, I paid my first visit of the winter to Huntoon Point and Artist Ridge near the Mount Baker Ski Area. Things looked pretty discouraging for sunset since most of the color developing was well south of us in the central part of the Puget Sound. Without much warning, things began to change. The color began to creep east towards Hagen Mountain and Mount Blum. Suddenly, color exploded over Table Mountain, and then Goat Mountain and Mount Larrabee, followed finally by Mount Baker itself. The color was fleeting and I had to move quickly from composition to composition. The last hurrah of sunset finally faded away 15 minutes after sunset and the increasing cold signaled that it was time to head home.

No two days are ever the same which is all the more reason to keep making regular visits to locations you love to photograph..
Mount Baker from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Pugh and Whitechuck Mountain in the distance at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Hagen Mountain at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Sunset colors high above Mount Larrabee and Goat Mountain from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Sunset colors high above Mount Larrabee and Goat Mountain from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker at sunset from Huntoon Point, Mount Baker Wilderness
Lastly, a little time lapse of Mount Shuksan:

The Fourth Time

Mount Shuksan and Mazama Mountain from Huntoon Point
I am a glutton for punishment, and this winter has more than proven this to be true. I returned to Artist Point near Mount Baker for the fourth time this winter hoping for great light and interesting conditions. I had no reason to think that things would go any different than two of my previous three outings. The weather forecasts projected 63% cloud cover around the time of sunset thanks to an advancing storm front. The best light and drama happens during these transitional times such as this; I just threw my hands up and said why not?

As you might imagine, the snowshoe trip out to the ridge gets pretty routine after three previous trips in such a relatively short period. The snow was a weird conglomeration of rain altered, fresh snow, and hoar frost. We made decent time on the hike and arrived at the end of the ridge about 3 hours before sunset. While Mount Shuksan largely enjoyed sunny skies, Mount Baker had a persistent cloud layer hugging its northeast flanks. In addition to taking photos, I wanted to continue to experiment with the time lapse features of my GoPro Hero 3. Upon arrival, I set up GoPro on my panning Ikea kitchen time and set off a 20 minute timelapse of Mount Shuksan:

After this one finished, I set up for another time lapse, this time focused on Mount Baker. I wanted to shoot this for a similar amount of time (20-30 minutes) but I had to cut it short because some snowshoers appeared from nowhere below my vantage point. Lucky for me, they were out of frame and I was able to stop recording before they appeared. The clouds were starting to drift through the area more and more. This was my sign to switch over to my SLR.

During the middle part of the afternoon, I focused on the Mount Baker area since the clouds were more dynamic. The sun was directly overhead and that proved to be a bit problematic. The sunlight was bleeding into the upper portion of my frame despite the fact that I was using my telephoto’s lens hood. To overcome this issue, I decided to use my 0.6 graduated ND filter. This is hardly an exact science so there were a series of trial and error shots to finally get the hang of compensating for the light bleed. We had heard some rockfall coming of the backside of the Shuksan Arm at one point in the afternoon. Needless to say, a large boom from the direction of Mount Shuksan had both of us swinging our cameras around. All that we could capture was a billowing cloud of snow rising up from the Lower Curtis Glacier area.

As the afternoon got later, the weather was following the projected forecasts rather closely. Stronger cloud bands were now lingering around Mount Shuksan, often obscuring the summit period for brief periods of time. Mount Baker would prove to be more elusive the rest of the afternoon and brief glimpses of the summit or one of it’s flanks was the norm. We were still blessed with a rather large open “window” in the sky to the right of Mount Baker so the changing light of sunset did reach Mount Shuksan. The slopes where we were located had widespread amounts of hoar frost and I really wanted to capture this in some manner and I tried to do this with a curvy slope just below our spot on the ridge. In order to get the composition, I had to include the sun directly in the frame. I realized there would be some lens flare in the photos but it turned out to be a bit more than I would have liked.

In the minutes leading up to the actual time of sunset, we lost good light and color on Mount Shuksan and just plain lost Mount Baker. The last good light left was interacting with clouds hovering between Lasiocarpa Ridge and Skyline Divide. As most sunsets go, however, the light slowly faded away and the cold gray of night was taking over. In fact, just minutes after official sunset, clouds began QUICKLY overtaking our ridge. It was a little startling, actually. I didn’t want to be hiking back along the ridge by braille and thankfully this didn’t happen. I had a couple night photos in mind prior to our trip and the clouds put the kibosh on those plans. Still- after three mostly failed attempts, this day felt pretty good!
Mount Hagan in the distance. Taken from Huntoon Point
Hoar frost slope and Mount Shuksan from near Huntoon Point
Coleman Pinnacle along Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness.
Icefall crashes onto the Upper Curtis Glacier, Mount Shuksan
Filtered sun over Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Shuksan and clouds in afternoon light from Huntoon Point
Backcountry ski track along Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness
Mount Baker and Ptarmigan Ridge in clouds, Mount Baker Wilderness
Clouds over Ptarmigan Ridge. Taken from Huntoon Point
Hoar frost and Ptarmigan Ridge. Taken from Huntoon Point
Mount Shuksan during magic hour light. Taken from Huntoon Point
Mount Shuksan during magic hour light. Taken from Huntoon Point
Last light of sunset and clouds over Lasiocarpa Ridge

New Years Sunset

South Twin Sister. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Panorama of South Twin Sister (L), Hayden Peak (C), and Little Sister (R). Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Mount Baker from Huntoon Point on Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
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.
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
Ice encrusted trees and Mount Baker from Kuhlshan Ridge. Converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2
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!

Welker Peak and the cloud covered Baker Lake valley from Artist Point
Mount Baker and Swift Creek drainage from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point
Fading Post-sunset color over Mount Baker from Artist Point

The Elusive Moon

Mount Baker Wilderness
Frog Mountain
This past weekend brought the sun-starved Northwest a magnificent weekend. Lot’s of sun and warm (ok, spring-like) temperatures. Hallelujah! How did I celebrate this momentous weekend? By visiting the deep winter snowpack, of course. To be more specific, I wanted to shoot sunset from Artist Point. I’ve meant to do it all winter but things just haven’t come together like this weekend. As luck would have it, a full moon would also be rising after sunset in the vicinity of Mount Shuksan. Winning!

I grabbed a friend and we made our way up to the Mount Baker Ski Area. I always have the best plans in mind when I start but good ‘ole Murphy makes an appearance. The hike from the ski area parking lot up to Artist Point takes me a little more than an hour, and another half hour to make it out to Huntoon Point. Our start time of 6:15pm didn’t bode well (sunset was at 7:50pm). At 7:10pm, we were about halfway up the last steep pitch below the Artist Point. The light was entering the “magic hour” but we clearly weren’t where we had hoped to be.

Sunset light on the Nooksack Ridge
Shadows creep up Mount Shuksan as sunset approaches
After some debate, we decided to settle down nearby so we didn’t miss any photo opportunities. While we couldn’t get a view of Mount Baker, we still had a great view of Mount Shuksan as well as the many peaks to the north and northwest. The high slopes of Mount Shuksan absorbed some nice, warm orange light before it quietly faded into the coming night. Some occasional winds chilled us to the core and I began to evaluate the second component of our evening- moonrise. Apparently I misread my moonrise app and thought moonrise was at 9:12pm (roughly an hour wait). When I checked the time again, it was 9:42pm.

Neither of us relished the idea of waiting close to 90 minutes up here for the moon to rise so we decided on Plan B. It was too dangerous to (cross county) ski back down to the parking lot so we walked out instead. My friend originally thought we should take our moonrise photos from Picture Lake buuutttt the 25 foot high snowbanks surrounding the lake convinced him otherwise. I knew of a particular turnout along the highway between the lower and upper lodge which has a nice full view of Mount Shuksan so that’s where we headed.

Mount Shuksan and the Lake Ann area
Shuksan Arm and Mount Shuksan
I stamped out a platform in the roadside snowbank and set up my camera. In addition to moonrise shots, I wanted to get a photo of the stars above the mountain so that’s what I worked on. One common technique is to take two photos, one photo taken with a high ISO to capture the stars in the sky and then a second photo at low ISO to capture your foreground of interest. The two different photos are then blended together in Photoshop to come up with your finished photo. In order to keep the stars “stationary” in your photos, the exposure times have to be no more than 20-30 seconds. The high ISO (1600 and above) and a wide open aperature of F2.8 is what makes this happen.

Provided you have a newer camera, this is the easy part! The harder part, at least for me, is determining the length of exposure for the foreground part of the photo. Using an ISO like 100 requires a lengthy exposure time to sufficiently expose the scene. I haven’t practiced night sky photography enough so I have to experiment to get things right. Many cameras have a “feature” built into them to reduce noise on long exposures. This is accomplished by taking a second photo after your first photo for the same length of time, but as a black image. The theory is that any noise becomes apparent and the camera can then subtract that from the first image taken.

Earth shadow rises behind Mount Shuksan
Mount Shuksan Earth shadow panorama
The problem with long exposure noise reduction is that for a 4 minute exposure, you have to wait another 4 minutes for the black reference image to be taken. This makes it difficult to hone in a proper exposure through trial and error. Most cameras allow you to disable the noise reduction feature so this is recommended since you can do a better job using Adobe Camera Raw and third party plugins within Photoshop. I experimented for about an hour but it was clear the moon wasn’t going to crest above Mount Shuksan anytime soon due to a low trajectory. We still had close to a 3 hour drive home so we hurried to pack up and get going. After dropping off my friend, I finally got home at close to 2am.

I wasn’t all that excited at the time about the photos I shot but I changed my tune as I spent time processing them. It turned out to be a great caper on the day.

Cool tones of twight on Mount Shuksan
Stars over Mount Shuksan (25s @ F2.8, ISO 3200 Double processed RAW file)
Rising moon behind Mount Shuksan (15s @ F2.8, ISO 200 Double processed RAW file)

Now I Say Goodnight to Winter

An ironic title, given the title I used for last week’s posting. In fact, as I write this, the snow level will dip below 1,000 feet again. All this just days from the month of May! Nonetheless, winter for me isn’t over until the Mount Baker Ski Area season comes to an end and that finally happened this past weekend. A gorgeous day of sunshine was forecasted so sticking around after an afternoon on the slopes for sunset was in order. For once, the weather forecasts were actually correct and the day progressed with clear skies.

Stronger composition of the shot I took last weekend. Cornice along the Shuksan Arm on Mount Shuksan. Black & White conversion using Nik Silver Efex 2
Backcountry ski tracks on the flanks of Mount Shuksan
By 5pm, things around the ski area had quieted down and the last wave of snowshoers were returning from their day trips up to Artist Point. As they returned, I was geared up and on my way up to Artist Point. I attempted a sunset from up here last winter and had some keepers with great pink alpenglow colors on Mount Shuksan. One thing about that visit was that I felt rushed looking for compositions due to a short lead time into that sunset. This time, I made it up onto the ridge before the “golden hour” before sunset and that allowed me to traverse along Kulshan Ridge and check everything out.

Huge cornice looms over the Blueberry Chutes near Artist Point
I hike all the way out towards the high point of Huntoon Point. Before the last ascent, I noticed a snag sticking out of the snow. I immediately recognized it as a snag I had photographed last fall. I put together this side by side shot to give you an idea of how much snow really accumulates in this area:

Side by side comparison of snag out along Kulshan Ridge. Right hand picture was taken fall of 2010. Left hand picture last weekend.
The snag (the right-most one in the right-hand photo) was probably 12+ feet tall and is situated on a rise that is 8-10′ above the trail. Seeing only the top 3 feet of the snag leaves a whole lot of snow underneath my feet!

I hoped I could find a spot which would leave me with compositions of both Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker but found this a challenge. In winter, the ridge top takes on a convex shape due to wind transport of snow. The only trees that aren’t buried are located down off the crest on either side. This means that you have to physically relocate from one side to the other in order to shoot either mountain. Now throw in a slew of snowshoe tracks and ski traverses throughout your foreground and you have your work cut out for you!

My decision was to hunker down and face Mount Shuksan and the Swift Creek headwaters. Besides, I enjoyed the vast scene dropping away in front of me. As the minutes of the golden hour ticked away, the light began to change from white to golden light. I hoped and patiently waited for the peak colors to appear but they never graced the slopes of Mount Shuksan. A bit frustrating because I could see better light to the south towards Whitehorse Mountain and to the northwest towards American Border Peak!

Mount Shuksan at sunset
Sunset light on the backside of the Shuksan Arm
Sunset light
As luck would have it, I stood up and looked back towards Table Mountain & Mount Baker and the sky had some nice orange color but was starting to fade. Before committing to my vantage point of Mount Shuksan, I had scouted a composition for Mount Baker. I further prepped the spot by stamping out a firm pad in the snow. Now that time was of the essence, I was able to quickly set up and not have my tripod legs sink down into the snow pack.

I snapped off a few shots and was quite surprised to see that my camera was able to contain the entire dynamic range within one exposure. My visit last winter was with my Pentax K10d whose sensor technology was three-ish years old. My current Pentax K-5 has some of the best dynamic range you can currently buy in the APS-C format and I’ve become a firm believer in this. I remembered another scene just on the other side of Huntoon Point so I humped all my gear as quickly as I could over to a half buried small snag.

Mount Baker near the end of sunset
Tree burdened by recent snowfall after sunset
Mount Baker after sunset
After a few more quick snaps, any magic light that was left faded away. Donning my snowshoes once again, I quickly made my way back towards the buried Artist Point parking lot and the descent back down to Heather Meadows. So ended the day, and so ended another ski season and winter. Despite the obvious abundance of snow, it was personally a weird winter. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by previous winters but the lack of a lower elevation snowpack was a real disappointment.

Along with a number of other locations, Nooksack Falls received intermittent snow which prevented me from getting the truly winter scene I’ve been hoping for. The Ohanepecosh River valley was virtually bone dry all the way up close to 2,000 feet. Closing the door on winter does open the door for summertime, wildflower meadows, and the beautiful high country. Granted, it will be a while before it will be accessible but the trip planning and research can begin now!

It is fall..

…but it’s not very obvious. At least not in the North Cascades. After spending the day bouncing around the North Fork Nooksack River valley, I suspect that fall colors will be disappointing this year. Labor Day weekend was my last outing so I was eager to get out again. I decided to attempt to revisit a section of Ruth Creek with a friend in order to access some more difficult terrain that I know would yield some great photos. Forecasts were leaning towards nice sunny weather but I decided to give it a go.

On the way, we stopped off to check fall color conditions on Church Mountain:

Fall colors begin - Church Mountain
Fall colors begin arriving on the upper slopes of Church Mountain
The forecasted 63% cloud cover was more like 0-10%. The stretch of Ruth Creek proved to be quite formidable and our attempts to enter it’s guarded treasures were futile. Despite wearing chest waders, I only managed a few photos from here:

Ruth Creek
Ruth Creek
Defeat came quick but there was still a fair amount of day left. We poked around another forest service road before ending up at Artist Point with hundreds of other tourists. It was tough being there and watching people pick wildflowers and wander wherever they chose to.

Early fall color on Excelsior Ridge
Snags and fall color - Kulshan Ridge
Mount Shuksan from Kulshan Ridge
Mount Shuksan from Kulshan Ridge
A storm front was coming in (witnessed by the very strong winds at Artist Point) so we both thought there might be a chance for a striking sunset. I decided we should head to Cougar Divide to try our luck. We made haste to the trailhead and arrived about an hour before sunset. About a half hour later, we had arrived at the viewpoint that I like to shoot from.

Mount Baker from Cougar Divide
Summit of Mount Baker wrapped in clouds
Sunset started wonderfully with a cloudcap and other clouds swirling around Mount Baker. To the east, Mount Shuksan’s summit pyramid was already firmly in the grip of cloud cover. Back down the Nooksack Valley a cloud bank was building up, adding to the interest. I promised my friend solitude at this location but we ended up running into 7 others at the viewpoint! Most left upon our arrival and, after a few minutes, we had the place to ourselves.

Mount Baker from Cougar Divide
Approaching front from Cougar Divide
Just prior to the point of brilliant pinks and peak sunset colors, it all shut off like a light switch. I suspect the sun dipped behind a cloud bank along the horizon which shut us out. This seemed to be confirmed by looking north towards Canada where we could see the pink colors that were eluding us!

Storm clouds after sunset - Cougar Divide
Storm clouds after sunset - Cougar Divide
I spent a few more minutes after sunset taking some shots before we made our way out. The moon was rising to the east but I couldn’t capture any decent shots. The day was done and all that was left was the long drive back home. That, and replacing the flat I got just prior to crossing the Wells Creek bridge. I really hope that the fall colors arrive!

Kuhlsan Ridge

Another high pressure system brought clear, sunny skies for the weekend. It’s been awhile since I’ve shot a sunset so I decided to set up on Kuhlsan Ridge near the Mount Baker Ski Area for the evening’s show. Time got away from me during the day so I was running a bit behind schedule when I donned my snowshoes for the hike up to Artist Point. I topped out at Artist Point during the “golden hour” so I didn’t have much time to find a location with an interesting foreground.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky so the light reflecting off of Mount Shuksan held most of my interest. not the best sunset I’ve shot but the solitude of witnessing it was very rewarding..

Sunset on Mount Shuksan
Sunset from Kuhlsan Ridge
Sunset reflected off of the Mount Shuksan summit pyramid
Last light of sunset on Mount Shuksan
Last light on the Swift Creek headwaters
Time to go home

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