Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I am the image of God: How the Spectre of the Brocken found me in the Adirondacks

I am the image of God: How the Spectre of the Broken found me in the Adirondacks

I’m definitely not a morning person, but when I smell an opportunity for good photography, I usually manage to surprise even the most cynical of my doubters -including myself. I’ve been burned many times by optimistic looking weather reports, but you can’t create an image without being on location in the first place. As Galen Rowell said, “You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn't waste either.” Galen was a smarter man, better mountain athlete and better photographer, so I’ll take him at his word.

With that in mind, I planned a very optimistic day in late September; a day that involved a sunrise and a sunset, 170 miles of driving, 15+ miles of hiking, and 4000 ft of elevation gain, while dealing with the pitfalls of the immune response to the rhinovirus -the common cold.

On paper the plan seemed doable. Start with the Adirondack Balloon Festival in Glens Falls, and then summit Dix Mountain from Elk Lake.

Unfortunately, in late September, I came down with a rare cold and was pretty rundown. The upside is I’ve always felt better while being active and research backs up the fact that moderate exercise does boost the immune response in various ways. However, the same research shows that intense or endurance type exercise can harm the immune response. Your body does need rest when you are sick, but there is some grey area to how much rest it needs and how much it benefits from exercise.

Even though I was sick, I was coming off of some great hiking trips and very fit. I also had a big week long backpacking trip in the White Mountains upcoming. Factoring in all of this, I really wanted to get a good hike in, as well as go to the Adirondack Balloon Festival to take some test shots for my overdue review of the Pentax K-5 DSLR.

In a typical effort to prove just how stupid I can be, I decided with all my wisdom to do both the 14 mile day hike and the Adirondack Balloon Festival in the same day. This involved being in Queensbury before sunrise followed by a 10 hour hike that would probably start no earlier than a typical late morning start.

Grounded Due To Fog
Tethered balloons were grounded due to fog.

With what can only be described as an act of God, Aim and I were up and on the road in time to get to the Adirondack Balloon Festival well before sunrise. Unfortunately, the balloons were grounded due to fog.

Adirondack Balloon Festival
Inside of the envelope (balloon) from the basket.

Honestly, a launch isn’t neccessary to get great shots at the festival. If anything, the most interesting shots are the ground level stuff. We spent a long time walking around the airport. We were able walk around inside a partially inflated balloon and I was also able to get into a basket and get some great shots.

Fire Rescue
South Queensbury Fire truck detail.

By the time we left the balloon fest, it was close to 9am. We had an hour drive to Elk Lake and then a 8-10 hour hike in front of us.

Adirondack Balloon Festival
Flames from the basket burner into the envelope.
When they made me stupid, they really made me stupid. Run down and sick, I decided I would carry no less than 35lbs on this little endeavor, I had just 2 weeks until my backpacking trip to the rugged White Mountains Pemigewasset Wilderness. I like to be mentally prepared for long days under the weight of a loaded pack., and the best way to do that is to carry a loaded pack. Fortunately for this day, my gear included a fair selection of camera equipment and a tripod, rather than just a lot of water or dead weight.

The hike into Lilian Brook took us about as long as it did a few weeks before, when we had full multi-day backpacks and had to navigate the immediate aftermath of the hurricane Irene flooding and blowdown.

We refilled our water in the ice cold Lilian Brook, and set off on the ascent towards the Beckhorn. At this point the trail gained altitude quickly, initially up a slimey moss covered pile of rocks that probably doubled as a stream bed in wetter conditions. Aim wasn’t hiking very fast, but I felt pretty good. Our pace was definitely slower than I expected, but we’d be faster on the way down.

When we got to below the Beckhorn, the trail got slabby and a little craggy. Fun hiking, and also our first real views. We could see the cloud cover blowing in. Low clouds that make for great scenery.

Trail Dogs and Trail Chicks on the Beckhorn
Aim and Colvin on the Beckhorn.

Once we ascended the Beckhorn, we were greated by a truly amazing sight. The ridge of the Dix Range was split between cloudless and fully engulfed in clouds. You could literally stand 5ft in either direction and be in the clear or in the clouds. I have seen walls of cloud cover like this before, but never so distinctly divided along our exact hiking path.

Standing on the edge of the unknown
Dix Mountain's ridgline perfectly split by cloud cover, with Aim and Colvin on edge of the unknown.

We eventually reached the summit, which of course, was now completely in the clouds. Another trip to the summit of Dix Mountain without a view? I thought so, for sure.

For a short time we remained entirely in the clouds, but to the west it appeared to thin out enough that it went from opaque to translucent. At times it became crystal clear with an undercast.

Within minutes I noticed something I’d remembered vividly from a book written by my photographic idol, Galen Rowell. I couldn’t remember what it was called but I knew what it was. It was me, projected into the clouds from the suns beam. It was the Spectre of the Brocken.

I am the image of God: How the Spectre of 
the Broken found me in the Adirondacks
Moments like this remind me that every day in the mountains can be special.

The Spectre of the Brocken, as it is known, isn’t particularly rare. If you spend enough time in the mountains you will encounter it. It requires four things to come into alignment: 1) the sun needs to be close to the horizon (at least in the Northeastern US, maybe a higher altitude is ok in places with higher mountains); 2) the clouds need to be about the same height at the mountains; 3) the sun and the clouds need to have an azimuth of 180 degrees; 4) you need to be there to create your haloed image of God in his earthly form!

Verplanck Colvin Survey Bolt - Dix Mountain, NY
Original survey bolt from the Adirondack Survey of the 1870s.

As the sun moved in and out of cloud cover, and the Spectre appeared and disappeared, I worked a few different scenes from ground level to panoramas, but I was always looking for the next appearance of the Spectre of the Brocken.

The Views Are Just As Sweet...
Clouds and sun mysteriously obscuring the High Peaks Wilderness.

Ultimately, we ended up remaining on the summit much too long, until just a few minutes before sunset. We were greeted by all sorts of beautiful scenes from pillowy clouds surrounding us, to a sea of undercast over the Keene Valley, ultimately capped off by a pastel colored sunset.

Moody sunset over the Colvin Range
Sunset below the Beckhorn

The hike out should have been an easy 7 mile trip to the car, but the toll of sickness, lack of sleep, and just being physically tired from spending all day moving around with a pack on my back finally reached a breaking point. I was really struggling to stay agile on the trail, I fell a lot more than usual, and at one point I fell twice in a 15 foot stretch of mossy trail. I just sat down for a few minutes and collected myself. I felt like once we got back to Lilian Brook things would be fine.

Well, when we got back to Lilian Brook the world didn’t turn to sunshine and lollipops, I still had a long hike out over moderately rolling terrain, followed by an easy but mentally draining 3 miles of double track.

Adirondack Balloon FestivalWe finally got back to the car, but we were both too tired to complete the 80 mile drive without  resorting to a little nap at a rest area on the Northway. This nap turned our trip into a 24 hour day that was much harder than I anticipated.

In the end it was all worth it, I ended up with some unique shots at the Adirondack Balloon Festival, and I saw the Spectre of the Brocken along with other amazing sights in the Adirondacks. Despite the day being physically and mentally tougher than I expected, it was a staunch reminder that you can not create and image if you don’t get yourself on location.

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