I try to do very thorough planning for my photography adventures and I’ve written a previous post about Planning Your Big Hits (or Misses). In this post I will tell you about an adventure that should have worked out, but completely failed. But our milky way misfortune turned in to a sunrise success.
On October 1, 2016 I wanted to get out for one more Milky Way shoot. In the fall there is only a short window during hours of darkness to capture the galactic core above the horizon. After that we don’t see it again until early spring when the core rises just before dawn. I checked my usual weather sites against each other during the week leading up to the Saturday night. These sites include SpotWx, Clear Dark Sky, Mountain Forecast and the Weather Network. Everything was indicating that clouds and any precipitation would be cleared out of the Kananaskis, Canmore and Banff area by 9pm. This forecast was fairly consistent through the week, so I deemed it trustworthy (hah). Whenever I pick a spot to shoot at, I check the surrounding areas as well and what direction any cloud cover may be moving in.
The sun was shining through patches of fluffy white clouds as I drove from Calgary to Canmore to meet Chris and I had high hopes for the skies. We drove out to Kananaskis early in the evening and as we were going along Spray Lakes Road the clouds started looking darker and more ominous. As we neared Upper Kananaskis lake it started raining. Then it started pouring and winds picked up. After driving around a bit and trying to see what else might be coming in, the area become completely socked in and it wasn’t possible to see anything past the trees lining the road. All the mountain ranges disappeared into cloud, rain and eventually blowing snow. So we went back to Canmore to have a drink and figure out what was going on with the weather.
We briefly entertained the idea of going somewhere near Canmore or Banff to do a star trail shoot. As the night progressed the forecasts changed from indicating rain would end around 10pm, to persisting till at least midnight (during an attempted nap I woke up at 1:30 am and it was still raining. WTF meteorologists). I suggested a sunrise hike because I was convinced we could get some stunning conditions around Burstall Pass…as long as the weather predictions weren’t 100% wrong again. I can’t say I used good science, and now that I am writing this blog it would be useful to have screenshots of the data I was looking at, but I was fairly certain the clouds would be amazing at sunrise and we could potentially get an inversion.
Our arrival at the trail head was a little bit later than we had wanted due to a slow train. The skies were mostly clear on the drive with only some patches of clouds. For most of the hike through Burstall Pass everything was looking great. The stars were clearly visible, the wind wasn’t very strong and overall it wasn’t too chilly. As we were gaining the pass I noticed something around our destination, Snow Peak. I turned off my headlamp and saw the entire peak was becoming engulfed in cloud. Chris had actually attempted this peak recently and had turned around with group he was with because the summit views were nonexistent (I’m sure he was very thrilled at this point to have hiked so far, so early in the morning to be in clouds). We pushed through, though the lack of visibility made for a slower trek and I was feeling the lack of sleep this morning as we gained elevation.
I was still convinced the sunrise would be great. Maybe. I was being very positive for a grim metal head who could not see any surrounding peaks or even very far in front of her. The mountains had been dusted with fresh snow which just makes them look even more stunning and I really wanted sunrise to work out. We weren’t quite at the summit when some color and light stared to peak through all the clouds. Although I would have loved to have been on the summit for the full sunrise, I would not have been able to get some of the remarkable compositions that I did. Chris trudged up to a cliff to set up for a time-lapse while I ran around trying to photograph everything. With the clouds moving in and out, staying low then looming up over higher peaks like Mount Birdwood, the light and sky conditions were very dynamic and there were many options for compositions.
I ended up shooting most of the sunrise hand held using my new Nikkor 28-300mm that I wanted to test out for a sunrise hike. I bought it as a better option than my Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 for when I’m carrying a lot of other gear and wanting to save some weight. My Nikon D3s (I need to downsize this, it is too beastly for hiking and scrambling) handles low light really well so I was comfortable pushing the ISO up to compensate for the fact that 28-300mm is a f3.5-5.6. The 28-300mm worked great during two daytime hikes I did the weekend before and it performed really well during the sunrise. But you can’t beat the constant 2.8 aperture and sharpness of the 70-200mm. You always have to compromise between size, weight and capability with your camera gear.
After zigzagging my way around the mountain in slightly slippery snow and loose rock while taking photos, I made it to the summit. The views were spectacular and probably one of my favorites of the year. I also really love how fresh snow changes a mountain landscape.
The clouds even cleared out for the most part around Mount Assiniboine to give us a few moments to photograph the mountain towering over everything else.
Sometimes your plans can go completely awry (seriously how can a forecast be that wrong? Do they have errors bars that are an order of magnitude of a day?!). And other times things can work out beautifully. Plan as much as you can to increase your chances of success, but you won’t know what you will get until you’re actually “in the field”. Keep in mind that conditions can change and you either have to adapt to the situation or come to terms with not getting anything worthwhile that day.
Here’s Chris’ time-lapse from the morning: