Fall 2019 Newsletter
Greetings from the trail! The year has gone by more quickly than I could have imagined and packed with diverse adventures. I’m taking a short breather at the Colorado base camp as the autumn season transitions to winter and the first major winter storm is forecast to dump snow in the mountains. So, I thought I would share an update on some of the adventures and my latest images. This is just a sampling, so please check out my portfolio to peruse the rest.
The year started out with a winter excursion to Yellowstone National Park, which is a magical place covered in snow - there's very few people, it's eerily quiet and the wildlife are mostly clustered in the valleys enduring the harshness of the weather. Sandy joined me for a few days at the Snow Lodge adjacent to Old Faithful where we hiked through the geyser basin and enjoyed the quiet solitude. On one excursion to the interior of the park on specially modified snow vehicles we came across a mating pair of coyotes that were hunting voles. It was fascinating to watch them alternate between romping around and then stalking voles by the sound they made while burrowing under the snow. The coyotes would silently stalk, cocking their heads while they listened intently. You could tell when they detected a vole as their tail would point straight up and they would arch their body for the leap.....and the rest was dinner!
Coyote PounceYellowstone National Park, WY
In February I traveled to the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile for two weeks, which is the end of summer in the southern hemisphere, with a group of other photographers led by Don Smith, an outstanding landscape photographer based out of California and Ron Modra, who was a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated for many years. This is a remarkably beautiful region that is still remote enough it hasn't been overrun by tourism. Just getting there and back was a 36 hour odyssey each way! The fantastically rugged peaks of the Andes Mountains form the border between the two countries and extend all the way to the tip of the continent where fjords, glaciers, lakes and rivers abound. We barely scratched the surface, so an extended return trip will be getting scheduled soon! One of the most recognized features of Patagonia is Mount Fitzroy in the northern section inside Argentina and whose profile forms the logo for the outdoor equipment company, Patagonia. These mountains are so enormous they generate their own weather and Fitzroy is notorious for being shrouded in clouds most of the time; many people who come to visit never see the peak! We were very fortunate that on our first morning the sky was clear and we were treated to a beautiful sunrise complete with alpenglow and purplish-blue skies thanks to a light layer of clouds that reflected the pre-dawn light.
Mount Fitzroy and the Andes Mountains at sunrise
By mid-morning the notorious clouds had arrived and shrouded the peaks as storms began to rage. It was a fascinating display of weather to behold since it was pleasant in the valley while the tempest lashed the peaks.
Stormy Mount FitzroyParque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina
Storm clouds over Mount Fitzroy
As we made our way southward and into the Chilean side of Patagonia we had the opportunity to tour glacial lagoons and fjords that were breathtaking. Last year I traveled across Alaska for a couple of months and photographed the glaciers and fjords, which I thought were impressive. However, the ones in Patagonia are an order of magnitude larger and impressive - the glacial walls towered for hundreds of feet above the lagoons! The capstone of Chile Patagonia is the famous Torres del Paine National Park in the southern Andes Mountains. Photographs do not adequately convey how massive these peaks are as they tower thousands of feet above the valley.
Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
The return trip to this amazingly rugged and remote region will involve backpacking into the Andes Mountains where I can get up close to these massifs. The national park services of Chile and Argentina have created legendary trails through these mountains where you can reach glacial tarns and moraines, high altitude meadows, and wildlife along trails that span the parks.
In March my daughter Kim and I took a quick trip to Anchorage, Alaska to photograph the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights. The aurora is caused by charged particles streaming from the sun as they collide with our atmosphere, particularly over the earth's poles. Solar storms can spew large bursts of particles that can also disrupt electronics when they race across our atmosphere causing satellite and phone outages. The intensity of these storms are rated on the Kepler scale (Kp) with a 1 being quiet to minimal solar activity and 10 being a storm so strong people in the southern U.S. states would see the aurora. Generally, a Kp 4 or 5 storm is strong enough to create colorful aurora displays across Alaska, Canada and the northern portion of the U.S. The sun has an eleven year solar cycle of activity and we are currently in the lowest most quiet period of that cycle. It will be another couple of years before periodic solar activity increases. However, in March the NOAA issued a Kp-5 alert. I was able to quickly find a flight to Anchorage so we grabbed our gear and hopped on a plane to Alaska!
It was a challenging three days driving around all night in frigid temperatures chasing the aurora. We had to find clear or nearly clear skies in areas that had visibility to the northern sky; which is actually quite challenging in Alaska since the trees are tall and dense everywhere you go. But, we did chase the aurora down a couple of times and were able to watch and photograph amazing displays of color and light.
After a brief return to base camp in Colorado, I embarked on a nearly three month trek up the coast of California, through Oregon and then Washington. This was my first extended exploration of this region and the beauty is overwhelming. I started in California and Sandy joined me for the first leg as we traveled to Yosemite National Park and then up the Pacific Coast through Big Sur. The rugged coastline was beautiful with a lot of sea stacks, beautiful beaches and quaint seaside towns. It was remarkable how remote and rugged so much of the area is in between the densely populated and built-up urban areas.
Yosemite Moonbow 2 - HRYosemite National Park, CA. The moonbow, which is a rainbow created by the light of a full, or near full, moon is only visible during a short window from mid-April through May. This year's moonbow was remarkable for the significant volume of the waterfall generated by a very high snowpack that had begun to melt. Capturing this amazing scene was further complicated by the strong winds and mist created by the waterfall as it thundered down.
Moonbow over Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, CA
McWay Falls, Big Sur, California
I criss-crossed between the Cascade Mountains that run from northern California through Oregon and Washington to the Pacific Ocean coast including Mount Shasta, Lassen Volcanic Park, Crater Lake National Park, Redwoods National Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Olympic National Park, Mount Saint Helens National Monument and Mount Rainier National Park. The coastlines are beautiful with endless beaches, rugged coastlines, sea stacks and birds. The Cascade Mountains are ragged majestic peaks that are mostly active volcanoes. The Cascades are part of the Pacific "ring of fire" chain of volcanoes, with Mount Saint Helens being the most obvious one given its eruption in 1980. But, the other mountains are all active volcanoes albeit some are more quiet than others.
Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, WA
Olympic National Park was fascinating - it's enormous and extremely remote. The surrounding area is comprised of Native American reservations and small villages. Most of the park is designated as a wilderness area, which means no infrastructure or man-made features. There's only a few entry points into the park and from there it's long distance hiking into the wilderness. The Hoh Rainforest was a magical place that evoked thoughts of Tolkien's Middle Earth as I hiked through the lush forest.
Mineral Creek Falls, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, WA
Mount Olympus dominates Olympic National Park with towering mountains covered in glaciers and snowfields. These massive reservoirs of snow and ice release tremendous amounts of water during the warmer months creating innumerable cascades, creeks, rivers and waterfalls throughout the park. The mountains are so massive they block weather systems moving east from the ocean forcing them to release torrents of rain throughout the park creating the rainforests. This explains why the eastern side of the mountains are barren scab lands creating an extraordinary environmental paradox within a few miles.
Sandy joined me for part of this excursion where we spent a week exploring Mount Rainier National Park. Most of the park was still closed and covered under feet of snow, but that made it an even more exciting adventure. We spent most of our time climbing the snow fields on the southern side of Mount Rainier, a massive stratovolcano that tops out at 14,411' with over 13,000' feet of prominence above the surrounding area! It is so huge that the icefield cap feeds 25 active glaciers.
First Light on RainierMount Rainier National Park, WA
Tipsoo Lake and Mount Rainier, Mount Rainier National Park, WA
Mount Rainier National Park now ranks as one of my favorite parks and I plan to spend a lot more time there. There are amazing vistas from all sides with a diverse array of glaciers, snowfields, tarns, lakes and meadows to hike. Rainier is also known for its prolific wildflower displays in the summer.
Standing on the summit of Mount Adams with Mount Rainier in the distance
During my extended journey through the Pacific Northwest I experienced a couple of weeks of dry, warm weather with generally clear blue skies. Actually, the worst conditions for landscape photography! But, it did present an opportunity to explore the summits of the Cascade Mountains. During my period of service in the U.S. Army many years ago I completed some basic mountaineering training and certification. Its been a long time since I've tackled anything more challenging than boulder scrambles, so I found a local guide company and spent a couple of days getting re-certified. It was kind of like riding a bicycle, many of the techniques and skills came back quickly; although I still have some practicing to do with the different knots that are required! Then with ice ax in hand, mountaineering boots I picked up at a local outfitter and a set of crampons I proceeded to summit Mount Adams, an active 12,300' stratovolcano, via a steep and arduous climb of 12 miles in 12 hours and 6,700' of elevation change. The pitch in some sections was very steep and when I would take a break I had to lean against the mountain and set my crampons in the snow to ensure I didn't start sliding down! I really wish I had brought my skis, it would have made the return trek much quicker and easier - there were several other climbers who had brought theirs and I was quite jealous watching them glide down the mountain back to the trailhead.
I then almost summited Mount Hood, a classic active 11,140' stratovolcano, but got weathered out near the top. It's a 7-mile roundtrip with 5,200' of elevation climbing up the Palmer Glacier. This summit is a little trickier in that the last pitch has a couple of routes that are very steep and require more technical skill to ascend. I went with a group of other climbers and we made good progress to the the Devils Kitchen area, which is one of the active vents from the volcano; the sulfur smell was really strong. We started the climb at 1 am trying to stay ahead of a storm system that was forecast to roll in later in the morning. Unfortunately, it arrived with a vengeance several hours early. As we approached the Steel Cliffs for the last pitch to the summit the storm came howling in with sleet and high winds that started blowing rocks and ice off the cliffs. This is why we wear high quality helmets! One of the climbers got nailed by an ice chunk that crushed his helmet, but thankfully he was uninjured. So, sanity prevailed and we retreated down the glacier. I'm planning to try again next year.
While we were in Mount Rainier we did some partial climbing about 2,400' up the Muir Icefield, which is one of the routes to the summit. However, Rainier is a serious climb with over 9,700' of elevation and takes three days to reach the summit. We've signed on with a climbing group to summit Rainier next May.
View from the south rim of Mount Saint Helens looking across the crater to Mount Rainier
I was also able to obtain a last minute permit to summit Mount Saint Helens. Permits are limited and difficult to get, so I was very fortunate to grab one when another climber cancelled at the last minute. It was a beautiful day for a climb on the Ptarmigan trail starting at 4 am and hiking up the south side with terrific views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood at sunrise. Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980 and exploded transversely to the north which is where most of the devastation, debris and ash fall occurred. Mount Saint Helens is also an active 8,400' stratovolcano with steam vents and a lava dome that is continuing to grow within the caldera; this elevation is after it lost about 1,500' from the 1980 eruption! As with the other stratovolcanos there are glaciers and snowfields running down the sides. The climb was 8.5 miles roundtrip with 4,500' of elevation change. What made this climb particularly challenging is that there are two choices to the top - climb the snowfield and Swift Glacier or scramble up Monitor Ridge, which is an enormous boulder and cinder field created by the 1980 eruption. I wanted to climb on the snow, but when the sun came out it softened the snow to the point that I was post-holing my way up, which is an exhausting way to climb. So, it became an incredibly slow and arduous scramble up the boulder field trying to not disturb the ash deposits, which could be 2-3 feet deep. The ash was like a fine talcum powder and I learned quickly not to step in it as the ash would plume into a cloud that was difficult and dangerous to breathe it in. Route-finding became focused on staying on the rocks and avoiding the unstable cinders and not disturbing the ash. It was worth the effort though - the view from the rim was magnificent. I plan to return next year if I'm able to secure a permit with the intent of starting the climb at midnight via the glacier in the dark so I can be on the rim for sunrise.
Young bull moose in Grand Teton National Park, WY
I photographed the fall colors in Grand Teton National Park. I've been here many times and this was the best color I've seen in years. The cottonwood trees along the Snake River were vibrant along with the aspens. During my two weeks in the park three snow storms came through draping the mountains in successive layers of snow. I had several moose encounters, beautifully frigid mornings and colorful skies. The hiking was terrific, including a trek to Delta Lake at the base of the Grand Teton Mountain that had a wickedly steep boulder scramble for the last half-mile.
Purple Mountains Majesty-2Schwabachers Landing, Grand Teton National Park, WY
Schwabachers Landing in the pre-dawn light on a frigid morning following one of the storms
A lone American Paint horse from the Triangle-X Ranch sauntered across the meadow as the storm clouds began clearing.
Mormon Barn 1Mormon Barn, Grand Teton National Park, WY
Mormon Barn, Grand Teton National Park, WY
In September my daughters and I completed the 25 mile Grand Canyon hike from the North Rim to the South Rim with an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch. It was a challenging 14 mile and 6,200' descent from the North Rim followed by an 11 mile 4,600' ascent to the South Rim. On our return home we visited Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, hiked to Native American ruins and petroglyphs on Cedar Mesa in southern Utah and photographed the iconic Mesa Arch at sunrise in Canyonlands National Park.
The Mittens at sunrise in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, UT and AZ
Procession Panel 1Bears Ears National Monument, UT
The Procession Panel, Bears Ears National Monument, UT. This is just a portion of the 15-foot long panel that depicts three groups of people and animals that appear to be converging on a gathering place.
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, UT
If you plan to visit any of these areas and have questions about how to plan your trip and see these amazing places, please reach out to me – I’m always glad to help. My portfolio of high resolution photographs (much better than what I can show in an online newsletter) is available to view or purchase on my website: www.donmetzphotography.com . I have thousands of photographs and only a select few are posted on my website, so if you're looking for anything in particular please let me know - I have many more photographs to choose from.
Sarah Swarts Browne(non-registered)
Don, these photographs are spectacular! Thank you for sharing your well-lived-life-on-the-trail with us!
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