Downhill all the way

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite
Canon EOS 10D
1/4 second
F22
ISO 100
27 mm

On Saturday, with little fanfare, Alex Honnold stunned the climbing world when he free-soloed El Capitan in Yosemitethe world’s largest granite monolith. (What’s the big deal? From this image, you can clearly see that it’s downhill all the way….)

But seriously…

Speaking for all non-climbers, Alex Honnold didn’t just stun the entire climbing world, he stunned the entire rational world. Soaring three-thousand feet above Yosemite Valley, El Capitan is the Holy Grail of climbing. Among climbers, if you’ve summited El Cap, you’ve made the Major Leagues.

First conquered by Warren Harding in 1958, today dozens of climbers dot El Capitan’s vertical surface on any non-winter day with reasonable weather in the forecast. But until Saturday, all who scale El Capitan do it with ropes and a virtual hardware store worth of climbing aids. Most require multiple days to summit.

Alex Honnold chose to ascend El Capitan unencumbered by ropes or safety hardware of any sort (free climbing uses ropes for safety only; free-soloing is completely sans rope), scampering up the shear granite the old fashioned way, using only his hands and feet like a kid climbing a tree in his backyard. Even more astonishing, he accomplished his feat in less than four hours.

I’m not a climber, and in fact have a difficult time getting within three feet of any un-railed vertical drop greater than thirty feet. But I’ve always lived vicariously through climbers, devouring climbing books, videos, and documentaries just to marvel at their accomplishments. And for years Alex Honnold has been the climber I’ve followed most closely, not just because he’s the best (he is), but also because of our common affinity for Yosemite, and the fact that my daughters when to high school with him (they weren’t close friends, and I was a Honnold fan even before I knew this connection).

I also admire Alex Honnold not only for his skill and accomplishments, but for his humble demeanor (I suspect that he’d prefer climbing in complete anonymity) and quiet wisdom. And though we’ve never met, I can’t help worrying a little about him when I think of the number of mistakes I make with my camera—”Oops, I’m still at ISO 3200 from last night’s Milky Way shoot”; “Crap, I forgot to orient my polarizer”; “Did I remember to focus?” (I could go on)—and realize that for Alex Honnold, even one small mistake likely means death. I mean, even if I knew with absolute certainty that missing my exposure by just 1/3 stop would cause my camera to explode, I’m pretty sure I’d still be dead long ago.

So hats off to you, Alex Honnold, here’s wishing you many happy years as the world’s greatest living climber.

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An El Capitan Gallery

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Spring has sprung

Gary Hart Photography: Dogwood and Redbud, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood and Redbud, Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
1/40 second
F/4
ISO 200

I spent most of the last week in Yosemite and can confirm that spring has definitely sprung there. The Merced River, swollen by snowmelt, is overspilling its banks, flooding meadows and submerging riverside trails. Reflections are everywhere, and viewing the waterfalls without getting wet? Forget about it.

Another spring highlight is the moonbow that colors the mist beneath Yosemite Falls. A fortunate convergence of Yosemite Falls’ southeast exposure and the angle of the rising full moon when the snowmelt is at its peak make Yosemite one of the best locations in the world to witness a lunar rainbow. I was able to photograph it three times last week, twice with my workshop group and once with a private tour customer. Easily visible to the naked eye as a silvery arc in the billowing mist, a long exposure reveals the moonbow’s true colors.

But of all the spring treats Yosemite offers, for creative photography I think the dogwood might be my favorite. For just a few short weeks in April and May, these graceful blooms shower Yosemite Valley with splashes of white that remind me of the Fourth of July sparklers of my childhood. But unlike the ephemeral sparks of a sparkler, the dogwood progress in slow motion so I can appreciate them at a much more relaxing pace.

I found this branch at the Bridalveil Fall vista on Northside Drive, about a mile east of Valley View. The river was gold with late light, and the air was still as I went to work on the scene. Careful positioning allowed me to juxtapose three layers in my frame: in the foreground is the dogwood branch with varying degrees of detail; the middle-ground is a blend of heavily blurred redbud and more dogwood; all this spring beauty stands out against a backdrop of the sunlit Merced River. I experimented with different depths of field by varying my f-stop, focal length, and focus distance until I was satisfied.


Yosemite Spring

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It ain’t over till it’s over

Gary Hart Photography: After Twilight, Valley View, Yosemite

After Twilight, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 800

(How many photography blogs out there quote Yogi Berra? Just sayin’….) During the 1973 baseball season, Yogi Berra was asked about his last place Mets’ chances in the pennant race. His reply, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” was greeted with chuckles, but Yogi got the last laugh when the Mets rallied to make it all the way to the World Series. I couldn’t help thinking of Yogi’s quote on my drive home Monday night with this image, my final click of the day, still fresh in my mind.

When the weatherman promised snow down to 2500 feet on Monday, I drove to Yosemite late Sunday night so I could beat sunrise and have an entire day to play. And snow I found, lots and lots of it, and still falling. The snowfall continued throughout morning, so heavy that my first few hours were limited to photographing close scenes, interspersed with lots of waiting for conditions to improve. But a little before noon the clouds started to thin and the snow became more showery and I was in business.

When the clearing started in earnest I was at Valley View (but it didn’t look anything like this). The rest of the day I spent dashing around Yosemite Valley, chasing the clouds’ parting and the light that came with it. It’s so much fun watching a storm clear in Yosemite, poised beneath Yosemite Falls or Half Dome or El Capitan, and wait for the big reveal when the clouds to pull back.

For sunset I ended up trudging through about 18 inches of virgin snow to a favorite Half Dome reflection spot by the Merced River, recently rendered much less accessible by major roadwork underway in the valley. Throughout the day I’d crossed paths several times with good friend Don Smith who had driven up for the day with our mutual friends Scott and Mike, and they eventually joined me at sunset. As we shot we shared stories of the day—for example, how they had just missed getting crushed by a falling tree (true story). After a half hour of really nice photography, a large cloud set up shop atop Half Dome right around sunset, completely obscuring the scene’s main attraction. Satisfied with a tremendous day of photography, we declared the day, “Over.”

It wasn’t until I was back at my car that fully appreciated how wet everything was—my gear, my car, and even me (a day of plunging through snowdrifts had been enough for the snow to find its way over the top my waterproof boots and underneath my waterproof outer pants). I decided I’d swing into Valley View on my way out of the valley to use the bathroom and change into drier clothes. In the back of my mind was possibility of a parting shot of El Capitan in the late, blue twilight.

The west end of Yosemite Valley gets much less winter sunlight, so while trees had already started shedding the snow on the east side (where I’d photographed sunset), I pulled in at Valley View to find virtually every exposed surface still glistening white. Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks clearly visible in the fading light, but El Capitan was cloud-shrouded from top to bottom. Still quite cold, tired, and more than a little hungry, this would have been a perfect excuse to beeline home. But the scene was so beautiful, and the light so perfect, that after changing my clothes I just sat in my car, peeled an orange, and waited for El Capitan to show itself.

I didn’t have to wait long. At the first sign of clearing I hopped out and was completely set up by the river before El Capitan appeared. Bumping my ISO to 800, I composed the standard horizontal frame with El Capitan on the left, Leaning Tower on the right, and the Merced River in the foreground. Often the most difficult thing about shooting in low light like this is finding focus, but despite the fact that it was more 30 minutes after sunset, my Sony a7RII was able to autofocus on Cathedral Rocks. I spent a several clicks refining that original composition and was about to call the day “Over” one more time when something moved me to shift my view to the right. As soon as the image popped up on my LCD I knew I was onto something. I refined for about a half dozen more frames, culminating with the one you see here, until I was satisfied that a great day truly was over.

The lesson here, one I learned many years ago but I see many photographers struggle to grasp, is that the camera can still do fantastic things long after your eyes tell you the show is over. Another satisfying reminder from this day is that it’s still possible to enjoy Yosemite in glorious peace. As someone who has seen Yosemite at its congested worst, I relish the solitude possible when I choose times that the average person (tourists, fair weather photographers) won’t venture out: miserable weather, late at night, before sunrise. The entire time I was out there at Valley View that evening I was alone, and only two cars drove by. As Yogi would say, “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”

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A Twilight Gallery

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