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Every so often there are times in the Colorado Rockies when everything that isn’t nailed down is either blown down or blown away. This was nearly the case on a late winter day in Rocky Mountain National Park, right after an overnight snowfall, when I found myself in the midst of hurricane-force winds while photographing Hallett Peak at Dream Lake. At the time, I felt like a darned fool. Having seen not a single human soul on what is otherwise one of the park’s most popular trails, I knew that all sane, rational people were elsewhere. Even the wildlife stayed home. It was a wind with no conscience, an idiot wind, and I knew very well who the idiot was. But I was there, I had my camera gear, and by golly I was determined to record the scene as best I could.
I could find no refuge that would afford me a decent view of the lake or mountains, however. Snow and debris were blowing everywhere, and in the freezing gusts I could make little sense of what was before me. I couldn’t hear the sound of my own thinking, so deafening was the noise. I finally found a snowy perch from which the view looked best. In the teeth of a violent wind blasting straight down from the U-shaped gorge ahead, I set up my camera and tripod. Already one of the heaviest tripods on earth, I weighted it down further with my backpack hanging from its center column. Several times I was nearly blown over, tripod and all. I’m a big guy – sometimes to my detriment. But never in my life has my sheer dead weight served me so well. Though the trees never stopped swaying, the wind never stopped howling, I was able to stay upright for nearly an hour before leaving. When there was a rare lull in the wind, I pressed the shutter button and hoped for the best. Most of the photos were unusable. This one survives. Only the blowing snow and blurred trees in the image give a hint of the chaos that day.
Unlike the vast majority of my trips into the Colorado backcountry, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the experience. The conditions were so brutal, even ridiculous, that I think all one can ever do in that situation is do your best, stay safe, and get out as quickly as possible. But perhaps there is something else to be gained. Maybe the hardest-won photographs really are the sweetest.
In this view, that’s iconic Hallett Peak up on the left, the rocky crags of the southeast face of Flattop Mountain on the right, with Tyndall Gorge in the middle. A portion of Dream Lake, frozen and wind-scoured in the shade, appears in the lower left. Up ahead, Emerald Lake, Pool of Jade, Tyndall Glacier, and other riches await those who trek higher.
What lies above that glorious threshold? It might just be Heaven itself. For in the howling winds of Nature’s vortex, and in wide-eyed enlightenment of my own finite existence, it seemed that vast powers beyond human comprehension were at work. Snowshoeing back the way I came, the wind never did let up. At this most sublime part of the Continental Divide, only the mountains themselves remained silent and inert.
Hallett Peak (elevation 12,713 ft / 3,875 m)
Dream Lake (elevation 9,905 ft / 3,019 m)
Rocky Mountain National Park
The photo was made using a Canon EOS-1V film body, an EF 50mm f/1.4 lens, and Fuji Velvia 100 film.