The news has been abuzz (I like the word “abuzz”) with a dramatic drop in temperatures around the Bay Area. We were expecting a little snow in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is unusual because our highest peaks aren’t much over 2000ft. My friend Dave Anderson confirmed that it was snowing a little near Castle Rock State Parks o I did what any sane person would do on his day off. I got up for sunrise at Castle Rock.
What? That’s not what any sane person would do on his day off?
I had a backpacking trip into the Yosemite back country scheduled for early October. A wildfire helped cancel that plan. I had everything ready so I decided to do something closer to home. There’s a drop-in camp site at Castle Rock State Park. This would be a nice opportunity to experiment with some ideas. I wanted to write a brief travel blog about fun local backpacking, to demonstrate that you could do simple astro photography with a low end camera and a kit lens, and to play around with going light with camera gear for future trips. Things went perfectly to plan until they really didn’t.
Spoiler alert: it involves a mountain lion.
Before we go any further I want to clarify something. Do not panic about the mountain lions. Sharks live in the water, mountain lions live in the mountains. I’ve still never seen a shark near our surfers. Similarly just because I came across a mountain lion doesn’t mean that they’re getting more aggressive or numerous in general. I believe that the experience from this trip was very unusual and even then nobody got hurt. Now back to my story…
This is an easy hike even if you’re not in especially good shape, so getting to the camp was just good fun even with a full pack. I brought just about everything I was taking on the Yosemite trip mostly because I had it packed already anyway. Everything went without a single hiccup. OK there was a minor thing with the Peak Design Capture that I was using. I may have twiddled a knob and the camera jammed in there and I was unable to get it back out about 1/2 into the hike. This had happened once before and I was only a little annoyed. FYI the nice folks at Peak Design helped me understand what I probably did: there’s a nob off to the side that’s intended to keep a mount in place specifically for a front-facing GoPro. I had likely tightened that when I should have left it alone. But in the grand scheme of things, this really wasn’t a big problem.
I brought my Canon Rebel XT, the 18-55mm kit lens, and a 24-200 Tamron lens that my wife bought for me forever ago for my old Canon film SLR (note: that lens is pushing 20 years old. They’re way better now). I wanted to see if this old lens would be utilitarian and high enough quality such that it could still be useful. It wasn’t, but I enjoyed the experiment. The kit lens was for wide angles and for the night shots. And hell, it’s so lightweight that there’s no penalty for bringing it. The tripod was my Joby Gorillapod; again very lightweight and versatile. I even brought a simple tripod head, a Vanguard SBH-100 . Everything was basic and nothing special.
The hike was fun. I took snapshots of rock climbers and even helped a couple of lost hikers. I was feeling really good about this and having a great time.
There are a couple of tricky parts to the hike. My pack is the older external frame type so it’s a little wide. Getting across narrow passages meant getting creative.
Once I got close to camp I actually felt a little down since it almost over. I setup camp, laid everything out, and took a couple of “happy campsite” pictures.
You know, tent up, dinner cooking, camp chair, a good book; outdoorsy fun. I made a good dinner, enjoyed desert, then setup for a “glowing night time tent” picture.
Right about then a deer went running through my campsite. Not like it was just in a hurry to get somewhere — it was running from something in a panic. I noted this and even considered the possibility that maybe it had seen a puma. I discounted the idea that the puma could be especially close since hey, noisy, smelly, weird people. Hell I was fairly close to the Los Altos Rod & Gun Club and there was all kinds of noise coming from there. No reason to be concerned about a mountain lion. Now was an OK time to clean up from dinner.
The sun was setting soon and I wanted to go do my demo of low-end DLSR astrophotography. I knew an overlook nearby that would allow for a decent shot of the Milky Way setting behind the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I gathered my things and hustled up to the overlook before it got dark. The landscape photography and attempts at photographing the soaring buzzards didn’t go especially well with the old 24-200mm. The focus just wasn’t very sharp and autofocus was far too slow. It reminded me of way back when I thought this was the greatest lens ever though.
Before the sun set I made a short video to explain what I was doing, what I was using, and how anybody could do it. Once the sun set what I really discovered was that yeah, there’s a minimum requirement for shooting the Milky Way: live view. If you don’t have live view then you’re not going to get the stars in focus with this lens. You just can’t zoom in on a star with the eyepiece. Before you ask, sorry the Micro-SD card got corrupted and that video is lost to the digital dumpster. Let’s look at this from another point of view though: it can be done. Somebody might even be absolutely stoked that they took this photo himself and that would be perfect.
I walked back to camp about an hour after sunset. I’m no dummy so I’m making plenty of noise to let the potential animals know I’m coming and that I should be uninteresting or at least not worth the risk to them. Once I got to the campground I looked up and saw a pair of large glowing eyes up in a tree reflected in my headlamp. I wasn’t concerned because this was probably a possum or raccoon. I didn’t think much more about this. I got back to my tent, rummaged around to setup the lamp for the “glowing happy tent photo”, and looked up. There was a small pair of eyes in the bush about 10 feet away. I thought very little about this; raccoon or possum again. I went back to the table to setup for my picture, arranged things the way I liked them, and made a couple of exposures as the battery died. Right about then my phone beeped to let me know that it’s battery was going too. No problem, just great timing.
Then I looked up again. The little eyes were replaced with two big ones.
I was 20 meters away from that bush and the eyes were much larger. Whatever it was, it was low to the ground so potentially a raccoon, but I kept my light in that direction. I couldn’t see into the bush, just the eyes. Then those eyes got up. They rose a good 2 feet. That’s no raccoon. Then it got down low again. It knew I saw it and things had just changed from a simple wildlife moment to something else. Something potentially dangerous. I remembered that deer that ran through here earlier and it hits me; it was running from this. This is a puma. The other pair of eyes may have been a cub. I am in deep trouble. I’ve been a little too close to a mountain lion once before, but I never saw her. What you do is get large, stand up, make noise, and they lose interest: you’re big, weird, smell funny, and you’re not worth the risk. So I went with Plan A again. I got on top of the table, raised my arms and started talking to the eyes:
I see you.
I see you.
You should go now.
The eyes got low again. Then rose up again. Then something unexpected; it flanked to my left. I could still see the eyes bobbing a little over a foot above the ground (I think) but damn, I could NOT see the animal’s body at all. Then she came back to her original spot, got low, rose up, and got low again. Then an unmistakable “rrrrrrrrrr” from the bush. Shit. She knew I saw her and that I was looking right at her. She couldn’t back down because I was a challenge. I couldn’t back down because I needed to know where she was. I had a large metal water bottle and my knife so I started banging them together to make more noise. It was around 10:00 pm and this went on for another 30 minutes before I decided I needed help. I managed to get a phone call to 911.. a choppy miserable attempt but I did manage to get the key words out. A ranger was on his way but there was a real problem. He was coming from Twin Lakes Beach. He was simply the nearest armed ranger and he was about 45 minutes away if he was in a giant rush. The roads here didn’t fare well last winter and the 2 important ones he needed were closed so he had to take a much longer route. Typically a ranger would come from Big Basin Redwoods State Park or maybe even Portola Redwoods State Park (I think). But there wasn’t anybody available at either location. I was on my own for a while.
After another 20 minutes I got lucky and a campsite not far away woke up and yelled asking what was going on.
Me: Mountain Lion!
The two girls asked if there was anything they could do.
Me: OK, here’s the plan. I’m going to keep facing the puma and start slowly backing towards your site. As soon as I get over this little rise I’m going to lose sight of her. That’s a problem. She’ll probably leave, but we’re all better off together. Get on top of your picnic table, have lights, and get ready to make some noise with me. Do you understand?
Me: OK, here I come.
Now here’s where things get to be a real pain. We couldn’t see her. The eyes were just lost to me now. There was a pause for a minute, then noises in the bushes near the other campsite. She had potentially come closer, but we just couldn’t be sure. Then “rrrrrrrrrrr” from the bushes. There’s some confusion because I can’t be absolutely sure anymore if it’s her or a distant motorcycle. The differences should be pretty clear. I could hear the occasional Harley miles away: bwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr brrrr bwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr bwrrrrrrrrrrrr . But then softly I could still here much shorter “rrrrrrr” with no followup bwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I couldn’t be sure so we kept making noise. There were some intervening events that I’ll summarize as other campers coming by and asking what was going on. They were mostly annoyed that we were keeping them up. They went back to their camps the other direction. Maybe she really had gone? I had no real way to know.
The park ranger arrived about 11:45. The puma was definitely gone now, no question about it. He offered to evacuate out anybody who wanted to go — considering that he could only fit so many people in his truck. The young ladies decided to stay since they had travelled a bit and waited so long for their trip. I live reasonably nearby and can come back any time — so I took him up on it. I gathered up my stuff, packed up the tent, and we were out of there. It’s not like I was going to get any sleep that night.
Here’s what I want to be clear about. What happened was very unusual. Mountain lions don’t stick around like that. They usually bug out immediately. Occasionally they crouch and stalk when they’re showing some aggression. Usually it’s all over in 20 minutes or so. You hear about mountain lions popping up in odd places. It makes the news and people freak out for a while. Remember that when you see something in the news it’s there for a reason; it’s unusual. I joke that you never see “GRAVITY: STILL DOING ITS THING” in the news.
We had a community meeting recently in Boulder Creek on the topic of pumas. A rep from the Dept of Fish and Game was giving a great presentation and reassured everybody that there was nothing unusual to be worried about. Keep your pets indoors. Don’t give the animals a reason to visit your home. Keep pet food inside, etc. Pick up the acorns that the deer love to eat so they don’t attract pumas themselves, etc. Most of the meeting participants agreed. A few didn’t. I was there photographing the event and didn’t say anything until after.
I asked the rep what she thought about my particular situation. She honestly didn’t have a lot to say. She gets a lot of panic phone calls that turn out to be house cats. It’s OK, she wasn’t there and nobody got hurt. My point is don’t take my story to mean that there’s some unusual increase in mountain lion activity or aggression. I truly believe this was unusual. I wouldn’t even be insulted if the rep told me that it wasn’t a puma.
Move forward in time a month. I’ll be honest, this experience has brought on a change in me. I really noticed how people tend to steer clear of each other. Watch two people walking towards each other on a sidewalk. They swerve a little to make more space. They don’t look each other in the eye. This is even more noticeable in an elevator. Hell, most don’t look up from their shoes or they use their phones as an excuse to not engage in the people inches away. I tried an experiment. I walked around Santa Clara. I walked right towards people, looking right at them the whole time. Then I’d smile and say something friendly like “Hello” or “Hi, how are you today?” Almost always the response was one of pleasant surprise. People were glad to see that I wasn’t a threat but they weren’t too sure at first. I’ve started more casually talking with absolute strangers. I’m not remotely threatened by somebody in public or, and this seems utterly ridiculous now, on social media. That guy’s not going to hurt me. He probably couldn’t anyway. Hell, I look far more threatening in person anyway what in the world do I have to fear of this guy? Nothing.
If anything this has been empowering. But oh yeah, I still see those eyes. I still hear “rrrrrrr”.
The first big objective of this year’s eastern Sierras trip was capturing the Milky Way over Half Dome from Olmsted Point. Debbie and I got out there while the moon was about 40% full and around 2 hours from setting. Obviously we were going to have to wait for the moon to set so in the meantime we made use of the time.
This is one of those hundreds (thousands?) of locations within Yosemite that practically composes itself. Boulders provide leading lines while trees frame the image. Passing jets provided contrails (not my favorite thing) and a fire in the distance provided extra warm tones to the image. Framing the scene to avoid the contrails worked fine for the most part.
The photograph of the Milky Way setting over Olmsted Point was both easy and challenging. Easy because once you know how you never really forget, especially with a camera body/lens combination that you know very well. It gets more difficult when processing the image and the waiting.
No, really! The waiting is tricky because it’s cold. And not just any cold, it’s “your rump is on a freezing granite rock” cold. We both brought camping chairs, so that took care of that problem (yay planning!). Post processing the image isn’t really all that difficult in general, but this one took more time; and I think it’s fair to say that I’m not done with it. When I shot the scene I was aware that a meteor went overhead from about the center of the frame to the upper right corner. (Update: my friends Mike Spinak and Cris Ballinger suggested that it was probably a satellite or maybe even the International Space Station )I was very excited to find that I caught four frames with the meteor. The trick now was aligning the images, bringing out relevant details, reducing noise (oh reducing noise at ISO 4000 probably isn’t going to happen). I won’t go into the details of processing the photo because I think it’s something worth exploring yourself. There are a lot of different styles that come from the discovery. I found a look that I like so my approach will probably be different from yours. Then I find things I don’t like much later and I do it again. To tell you the truth I edited the photo twice while I was writing this. Told you so!
I have a lot of photographs from this last trip. I also have what feels like a daunting amount of things to do now that I’m back. I’m going to write, copyright, and oh yes, unpack.
I had a set of ideas for this trip and one of the first was capturing the Milky Way from Olmsted Point. This isn’t that post. This is more of a fun opportunistic photo before achieving that first objective. I had a couple of hours before the moon set and a couple of spare batteries so I had some fun. Honestly some of these “play time” photos are more fun than the primary one! I had a couple of ideas with this image. The original idea was to blend 2 photos, 1 at higher ISO for the foreground and another at ISO 3200 for the stars overhead. Then I found the meteors in the ISO 6400 image and none in the 3200 image. Well darn, those are too cool to pass up so I went with the single ISO 6400 image and ran with that.
There was a small private photography workshop happening near us. I was so busy doing my own thing that I didn’t pay much attention to them; I should have at least gotten the instructor’s name since he was generous enough to let Debbie and I know that they’d turn on their lights occasionally.
I just got back from a trip through the eastern Sierras — and I mean within the past couple of hours. I promised that I would post a few early photographs even if they were just quick edits. Yes, there are some fall colors happening. When Debbie and I arrived there were mere hints in the places that pop in prime time. We were pretty early this season so it wasn’t a giant surprise when my favorite spots were all green. Things changed over night and some spots started to turn golden.
I was watching Instagram etc as best as I could (there’s very limited cellular reception out there). Tuesday night I saw a post from Mono County Tourism (@monocountytourism) saying that Sage Hen Peak had an early showing of fall colors.
We were stoked! We were up at the first light to see what was up. We had another objective that became absolutely irresistible on the way… but more about that later.
At the end of day one we had our tents setup and everything had gone to plan. We stayed at Castle Rock Trail Camp which is usually first-come-first-served. It’s a great campground that’s also an easy hike to get to. The wind was gusty over night but that rarely bothers me. The only goof was that I forgot to charge my little Luci Light. Darn. For the rest of the trip I kept it on the outside of my pack so it would charge in the sunlight.
Note: There are a few galleries of photos in this post. Click on an image to display a more attractive lightbox to view the photos.
I hunted around for an overlook first thing in the morning. It faces generally south and will provide a nice view of the Milky Way over the Santa Cruz Mountains on a future trip, so let’s call this one a quick research hike.
The spot I had in mind was just around 1/4 mile from the campsite. That would have been great, but good luck finding it in the dark. I’ll keep this in mind for my next visit here.
We broke camp and got started. We had 10.5 miles to go today so there wasn’t a lot of time to stop for all of the flowers. I just stopped for most of them. This cluster of flowers was just a few dozen meters out of the campground.
I kept towards the back of the group. This was mostly because I don’t want to make everybody wait for me while I’m fooling around and taking pictures. One benefit was that I’d get a pretty good description of what was being gathered for local tea later.
The first two or three miles was a bit uphill through forested areas
A short portion kept close to Hwy 35. There was the occasional view of San Jose.
We took a break along Hwy 35. I messed around a little with speeding motorcycle riders. Kids, please don’t try this.
The terrain changed again and the plant life was dominated by chaparral. Occasionally we would hear retorts from the gun club near Los Altos Rod and Gun Club near Castle Rock, but it was less obvious now. We could almost see our starting point from this overlook.
We emerged from the trees and the terrain changed yet again. This is what’s so amazing about this area: you can be under forest canopy for an hour, then in wide sections of rolling trails and grasslands. The wildflowers changed from the California roses to more purple vetch, poppies, and whatever these little yellow dudes are (a highly scientific term). Silly side note: we made a game out of creating “trail names” for each other. I got “Purple Vetch” but I added “The” so it sounded more like a super hero. The Purple Vetch had a nice ring to it and now I can wear a cape. We spent the next few hours crossing the Saratoga Gap trail.
The views were spectacular. You can see for miles
Carrie took this fun picture of me trying to do something interesting with this little sunflower. Heh, that’s the funny part about my trips: I’m almost never in the pictures.
Overloaded with photos yet? Yeah, that’s the nature of this post. There’s lots of hiking and lots to see. It was pretty warm and I absolutely loving just being out and moving. I was hoping to see some wildlife; deer, coyotes, etc. That didn’t quite happen, but we did get a cooperative lizard and a tiny snake.
The next few miles were across exposed rolling hills. Groups of poppies were easily found. There were very few other hikers but there was the occasional mountain bike rider. The Saratoga Gap Trail has to be one of the most under utilized open spaces in the Bay Area.
There were a few flowers that I was looking for. The one I wanted to see the most was the wild orchid. I would find them occasionally here, but more frequently as we approached Portola Redwoods State Park.
More flowers and views. Flowers in the foreground, Douglas Fir and hills in the background. Most of these photos have a saturated color to them. This was mostly intentional because I was using a circular polarizer filter to reduce glare. We were along the Saratoga Gap trail in bright sunlight in the middle of the day — not exactly ideal conditions for landscape photography. But still, I wanted to convey the beauty of the place as well as I could.
Things changed again as we approached Portola Redwoods State Park. The open spaces gave way to trees. The trees gave way to giant redwoods. The grass gave way to poison oak. One thing is for sure, we all got very good at identifying poison oak.
Daylight was ending with just two or three more miles to go. There were small areas of clover, flowers, towering trees, and yes poison oak. The sun was creating this orange glow between the trees. Here I was really missing my tripod, but lugging that extra 5 pounds was just not going to happen. I framed up the shot handheld, increased the ISO to provide just enough shutter speed to offset my tendency to shake the camera, and hoped. ISO 3200 is OK for telling a story and my Canon 7d mk II is very good with ISO noise, so overall I’m happy with this.
Once inside Portola Redwoods SP we were again among creeks, clovers, and shade. I live among redwoods so I’m almost used to these giant trees. Almost. I live in awe of them every day. Many of the trees we encountered were under 100 years old because most of them had been clearcut after the 1908 San Francisco earthquake and fires to help rebuild the city.
We arrived at the site of Page’s Mill (yes, this is what Page Mill Road is named for) to refill water. I made some more creative photos here and shared a little Landscape Photography 101 with a friend. This is where my tiny Gorilla travel tripod came in very handy.
The photos below are available on my sales site: http://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Landscapes/Around-Boulder-Creek/
Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a backpacking trip led by naturalists and made available by California State Parks. I’ve done lots of day hikes – 3 to 9 miles for the sake of photographing a special subject or scene, but this time I wanted to do something that required more effort. I hadn’t done any actual backpacking since I was in the Boy Scouts as a teenager, so this meant learning how to do this all over again. I was eager to join the “Wild Flower Special” in late April so that meant that I had some work to do.
I gathered the gear that would be needed: tent, pack, warm sleeping bag, etc. and did some training hikes to work out the details. My friend Erin went with me on one at Wilder Ranch State Park. She helped spot the obvious problems and generally made our 7 mile training hike all kinds of fun.
Part of the training was to determine what needed adjusting and what I really needed to bring. This trip was going to be as much about photography as it would be about hiking, so I had to seriously consider what was absolutely necessary. I also had to find the best way to carry a camera. Usually I go with a device that clips the camera to my pack strap, but this time I experimented with a top loading case and my camera sling. Neither of those options worked, so I went back to my tried & true CapturePRO from Peak Design. It did the job well providing access to the camera when I wanted it, and a place to keep it ready when I didn’t.
Erin almost stepped on this little gopher snake. I took some snapshots with my macro lens which I decided not to bring for the next trip. I shooed him off the trail so he wouldn’t get hurt by a fast moving mountain bike.
One more picture from the training hike. This was just too cute to pass up. Erin was a lot of help and she’s just one of the sweetest people I know. That and she’s ridiculously photogenic, so why not?
The Trip: Day One – Castle Rock
The set of trails was going to take us from Castle Rock State Park, through the Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve, and end at Portola Redwoods State Park. The terrain and biodiversity just over this 16 miles is amazing. Oaks, sandy areas, exposed grassy hills, and dense redwoods.
The eight of us gathered on Friday afternoon at Castle Rock State Park , shook off the drive (just a few minutes for me, a touch longer for our friends from San Jose), and started off towards the rock formations. Castle Rock is a favorite spot for local rock climbers.
We paused for a little while here. We got to know each other a bit and Rose, one of the naturalists encouraged us to take time to write our thoughts. Rose spoke about this particular location, about the people who come here today, what they like to do, and about the plant life that we were likely to see today. She also lit a bundle of rosemary. We each held the aromatic, lightly burning rosemary and took turns speaking about who we are and what we were looking for on this trip.
When it was my turn I mentioned a brief interaction with G Dan Mitchell. I was asking my photographer friends on their thoughts on the Sony A7 II. Dan had the best response: “What problem are you trying to solve?” He was right. I didn’t need to solve a gear problem I was trying to solve an inspiration problem. So, let’s go get inspired.
I brought two cameras with me. For Day One I brought my little Panasonic Lumix FZ47. This is a nice, light weight JPG camera with just enough manual control. While it weighs very little, it was OK for some of these snapshots but not for much else. This was good to know and the size/weight penalty was almost nothing. I shot all day using this little camera, so while the photos are hardly “art” they were just fine for what I had planned for the first day.
We got started and paused frequently to talk about flowers and other points of interest. There’s a popular overlook with a small waterfall that had just enough water in it. I actually hadn’t been to this spot before, so it was a pleasant surprise.
We were treated to broad views and a clear sky. The amazing detail is that this terrain is formed by land pushing up from the sea floor a long, long time ago.
We stopped frequently to hear about the abundant wild flowers. Here Rose describes some of the lupins, the wild rose, and the California wild rose.
There were plenty of spots that needed our complete attention. For example climbing over this rock wasn’t especially hard, but it was narrow enough for my wider pack to be a little complicated.
There were some surprises. For example this blooming plant is a very young oak tree. In a hundred hears or so this guy will be enormous.
One of my favorite snapshots from the first day is our group along the winding trail with this panoramic view.
We arrived at the first campsite after 3.5 miles of hiking. We setup camp, made dinner and enjoyed hearing even more from our guides. I had my heart set on photographing the Milky Way over the Santa Cruz mountains from an overlook that I knew was nearby. Plans changed because I wasn’t able to find it in the dark. I scouted around a bit for something else to catch my eye. The sun setting through the trees was warm and inviting, so that made a beautiful subject. I was missing my good tripod right about now, so I had to improvise with high ISO and a technique I call “holding really still”.
After dinner our guide Eric had a lot to say about the anthropology of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A lot of us are aware of the Ohlone tribes who frequented here, but I didn’t know that they were responsible for clearing some of the spaces. I also didn’t realize that they had a relationship with the Spanish explorers and Russian traders. I also didn’t know that they had established trade with other nearby tribes and were even a seafaring people.
Eric demonstrated how they made an meal from acorns using elaborate water tight bowls and hot rocks. Most local elementary school children have tried an acorn mush. My own kids certainly told me about their experience with it. Now it was my turn. It wasn’t bad!
In October, 2016 I set out on a Yosemite adventure with my friend Gary Crabbe. I worked on images since the trip as time allowed with the plan to write about it “real soon.” Naturally so did Gary who beat me to it in a series of outstanding posts.
Well darn. The last thing in the world I wanted was to look like I’m copying him so I set the idea aside until there was a big gap in the post dates. There’s something to be said for timeliness, but this isn’t professional journalism, it’s just me sharing an experience.
You may have read my story about hiking Half Dome. Most of the inspiration arose from that journey; fitness, physical challenge, a growing love for all things Yosemite, more photography inspirations. We talked a lot about that trip which helped create some urgency for the North Dome adventure.
There were some parameters we had to work with. For example the seasonal lighting conditions we wanted were ending soon. Another potential problem was that we were towards the end of the fall season and the road to the trailhead was likely to close with the next big change in the weather. That weather parameter was a bigger deal than I imagined and it was just a preview of the wet winter ahead.
North Dome is a granite feature on the north side of Yosemite National Park almost directly across the valley from Half Dome. It’s a four mile hike from the trailhead across varying terrain. I’m still exploring around Yosemite, so this fairly popular day hike was new to me. The trail starts as heavily wooded with small streams and leads to more exposed granite and occasional trees and brush.
The hike itself is described as “moderate.” I had been training extensively so I personally didn’t find it very difficult.
If anything my challenge was the small size of my day pack. It is just enough for some food, a water bladder, a couple layers of clothing, and my favorite camera gear. I carried my tripod by hand and clipped the camera body to a strap on my pack. Gary kept his Nikon D800 in his pack and used a small yet highly capable camera while on the move.
I keep experimenting with different ways of carrying the camera itself. It’s too large to keep inside the pack, but keeping it outside exposes it to the elements. The clip that I used worked well enough but gets a bit uncomfortable after a while around my chest. A shoulder strap is a fair choice for a very short hike, but I expected it to become annoying quickly. A neck strap is a perfectly awful choice for any distance – honestly I can’t believe people use them at all. Recently I’ve tried a top-loading bag slung over my shoulder which worked reasonably well on a short hike at Wilder Ranch State Park. G. Dan Mitchell mentioned some time ago on his blog that he likes to use a chest-mounted top-loading camera bag. I’ll try that next time.
We started fairly early in the day, but the light was high contrast; no point in making many photos for a while. We had a schedule to keep. The plan was to arrive at the dome an hour or two before sunset. The light started to cooperate nicely with overhead clouds when we were about a mile away. We crested a ridge which gave way to a nearly sandy trail among increasingly exposed granite.
I keep writing about the hike itself rather than the photography involved. Thats easily explained since most of the time was spent getting there and getting back. I take a lot of joy in these experiences. I live in a fairly rural area surrounded by redwoods, but this hasn’t always been the case. When I was little my family lived near Los Angeles, and it was a concrete jungle. I thought Western Avenue went as far north as I could imagine. The one clear day when it was smog-free enough to see Mount Baldy was surreal.
There are mountains nearby? And I can see them? And is that snow??
Believe me, the change of scenery that I have now is exactly what I wanted back then, I just didn’t have the vocabulary for it. So trust me when I tell you that sharing this hike with somebody passionate about The Great Outdoors and is perfectly happy to enjoy the peaceful quiet is beyond compare.
I took this collection of photos as the scene inspired me while hiking. They were largely made using a 17-50mm Sigma lens with a Tiffen circular polarizer. Apertures varied from f/8 to f/13. Since they were taken hand held rather than using my tripod I went with a 1/focal length rule which served me very well. I use a crop sensor camera, so increase the focal length a bit to “perceived focal length” to account for the crop. I’m very happy with the results.
Come back again soon for the second installment where I describe being on North Dome and the photography that occurred.
A lot of people have a Half Dome story. This one is mine. I use the occasional bad word. Cope with it.
Thousands of people have done this hike before. Hell, dozens did it before me just that day. If you’ve ever done this before, now I get it. If you haven’t this isn’t intended to be a guide but maybe reading my story will help. This is, to use a highly scientific term, “hard”. Let’s not confuse this with climbing the face though. That’s an entirely different level of badass.
Note: I am occasionally reminded that there are people who don’t know what Half Dome is. It’s a major feature in Yosemite National Park in central California. It’s an enormous piece of exposed granite with a peak that rises to over 8800 feet above sea level. There is a hiking trail that will lead to the top and it is usually described as “extremely strenuous” in difficulty. It can be done in a single day, but that is one long day. Read the official story here.
Years ago I was dating a lovely girl named E. She told me once about the hardest thing she ever did: hike Half Dome. She mentioned the length of the hike. She mentioned how scared she was on the cable section. I didn’t understand and I reacted with something like “oh that’s nice.” She never brought it up again. I didn’t get it and I’m eternally sorry about that.
Fast forward to 2013. I’ve had desk jobs for years, I’m badly out of shape, and my back is killing me. My doctor is using all the scary words like “heart”, “overweight”, “family history” and “avoiding diabetes…”. By wonderful coincidence some things were colliding that enabled change. I picked up a used digital camera and got friendly with some incredible photographers. They shared photos of travel, adventure, and Yosemite.
I also met a few people who weren’t only brilliant and adventurous, but also in excellent physical condition. I loved being in their company and I found myself wanting everything they were doing. Keep in mind that Half Dome was utterly unthinkable. I started walking more and eating a little better. Months later the weight dropped and the walk became a jog. The jog became a run. The run went from 2 miles to 6. I dropped from 201 to 180. Now what? I signed up for the hardest thing I could think of, Crossfit. (quick joke: how’s Crossfit different from Fight Club? You can’t shut up about it.) I thought I would puke. On one occasion I did. I kept coming back. I met Pete who said that no matter what happened, the rest of the day had no choice but to be easier than what we just finished. I kept getting stronger. My shirts fit tighter and my pants all fit looser.
Ryan, my new coach and inspirational friend challenged our gym to do something really hard. We were going to do one of those insane obstacle courses and we chose Battlefrog. Done. I placed top 20 for my age group. Now what? I needed a new goal. It was going to be Half Dome. Ryan and I started training for the specifics: countless lunges, squats, pullups, carry the heavy weird thing, now run with it. Oh that hurt? It’ll stop hurting when we’re dead. Go again.
We stayed at a friend’s place in Oakhurst. We also planned on stopping at Glacier Point for some artsy photos.
Back to the point!
I watched videos, read blogs, looked at photos, and I recalled the stories from friends. Heck, I even played a minecraft map modeled on Yosemite and Half Dome for giggles. We got our permits and it was time to go.
Everything you’ve heard is true.
This isn’t just strenuous. It’s fucking hard. It’s a challenge not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Having said that I’ve seen kids around 10 and men in their 70’s do it. I’ve also seen grown men turn around.
I brought my best camera to document the trip. It’s heavy but it wasn’t much of a problem. I used a Peak Design Capture to mount it to my back pack strap. This was perfect. I carried the camera and a wide angle lens. Ryan carried the telephoto. I had one job for that telephoto.
I estimated about 10 hours of hiking, which would put us on Half Dome about 1:00. My estimate was very close. We started from Curry Village (I just can’t use the new naming scheme yet. Yuck.) at 7:40 am. Campers were just waking up and several people were on the trail already. Ryan and I took the Mist Trail route. The first stretch is paved and super easy. This would be a nice, quick hike or bike ride if you’re camping nearby.
The Mist Trail took us to Vernal Falls, which provides most of the mist on the Mist Trail. Typically this part will soak you. We went in September to increase our chances of getting a permit, but it also had the benefit of the trail being dry. The trail becomes a long series of steps cut out of granite. Plenty of people have described the details, so I won’t say much about the trail itself. The steps are narrow and tall. There are lots of them. They are usually wet and slick. They are worth it. Consider them to be about 300 box lunges. Probably more. Bring a light poncho unless you go when it’s dry.
There were a few climbers on the trail with us. One had a helmet with a couple of stickers.
one red droplet
It took only a few seconds to realize that meant “If you found me, my blood type is ‘O positive'”. These guys were the real badasses.
I was warming up with the camera during this stretch. Yes, I warm up much like I do before a workout. There’s enough light, but not harsh yet. I want to keep moving while taking pictures of the climbers ahead. So about 35mm at 1/250 of a second at ISO 400 ish at f/5 ish oughta do it. It doesn’t quite freeze the action, but sometimes a little blur in a footstep says something more about motion than freezing it does.
We paused briefly at the Mist Trail steps (click!) to see what we were getting into. Yup, hundreds of lunges. As expected there’s just a little water in Vernal Fall. It’s an “open shade” type of light which is usually ideal with a tripod. Hand held though means higher shutter speeds and higher ISO. I framed up the waterfall against the granite, completely ignoring the sky and bright spots. The results are pleasant, but not high enough quality to print or ever sell. Certainly better than a typical snapshot. I think shooting here in normal ( soaking) conditions would be out of the question.
Up the rest of the steps to the top of Vernal Falls and Emerald Pool. The squirrels are looking for a handout immediately. Ryan gets one of the little boogers to pose but we don’t feed or touch him.
We rest for a few minutes and a fellow hiker offers to take our picture. Thanks Tammy! Otherwise I nearly don’t exist in photos.
The sun starts peering through the trees so there’s an opportunity for some lens flare fun.
Break time is over and it’s upwards to Nevada Falls. The trail gets narrower and cliffier (it’s a word!). A railing keeps you from falling over the cliff, but it’s pretty clear that it’s mostly one-way traffic.
Nevada Falls doesn’t have a lot of water in it while we’re there but it’s still awe inspiring. I was busy framing up one perfectly horrible shot when Ryan whistles and points. He’s spotted a better view in excellent light between the trees. The framing was perfect.
The trail disappears a couple of times but it’s obvious that the general direction is “up”. We cross a foot bridge and I do a Jerry Downs inspired shadow selfie for fun. We still have a long way to go.
The leg to Little Yosemite is right after Nevada Falls. It is a flat, sandy trail that saps your energy a bit. I stuck to the sides of the trail where the ground was more compact. There are spots of exposed granite with boulders deposited by glaciers centuries ago. This isn’t an uncommon sight on the other side of the Yosemite Valley.
After passing Little Yosemite is a long, long, set of switchbacks. A sign informs us that we’re still 2 miles from Half Dome and we really should have our permits. A small but steady stream of hikers comes down, looking tired but always saying how great it is, you’re almost there, etc. We meet a few others who we see for the remainder of the way up.
Another quick break with a mile to go. I brought lots of food and water. It’s recommended that you bring at least a gallon. I brought more than that. The switchbacks are upwards from here and a bit monotonous, but not terribly hard. We came across a couple of guys in their late 60’s hiking with their adult kids. They’re all doing fine but I heard one mention that he swore years ago that he’d never climb this rock again… and here he was. I decided that I want to be that guy when I grow up.
The trail gives way to granite. There are more steps cut out of the hillside and yet more switchbacks, more lunges, and more realizing that we’re almost there. Tree cover comes and goes but once we’re at the base of the sub dome it’s exposed granite. We are right on my imaginary schedule so we take another break for food etc. I had one of those Gu energy pouch things. I hated that thing. Avoid. This was a good place to pack up my camera. I just didn’t want it on my mind climbing up from here. No turning back now (like that would happen…), it’s time to go up the steps.
The trail vanishes a couple more times. Again, it’s really not hard to figure out that the direction is “up.” The air is noticeably thinner. I live at sea level, so there’s some extra effort over 6000 feet but we’re doing great. The muscles in my legs are burning some but that was expected.
Well damn here we are. We stopped for a few minutes at the base of the cables to think about what’s next. OK, I was thinking. Ryan likes to just go. There’s validity to that. We look up and there they are: the infamous cables of Half Dome. The cables are suspended by steel poles. About 10 feet between the poles are planks of wood. There are sections that are clearly very steep. The obvious best approach is hand over hand while keeping to one side of the cables. This allows people to come down to your side or pass you if needed. Then we see him. There is one insane guy well outside of the cables on his way down.
Insane Guy would go wide about 15 or 20 feet, come down a bit, then back to the cables. I put the camera back together with the telephoto because I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I overheard somebody say that he has done this 12 times in 12 weeks. I think the clinical term for this is “batshit crazy”.
We observed that the line of people on the cables had stopped. Somebody towards the top wasn’t moving and everybody was waiting. We chose to see if this would clear out before starting up ourselves. It was also an opportunity to pack the camera again and secure my water bottles etc. Every once in a while you hear the “bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk… bonk… bonk….” of a water bottle falling out of somebody’s pocket. Once the situation cleared it was time to put on my gloves and grab those cables. Yes, bring gloves. Full fingered gloves. Not gardening gloves from the hardware store. Something tough and grippy. I brought motorcycles gloves, but I saw lots of folks using rubberized ones. Ryan’s hands are leather from years in construction. Even he borrowed a pair of gloves for this. This was probably a good idea.
Climbing up the cables is reasonably difficult physically. It’s mostly pulling with your upper body while pushing up with your legs. I’ve been training exactly for this and it wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was mental.
I don’t think I’m especially afraid of heights, but we’re 8000 feet up with nothing to catch us if we fall. It’s pretty easy to understand why somebody might have a total panic attack here.
I decided to keep it simple. Concentrate on the task at hand only.
hand over hand
hand over hand
check the person ahead
Of course I did look to the side occasionally. It confirmed the steepness and the view was one of those once in a lifetime things.
At about 90 percent of the way up I ran into Chad again. He’s sitting down straddling a post and he’s taking a picture downwards. I happen to be in it. He mentioned that he could feel his legs tightening up and he was concerned about cramping. I suggested that he keep moving because nobody could help here. Yeah, that’s when I felt it in my legs too.
We got to the top a few yards later. I felt the muscles in both of my legs cramp at the same time. I sat down and was in the kind of misery that comes with your body turning to stone from the inside out. Ryan helped by massaging the worst of it. I used my metal water bottle to roll out the rest. After a couple of false starts the worst was over and we were moving again. Of course the big question was could I avoid cramps on the way back down? There wasn’t an option so the whole line of thought was dropped. The solution was to drink as much water as possible and eat anything with protein. Things kept improving and recovery was a whole lot quicker than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, that was 10 minutes of shit.
One of our fellow hikers offered to take our picture with my phone so I faked my best Happy Sean Look ™.
Handstands and Yoga Things
I expected that we would get there a little after noon; 1:30 or so. Pro-photography tip: outdoor photography sucks at this time of day unless it is overcast. The brights are too bright, darks too dark, and the image just looks flat. We couldn’t stay until the light improved, but honestly what I wanted were the best snapshots I could make from here. I had a couple of pictures in mind that I absolutely had to have. I wanted that picture on top of The Visor that you see so often, but this time with me and somebody I know on it.
In the meantime there was an attractive young lady already out there. Oh like I’d let this photo opportunity go by? This specific angle is exactly what I brought the telephoto for. Like I mentioned, the light stinks. This is a long, long way from ideal. The shadows are almost straight up and down. The telephoto enhances the haze in the background. The color temperature / white balance / was 100% out of whack. It took some effort to make this a usable photo. But I love it.
I made a deal with Chad for some once-in-a-lifetime pictures if he’d return the favor. I framed up the shot, set the focus, gave a super brief rundown on DSLR 101, and marched out to The Visor. Veronica made a little space for me and asked if she should move all the way out of shot. Heck no! Stay! So now there’s a picture of me and a new friend.
Yes the view is staggering. I’m at 8800+ feet hanging over the edge of nothing. It’s probably as scary as it looks but I just remember being very happy. Bucket list item solidly crossed off with extra points for style. Right at this moment my life is a story book.
A few minutes of pleasant conversation later I learn that she’s here with friends and they were going to take some pictures doing yoga poses up here. So crummy light be damned we set it up.
I had this shot of Ryan doing a hand stand in mind too.
Well of course we still had to come back down. Descending the cables wasn’t difficult really. I just kept it to one task at a time much like the way up. Go backwards, facing the granite. The same hand over hand approach kept my grip positive and it was a lot easier to get around a few of the small overhangs. There are a couple of spots where one cable transitions to another. That requires you to let go for a second. I’m sure that’s an attention-getter for some. We did hit a snag on the way down. One young lady had a moment of doubt on a steep section and needed some encouragement. Ryan is great at this so we waited as he talked with her and generally rebuilt her confidence. This is where this guy shines.
We all got to the sub dome safely and our groups joined into a fun, friendly band with lots of stories to share. The people on this trip were as amazing as the effort itself, and this was an unexpected prize. We caught up with Chad again and the day just kept getting better. We parted ways at Little Yosemite. I gave everybody my card so we could stay in touch and they could get their pictures.
The rest of the way was a lot like going up but in reverse. The light started getting really good around Nevada Falls so I stopped periodically to capture some of it. Of course then I’d have to double-time to catch up with Ryan. We could have taken the John Muir trail but we stuck with the Mist Trail to keep it shorter. Next time I’ll take the John Muir trail back.
The hike after Vernal Falls was almost dark. We got down the steps with enough light but that changed once we got to where the paved path begins. About that paved path; it’s inviting for that quick 30 minute walk with the family. It’s a jarring, unforgiving thing when you’ve already gone 15 miles and you have one or more remaining.