Luther Pass: Success of ‘Fourth Friday’

As I mentioned in my previous post, after months of futile attempts, I have resolved for 2020 to stick to a pattern of ‘second’ and ‘fourth’ Fridays. Second Friday is an outback or travel excursion combining field studies and photography, while Fourth Friday brings in a weekend of focused local photography. I am not sure how this will work out in the long run, but I have started well so far. The Clayton-Ione weekend provided an excellent bout of gouging around volcanoes and arroyos, while this past weekend – Fourth Friday – produced a combination of experience and photography that resulted in some of my best photographic work. I hope you think so too.

January weather has been relatively calm in the Sierra; in fact, our snowpack is currently shrinking after a series of good December storms. Yet, the forecast for Fourth Friday hinted at a quick-passing, early-morning snowstorm at higher elevations. I loaded up early, a little after 4AM, heading for Luther Pass and Grass Lake. I am on Hwy 89 regularly and often gaze into the glacially carved basin of Grass Lake, where pines grow in fingers of glacial outwash that extend into a wetland basin. Aspen groves punctuate the surrounding pine forest. I have often visualized photographs at Luther Pass, either of a small grove of pines isolated in the wetland against a dark forest backdrop or of a stand of fiery-fall aspens rising among the forest at the wetland shore. When I thought of Friday’s possible storm, I immediately prepared for the former – I would snowshoe into the frozen, snow-buried wetland and work with the emotion of snow flurries or low-hung clouds. There were stars above my driveway, but I could see them fading toward the abrupt rise of the Carson Range. Even in the dark of pre-dawn, this meant clouds were blowing in.

The snowplows had carved some parking pull-outs along the stretch of highway at Luther Pass. I pulled in and sat in the dark. No snow fell as I shut down the headlights; my hopes in the forecast were similarly dimmed. Thinking the snow was simply late, I strapped on snowshoes, shouldered my pack, and headed into the snow-covered space of Grass Lake. My trees were there, and I set up my composition quickly as dawn approached. Just as quickly, I knew this was not going to work. Without the ambience of snow or clouds, I could not separate the foreground grove from the background forest. I waited.

The skies above were stormy with dramatic clouds dancing among the mountain peaks. The sunrise was fantastic, beaming through the small gap at the eastern (of course) end of the wetland perched above the canyon of the West Fork of the Carson River. I practiced some timelapse settings, but this was not the image I came for. My wait continued.

Finally, the sun broke through, spot-lighting the small grove, isolating it against the dark backdrop just as a snow squall broke over the distant forest. This was not what I visualized, but I was ready for it. The trees lit up warmly, like candles overwhelming the surrounding snow. It was good to be here. I like the image, but it lacked the satisfaction of my visualization.

Standing out. Waiting on the snow, the sunrise brought this momentary gift.

On Friday evening, after some time working and writing at home, having left my pack in the truck, I drove to the south end of Carson Valley where I climbed a set of hills to frame the expanse of Silver Peak and Raymond Peak, far south near Ebbets Pass. The clouds of the day still danced among the peaks, but the good light did not come. Still, I worked shots to continually develop the instinct of watching the land and using my equipment. Practice.

Luther Pass Collection

Although the weekend is about local practice, I decided that Saturday needed a journey to Mono Lake. Some of my friends from the 2018 Iceland trip are coming in February and I wanted to scout a bit of winter access to the tufa localities around the lake. I need not have worried; it has been warm enough to keep most of the paved and dirt roads clear. As a plus, the weather forecast called for a Sunday morning storm. Maybe its approach would award me with Sierra lenticulars or high clouds for a good Saturday sunset.

The South Tufa boardwalk was relatively crowded but, to my surprise, I was the only person only a mile west at the less developed Sand Tufa. I have wanted to photograph this tufa for a while, but a compelling composition is a definite challenge. It is an even greater challenge when the sky does not provide a backdrop. On the other hand, as the promised storm approached, having blocked all sunlight in the west, an amazing calm overwhelmed the lake.

Mono still. A vast serenity and the beauty of loneliness at Mono Lake.

This may be a greater reward than the drama of the near-iconic photography of tufa against a fiery sunset. The song dogs serenaded my walk on the placid shore. Nothing moved. I will be back for the icons later, but tonight this serenity is mine and mine alone.

I was home from Mono by 9PM. I am so very fortunate to have this as my ‘backyard’. I thought about the plan for Sunday morning. The coming storm seemed weak on radar, should I go back to Luther Pass? I made a promise to myself to focus on this weekend. Yes, I would.

Because I was keen on the working in the snow and still visualized the image I wanted to create, I realized I did not need sunrise. If the snow-bearing clouds arrived, I would have the natural diffusion I wanted throughout the early morning. I slept in a bit, but it was not too long before I was parked and donning snowshoes in the same pullout of two mornings ago. It was not snowing.

I dropped into the snowfield of Grass Lake and turned toward my target. A snow squall, like an expansive white sail, fell before me and a laugh sprung from my throat. Right on time. I could tell, however, that my little pine grove was fading into the snowstorm and its backdrop was too distant to meet my visualization. I continued on, heading toward a grove of leafless aspens I had spied in the autumn. Carefully crossing a creek, I climbed into a willow thicket and a new scene appeared before me. It was a version of my original hope, but it was framed within the forest rather than standing on its own. With framing and a compressed crop, I felt the image come alive. The snow was pounding and practically sideways in the wind.

Keyhole vision

From one spot, with only minor – but ultimately significant – movements, I created a pair of images that met completely the hopes of my visualization after months of driving across Luther Pass.

Luther Pass Collection

So, Fourth Friday. I kept to my plan and it paid off. Maybe it is a breakthrough. It feels like it might be. However, what is the most important thing I learned? I benefited from a string of days that include consistent focus and practice. Although I responsibly spent part of the days working with Des around StoneHeart, I made sure to keep focus, getting out for extended shoots and experiences each day. It is ultimately good to keep focused time set aside because I cannot photograph every day, or each week for that matter. I may not benefit from dramatic conditions when on a Second-Fourth schedule such as this. And yet, I will have my camera in hand with regularity and consistency; if I keep my eyes open and my feet moving, I bet it pays dividends. It did in January 2020.

One in the wind

Keep going.

Please respect the natural and cultural resources of our public lands. #naturefirst #keepgoing

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