The foreground for Mt. Whitney is the rugged Alabama Hills, a disorganized jumble of rounded granite boulders, familiar to many as the setting for hundreds of movies, TV shows, and commercials. These weathered rocks make wonderful subjects without the looming east face of the southern Sierra. What makes this scene particularly special is the fortuitous convergence of topography and light that rewards early risers with a skyline dipped in pink–add a few clouds and it’s a photography trifecta.
We’ve all seen the pink band above the horizon opposite the sun shortly before sunrise or after sunset. Sometimes called “the belt of Venus,” this glow happens because sunlight that skims the Earth’s surface just before sunrise (or shortly after sunset) has to battle its way through the thickest part of the atmosphere, which scatters the shorter wavelengths (those toward the blue end of the visible spectrum), leaving just the longer, red wavelengths capping the horizon. When mountains jut high enough to reach into this region of pink light, we get “alpenglow.” Towering above the terrain to the east, the precipitous Sierra crest, anchored by 14,500 foot Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous 48 states) and 13,000 foot Lone Pine Peak, is ideally located to receive this sunrise treatment.
The image above was captured on a frigid January morning. While the best light on the Sierra crest usually starts a couple of minutes before the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise, this morning Mt. Whitney hid behind the clouds until the alpenglow was well underway. Like a piece of art waiting for its spotlight, the cloudy shroud was pulled back just as the sunlight struck Mt. Whitney, and for a couple of minutes it appeared as if a giant paintbrush had dabbed the swirling canvas with pink.
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