December 6, 2014 The potential for magical light in the moments after dawn is the one thing that draws photographers from their comfortable beds while most of the world still sleeps. This means predictably long days and this day in Death Valley started just that way. The Valley has been, like many trips here before, tiring. The previous 24 hours had been cloudy and given the weather forecast for more of the same it seemed absurd to rise for a 45 minute drive in pre-dawn darkness up the 5,400 foot ascent to Dante’s View. As our headlights disappeared into cloud bank well before the top it became obvious that visibility would be zero. Photographers are an excessively optimistic lot, however, and it took some time before the unrelenting cloud vapor finally killed our hopes for good images. While descending the peak we rounded a turn and suddenly found ourselves in a make believe world, where thick clouds did battle with the sun. Wind collaborated with light, pushing the layers of mist apart, creating windows in the clouds that revealed tips of jagged peaks rising into distant sky. We were no longer in Death Valley… surely these were the Himalayas in Nepal. Capturing the mysterious grandeur of the moment became imperative. We climbed from the road surface to a blunted shoulder of the mountain and began to work. Another blunted crest a half mile or so away formed the bottom of the composition in my viewfinder. As I shot I couldn’t help but think, “This would be so amazing if there was a lone figure on that distant ridge standing witness.” The ridge was separated from us by a shallow valley, several hundred feet deep, itself a jumbled contour of rises. I voiced my thought out loud and as the words passed my lips I realized if there was to be a lone figure, it would have to be me. I positioned my camera carefully and tightened the controls on my tripod. “Trip the shutter when I get there,” I requested of one of my fellow photographers and I was off.
The ground was soft and covered in loose gravel but it was surprisingly easy to cover and my urgent steps morphed into a slow run as I headed across the valley surface. From above the contours had looked simple but in person required careful on-the-fly selections for a favorable path to avoid the steepest pitches. I checked my watch as I ran to keep track of how realistic my progress was and found I was making decent time. I did my best mountain goat imitation as my legs pumped to gain the top of the distant ridge, still waiting vacant in my viewfinder. I of course had no idea that as I made my way my compatriots had lost sight of me. They would tell me later that some degree of luck was involved in finally discerning my arrival. I knew I needed to be high to separate my profile from the surrounding boulders, so picked the largest rock I could find and clambered on top. As I looked forward I now had an unobstructed view of the peaks in the distance as sunlight streamed from the side, backlighting clouds. I was standing on the edge of the world, a vantage point no one else could imagine, and realized I had no camera to male a photo from there. Unbelievable. I paused for a long minute, sure that if my presence was to be captured it should have been. I turned to begin my retreat and I froze with a brief panic. I hadn’t ever looked back as I ran across the valley. Now I faced a complex topography with dozens of distant ridges. Which was my destination? With no clue at this point I knew the first direction: down. When I reached the valley floor the lower elevation gave me an angle of view against the sky that reveled tiny silhouettes of my fellow photographers. In retrospect they didn’t look quite so close and my legs, still burning from the trip over were not excited about the return. Forty five minutes after my journey began I found myself within shouting distance of the others. “Tell me you got the shot,” I called up. Silence. I grimaced and continued climbing. As I neared the top they shared the fact that they had lost track of me but did finally detect my arrival and had taken a half dozen frames. Wet with exhaustion, I descended with the others back to the road and our car to head for breakfast. I wouldn’t look at the shots on my computer for another 12 hours. As long as I didn’t look I could believe the frames represented exactly what I hoped they would. I was in no hurry to dash my excitement.
As the images revealed themselves on my computer that night my heart leapt as my vision came to life. There I was, back on the edge of the world, a fleck of humanity against a backdrop of Himalayan wonder. It was a good day to have left my bed in the darkness.