If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the best things in life are never convenient. Take landscape photography, for example. The best photo opportunities always seem to come at the most inconvenient hours of the day – early in the morning when I’d rather be snuggled in a cozy bed, or later in the evening during suppertime. Finding the best shooting locales is a game of chasing the light over mountains and valleys and hauling heavy camera equipment far into the backcountry. It’s strenuous work, sometimes dangerous work, and often full of disappointment.
But every once in awhile, careful planning and early waking coincide with perfect light to create a magical moment that makes cold mornings, bad coffee, and sore muscles worth the effort.
At the start of this year, I made a personal resolution that I would wake up earlier, climb higher, and go farther – in short, to inconvenience myself – more than ever before. If not for the sake of making remarkable photos, then at least for the sake of getting myself out there. Because the best things in life are never convenient.
Here I present, in order of occurrence, my Top Ten Most Memorable Adventures of 2012.
Mystic Lake is a popular summertime destination for many backpackers and dayhikers in the Beartooth Mountains. But donning a pair of snowshoes to see the deepest lake in these mountains completely frozen over makes the three-mile uphill trek a worthwhile destination in winter, too. We rung in the New Year by leaving town before 4 a.m. to arrive in time to see the surrounding snowcapped peaks awash in pink alpenglow, and spent the rest of the morning feeding our curiosities checking out mysterious air bubble formations encased in thick slabs of blue ice.
High in the Beartooth Mountains, far above where trees can grow, sits the Hellroaring Plateau, a landscape of wind-scoured alpine tundra and rock. In winter, it is only accessible on foot or snowmobile via a steep, 8-mile long forest service road that twists along the mountainside to its terminus near the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness boundary at over 10,000 feet elevation. Lacking a snowmobile, I spent most of a day trudging up the road and spent a cold night gazing at stars from my lofty campsite. The next morning brought fierce winds and blowing snow that threatened to freeze uncovered flesh in seconds. But sheltered behind a large rock, I huddled in relative comfort to enjoy a golden sunrise over a purple expanse that justified every reason I might have had for going there in the first place.
Every once in awhile, it’s useful to ask yourself the question, “If I didn’t have any responsibilities today, I would _________.” For me, whatever activity I might choose to fill in the blank, the high deserts of Utah seem like the perfect place to do it. Every few years, I find myself drawn to make the long drive to clear my mind of the routines of day-to-day life and come here to simply play. This year’s travels took me to Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks, as well as Colorado National Monument. Whether it’s mountain biking on slickrock, exploring slot canyons on foot, or just sitting on a ledge letting thoughts drift across distant horizons, there’s something about this wide-open landscape of juniper, rock, and sky that gives me clarity, and reminds me of my place in the universe.
There’s a parable of a man who, despite his wealth, wasn’t satisfied and sold everything he owned and wandered the world to find diamonds. Penniless and hopeless, he took his own life. The new owner of his land ventured out into his back yard and found lying next to an old fencepost a cache of diamonds and every gemstone you can imagine. It’s so tempting to dream of something better in far-off places and overlook the gems close to home.
This year, I discovered a gem in my yard known as Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area. Over the course of several trips, I encountered rattlesnakes, nearly got swooped by a golden eagle, saw an incredible meteorite blazing through the daytime sky, and was repeatedly enticed by changing scenery around every corner. The expansive canyon views, abundant wildlife, rich cultural history, predictable weather, and endless recreational opportunities will keep me coming back for more of these unforgettable memories for years to come.
A couple of years ago, I came across a tourist brochure in the local outdoor shop touting the rugged beauty of eastern Montana’s Terry Badlands. So one weekend last May, I thought, “Why not?”
When I first arrived, it seemed like the three-hour car ride might have been a total waste of time. By all appearances, there is nothing out there but ugly hills and dry sage brush. But appearances can be deceiving. When the sun began to sink low on the horizon, that’s when the magic began. As my eyes watched the drab brown landscape morph to shades of magenta and purple, my ears were filled with eerie coyote calls echoing across the prairie. After sundown, I was caught off-guard by ghostly green curtains of the aurora borealis shimmering across the black sky. Nighttime is when this place comes alive, and I can remember few trips when I have felt more alive myself.
In June we took a family trip to Bend, Oregon to attend a wedding. On previous occasions, my visits there had been mostly consumed by family activities. But holding true to my 2012 resolution, I decided to take advantage of some of Bend’s expansive outdoor rec opportunities by spending a night in the Three Sisters Wilderness and climbing a volcano.
After camping on the snow and enjoying some of the clearest views of the Milky Way Galaxy I’ve ever seen, I started up Middle Sister before dawn and paused partway to observe a breath-taking purple and orange sunrise over South Sister and Broken Top. I finished the rest of my solo climb and descent without incident, but managed to get myself lost on the hike back to the car. After wandering alongside a stream for most of the day, I finally found my way and returned back to town completely exhausted, but richer for the experience.
Bowback and Elk Mountain Double Summit
With the lowest snowfall in the Rockies in recent memorable past, some of the high peaks of the Beartooths became accessible several weeks sooner than usual. So, I teamed up with my adventure buddy, Super Tad for a one-day epic that took us over two little-known 12,000-foot peaks in the West Fork named Bowback and Elk Mountains. On this trip we encountered moose, porcupine, raging streams, remote lakes, and alpine vistas. By day’s end we had covered almost twenty miles and over 8,000 feet of elevation change. A lifetime of memories paid for by a week’s worth of sore knees. I’d call it a fair exchange.
For four nights in July, I shared a tent with my brother in the heart of the Beartooths at Upper Aero Lake. We spent our mornings knocking off peaks and our afternoons bailing rainwater out of our leaky tent. At least the rain kept the mosquitoes down, and aside from a pair of bighorn sheep, we encountered no other souls the entire time. In between rain showers, the sun would peek out long enough for us to cook meals and snap photos around our makeshift outpost. We sang together, we laughed, and we fought as brothers will. After four too-short days, it took awhile to assimilate back into society. After four too-short days, the memories changed our lives forever.
Having spent a fair chunk of my summer weekends exploring the Beartooths, by August it was once again time to broaden my horizons and seek out some different hiking locales. This time my wanderlust took me into the Crazy Mountains, an island range that juts out of the plains north of Big Timber, Montana. On this day I was in no hurry to rush off to a distant peak, so it was a treat to take an easy stroll several miles along Boulder Creek just for the sake of it. I would return with a friend a few weeks later to climb to the highest summit, Crazy Peak, but dangerously loose rock made it seem less like climbing and more like dumpster diving. We turned back and vowed to return in the Spring when packed snow might pave our ascent. So it seems there’s at least one dream leftover for 2013.
The trek around the shores of Glacier Lake to the summit of Spirit Mountain would be my last big adventure of 2012, and possibly the most strenuous. The cumulative fatigue from a long season of adventuring had already taken its toll, and I could certainly feel it in my legs and lungs as I plodded up the rocky slopes. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been too difficult a hike, but I found myself stopping several times to take a breather. I vowed to finish the job that day and forced myself to push through the pain, because let’s face it, the best things in life are never convenient.
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Here’s wishing you the very best of your own adventures in 2013! –Jeff