Christmas Meadows, October 2019

February 25, 2021  |  Wasatch National Forest

Back in 2019 when the design process for this website was just underway, one of the features I most eagerly anticipated was having a well-functioning integrated blog. I’d tried to keep up a Wordpress site for years to share my writing and photos, but it was so frustrating to use and the free service I was on became overrun with annoying ads. Needless to say I was excited to move to the WideRange platform, and to have the ability to present my work on a custom site of my own. One of the great joys in photography and travel for me has always been in the opportunity to share my experiences with others. It’s long been my hope that my stories might entertain and inform; and maybe even inspire people as well. In addition to the ability to share traditional posts featuring photos and prose, this blog also offers the option to embed video, and with that brings a new dimension of storytelling potential. Preparing for this, I started collecting video clips while out in the field long before my site launched, which has left me sitting on hours and hours of footage. Unfortunately it’s taken awhile, but I’m starting to catch up on some of that now.

The photos and video in this post are from an overnight backpacking trip I did in the High Uintas Wilderness in October of 2019. This will kick off a series from that month, which will include a return hike to Amethyst Basin, a visit to Bears Ears National Monument, and more from a road trip around the American Southwest. My hope in sharing these, and with all of my travel related posts going forward, is first and foremost to provide a behind the scenes look at my experience as a working nature photographer. My goal is to always tell the real, honest story. I have no desire to be a social media “influencer” or project as if I live some kind of a glowing, carefree lifestyle. I don’t. But what I lack in hyperbole (or looks, or intelligence, or charisma, or… well, you get the picture) I promise to make up for in authenticity. I share these stories- peppered with my own philosophies and lessons from photography and life, with the knowledge that even in journeys uniquely our own there is also a shared human condition. I believe that offering reflections genuine in emotion, with uncensored highs and lows will make these accounts more relatable, both to casual viewers and those aspiring to get into nature photography themselves. I am not a recognized name in the field; and that’s not really my ambition either. I’ve never cared about making it big or being famous. But trying to connect with people in a way that might somehow have a meaningful impact is something that I do care very much about, and is a driving force behind my work.

With that, some of these posts will carry a focus specific to the pursuit of photography, some will be in advocacy of our wild places, and still others will relate to broader themes in life. This one leans toward the first approach; though it’s not only a precautionary tale for other nature photographers, but also a reminder to anyone who might set out into the wilderness. Ironically, one of the greatest misunderstandings I’ve found people to hold about this field (and one I intend for these posts to dispel) is that this job consists of casually “driving around, taking pictures all day.” I assure you this is not the case. Yet for all of my annoyance toward such lackadaisical assumption, I almost let myself hurry into this hike with an equally naïve mindset…

I’d just returned to Utah after a stint of art shows in the Midwest and felt the need to get out in nature for a while. The High Uintas Wilderness was a place, in name at least, that had long caught my attention, but somewhere that I’d never been. It was fairly close by, and a quick online search for hike recommendations led me to discover an area known as Amethyst Basin. Photos of a towering peak at the head of a tranquil meadow won me over instantly, and I decided to grab my gear and go the next day.

There’s always a frantic rush to any trip departure when you’re as unorganized and scatterbrained as I am, and with some loose ends to tie up before heading out I could feel the day getting away from me. I quickly packed my camera equipment and rifled through a tote of old backpacking gear, selecting a hodge-podge of items I might need. What wasn’t immediately available just meant less to carry, I thought, more concerned with the ticking clock, three-hour drive and eventual fading daylight than anything. I shoved it all in my pack and was heading for my vehicle when one pesky question crossed my mind.

“Wait… did I find any gloves?”

I remembered starting to look for a pair and found two mismatches, but had gotten sidetracked and couldn’t remember finishing the task. Maybe I’d thrown the oddballs in, and if not, I knew I’d packed some extra socks that might work in a pinch.

“But what about a warm hat?”

No, actually come to think of it I hadn’t seen one. And with parts of my wardrobe divided between storage units in different parts of the country, I couldn’t even place where one might be. It didn’t seem that pressing anyway. Looking outside it was sixty degrees and sunny- a pleasant autumn day.

“Had I checked the forecast?”

No, I hadn’t. And I knew better than this… Daylight be damned- I was being stupid.

I dumped everything back out of my pack and spent the next couple of hours properly loading up. I got a pen and paper and made a thoughtful list of everything I might need, packed what I had, then ran around to various outdoor stores to piece together what I didn’t. I found a local forest service information center and bought a detailed topo map as a final act of preparedness, then finally set out for the trailhead.

Arriving a few hours later at a place called Christmas Meadows I was immediately grateful for these efforts. I’d watched the clouds thicken on the drive down and passed through intermittent periods of rain, which at this higher elevation had turned to snow. It would have been pretty easy at that point to settle for a site at the front country campground near the trailhead, but I was intent on hiking out. My pack was stuffed to the seams with a padded camera bag shoved inside, but seeing the conditions I decided at the last minute that I might need an extra jacket and thermal layers. The only way to make this all fit was to strap the camera bag to the outside of my pack- which added a new awkward strain to the already heavy load- but I’d flirted with foolishness enough for one day and knew better than to hike out into the mountains in a snow squall without proper attire.

For all the setbacks in getting started, the hiking was absolutely worth it. My plan was to go six miles into the backcountry to Amethyst Basin, and I was probably pushing things with just a bit more than two hours of daylight to get there. The first couple of miles were pleasantly flat, however, and conditions were really magical. The snow fell steady, coating the mixed evergreen forest and accentuating a dappled carpet of aspen leaves along the trail. For all the urge I felt in pushing toward my destination in hope of arriving in time to photograph the sunset, I was equally torn by the desire to capture what was unfolding before me. That’s one thing I will recommend to the photographers out there, as experience has taught me. Never let yourself get so caught up on an imagined or anticipated scene that you pass a present opportunity by. I’ve made that mistake many, many times and am still haunted by memories of views I didn’t stop for, in sacrifice for those that would never materialize. And as I’m realizing more and more in retrospect, so much in what I’ve learned through photography can translate to larger metaphors of life.

Ultimately I did slow on this initial stretch of the hike, and became absorbed in that special opportunity to photograph and just lose myself in the years first snow. The trail coursed along a stretch of forest bordered by a broad open meadow, where at one point I stepped out to try to get some shots along a picturesque little stream. Mere feet into the open space, I sunk into an ankle deep marsh concealed by tall sedges (and then proceeded across the soggy ground, at times sinking to mid-shin.) It all comes with the territory, but served a little wake up call as I remembered that it’s one thing to head out to take pictures and end up soaking wet when you’ll end your day somewhere warm and dry- but quite another when you need to endure the elements for the night. That point would be driven home in the hours ahead.

Overall, the hike from Christmas Meadows to Amethyst Basin requires climbing about two thousand feet in elevation, and the bulk of that comes in the last four miles. Most of this rise follows a rushing little stream cut through the bedrock, and even as the forest shadows grew long I couldn’t help stopping frequently for photo ops beside the cascades. Along with the scenery, this was equally encouraged by the steepness of the trail; the hiking was much more strenuous here, so having an excuse for breaks was certainly welcome.

Progressing uphill the footing became tricky as patches of snow that had softened in afternoon sunlight froze to a sheen on the rocky terrain. I was heading into a pretty precarious situation- wet clothes, dropping temperature, nightfall, difficult trail and still miles from where I meant to stop for the night- yet so distracted shooting the lovely scene that my safety assumed only a secondary consideration. I’d neglected the situational awareness to realize that it was time to put the camera away and prepare myself to endure a long, cold night.

Eventually darkness dictated much of this and I found myself on a steep slope without any suitable places to make camp. The elements started to wear on me, as did the exertion, further exasperated by my failure to keep up food and water intake during the hike (or in the rush to get there earlier in the day.) In the low light of late dusk and concealment of snow and ice I began having trouble following the trail. I strapped on my headlamp, but after about ten minutes the batteries started to go dead and the beam faded significantly. I then lost the trail completely, but fortunately had bought that map and could see that if I just followed the stream I’d reconnect with the path further up the mountain. This off-trail bushwhack alongside the boulder lined bank was difficult and slow going, however, impeding progress even more.

In time I did find the trail, only to lose it again. Repeatedly. My flickering headlamp wasn’t much help and the greatest navigational aid when I’d lose sight of the footpath came in noticing fallen trees that had been cut by a handsaw. This being designated wilderness (and miles from the nearest road) I knew people hadn’t been out there sawing up logs for firewood. When I’d spot a clean cut dividing sections of a blown down tree, I rationalized that it must mean this had been done for the trail to pass through. Other than that though, I was pretty much just stumbling along lost in the woods. The temperature dropped dramatically to the point that my shoes and pants froze even as I wore them. Even while in motion. I began to notice a new change to my vision, a difficulty seeing even beyond the issues with my failing headlamp. A perceivable fogginess, even in the dark; which didn’t make much sense, but then again, all of a sudden little did. I started to feel confused. My thoughts seemed sluggish. I was shivering hard. Something wasn’t right.

It might have been the elevation. It might have been the cold. Likely it was the combination of those and other factors, but for all of my missteps in getting to this point, luckily I still had the awareness to recognize what was happening. I knew it was time to abandon this seemingly endless quest to reach Amethyst Basin, make camp as fast as I could, and try to get myself warm. I found a little clearing, kicked away the snow, and started to set up my tent. I was shaking so hard that basic motor skills proved a challenge. Somehow I managed to get the tent body up, but when it came time to set the rainfly (absolutely essential for keeping in warmth) I found it hardened in a crumpled ball at the bottom of its stuff sack. Apparently there was still just enough remaining dampness from the last time I’d used it to where it had now frozen solid. I had to gently peel it apart in layers, careful not to rip the ultra light fabric, then drape it over the tent and stake it in place. I then realized that the zippered doors of the rainfly were also frozen shut, leaving me with no option but to pull one of the ground stakes and army crawl beneath to get inside. Great fun and games, I tell ya- dancing with hypothermia in the dark.

From there the night was predictably rough. One of the colder I’ve camped in and not a lot of sleep. I stayed wrapped tight in my sleeping bag until it was finally dawn, managing to thaw a few granola bars for some calories to burn (also essential, in generating the heat to warm me and the tent.) I survived just fine, it was just very, very uncomfortable. Which is probably exactly what I needed.

Once I was able to thaw my shoes and get moving the next morning, I took some time to finish the climb to Amethyst Basin and scout the area for future visits. I’ve included that in Part 2 of the videos below, with pretty much what I’ve discussed so far shown in Part 1. Each is about 15 minutes long (eventually I’ll dial things in and make these more concise) so feel free to come back and have a look at your leisure, if you’re interested and have a little time to kill. I’ll also post some photos from the hike beneath the videos. Before I do though, there are two takeaways that I’d like to share from this ordeal.

First, where I went wrong… As I said, from a personal safety standpoint allowing myself to become so absorbed in taking photos that I lost awareness of the harsh realities to be faced after dark was irresponsible. I’m not going to fault myself for the wet shoes and pants. I’m not the kind of photographer to tiptoe around afraid of a little mud, and I guarantee this will happen again. The mistake though was in pushing on after dark. There’s a clip in the first video below when I’m standing in the marsh and it dawns on me that I need to be cognizant of the cold night ahead- but I acknowledged it without heeding my own warning. The right thing to do would have been to reassess from there and realize that it was stupid to start up a mountain wet, in the snow, and with nightfall approaching. It was fine to keep shooting, but I should have either found a place to make camp earlier, or made the determination to hike back out to my vehicle that evening; and in either case gotten myself settled with dry clothes and food before it got cold and dark. Instead, I wound up with a miserable night to show for it.

What I did right though is what allowed me to walk away with no more than that stern reminder. Having the foresight- even when it was lacking at first- to put on the brakes and make sure to pack extra clothing, and buy a map, is what allowed me to hunker down and survive the night. I ended up putting on every dry piece of clothing that I had as I huddled in my sleeping bag those first few hours in camp, trying to regulate my core temperature. Had I not been able to, my only options would have been to try and build a fire (with the forest floor wet under a blanket of snow) or attempted to hike out in the dark. Given the state I walked into camp in, I’m not sure how either of those attempts would have played out. My best option was to just dig in and endure the conditions, and I’d at least given myself the chance to do that.

There are rewards in every photo outing, and it’s not always just in the images we capture. Sometimes it’s in lessons learned, and the gift to return another day.

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Posted in Photography, Travel.