Hiking Fimmvörðuháls Pass

Video shot on a hike from Skógafoss to the Fimmvörðuháls Pass in the south of Iceland. Done as an out and back trip from Skógar this makes for an 18-20 mile day, with about 3,500 feet of net elevation gain, that takes you past spectacular waterfalls up into a barren landscape between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. The volcanic eruption in 2010 that closed much of northern Europe’s airspace started up here, and the aftermath is still very evident.



South Africa and Namibia

I’m back from two weeks in southern Africa, the photographic portion of which included stops in Kruger National Park, Etosha National Park, and the Namib desert. The trip was actually a honeymoon, so we planned it more to get a taste for a new (to us) part of the world than to get photos… but still we made plenty of pre-dawn starts and came back with a hefty haul of images!

I’ll likely post more detailed reflections on the trip once the dust has settled and my evaluation of the images can be separated from the emotions of seeing leopards, cheetahs and lions in the wild for the first time. For now here’s a taster of some of the sights.

Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Giraffes, Kruger National Park

Giraffes, Kruger National Park

The Namib desert

The Namib desert

At the waterhole, Etosha National Park

At the waterhole, Etosha National Park

All of these photos were taken with a Canon 5D Mk3 and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II lens, both of which performed superbly throughout the trip.

Iceberg beach, Iceland

Staying this week in a hotel mid-way between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón it’s very easy to visit the beach where small chunks of ice from the lagoon wash up on the black sand. Every day the scene is different, depending on the vagaries of the weather, tide and ocean, and my brother and I have been experimenting with different images. Last night I tried moderately long exposures with an ultra-wide 18mm lens. You need to setup your tripod close to where the waves run-up on the beach to make an interesting image of the water swirling past the ice. It requires… bravery…

Brave

Brave

Iceberg beach Iceland

Braver

Foolish

Foolish

In an attempt to keep my feet dry I let go of the camera, and just a couple of inches of water very nearly toppled the tripod! I’m fond of the adage that there’s no value in buying gear that you can’t afford to use and potentially lose, but after this near miss I moved back a pace or two. No harm done… just a few drops of water on the lens that cleaned up fine.

Quite happy with the final “pre-inundation” image, which is a bit different from my favorite from last year shot on black and white film.

A weekend in County Mayo

A spur of the moment weekend in Westport, on the west coast of Ireland. The weather was typically “Irish”, i.e. pretty terrible, but this is still a wonderful part of the country to explore. The road along the coast here is dubbed the “Wild Atlantic Way”, and for once the tourist designation is spot on.

Doolough valley, County Mayo

Doolough valley, County Mayo

Coast, County Mayo

Coast, County Mayo

Where the wild ones are

The wildest hiking in North America is surely to be found in Alaska and northern Canada. There are plenty of challenging hikes in the mountains and canyons of the lower 48 states too, of course, but in most cases the difficulties owe a lot to either the length of the trail or the need for technical climbing or canyoneering skills. In the icy north, by contrast, the sheer remoteness is such that only a handful of hikers tackle even the easiest non-technical hikes in some of the region’s National Parks.

My own experience in Alaska and northern Canada is limited to day hikes and short backpacks in Alaska and the Yukon. In the course of planning those trips, however, I’ve read of plenty of other hikes that piqued my interest. Here are five that – although I may never get around to them – look like incredible adventures that could be tackled by mere mortals with appropriate planning…

Kluane’s Donjek Route

Kluane National Park, in Canada’s Yukon, is a park I’ve actually been to. With my brother we hiked the park’s most popular trail, the Slims West route to Observation mountain. The scenery was outstanding, the level of adventure (mostly arising from the unbridged crossings of glacial creeks) significant but manageable, and it remains the best hike I’ve done to date. The video below (refresh the page if the embed isn’t visible) gives a taste of the terrain.



The Slims West trail, however, is not even close to being the most adventurous thing to do in Kluane. There’s exceptional rafting on the Alsek river, while staying on foot the Donjek route to view the Donjek glacier may well be one of the best backpacking trips in North America. The route is only about 60 miles, but it’s recommended to plan for 8-10 days in the wilderness. There are no major technical difficulties, the main challenge is the remoteness and the need for careful route finding in the trail-less portions of the hike.

The Goat Trail, Wrangell-St Elias National Park

The day hikes out of McCarthy in Alaska’s Wrangell-St Elias national park have been on my to-do list for many years. Going beyond those, there’s what looks to be an excellent short backpack that crosses the Root glacier and returns to town via the Kennicott glacier. That looks doable, but I’d want to have more experience on the ice than I have right now to feel comfortable planning it. Easier in some respects (though not in others!) is the The Goat Trail, probably the best-known longer hike in the park. It’s a fly-in / fly-out route between two bush airstrips that looks to access spectacular scenery, and which for the most part is relatively easy. There are, however, some potentially tough creek crossings, along with the route’s signature difficulty of a scree slope traverse that requires finding the right trail to accomplish safely. I’m confident we could do this hike, though it would be a step up in challenge compared to anything we’ve done up to now.

McGonagall Pass hike, Denali National Park

The closest you can get to Denali along the park road is near the Eielson visitor center. If the weather is favorable – often it’s not – a short hike to the top of the ridge above the visitor center affords an amazing vista of North America’s premier mountain.

Denali from the Eielson Ridge

Denali from the Eielson Ridge

It’s hard to see that view and not want to get closer! It doesn’t even seem that hard. From the visitors’ center, it looks like you could simply hike down to the valley bottom and climb up the other side to get a better view. There’s no trail, however, and experience elsewhere in Alaska and the Yukon makes me think that such a plan is likely foolhardy… it’s almost certainly much harder than it looks! Instead, the accepted route to better Denali views is the hike to McGonagall Pass, which starts from the end of the park road near Wonder Lake. The McGonagall pass hike is featured in one of the those arbitrary-but-amusing lists of best hikes in the world, and I might well have tried it already but for one obstacle – it requires fording the McKinley river. The McKinley is no mere creek but rather a major glacial river, and one can find entertaining but sobering web accounts of the difficulties it presents. At the very least this is a trip that would have to be planned around the times of year when the crossing is most feasible.

Llewellyn Glacier overlook, Atlin

The Llewellyn glacier is the source of the Yukon river, and to really stand tall on Facebook it’s possible to traverse the Juneau icefield from the Alaskan capital all the way to Atlin. That, however, counts as an expedition rather than a hike. Visiting the toe of the glacier is altogether easier – it’s a couple of hours boat ride on Atlin lake plus less than a mile on a trail to the vicinity of the glacier’s terminus. Apparently water taxis can be hired in Atlin to facilitate this trip, though more detailed information is somewhat sparse. What I’d like to do, however, is not merely to see the glacier but rather to hike to the prominent overlook on the ridge above the trail. I’ve seen photos from this spot, which is amazing, but have never been able to find out whether the climb is easy or hard. If it’s doable, combining a couple of nights camping in the area with a day hike to the overlook looks like a great trip.

Akshayuk Pass, Auyuittuq National Park

Heading even further north, there’s Baffin Island. Polar bears mean there’s not a lot of hiking you can even consider doing independently on Baffin Island, with the possible exception of the Akshayuk Pass hike (at least the out-and-back inland section). As these things go this trip is fairly easy to organize – requiring only planes to Iqualuit and Pangnirtung followed by a boat ride along the fjord to the start of the hike. Numerous trip reports are available, and the main difficulties appear to be the changeable weather and (as usual) glacial creeks that need fording. The Baffin Island scenery is stunning.

High ISO in the planetarium

We hold an annual departmental graduation ceremony for our majors and Ph.D. students in Fiske planetarium. It’s a great venue, but a challenge for photography because even when the house lights are on, they’re not very bright. At all! Shooting with the 70-200mm f/4 wide open I was pushed to ISO 12,800 on the 5D3. Pretty crazy if you still have any memory of film days, but plenty usable with only a moderate amount of noise reduction in Lightroom (luminance = 30). Congrats to the graduating students!

Celebration a degree

Celebrating an astronomy degree with a look to the heavens

Newly minted Ph.D.

Newly minted Ph.D.

Salmon glacier

The Salmon glacier, in British Columbia (though you have to drive a dirt road from Hyder, Alaska, to get there!). A strong contender, in my opinion, for the title of best “drive-up” viewpoint in North America.

Salmon glacier

Salmon glacier, Stewart, British Columbia

California condors at Zion

Last week I got an email from a Brazilian conservation group asking for permission to use one of my images as part of the graphic design for a book cover (in Portuguese only!). Of course this was OK, since I explicitly waive the copyright of the images I post to Wikipedia and the web, but still I had to sign a copyright form… it’s surprisingly hard to give stuff away! The request reminded me, however, of one of the more surprising wildlife encounters I’ve had, with Californian condors atop Angels Landing. I’d come to Zion National Park, in Utah, purely for a hiking and photography trip. One of the classic hikes in Zion is Angels Landing, a short but steep ascent of a fin of rock that juts out into Zion Canyon. It’s famous for the vertigo inducing exposure of the final stretch.

Angels Landing, Zion National Park

Angels Landing, Zion National Park

I’d done this hike with my brother way back in 1999, but on reaching Scout Landing this time there was something different to see… a pair of enormous black birds circling against the sheer cliffs of Angels Landing. At the time I wasn’t sure of the identity of these birds, but in fact they were California condors, one of the most endangered species in the world. In 1982 there were just 22 individuals left alive. After a successful captive breeding program things are better now, but still there are only about 200 living in the wild. About 70 live in Utah and Arizona, and they’re fairly often seen both around Angels Landing and near Lava Point.

Condor against the Zion cliffs

Condor against the Zion cliffs

On reaching the top of Angels Landing, the condors swept by repeatedly at amazingly close range. The frames below are only slight crops of images shot at 200mm (on an APS sensor camera, so 320mm equivalent). Truly an amazing sight!

California condor, Zion

California condor, Zion

Tagged condor, Zion National Park

Tagged condor, Zion National Park

This kind of chance encounter is why it’s hard to leave equipment behind. You might not think a telephoto lens would be needed for a landscape photography excursion in Zion, but on this day I was very pleased I had it on me!

Three amazing Colorado photography locations

In my first few years living in Colorado I made several brief hiking and photography trips exploring the corners of my new home. This was back in the days of film (typically Provia 100), and I have a modest collection of slides only some fraction of which were ever scanned. There are plenty of locations I really ought to return to for longer visits: here are three of the best.

Electric Pass, Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness

Electric Pass, Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness

It’s a short but steep hike to Electric Pass, in the Maroon Bells wilderness just outside Aspen. The trail here reaches higher than any other in the state not headed for a mountain peak. Although not a national park, the Maroon Bells are quite possibly the most impressive part of the Rockies in Colorado. Get an early start if you attempt this hike, as it’s not named “Electric Pass” without good reason.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Black Canyon is a national park, but it’s far enough away from any tourist route as to be sparsely visited. The South Rim is best for photography, the North Rim (to which there’s no paved road) better for hiking and extremely quiet.

Chasm Lake, sunrise, Rocky Mountain National Park

Chasm Lake, sunrise, Rocky Mountain National Park

Chasm Lake, with the Diamond Face of Longs Peak as a backdrop, is spectacular at any time of the day (or year, though an ice axe and crampons are recommended to get there safely in winter). The classic sight though is sunrise, which on a clear day turns the Diamond Face a glorious shade of orange (on a not-so-clear day, which I’ve also experienced, there’s nothing to see!). Get a very early start and join those attempting to summit Longs for the 2-3 hour pre-dawn hike to the lake.