Back in the mountains again

Good to be back in the mountains again! The Tantalus Range and a fine mountain hemlock looking good against that sky of unusual colour.

We set off from Vancouver in thick fog. Driving over the Lions Gate bridge, the tops of the uprights were hidden, the green arrows marking our lanes barely visible until we were underneath the gantry, blindly trusting our forward motion into the wall of grey ahead of us. The fog greeted us again on our return in the evening, our drive around a deserted Stanley Park proving quite eery with our headlights shining straight back into our eyes. But in between we had nothing but bright sunshine and a sky of a colour we barely recognized after the last two weeks of rain.

By coincidence, two-and-a-half months after our last hike (our jaunt up to Mt Parke on Mayne didn’t really qualify as such), we found ourselves at the same trailhead as that very same hike, this time with snow. We pulled on our snowshoes and made our way up through the snow to the same bluff with this incredible view. I was delighted to find this tree surrounded by untouched snow and I tried to take a leaf out of a landscape photographer’s book by actually finding something resembling a composition. Mountains on one side, big tree on the third-line, and lines in rain-washed snow against an azure backdrop. Unoriginal perhaps, but fine with me.

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Sunshine and coffee

These last couple of days here in Vancouver have me dreaming of hot coffee and sunshine – flashback-Friday to sunset light on Coffee Pot rock in Sedona. Mind you it was pretty cold when I took this photo. I guess the fact it was December might explain that…

It feels like it’s been dull or raining all year so far (12 days in). I think we’ve had a couple of sunny breaks during the day, but they’ve only shown up during the working week, and when you’re working 9-to-5 you don’t get much chance to enjoy them. The highlight of this past week was seeing a barred owl right outside our office. Oh and hearing the first chickadees singing. But I digress.

Seeking winter sun was the very reason we headed to Sedona, AZ, back in December 2013. Alas it was not as warm as we had hoped; a large Arctic airmass had made its way south across western North America with sub-zero temperatures in Vancouver and distinctly chillier-than-usual here in this part of Arizona. We had driven up to Airport Mesa on the southern edge of Sedona to get a sunset view over the town and were greeted by a bitterly cold wind as we lined up to take our photographs. All I remember was shivering and trying to get out of that wind, and we escaped back down the mountain as soon as we could.

But it was worth it for the light: golden sunset light on red rock is unbelievably photogenic and we enjoyed glorious sunsets on every day we were there, from our drive in from Phoenix, to this view, Bell Rock, Cathedral Rocks, the Grand Canyon, and the Petrified Forest. It’s definitely a superb area to visit and explore. Just watch the red channel on the histogram…

From on high

For this week’s Throwback Thursday post, I bring you a semi-random trio of photos with almost no link between them. Almost.

1. Looking back at the ridge from the summit of Needle Peak.

Needle Peak eluded me the first time I attempted it as I was unable to find the non-scary way up. After a fair bit of exploring, and a couple of false starts, I noticed some worn paint markings on the rock and decided to squeeze through the gap to see where they led. I found myself on a small ledge where a couple of (admittedly very careful) steps would take me to a protected gully to get onto the main ridge. I was delighted to find that route and so get past the first crux of the climb.

For most people this doesn’t even count as a crux as they squeeze under an overhang (with a sheer drop – no thanks!) or scramble up a dirty eroded gully and then use a couple of trees to get onto the rocks (which I wasn’t comfortable descending and wild horses won’t make me go up something I’m not 100% convinced I’ll be able to descend).

The second crux – which I’d read turned back more people – was easy for me as the hand- and footholds are plenty and very grippy. Within a couple of minutes I was standing in the clouds at the summit. Yay!

2. Extreme green at Lower Joffre Lake.

Joffre Lakes has exploded in popularity in recent years, and with good reason: on a sunny day, the lakes just glow. My one and only backpacking trip there was back in 2008, and it was a bit of a gong show then. I don’t want to think about camping there now. But many people don’t make it to the upper lakes, only venturing as far as the first lake, a mere 5 minutes from the parking lot. Assuming you can find a space in the parking lot, that is. In summer, cars end up being parked for hundreds of metres along the road, which means someone only going to the lower lake walks further along the road than among the trees to the lake shore.

On my most recent visit there I noticed one big downside to the lakes’ popularity, namely many people are walking off trail and across the meadows to get a different angle on the view across this lake. As such there are now well-beaten trails across the meadows as visitors have ignored the signs advising them of the fragility of the ground. But without reinforcement, who’s going to inform these users? The park needs a full-time ranger in the summer who can patrol these areas and educate people about why they should stick to the trails. At some point, BC Parks may be forced to create a second viewing area to protect the remaining less-trampled meadows. We’ll see.

3. Whoa, that’s a bit of a drop!

Whoa, that's a bit of a drop! #cheddargorge #cliff #sheerdrop #sweatypalms

A post shared by Andy Gibb (@_andy_gibb_) on

Cheddar Gorge was a place I’d wanted to visit my whole life. While my siblings got to visit on school trips, I ended up seeing places like Snowdonia instead so I can’t really complain. Family visits back to the UK used to involve lots of sitting around but we have been using our visits to get out and see parts of the country we didn’t get to see when we lived there.

We took my parents on a (long) day-trip to Cheddar, and walked the trail along the eastern edge of the gorge. What can I say other than it was spectacular! Not a long or tough hike by BC standards, but the cliffs are sheer, and the road looks pretty small from up there. Definitely not a place to lose your balance! Away from the edge, we found spring wildflowers and wild goats, complete with kids doing what kids do best. I couldn’t help but record a short video clip of them having fun:

Needless to say, having only spent a single cloudy day there I’d love to return and explore further. Too many places to revisit…

Stormy (mountain) Monday Blues

Stormy (mountain) Monday blues – Crown Mountain reflected in the mudflats at the blue hour.

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago on Christmas Day as we walked along the sand on Locarno Beach. I was really pleased to get the top of Crown reflected in the still water ponded on the mudflats, something I’ve tried many times before without much success. It wasn’t until afterwards that I really noticed the low cloud hanging in the Capilano River valley, spilling out across the flanks of the enclosing mountains, and adding to the atmosphere of the scene. I had to work around the dust on the sensor of our RX100II, but I had a square crop in mind from the beginning so that was easy.

I came up with the title based on the weather forecast for the beginning of this week, which should surprise no Vancouverite: rain, rain, rain. And today is “Mountain Monday” on Instagram. The title is actually the name of an old blues tune, “Stormy Monday Blues”, of which we have a wonderful recording from 1948. The first couple of lines of the song are:

They call it Stormy Monday
But Tuesday's just as bad

which seemed fitting (given the weather forecast). Of course, with the photo being taken at the start of the so-called “blue hour”, the song naturally popped into my head.

As it happened, today wasn’t as wet as I expected, tomorrow’s forecast has improved, and I even got to see a barred owl chasing crows on the UBC campus. Not bad for a Monday.

On Ptarmigan (Ridge)

Yet another one of those hikes that had been on our radar for some time. The day we hiked in was thick, heavy mist with almost zero visibility. This, combined with exceedingly vague directions, meant that we walked right past the “official” camping area along the way, and we found ourselves on a flat part of the trail with cleared tent-sized patches, snow fields or glaciers either side of us. It turned out that we camped on an area that usually remains snow-covered, but with the low-snow winter before and the warm summer, that snow had melted out, leaving behind a tempting (if mucky) camping area.

As dusk approached, the clouds broke and the sun shone through, lighting up our surroundings for a few brief moments with the most surreal light before fading into the evening. The clouds drifted away overnight and we were greeted by a cloudless sunrise that allowed us to see our location for the first time. And what a location! We explored the trail to its end with stupendous views of Mt Baker and its many glaciers, before packing up and walking back past the daytime crowds to the car.

1. Camping on Mars? No, just Ptarmigan Ridge in the mist and drizzle with a little help from the setting sun.

The light was unreal as the setting sun lit up the mist and clouds around us; it really felt like we could have been camping on Mars. We had been in heavy grey mist all day up to this point and we got the first inkling that the clouds might just clear for us on the following day. Unfortunately, we pitched our tent facing the wrong direction and had to build a wall at one end to prevent the drizzle soaking through the mesh at the foot of our sleeping compartment. Then we placed our seat pads between our sleeping bags and the mesh. It worked: our sleeping bags were still dry in the morning, but a lesson learned!

2. The morning after the night before – the mist has cleared, the sun has risen and yesterday’s gloom has been forgotten.

And so we could now see where we were – spectacular! While Mt Baker is considerably foreshortened here, and diminished photographically, this is nevertheless a stunning place to wake up in, and I couldn’t resist a tent shot, especially with extent of the glacier behind us. The trail goes up to the left out of the frame, up steep slopes and over rocky sections to a viewpoint with sheer drops down to the glaciers on Mt Baker, and thankfully avoids the ice altogether. Well worth doing!

3. Clouds at the feet of Mt Shuksan.

In the other direction lay Mt Shuksan, the clouds beginning to bubble up in the valleys. I really like the effect of the clouds here, as they just fill the valleys to the height of the ridges. I’d woken up before sunrise to watch the sky lighten and change colour, the sun eventually peeking over the shoulder of Shuksan and turning Mt Baker various shades of pink, orange, and yellow before becoming dazzling white. Later in the day, those valley clouds would rise up and engulf us again on our walk back to the trailhead.

4. Mount Baker. ‘Nuff said.

Walking back to the trailhead, we had to keep checking behind us at the view we didn’t have on our hike in the day before. Mt Baker looms large for most of the way. In this shot, I like how the diagonal line of the ridge mimics the slope of Mt Baker itself. Eventually, though, the trail turns a corner and Mt Baker remains hidden for the last section until we return to the parking lot, where we turn for one last view before driving home.

A wave of inspiration

An assortment of west coast waves for wave-Wednesday. I’ve been feeling photographically uninspired over the past couple of months and have barely taken any photos, but a few days by the ocean was the perfect tonic.

I’ve really been out of sorts with photography lately. A combination of unreliable camera gear, software and storage annoyances, and plain old lack of inspiration have meant that I’ve been leaving the camera at home on many occasions where I would have put one in my pocket or over my shoulder.

And yet it was with some hope and a little trepidation that I ventured on to our first beach in Tofino last week. I was hoping that the time off work and the change of scene would allow my mind to unwind and take in the views anew, finding subjects to photograph. One of my goals was to try and create photographs and not just take snapshots. Usually I’m quite happy with just my snapshot-documentary style, but I realize I’ve come to rely heavily on photographing photogenic subjects. Watching a few professional photographers on YouTube has made me look at my style a little more critically, and given me a desire to be more creative in my picture-taking.

I kept the 18-55 mm lens on the camera the whole time, a deliberate attempt to limit my options so I wouldn’t try to capture everything I saw. I must admit I did miss having a telephoto lens; some pictures really needed that zoom to hone in on details, as well as the compression effect. But I had to be content with simply not taking those photos, and to concentrate on what I could take instead. And let’s face it, the 18-55 range is pretty flexible!

Distant action was out; but with 24 Mpix, I knew I had the ability to crop and still make an acceptable image for posting on Instagram. Having said that, I still regard Flickr as my main end point for photographs and Instagram is a bonus, a sampler. Nonetheless, it’s always at the back of my mind as an option.

Another factor in my renewed inspiration was the upgrading of my raw processing software from DxO to the latest version. Now the new version (called PhotoLab 1) has some new features that I was almost ready to move to LightRoom for: graduated filters, red-eye reduction, and de-hazing. Suddenly I felt like my hands had been freed and I could move beyond some of the frustrations and limitations of my previous workflow.

And so I experimented, taking my time when I felt it was warranted, passing on opportunities when I didn’t feel I could do them justice, and I found myself enjoying taking photos again. Not only that, but I found myself feeling more confident that I could be proud to say that these were photos I took, and that I would be happy to show these photos to others.

I really like all four of the photos in the Instagram post above.

  1. I was fortunate to catch a large wave breaking over the rocks: 24 Mpix and making use of DxO’s new graduated filter turned this into a photo I’m really happy with. I like the line of impassive seagulls on the rock, in complete contrast to the ferocity of the breaking wave.
  2. A bluebird day on the west coast with waves breaking along a shingle beach: just classic. I prefer the full-frame photo for this one over the square crop which I feel loses some of the drama of the shot, but it’s still pretty nice with the foam from the swash in the foreground.
  3. Time to experiment: hand-held long exposures! I waited for the right waves to break around this tree stump. Too strong a wave and I’ve had very wet feet; too weak and it wouldn’t be as effective. This one was just right, and for once I decided that black-and-white would work best. I also made use of the new dehaze tool (“ClearView”) to boost the local contrast.
  4. The Tofino Polar Bear swim: our timing could not have been better if we’d tried. We were walking back along the beach when we saw the participants lined up ready to run into the water. I managed to run ahead and get a little closer before the crowd rushed towards the ocean. My favourite of the sequence is actually one in which a square crop doesn’t work, owing to the long line of people stretching across the frame, but the two dogs that ran into this shot made it work as a square, lending some foreground interest and conveying some of the excitement and craziness of the event!

Whether or not this inspiration lasts remains to be seen, but spending time in Tofino was in itself an inspired move.

Light at the end of the day

A welcome sight after driving through rain, sleet, and snow on our way to Tofino.

We’d been watching the weather forecast all week, and thankfully our drive over to Tofino was mostly just a wet one, despite the recent snowfall. After settling in at our cottage, we noticed the clouds were breaking and there was a hint of sunshine to the west. That promise of sunshine right at the end of the day was enough to tempt us outside for a 10-minute walk to the beach. And we were well rewarded with a lovely colourful, if still cloudy, sunset. We walked the beach until last light, pausing to admire an eagle that circled overhead and dropped down to drink from the creek running onto the beach barely 40 m from us, before heading back to the cabin for dinner. A very satisfying way to end the day.