When Pre-Visualization meets Reality

Picture: Sunset over Yosemite Valley and Half Dome from the summit of Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Sunset over Yosemite Valley and Half Dome from the summit of Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park, California

Earlier this week I had a chance to fill a long time photographic goal. Of all the hiking and backpacking trips I’ve done throughout the years in Yosemite, I had never been up to Clouds Rest. My latest book project was the impetus for putting this objective near the top of my goal list for the year. However, after nearly 150 miles of hiking by the end of July, a hip and back injury brought all of my hiking plans to an abrupt halt. Clouds Rest loomed as the great unclaimed trophy well beyond the reach of a body that couldn’t walk a mile. Weeks turned into months as I waited for my body to heal.

Then an already short summer season in the Sierra was threatened with a significant early fall snow storm. Within a matter of days, the Sierra was blanketed by several feet of snow. During the course of my last trip, I waited nearly a week for the snow to melt, hoping I might be able to make it up to Clouds Rest. A friend was planning on meeting me in Yosemite and joining me for the hike. The day before we had planned to go, a Ranger was unable to complete the hike because of the snow depth. The simple fact of the matter is backcountry rangers are simply badass on the trail, and if one of them got turned around, I sure wasn’t going to attempt the hike. Instead, we opted for the shorter, and more manageable hike to Upper Cathedral Lake, even though 80% of the 4-mile, one-way, mostly-forested trail was still covered with snow. A day later I was atop Glacier Point, looking out to where Clouds Rest stood rising in the distance behind Half Dome, visually mocking, teasing, and tempting me.

It took more than two weeks of nice, Californian Indian-Summer weather to melt away all the snow that had fallen from that first storm in early October. I had (mostly) survived the 8 mile round-trip to Upper Cathedral Lake, along with another 12 miles of hiking in the following two days. I knew time was running short. One more strong winter storm could close access to the High Sierra for the remainder of the season. My brain said “It’s Clouds Rest now or never.” I wanted it; I wanted it for my book and I wanted it for me. I had been envisioning the golden glow of sunset coursing its way through the steeply-carved walls of Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome taking its throned position at the foot of the Valley.

This last Monday, my buddy and I left the Sunrise trailhead at 11:30 AM headed for Clouds Rest. I arrived on the summit around 2:30 PM following a 7.1 mile hike, just as the only other person up there was leaving. My buddy, who is not 100% comfortable with walking along a narrow rock ridge with a drop-off of more than a mile of sloping granite a mere inches away, opted to do his shooting just below the summit. (The link is to a YouTube video my buddy sent me the link before our trip, asking anxiously “You wanna walk across that!?”)

I spent the next four hours alone on the summit of Clouds Rest, watching the hazy blue afternoon light scene become more and more backlit as the sun moved lower into the Western sky. Previous to my hike, I had used a program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, so I knew exactly where the sun would set relative to the Valley. The weather forecast had called for approximately 30% cloud coverage. By that afternoon, there were significantly more clouds, but fortunately the bulk of them were to our East, looming above the High Sierra crest. to the West, there were some high clouds, but enough clear sky that I was guaranteed a sunset.

As the sun neared the horizon, the light filtering through the thick atmosphere took on a brilliant golden glow which, just as I had envisioned, beamed down the length of Yosemite Valley. The biggest challenge was looking so closely into the direction of the sun. For this particular shot, the sun had just started to dip behind some of the higher clouds while still illuminating much of the Valley. There was a small controlled burn in the distance, and the smokey haze helped to emphasize the atmospheric effect.

Before this hike, I had a pretty clear picture in my mind of what I wanted to capture photographically. In this case, circumstances, planning, preparation, and effort yielded a shot extremely close to what was in my mind’s eye. Once I was on location, I merely needed to wait for the right moment to occur.

For the technical details, this is a single frame shot; no HDR or blended exposure. It was taken with my Nikon D7000 and a two-stop hard edge Graduated Neutral Density filter, shot at F8 to help keep the graduation line slightly softened. The image was processed in Lightroom, with final corrections done in Photoshop.

I think this shot is going in my Portfolio. Of all the shots I’ve taken this year, none have more closely matched my pre-visualized idea of what I wanted to come home with.

Before leaving the summit, just as the sun was setting, I was able to fire off a quick 12-shot vertical panoramic shot of the clouds and the High Sierra off to the east.

Picture: Evening light and clouds over the High Sierra from the summit of Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Evening light and clouds over the High Sierra from the summit of Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park, California

We departed the summit at 7:00, arriving back at our trucks at 11:25pm; 5 minutes before the ETA I’d written in a note to the Rangers so they wouldn’t ticket our vehicles for being parked overnight. (Overnight Parking isn’t allowed anywhere along Tioga Pass Road inside the park after October 15th.) It was a beautiful nighttime hike out, with the toughest part being the last 1,000-foot descent that occurs within the last couple miles of the trip. The biggest disappointment for me was that after all this, I should have slept great. I still had to drive out of the park, so it was almost 1:30 by the time I fell asleep. Around 3:00am, I rolled over and popped wide-awake for the next couple hours. Getting up for sunrise 90 minutes later, then driving back to the Bay Area on four hours sleep was not the way I planned to finish this otherwise superb, yet short adventure.

Finally: A special shout out of thanks to my buddy, Michael Routh for his friendship and companionship on this and a number of other recently shared adventures.

Image ID#: 111024b_YOScr-0004

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9 Comments on “When Pre-Visualization meets Reality”

  1. Russ Bishop Says:

    Great post and image Gary. I had a similar experience waiting for the snow to melt before a planned hike up Mount Whitney two weeks ago – thank goodness for that warm spell.

  2. Michael Libbe Says:

    Beautiful images, Gary! The first one is simply breathtaking! Well done!

  3. Jim Lundgren Says:

    I’m with your buddy. Cloud’s Rest is the only trail I’ve been on where I had to sit down in the middle of the trail to regain my composure. Great image!!!

  4. QT Luong Says:

    Excellent photo and story. That’s also one of my favorite viewpoints in Yosemite. Interestingly, my wife, despite claiming to have fear of heights, made it almost 10 years to this day. We slept almost on the summit. It was about one month before our wedding. Unfortunately my 5×7 was being fixed by Keith Canham, so I was using a 4×5 with which I wasn’t too used too.

  5. Today’s Shared Links for October 28, 2011 @ Chuqui 3.0 Says:

    […] When Pre-Visualization meets Reality […]

  6. David Leland Hyde Says:

    This image did turn out quite well and I can see why you have a feeling of accomplishment about it. Even though my father was generally against using ephemeris, neutral density filters and sunsets, he would have respected that you hiked Cloud’s Rest. I hiked it a few summers ago and was amazed at how many people were running around in the back country. So your timing was also good in that regard. A good point in favor of using a ephemeris is that the sun was in the perfect position at sunset for your photograph.

  7. Greg Russell Says:

    This is a fantastic pair of images, and an even better story, Gary. While I love them both, I have a slight preference for the pano of the Cathedral Range, only because I have such a soft spot in my heart for the High Sierra, which I feel this image really portrays well.

    My “Clouds Rest” is the Evolution Basin. I’ve wanted to go there for many years, but every time the plan is in place, its cancelled for some reason or another. Unlike you, however, I am not entirely sure what type of image I want there…I just feel the need to go…

    Again, great images, and congratulations!


  8. Richard Wong Says:

    Both are amazing shots Gary. Definitely portfolio worthy, and kudos for making it up there. I’d probably have been like Michael.

  9. Karan Kauchhur Says:

    The first image is by far the most awesome Yosemite photo I have seen. Essentially because of the view point and a different location, itsnot one of those regular tunnel view images. Very Well composed. Light is amazing.

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