Images hold special meanings for all of us, some more than others. I often find that looking at a particular image will bring back a memory of how the image was created and the circumstances that surrounded making the image. Perhaps this image, more than any other, brings back vivid memories as if it just happened yesterday.
My family was vacationing at Mammoth Lakes for a week in early July of 2006. I had decided that I wanted to drive to the Patriarch Grove of the White Mountains located at 11,000 feet above Bishop, California. Warm rising air off the Owens Valley was creating a bevy of late-afternoon thunderstorms; perfect for a dark sky to position these 3500-year-old trees against. My two boys only 11 & 12 at the time, and the thought of a 2 1/2 drive each way, held little fascination for them; so off I went with nothing more than a light jacket and my camera bag.
Unfortunately, there is no direct route into the White Mountains north of Bishop along Highway 395. One must drive about 20 minutes past Bishop, then start the long steady drive up into the Whites. Once past the Schulman Grove (elevation 10,000), the paved road ends and a graded dirt road leads the remaining 14 miles to the Patriarch Grove.
Sunset for this evening was 8:14pm and a full moon would be rising in the east at 8:01. With anticipation high, I finally arrived at the end of the road into a dirt parking lot. It was about 6:30pm, and the light was starting to skim the horizon. I grabbed my gear and started up the summit trail photographing isolation images of the bark on these ancient trees. When I left the parking area, I remember seeing only white broken cumulus clouds, by the time I made it to the summit (elevation 11,400 feet) at 7pm, the sky had turned ominously dark. It was eerie how fast the sky turned dark – something I had never experienced before!
Then, as if Thor was pissed-off at the world, loud, repeated crashes of thunder started to my east. I knew that a flash of lightning, followed after some seconds by a rumble of thunder, illustrated the fact that sound travels significantly slower than light. A rough calculation that flashed in my mind was the time between the flash of lighting to hearing the thunder is 5 seconds per mile. I also remembered that lightning can jump up to 6 miles. If the time between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder is 30 seconds or less, the thunderstorm is within six miles (ten kilometers) of you and is dangerous.
By the time I was at the summit, I was seeing multiple bursts of lightning to my east. Time between the lightning and thunder was 2-3 seconds, the storm was within a half-mile. Furthermore, it was moving in my direction and I was definitely vulnerable. I quickly retreated away from a tall Bristlecone and went down the side of a spur trail. Where I ended up was behind the tree you see leading off this story.
At the time, my concern was of safety and not of making images. I remember curling into a ball and staying low. I calculated that the storm was less than a quarter-mile away but had seemed to stall. I also remember the crackle of a nearby walkie-talkie that two frightened hikers had on. The voice on the other end was a professor from Cal Berkeley encouraging them both to get down to the parking area immediately. They were in their late teens/early 20′s and asked me what they should do. I told them that it was too dangerous to move so I was staying put. They opted to “run” the mile-long trail back to the parking area making them very exposed (fortunately they made it).
Feeling very alone and with the storm still raging, a flash of warm light suddenly caught my eye. I carefully looked up form my curled egg position to see this incredible light painting the nearby Bristlecone. I knew I had to capture it as I had never seen anything so beautiful. As for the tripod, that wasn’t going to be part of the equation; this was going to be a handheld image – fortunately I hadn’t completely lost my mind!
I rapidly went to work firing off about 8 images at various angles – all the while wondering if this would be the last image I ever made. Another bright flash of lighting seemingly within 100 yards followed immediately by a tremendous crash of thunder told me to stop. I once again curled into a ball and prayed.
Five minutes later, the crashes of thunder began to subside and the storm was drifting once again safely away from me towards the east. I finally got up and witnessed an incredible sky with a rainbow.
For the next 15 minutes, the setting sun was painting the storm clouds an incredible orange color. If you are one who thinks that I “Photoshopped these colors,” then you don’t know nature. You are also not alone. The editors at Getty rejected these images out-of-hand as they thought the same. I have reprocessed these images to tone-down the color. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I probably would not have believed it either. The RAW files are incredibly saturated with the orange color, and the white shale obviously reflected the color.
I frantically scrambled around while this incredible light lasted having the summit area to myself. I spotted this stately Bristlecone and took a low angle to feature it against the sunset-lit storm clouds.
I remember thinking to myself on the return trip that no one was going to believe what I witnessed, but I had the images to prove it. When I showed my wife the RAW files that evening once back at the condo she gasped and only wished she could have witnessed it herself.
I’ve never seen light like this since in all my years in nature. One incredible evening. High altitude mountain light is beyond belief when the conditions are right. I’m just glad that I stayed safe and had an evening shoot that I’ll never forget!
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