Where to go on the next big trip? We saved up and visited our mythical adventure places list many times over, mostly agreeing on the top five, and it came down to the Cordillera Huayhuash (whywash) in Peru, one of the top treks in the world. The Huayhuash is remote and high, and despite being only 30 km long, the range boasts six peaks over 6,000 meters and more than 600 glaciers. The infamous Huayhuash Trek circumnavigates the range clockwise, and generally takes 10-12 days to complete. It was an easy decision to contact Victor Sanchez, owner of Peru Mountain Explorers to arrange a custom trip. We had trekked with Victor in the Cordillera Blanca back in 2007 and told him that we’d come back to trek the Huayhuash. We set up the all-inclusive 17-day trip with Victor, with plans to add a climb of (17,555′) Diablo Mudo near the end of the trek. As we trained to be physically ready, we received the shocking news that Victor had been killed by an avalanche on Alpamayo while putting up a route for clients. Office Manager Edith assured us that Victor’s wife, Alicia is dedicated to running Peru Mountain Explorers in Victor’s honor and that our trip would be all set, Mrs. Haydee would meet us in Lima, everything is fine. We went to Peru. Continue reading “Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru!”
On the cover of Earthworks Journal Summer, 2013. Deb Thomas in front of Crosby 25-3, the Windsor Energy rig that blew near Clark, Wyoming in 2006.
I’m proud to have this photo of Deb Thomas on the cover of Earthworks Journal, an issue that stands for reigning in the “Frac Attack” sweeping across America. Deb and her husband Dick were living the good life on their land along Line Creek in the shadow of the mighty Absaroka Mountains until Windsor Energy drilled Crosby 25-3 on the edge of the Shoshone National Forest. I met Deb in 2011 while working on an iLCP expedition with Greater Yellowstone Coalition on their Absaroka-Beartooth Front campaign. She described months of long, sleepless nights under the rig’s bright lights, a peaceful place forty miles from Yellowstone turned into an industrial zone. Heavy trucks endlessly passed on the narrow road to service the rig. Deb documented the well progression and showed me photos of chemicals piled up in bags and barrels – chemicals that would end up in the creek. Then one day the rig blew, it lost pressure, drilling fluids and gas bubbled up like mud pots on the road surface. Cancerous chemicals flowed in Line Creek. It’s the most spectacular drilling rig failure you’ve never heard of. Today, Windsor Energy is thankfully long gone, but their chemical signature lingers. Line Creek still has chemicals running on bedrock and there are reports of sick neighbors. Deb Thomas became an advocate with Powder River Resource Council and fights for landowners across Wyoming. From a catastrophic drilling disaster we gained a conservation champion, determined to make a difference. And just one more thing, I’d suggest you read this call to reign in dirty energy written by Deb’s husband Dick Bilodeau.Thank you, Deb and Dick for your advocacy work!
Startled by a gnawing, scratching sound, I’m awakened from a dream of home in pitch darkness on a moonless night. I sit up and listen for a moment before realizing I’m in the tent next to my wife and we’re at Crater Lake in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. With that that straight in my head, I reach for my headlamp and am pretty sure I’ll see a porcupine, we have a history. There’s a smell in the air like rotting bacon fat, very weird. As the light hits the intruder, still scratching the ground where I took a leak an hour ago, he turns his head that seems too small for his body and reluctantly retreats just a few steps. I hold the light on him until he disappears in the forest, ending the first of two run-ins we’ll have with these peaceful, salt-seeking creatures of the night. It’s the first night of a six day trip over four 12,000 foot passes (we turned it into six passes). The Elk Mountains are so spectacularly rugged and beautiful, they draw us back every year. We failed on our first attempt of the Four Pass Loop; burdened with heavy packs while cajoling our chocolate lab Toby – who carried his own pack – we simply weren’t prepared. We still carried weird loads the second time around when we completed the loop in 2004. I wrote an article for Crested Butte Magazine (in ’04) about “Colorado’s Best Alpine Hike”, and we’ve wondered ever since whether it’s as good as we thought back then. My photo essay follows: Continue reading “Four Pass Loop – Around The Bells”
Mule Deer On Winter Range and Gas Rig, Pinedale Anticline in Sublette County, Wyoming. The Pinedale mule deer herd has declined by 60% in a little over a decade of gas drilling. Drilling continues on critical winter (year round) range today.
There’s a shift in rhetoric from Big Energy and the drill, baby, drill crowd. Although domestic gas and oil production have increased dramatically under the Obama administration, we’re told that the gains are on private lands, due to technology advances, and all of the growth is in spite of Obama. Frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find a conservationist who thinks Obama has been a good environmental president, but this industry whining is pure bullshit. In a recent FOX News piece, industry rep. Tim Wigley cites an average 230 days to get a permit on public lands vs: 15 or 45 days in in Texas, North Dakota, or Oklahoma. Then there’s the reference to so much federal land in the West, 30-70% of Western states in fact. So what? Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have a combined 75.6 million acres of public land. Remember when Mitt Romney famously asked “what is all that public land for?” It’s for people, and wildlife, recreation, and future generations sir. What’s my point? Fox, Tim Wigley, and other industry mouthpieces use the in spite of Obama talking point with gaudy statistics of public land acreage to make us all feel bad about the paultry amount of drilling that’s happening on the commons. They would have us believe the West is flat and we should just go get the energy that’s waiting for us to take it so we can get energy independent. If you’ve traveled anywhere in the West, you know that it’s far from flat and a lot of those public lands are mountainous, some are canyons, heck there’s even rivers. So subtract those places and gateway lands next to national parks – what’s left? Sagebrush. Fossil fuels often lie beneath sagebrush. Every Western creature, except marmots, mountain goats, ptarmigan, and pika (and maybe a few more) uses the sage sometime during the year. It’s where we live, work, hunt, fish, and recreate – recreation alone pumps $1 Trillion annually into the U.S. economy. Wildlife migrate, people roam, and endangered species live right in the sage. And what about those hard to get permits? The Thompson Divide permits expired and the BLM allowed an extension that will probably be purchased by you and me at an exhorbitant fee. Leases expire all the time in places like the Thompson Divide and northern Red Desert, where conservationists are fighting for the most ecologically important areas – the Jack Morrow Hills and Adobe Town. In the Fox piece, Pete Maysmith of Conservation Colorado spoke for Western conservation and developing sustainably: “And the interesting thing is that Westerners actually get that. A bipartisan poll that came out in the region just a couple of months ago shows deep and strong support for preserving our landscapes. They are economic drivers for tourism, outdoor recreation, industry, agricultural uses, clean water, you name it.” We already have seven mega-field developments in Colorado and Wyoming (with more coming), the Greater Sage-grouse ESA listing decision is pending, and conservationists are determined to protect our Western heritage. We’re not going anywhere, some places are too wild to drill, and the world isn’t flat.
Stan warned us all to watch for snakes. Half an hour later, I found myself with a pissed off, coiled rattlesnake (like the one pictured here) between my legs. He gave no warning and I wasn’t watching for snakes as I was told, just walking around, looking around. The sound of the snake triggered a visceral fear and the response was some sort of hillbilly jig and a leap that may have broken a long jump record. I’m pretty sure the snake nailed my boot and I know I’m very lucky considering the nearest hospital was probably an hour away. I was working at TNC’s Phantom Canyon Preserve a couple of weeks ago with the Platte Basin Timelapse team. We were installing some new timelapse cameras in the canyon and a couple of GoPros underwater. Cool stuff. Thanks to volunteer Stan Woodring for the warning – next time I’ll pay attention. I promise.
As golden light fades, time is suspended in purple and blue, stuck between light and darkness. It’s even more remarkable when the wind dies and nighthawks swoop overhead, calling mmmmeeep, mmmmeeep in a buzzing voice. Sage songbirds – Brewer’s and vesper sparrow, tinkling horned larks and blathering sage thrashers sing well into darkness and will be at it again at four in the morning. They’re no longer protecting territory from the sage tops, but sitting on nests in sagebrush, making a sweet racket under cover. Three or four coyotes howl a few hundred yards distant, maybe further, who knows how far sound carries out here? Rabbits and Wyoming ground squirrels scurry on open ground in the sagebrush forest. Suspended time. I’m walking and listening, smelling sweet, evocative sage – not the stuff we put in Thanksgiving dressing, feeling the warm breeze through my hair, and watching shades of purple turn blue, then blue-black. Summer solstice is around the corner and the rising half moon backlights clouds streaking across the sky as the Boar’s Tusk, a sentinel vertical chunk of volcanic stone turns to silhouette. In spite of the voracious no-see-ems ripping at my calves, it’s time to photograph before another late dinner and celebrate the purity of night in one of the rare places that gets truly dark and quiet – eventually quiet. There are no planes overhead, no traffic this night, just me and the Boar’s Tusk.
Burrowing Owl Chicks in Early Morning Light. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO
Just stumbling upon this image made me smile today, so I thought I’d share it here. During the frenzied activity of a prairie summer, one can expect to see burrowing owl chicks popping from prairie dog burrows in mid to late June. I made this image of burrowing owl chicks from a portable blind just after sunrise on a June, 2005 morning. The yawning chick expressed my thoughts perfectly.
Itching to get out over the Memorial Day weekend, we set out for the Lost Creek Wilderness, a wonderland of granite sprires, domes, and three mountain ranges reaching as high as 12,000 feet. It’s a popular early season spot when the higher mounatins are still buried under heavy snow, often getting more snow at the end of May. Our out and back trip from the Goose Creek trailhead was bluebird, and our camp in ponderosa forest rewarded us with the wonder of silence.
Marla takes in the view high above Lost Creek. Lost Creek Wilderness, CO
Lone Pine In Stone. Lost Creek Wilderness, CO
Granite Study, Lost Creek Wilderness, CO
Camp In Ponderosa Forest. Lost Creek Wilderness, CO
Majestic Ponderosa Pine. Lost Creek Wilderness, CO
My friends at LightHawk just published a nice “Behind The Lens Above The Ground” Waypoint article on their site and on National Geographic Newswatch. The theme is the aerial perspective is essential to telling a conservation photography story. I’ve flown a number of LightHawk missions for the Sage Spirit project and the Absaroka ILCP expedition, each for specific goals. The thing they have in common is the West is getting smaller with energy development exploding in the sagebrush ecosystem. LightHawk’s mission is to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight. LightHawk is an ILCP partner and flies ILCP photographers for a wide range of conservation projects. I’m proud to work with Shannon Rochelle and their dynamic staff and fly with such a great team of volunter pilots who generously donate their airplanes, fuel, time, expertise, and enthusiasm to fly for conservation. Thanks LightHawk!
I met LightHawk volunteer pilot Jim Grady at oh-dark-thirty in Grand Junction, CO last week to fly over Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado. Jim and I flew together once before, over the Gunnison Basin last year, so I knew I was in for a great flying experience with a great plot. Jim has that kind, generous spirit that is typically LightHawk, and will stay out there as long as it takes to get the right images. I was excited to climb into his 1953 suped-up Cessna 180 with the huge window opening – the window just hovers, held open by airflow. My only worry was nausea-inducing turbulence, but there was none of that in the cool, stable morning air. Dinosaur has been on my radar for awhile for the significance of the wild rivers, cultural and conservation history, and its central role as the wild in northwest Colorado. I came to think of Dinosaur in a regional context when I photographed Vermillion Basin and Brown’s Park NWR a few years ago, areas that tie into the Dinosaur complex. Their protection bolsters the ecological sustainability in a region that is under heavy drilling development pressure that could turn Dinosaur NM into a protected island in a sea of industrialized drilling; an ironic twist when you consider the struggle between conservationists and politicians hellbent to dam Echo Park in the ’50’s. I’m mindful of the courage of David Brower, Philip Hyde, and Wallace Stegner as we soar over the confluence and peer into deep canyons slicing the wrinkled landscape of the Moenkopi and Weber Sandstone formations. Those early conservation greats found a way to make Dinosaur matter and kept dams out of all national parks and monuments. The modern threat fragments surrounding lands that sustain the ecosystem and steals millions of gallons of water for every fracked well. The threat may have changed, but the challenge to see the future is no different today than it was in the 1950’s. Continue reading “Flying Dinosaur”