In February I spent five days backcountry skiing in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowa Mountain Range in a remote Northeastern corner of Oregon.  This was an incredible experience, which contained a lot of "firsts" for me.  This was my first time exploring the Wallowa's in the winter.  My first time on a backcountry ski hut trip.  My first time skiing such varied terrain and snow conditions.  It was also my first time being immersed in any wilderness area for such an extended period of time in the winter, albeit from the relative comfort of a backcountry yurt.  

The trip started out with warm bluebird conditions, which revealed the entire Mccully Basin on the first evenings ski tour.  Although it is usually quite pleasant to recreate in such mild conditions, I knew this would provide some challenges for my photography.  Since our camp was nestled at the bottom of the basin, light would break over the surrounding peaks well after an hour after sunrise to the east and over an hour before sunset to the west.  Golden hour was virtually off limits from at or below treeline.  The only solutions I could think of to catch great light was to be high on one of the ridge lines very early in the morning or late in the evening.  Unfortunately, this is not the sort of wilderness that this kind of mission is advisable to do alone, the way I do most of my wilderness exploring.  Despite my best sales pitches, no one else in the group was particularly up for a 3am start to a ski tour with a rugged climb.  Furthermore, this sort of tour in the evening was out of the question, as it would require skiing down unfamiliar terrain in the dark.  

This predicament left me chasing good light at lower elevations where I could avoid avalanche risk entirely and ski mellow terrain safely by myself.  I took up this challenge just about every morning and every afternoon, venturing off into new to me sections of Mccully Basin and trying to find engaging views of the surrounding peaks.  Days 1-3 were a bust.  Although I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude of the wilderness, I encountered either bluebird conditions without a cloud in the sky, or heavy clouds that sunk into the valley and limited visibility.  Neither are typically known for creating dynamic imagery.

It was not until the last evening at camp that I attempted to find a high point on the moderate slopes below the rugged western face of East Mccully Basin Peak, when I finally encountered light that I will not quickly forget.  Staring directly into the sun I noticed clouds ripping across the summit of Aneroid Peak (one of the tallest in the range).  The strong winds created a combination of clouds and snowdrifts billowing above the pointed peak.  

Color of Light

Aneroid Mountain, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Oregon

Although I knew this was the scene I wanted to photograph, I could barely look at it with my own eyes because of the strength of the dipping sun shining directly through the clouds, intensifying its light.  It was not until I stared into the scene through the telephoto lens on my camera that I noticed just how much color there was in the scene.  The late afternoon sun was creating an iridescent effect on the rapidly shifting clouds.

This rare effect is created by tiny ice crystals in the clouds diffracting light (usually from the sun or moon).  The cumulative effect of this diffraction is seen as color, although the glare from the sun is usually too intense to make out these colors with the naked eye.  That is why I waited patiently until the moment just after the sun dropped below the ridge line to capture this photograph.  With the sun still brightly illuminating the clouds and creating a bizarre array of colors, I had just a minute to capture the most intense moments of iridescence.  Thankfully, a strong gust of wind blew this cloud across the summit at the pivotal moment.  

At that point, it was just a matter of composing the shot to balance the clouds and the silhouetted mountain, and then executing the shot.  With my camera and telephoto lens secured on a tripod with its legs buried in the snow, I used a remote trigger to reduce any chance of vibrations ruining the shot.  The camera settings were a shutter speed of 1/640sec, aperture of f/20, and ISO 100.  This was captured at 280mm with a Nikon Z7 and a Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 lens and an F-mount adaptor.

The diversity of forms that light fills in this world never cease to amaze me.

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