Thursday, March 18, 2021

Chasing the Horsetail Fall: Learned Lessons and Tips

Not everyone has time for non-essential reading. Time is money and I do not want to waste yours. :) You are welcome to skip over the paragraphs below to simply read the tips and see many of my favorite images which were taken over several days of photographing the Horsetail Fall in February 2021. If your question wasn't answered in the reading below, please don't ask about specific locations, some of those were left out for a reason. I do not want to share certain spots because things are crowded already and people who care, can do their own scoping adventure-outings. Even in summer! Not everything has to be spoon-fed, though I feel like these tips share enough useful info to set one up for sending the proj. 

The sight of Horsetail Fall glowing in the last rays of the setting sun is a magical moment to witness. With the explosion of proof captured by photographers in recent years, the number of people attempting to see and photograph the rare, beautiful moment has led to increased popularity and a whole army of people attempting to capture their own version of an image similar to the world-famous original. The thin lava-like ribbon of Horsetail Fall was first captured by Galen Rowell, a prolific climber, and photographer. His creative nature led to many first ascents in the Greater Ranges as well as in his home, the Sierra Nevada. As creative in photography as in climbing, he became well-known in the mainstream media through many spectacular images from steep walls and sweeping landscapes which ended up published in National Geographic, and other magazines. 

As I quickly soloed the moderate rock climbs on Manure Pile Buttress, at the base of El Cap's Southeast Face - home of the Horsetail Fall - I pondered about the first time Galen noticed this rare phenomenon. Was he also soloing at Manure Pile at the end of his climbing day? Was he walking along the south shore of Merced River and became a random witness? Did he see something in Ansel Adams' portfolio that tipped him off? Did he do some sort of complicated calculation that helped him figure when the light will line up just right? Not sure. The answer is likely easy to find in one of the popular search engines, only a few clicks away, however, the mystery added to the allure of the event, and I was interested to photograph it over multiple day-trips which I made on my days off. Because I work as a nurse, I usually do about one to two days on and get as many, or more days off. Three 12-hour shifts allow me to be full-time. On a typical trip, I would wake up a 5AM, drink strong coffee, drive to Yosemite, and rope solo (minitrax) 10-16 pitches of hard climbing. If I had more time to kill, I would drive to the Manure Pile for some free soloing on multi-pitch 5.6-5.8s there, or go running, which allowed me a lot of time to think.  

The first time I photographed the Horetail was early February, prior to dates when the 'experts' predicted the waterfall to be "in," as an ice climber would say. For a waterfall to be "in" for an ice climber, it would have to be frozen enough to be climbable and accept "safe" gear placements, whatever that may mean. As much as I find ice climbing safe, the thought of climbing on frozen water is still somewhat ridiculous. So the experts didn't think the photos would be great that early. What does that mean in a beautiful Yosemite landscape? Beauty can be found there even without a glowing waterfall, on a cloudy day, a calming walk in the close to an empty park in winter feels special. Surely is a different experience compared to walking to a busy Emergency Department in Oakland and watching people urinating in front of the Hospital. So in the worst case, I wanted to scope the location for the shot. In fact, I wanted to scope several locations to take photos of Horestail Fall and go to the one I like the most on the day when the internet experts predict the waterfall to be in its best conditions - around February 21st.

To my surprise, I was very happy with the results and the photos from my first attempt were good enough for a local TV channel to feature them in a segment they released promoting the event. The event didn't need much promotion, on the weekend of 21st, I went for a 6.5 mile run around Yosemite after climbing prior and witnessed a crowd of about a thousand people settled in their lawn chairs or in the process of setting up their tripods on the north side of Merced River. As much as I don't like crowded places, I found something beautiful in knowing all these people made long drives, or even international flights to see a free magic show by mother nature, and I was also aware that I am one of the tourons as well, even if I was planning to photograph from an undisclosed location 500 feet above the valley floor. These people I saw could have been in front of their TVs, in the comfort of their home, but they chose to be hundreds of miles away, in a cold place, without any guarantee that the waterfall will actually glow - there were plenty of clouds on the horizon which could have ruined the experience for everyone. I realistically estimated the chances of seeing the glowing waterfall as slim to none.  I was also unsure if getting a photo of this phenomenon was very creative, as so many have done so in the past. Earlier in the day, I ran into Ron Kauk, a living legend in the Yosemite climbing scene, who also was enjoying his time rope soloing. Maybe not as sexy as free soloing the sick gnar, but I feel like it allows us moving meditation without a possibility of death as a consequence. We started to chat and at some point, I brought up my conundrum, "are we simply trying to create a trophy shot, similar to a mountain climber bagging a trophy peak, as the angles of the shot, the timing, the required focal length, and even the aperture and several locations were outlined online? Just like the route of ascent to a trophy 8,000-meter peak is hung with ropes, set by guides, and the adventure of reaching the summit is tainted by an unlimited amount of available information about all the hurdles one may experience." 

As much time as I had to think about the topic and as eight attempts to photograph the waterfall went by, I found an answer which I personally could accept. An individual answer which may be different for each person, or maybe more similar than we may think, as humans are probably more similar than they are different? I don't know, but visiting crowded tourist cities like Paris, Bangkok, Madrid or Barcelona, to see the Louvre, Sagrada Familia, structures designed by Gaudi, or to stand in rain for two hours outside of Versailles to see it for yourself didn't make the experience less special. Special places, trophy peaks, and popular photos are cool because they are worth seeing, pushing yourself for, or going through the process of trying to figure out how to capture them yourself. In the past, such feats were left to professional photographers and climbers, in 2021, normal working people are able to go on their own little adventures that keep us somewhat sane with our busy schedules and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. When I headed up the climb while talking to Ron, earlier that day, he simply said "Don't overgrip." Now that I think about the to-the-point advice, I find it applicable to the conundrum I had. Overthinking things we enjoy for the simple pleasure of focusing on the beauty around us can be as destructive as lactic acid building up in our forearms as we overgrip on small holds of a challenging rock climb. Is that what Ron was trying to say? 

If you want to see what I learned about the actual waterfall, or I feel it is important to share with anyone who wants to take a nice photo of the Horsetail Falls in the future here is a list of things I personally find important:

1) Best times to photograph the glowing Horsetail Fall is from 10th to 25th of February, or so. Every year, the dates will be slightly different but the BIG difference I found from photographing it on the 8th of February, over several other days and on the days conditions were predicted to be the best (21-22nd of February), I noticed the ribbon of water illuminated by the rays of setting sun is THINNER, leading to a more defined lava flowing on the weekend when the waterfall is predicted to be 'the best.' Of course, it makes a lot of sense, the thinner and more defined the flow of the waterfall, the better is the image! Right? The answer depends on your creative interpretation. 

2) If you are shooting with your phone, even if it is an iPhone12, you will not be able to get a nice zoom of the waterfall. So decide for yourself if you are going to witness the event or to capture it well in order to produce a print you can hang in your home. 

3) Shoot with AT LEAST a nice mirrorless camera or a DSLR on a tripod. YES, a tripod! Pair it with a 100-200mm lens. I personally shot with Nikon D810 and a 150-600mm Tamron monster lens. BUT, if you have a nice lens known to be sharp around that 150-300mm range (on a full-frame camera body), you should be set! Some high-end point and shoots that cost a ton of money have nice zooms and can also produce decent images.

4) Get to your location and BE SET UP one hour before the sunset. In my experience, locations on the SOUTH side of Merced River led to better photos. The usual spot where the most people photograph, near Manure Pile parking lot honestly seems a little too close to see the thin ribbon well.

5) The setting, clouds and other things (like flying birds in the mix) can make the image more, or less epic. Individual's desire to take a slightly different angle of the waterfall can also lead to original angles. 

6) Most people photograph with wider angle view before the waterfall becomes the thin ribbon of beauty and then scramble to change the lens and re-focus, find the right settings on the new lens, as the precious seconds of short event tick away. I and other people I watched around me are guilty of it. On my last day, I picked the lens, aperture/zoom/ISO, focused on the waterfall and kept it simple. Unless you have many days to try it, Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). I apply KISS to climbing and to everything else in life. Aside from my busy schedule...maybe one day? 

February 8th. Notice the amount of light around the waterfall. On the 21st, only the ribbon of the waterfall was illuminated.

7) For this rare phenomenon to take place A LOT OF STARS HAVE TO ALIGN. It should be clear (not cloudy) on the western horizon, there should be enough precipitation high in the mountains to create a steady snow melt for the waterfall to be fed, and temperatures have to be warm enough for the snow to melt. COLD winter days, cloudy days and low snow years, will likely not allow you to take nice photos. So check the snow pack, check the weather and have a few days off to visit Yosemite in Mid February.

8) Watch for special permits and regulations posted by National Park Service (NPS) on the Yosemite NP web site. At first, I thought some of the rules are ridiculous, but I realized why they were enforced when I saw the army of people the park was dealing with. February 2021 required a special permit which was reserved from and worked for a week. Who knows what 2022 will be like, but I can't imagine it to be less strict.

9) If you can, make your trip on the weekday in order to not fight for parking with a thousand other people and hike up into the woods on the south side of Merced. Maybe up the 4-mile trail or its vicinity. I took a few nice shots there.

10) The best way to focus in the waterfall is to choose the appropriate exposure, shutter speed, and ISO to work with your composition (I personally set the ISO to about 100-200, though I could have kept it at 64, but chose to set it higher to let in more light in order to create more contrast and make the waterfall pop. I shot at F14ish, which is mid-range for my lens and my shutter speed was quick 1/150-200). Then you want to use the digital zoom, and zoom ALL the way in on an object by the waterfall on your screen, and in full manual focus, adjust the focus wheel so that the object is as sharp as it can be. Somewhere close to infinity. Take a few practice shots, zoom in on them and make sure your image is in perfect focus. Another helpful tip is to figure out at which aperture your lens is the sharpest and calibrate your lens for the sharpest focus prior to your trip. Hint: Youtube it.

11) Every time you adjust your zoom or aperture, or touch the ring of the lens, make sure you didn't screw up your focus. 

12) Shoot in RAW, so that you can bring out all the colors in Lightroom or whatever you use to process images.

13) Respect people around you, take your trash out, take any trash you find on the ground that doesn't belong to you, and know your limits when it comes to backcountry travel. Don't get yourself into dangerous situations trying to find a nice spot. Bring a headlamp or a flashlight with fresh batteries to get yourself back down to your car. If you are unfamiliar with the location, bring a GPS. The more trouble we create for rangers, the more regulations there will be. 

14) Have fun and experiment. Have an adventure, as silly as that may sound. :)

PS: Moonbows are rainbows that happen on certain spring days with the full moon providing the source of light to create something people expect only on sunny days. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Lightweight Camping Gear I Reccomend

When preparing for big climbs, I get fairly focused on logistics. Especially when I am planning to solo technical terrain while carrying my camping gear, food, and climbing equipment. Day climbs are easy to prepare for, climbs that can take up to a week, not so much. In recent months I purchased some new gear, tested it, and picked what would perform best for solo ridge traverses or during backpacking trips on which I want to enjoy myself more by carrying less weight in my pack. I bought all the equipment I mention here with my own money and am not sponsored by any brands in any way, nor do I get a commission in case anyone purchases anything, so my opinion is free of that kind of bias...

Recently several friends asked me about the gear I use etc so I put together a quick list of things.

1) Zpacks Nero 38L backpack - 10.7 oz. probably less weight than listed, as I stripped it of anything extra and cut off one of the pockets....For climbing trips I use a Hyperlite Ice Pack, which is comfortable, has everything I need and nothing I don't. Used it for two years now, so it is quite durable. Took it up Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and a ton of local backcountry trips. I even hauled it a few times. Pretty strong pack and comfortable enough while carrying up to about 50lbs.
2) Zpacks Solo Quilt 30F 12.6 oz - am very happy with its performance and weight so far. Also, use a 20F Patagonia down bag.
3) Therm-a-Rest Neoair Uberlite Sleeping Pad 8.8 oz, medium. Light and comfortable! With a Sea to Summit ultralight pillow.
4) Toaks Titanium 550mL Pot with lid 2.6 oz (very cheap online). 
5) Fuhoz BRS 3000 Stove - 0.9 oz  (very cheap online). Aside from being cheap, it boils water just as fast as more expensive light stoves. Not as fast a Jetboil, but the weight difference is HUGE. 
I still use Jetboil Sol from time to time. 
MSR Reactor works better than the Jetboil for winter outings/alpinism - situations when you will be relying on melting snow.
6) Small gas canister
7) BD Twilight bivy sack (0.7 lbs). Instead of my usual emergency blanket, I decided to use Twilight bivy because I actually plan to sleep in it and hope this semi breathable sack will prevent my light down quilt from getting too wet (emergency bivy bags do not breath at all). It should also prevent my light pad from getting popped. I will have my pack under the pad as well, to help with protecting the thin inflatable pad.
For normal camping trips, I use a Black Diamond HiLight tent. Older is lighter, newer is more bomber and is seam sealed.
8) Small lighter, plastic spoon, lip balm. 
9) Food (4 breakfasts, 4 dinners, 4 days worth of snacks). I use one freeze-dried dinner bag and cook the dinners/breakfasts in it for the rest of the trip. Carry all the other dinners/breakfasts in zip lock bags. Breakfast is usually a pack of instant brown sugar oatmeal, a scoop of chocolate protein, nuts, dry blueberries/raisins, a scoop of Nutella, and instant coffee. YUM.
10) Hydrapack Seeker 3L water bladder with a hose to allow drinking on the go. Gatorade/Powerade bottle for a backup. Nalgene bottle is a heavy beast, so I will not bring it.
11) Climbing gear - 50m 5mm cord in case I need to abseil. Double length sling instead of a harness, Edelrid micro Jul belay device. A few slings, a few light carabiners. A few leaver nuts. Some cord for rap anchors, if needed. I cut the cord by banging it with a sharp rock and avoid bringing a knife. *rapelling on a 5mm cord, without a harness is not something approved by any organization associated with climbing and is due at your own risk, in a scenario in which you REALLY HAVE to.*
12) Five Ten guide tennies approach shoes. Scramble WELL.
13) Black Diamond Spot Lite headlamp  - light and pretty good!
14) NF sun hoodie, Patagonia Houdini light shell, Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hoody. Some light and stretchy pants. 

My pack weighed in at just under 11lbs with all the camping gear and 4 days of food. Under 15 lbs with climbing stuff, jackets, and a few random things/electronics (mp3 player and a portable battery charger). 
Every liter of water you carry will add 2.2lbs to your total weight.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Mount Whitney - First Winter Ascent of the Hairline (V 5.10d C2+)

As the horizon began to warm up and the striking wall that is the Keeler Needle started to glow pink, Chris and I took a minute to appreciate the exposure of the bivy site we dug into the narrow snow slope. Our two men tent barely fit and now we could only see the void beneath - a 1,500 foot drop to the snow slopes below Mount Whitney's East Face. It was surreal to be here, in the middle of one of the most photogenic sunrise views in the High Sierra. Hundreds of thousands people photographed this view over the years and now Chris and I were a tiny part of this surreal landscape.

Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, to me is special for more than its height. Close to 10 years ago, it was my first major climb. Completing the Mountaineer's Route, in winter, was sort of a metamorphosis. Yet, on the descent, we ran into two guys who were gonna try to climb one of the more technical climbs up the peak the following day. It was unimaginable how some humans could do that, but I had not done any roped climbing and had not even gym climbed at that point, so its totally understandable technical climbing in winter seemed impossible. Yet I was fascinated by the idea, and knew I would want to learn.

Over the years, I became increasingly passionate about hiking trails, scrambling local peaks in the Sierra Nevada, picked up technical climbing skills on variable terrain and begun to climb routes no other humans have climbed in the past. Winter climbing and alpinism became a part of the passion and I was able to complete routes up some of the more beautiful and some of the more difficult peaks in the world; like Chacraraju, Alpamayo, Fitz Roy, El Capitan, Chopicalqui, Poincenot, Castle Rock Spire, Angels Wings, Incredible Hulk, Cerro Torre, Bubbs Creek Wall, Denali, Xanadu etc. I have returned to Mount Whitney too, and not only climbed three more technical climbs on it, including a possible second ascent of Left Wing Extremist, but also found three other ways no other human has climbed. One of them, dubbed the Inyo Face, already has been repeated by half a dozen parties who reported it to be a fun experience.

During the last several years I thought of climbing the Hairline in Winter and proposed the idea to different partners. It has been a goal of mine because technically, it is the highest (in altitude) big-wall route in the lower 48 states and the route itself has seen only a few repeats - maybe 5? The route combines difficult aid and free climbing up a steep, 2,000 foot section of Mount Whitney's East Face. It was one of the standout routes put up by a prolific Sierra first ascentionist, Bruce Bindner, known as Brutus of Wyde, and I wanted to retrace his steps on his another creation.

Completing one of the most difficult big-wall routes in the Sierra Nevada, in winter, would technically make this the hardest winter ascent of a Sierra big-wall, and stood out as a distinct challenge. Doing it mid-winter, when the days are short, cold and the approaches long was not part of my idea. I thought of squeezing it in during the last days of calendar winter, in late March, with more daylight and warmth. Relatively speaking, in more enjoyable conditions, that are winter only on paper.

Rough overlay of the Hairline
The faith, had a different plan. Because I am training for a trip to the Himalayas, I have been trying to get out and do some peaks in the winter. Before a chunk of time off from work I saw the winds were finally going down to 20-25 mph and planned to do some general conditioning by hiking up the MR and maybe continuing up the crest to Mount Muir, maybe tagging Mount Russell before hiking out? A few other people were interested in joining, but unfortunately bailed. My good friend Chris Koppl said he would be happy to join before we both depart from US for extended trips to Asia and because he is one of my strongest partners I knew we could do more than a hike. I brought up climbing the Hairline (V 5.10d C2+), a route he has not even heard of, and because Chris is no slouch, he simply agreed. I love Chris!! :)

I drove up after work the day prior, slept around 7,000 ft, did some photography at sunrise and did a bit of solo ice climbing in Lee Vining to acclimate to the altitude. The following morning Chris and I met up, packed and got far from an alpine start for the approach sometime after 11am. Our packs weighted in at 60 and 62 lbs at the trailhead. Even though the road closure was a few miles before the actual trailhead, our excitement and fitness made up for the late start and we managed to make it to a camp between Upper Boyscout and Iceberg Lake at 4pm. We were mega-psyched to go to sleep early, as both of us did not get enough sleep for more than a few days in a row, for me personally it is difficult to get much sleep, as I balance 12 hour work shifts with a climbing addiction which requires me to regularly work out (at a climbing gym which is close to an hour away), serious relationship, time for errands and social obligations. First world problems are still problems! Next thing I knew, my perfect evening went to shit, as while melting snow, my Mountain House dinner tipped over, the lock opened and the food I was looking forward to eating spilled all over my sleeping bag. Just another reminder that the quality of their freeze dry food packaging is garbage. Most of the other freeze dried food companies have packaging of better quality. They open, close, open again. The zip lock part on MH dinners often peels off or in this case open under minimal pressure, which in my opinion it shouldn't, as we pay restaurant prices for freeze dried foods. After having a few snack bars, I was able to relax again, and went to sleep, dreaming of finding a decent bivy ledge for the following night.

In the morning we blasted to the base, which involved a lot of trail breaking through deep soft snow, which slowed us down. For efficiency, we decided to lead in two blocks. As a more efficient aid climber, Chris led the initial pitches of aid and I led the following pitches of free climbing. It made sense because swinging leads would require a lot more time for reversing of the roles. Taking winter boots, racking etc, after jumaring for 160 feet, wouldn't be as simple as passing the collected gear to the leader. While we were in the sun for the first three pitches, it was perfectly warm on the wall, but the sun left and it became so cold that I jumared and climbed in a down jacket. We brought an over-sized climbing shoes for the leader, so that we could have thick socks underneath. For speed, neither of us gave a shit about keeping it strictly free in spots that go free, and yanked on gear in places when it would allow us to go quicker. Putting five minutes in trying to decipher a single boulder problem while the belayer is shivering wouldn't be cool and we hoped to get to the belay ledge early enough so that we can have some wiggle room if our plan didn't work.

Just before it got dark and I fell victim to the screaming barfies, I finished my last lead and we were up on 3rd class ledges where we planned to bivy for the night. As we worked on cutting a platform from a narrow snow slope above the void, we warmed up and the more we worked on it, the more we became optimistic it will be possible to set up our tent! When we did set it up, our ledge turned out to be of perfect size. Incredible! We melted water, checked the weather, ate a ton of food and went to sleep happy as clams. The phone service was decent enough that I was able to check the weather forecast for Patagonia and send my friend an update - at the moment he was climbing the Fitz Roy.

 For years I dreamed of seeing the sunrise from this location and when Mount Whitney along with all of its striking needles stretching down to Mount Muir begun to light up in pink and red glow during early morning hours, it was as magical as looking at earth from the moon. Very similar to that. Darkness brought temperatures that were far below freezing and a couple of hours of sun would allow us to climb rock with our bare hands. Because we needed the rock to warm up, we took our time getting up, as jamming our paws into ice-cold cracks would be extra painful if we didn't wait. Unfortunately, we couldn't wait long. The forecast stated the temperature will rise all the way to whopping 30F at about 12,000 feet by 11am, but after 11am, the winds will start increasing to 40 mph and the temps will begin to drop towards teens. We were at about 13,500 feet and climbing to 14,500 foot summit, so we knew it would be colder. I took the first two pitches of climbing and Chris led the last pitch, after which we climbed another short step before unroping and scrambling the 3-4th class terrain with occasional cl. 5 boulder problem for another 500 feet, to the summit. Climbing up with 50 pounds of gear in our packs at 14,000 feet wasn't particularly enjoyable but I was surprised by how quickly we managed to gain elevation. No rest step, no rests to catch our breath, constant movement while trying to not let the increasing winds knock us off balance.

It was windy as hell on the summit, and I was surprised to see only 3 entries for 2020 in the register. After taking a few photos, we hid in the summit hut and Chris told me he is happy to have me as a partner for such a mission, as he wouldn't want to do something like we did with many others. It was nice to hear such a complement. Last time I heard something similar from Chris, we nearly drowned while trying to do a first ascent on a dome, which basically flooded after a thunderstorm came in quicker than we expected. We had to bail and scramble up 4th class slab which was literally a waterfall. Today, in comparison, we were on a casual walk, which isn't too far from truth. After the climb we completed, scrambling down the Mountaineer's Route and hiking out all the way back to our cars with our huge loads of big-wall gear felt easy. I told Chris I am the lucky one, as partners with more drive, work ethic, skill and sense of humor exist only in imagination. We started our descent and hiked all the way back down to our car with another hour to spare before sunset. At the trailhead, we ran into a guy who was going up to "take a look." Weather forecast for the following day was complete garbage, he was wearing skinny jeans, a cotton shirt, stylish shoes...I usually see people dressed like that on popular trails during summer, and that's ok, but winter is a different beast and Chris and I were a little worried. Hopefully, the man stayed safe and had a good trip, as the Whitney Cam the following morning showed a scene from the apocalypse.

To my surprise, I managed to make it back to Visalia with time to get a full body massage from my dear girlfriend Mariah, who was feeling sorry for the wrecked soul that entered our apartment. Even our cat seemed to sense I was a little off. The following day my legs felt like jello and I felt good about the decision to drive home. I would not have much fun staying on the east side and trying to rock climb after another night of car camping. Although I did go bouldering at a climbing gym, which was quite enjoyable.

The preparations for Nepal continue, and although I don't think I will do many other walls this winter, the Northeast Ridge of Mount Williamson is big goal. Big, burly, long, aesthetic. Hope the winds are low next time I have time off from work!