I drove 3800 miles for one photograph. That sounds pretty crazy, doesn’t it? 3800 miles solo. A couple of good, long audiobooks, numerous podcasts, a lot of chai, and a little too much orange juice. Oh, yes, chocolate truffles, too.
The one photograph isn’t even anything I tried to make a little different, something “mine”. Just a duplicate of Galen Rowell’s 1973 “Last Light on Horsetail Fall”. Pretty much, anyway: I ended up choosing a different location to shoot from, though the finished product is, in essence, very similar. Horsetail Fall is located in Yosemite National Park, falling (when it chooses to do so) from El Capitan. It is not Ribbon Fall, as some people think: Ribbon Fall is farther to the west. Horsetails source is a small basin, so it doesn’t hold much snow. If it has snow & then warms up enough, then the waterfall is formed. For about 2 weeks every February, the setting sun hits the fall at just the right angle that it lights up, turning pink, orange and/or red, earning it the nickname of the Firefall. That’s if the skies are clear to the west. For a handful of years, I’ve marked the time off on my calendar just in case it was going to be a good year. This year was the first time I went for the Firefall. (I must note here that, as a child, I saw the man-made Firefall, when rangers would pitch a bonfire off of Glacier Point for the ahhs and oohs of the tourists. I was no doubt among them)
As a bonus, Death Valley was on track to have a Super Bloom year for wildflowers. I’ve never seen more than a few scattered wildflowers there, so I was looking forward to seeing wildflowers abound in an otherwise stark environment. The best blooms were said to be down around Ashford Mill, but I was still several miles away (even with the time zone change that gained me an hour) when the clouds started to change color. Fortunately, the hillsides were already covered in Desert Gold, so I pulled over & parked at a likely place, grabbed my pack and started walking. As I was surveying various possibilities, I reflected on my most recent trip to Iceland, where it seemed like it was always windy or raining or both. There I stood, in light jeans, hiking boots and an aloha shirt, perfectly comfortable and wondered if I could make a good photograph in such mild conditions!
After a sunrise session for the wildflowers and what became a recon visit to Badwater for the salt polygons, I headed to the Racetrack for the moving rocks or sailing stones. These rocks are on a playa, something like 26 miles from pavement over non-stop washboards. 10-15mph the whole way. The rocks have been moved across the desert floor by a combination of water, ice and wind and leave tracks, sometimes straight, sometimes curved. Unfortunately, as the area has become popularized, people have taken the rocks home, leaving most of the tracks without their maker. People have also walked on the playa when it’s soft and muddy, despite the signs against such activities, and left their footprints for years, perhaps decades. Most of the footprints, of course, are right next to the rock tracks. I’m not sure if the footprints were less prominent the dawn light the next morning, or I was just in a better mood after camping in Death Valleys backcountry and there was only 1 other person out on the playa.
Then I was off to the Eastern Sierras for the Ancient Bristlecones and on to Yosemite Valley. I got to the Valley around 1 in the afternoon and decided to take a drive though and get in a hike to shake off the road buzz. As I drove by one of the sites to photograph Horsetail from, saw that some people had already set up! I pulled over to claim a spot for myself. These locations to photograph from have a lot of trees, so being able to photograph with an unobstructed view of the Fall is precious. When I talked to the other photographers there, they said that they saw people at the other site setting up at 9am, so they decided that they should set up instead of waiting a couple of more hours. I left my tripod & chair with them & went off for a walk. After a few minutes, I remembered another site that, if I could get clear of the trees, might be really good. I changed course and headed up there. Up and up. After about 1000’ vertical gain, I was above most of the trees and had a gorgeous, unobstructed view of all of El Capitan. Now, if I could get back down without at least spraining an ankle, I’d be golden! I returned to my gear without injury, packed up & started back up. Hmmm, it seemed much longer and steeper with 40# or so on my back..... I stopped to rest and have an early supper on the way. Though I didn’t find the exact spot I was at before, I found another I was perfectly happy with. And so I set up and waited. And the Firefall graced us with her show.
As I drove out of the Valley that night, I thought, “Well, now what? Should I leave?” I didn’t as there would have been no refund for the room at that short of notice and there was a storm forecast to hit in a few days. I’d also been hoping to get approaching/clearing storm photos, so there was another opportunity just around the corner. The Firefall didn’t materialize any of the other evenings as clouds gathered to the west at sunset. There was some pale pink and orange-tinted water, but nothing so dramatic as the afternoon I arrived.
Something amusing happened when I was at the conventional i.e crowded locations. I was using a lens made by Sigma as it had a bigger zoom than my Canon one. Most people (Canon shooters, anyway) had that Canon lens, a light putty color. My Sigma is black. Nobody would set up within 10’ of me. People would circle & stare at the lens. One guy kept creeping up & taking pictures of it! Only one person, someone I’d struck up a conversation with earlier actually asked what it was. One woman, in a group I was visiting with turned, looked & pointed at it saying, “Look at that guys set-up!”. I just said, “that’s mine”. She was mostly embarrassed at having assumed it was a man’s gear.
On my way back to Colorado, I stopped in the Eastern Sierras again, this time at the Alabama Hills (named for a warship, not the state). I wanted to photograph Mobius Arch. I went in the pre-dawn darkness as the Milky Way was just beginning to be visible in this hemisphere before sunrise, but it wasn’t in alignment with the arch. I settled for sunrise -- alpenglow in the Sierras through the arch. Much to my chagrin, I ended up preferring a black & white version of that shot! On to Death Valley for another chance at Badwater, then back on I-70 to home.
So there you have it: Horsetail Fall as everybody has seen before and a few bonus tracks.