I said to myself “Tin Man Lee you are a freaking genius” when the idea suddenly bestowed unto my head.
“If I go to Mount Evans in June instead of July like last time, I could get photos of newly-born mountain goat kids in the SNOW before it was melted. Woohoo.” Pre-visualizing your shot. Check.
And here I was, standing at the 12,000 feet summit of Mount Evans, Colorado, mid June, full of snow.
Only two things I hadn't thought of:
#1. 70 MILES/HOUR GUST. How did it feel to be in 70 miles/hr gust? I vividly remembered three incidents.
- I COULD FLY. It was so windy it messed up my mind. As I was walking against the wind towards the outhouse, I had an idea. I jumped up vertically. Guess what, I landed almost 2 feet behind where I stood. It did get a lot easier when I was jumping back to my car with the wind behind me, especially after I unloaded something…
- MY APPLE STORY. After I walked back to the car, I opened the door from the passenger side to grab an apple to eat, while standing in the wind trying to spot any mountain goat sightings. Just as I was ready to bite on the apple, a gust came. I couldn't hold the apple tight enough. It was a scene I still remember today. I saw the apple being blown away like a bullet with a beautiful yet heart-aching trajectory. All the way to the top of the mountain next to the one I was standing.
- THE HORROR IN THE LAKE. I parked my car at the Summit Lake parking lot to take a break and get a breather. I was watching a few people taking snapshots standing on the deeply frozen lake in front of me. I started to eat the emergency backup beef jerky after my healthy breakfast was blown away. I rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The whole time while I was eating, it felt like I was in the Disneyland Indiana Jones Ride. With the wind, the car was shaking left and right to a point that flipping over wouldn't surprise me. I tried to sit tighter to the seat by stretching my legs as if it would help. All of a sudden, a gust came which blew up a wave of frozen ice powder/dust, with each “powder” the size of hail, up to 50 feet, sweeping across the lake as the splash hit right on my windshield. I heard people screaming and running towards their cars. I tried to open the door to see if I could help but the wind was so strong I couldn't even push the door outward. I had never seen something like that. It was like a nightmare.
#2. WHERE'S THE GOAT KID?
Another serious problem here. It was too early in the season. The mountain goat babies had not been born yet. I searched all over the place repeatedly and couldn't find one.
Eventually, I found a mountain goat nanny (mom) with a yearling.
It was freezing cold up in the mountain but I was well-prepared. I was wearing a balaclava, a beanie, and my trusted North Face Himalaya Parka, snow pants and snow boot. Roarrr. Finally I found something to be proud of. I came prepared.
Except I couldn't find my pair of gloves.
After a hundred shots or so, I could no longer feel my fingers.
I remember the scary story of Chas Glatzer, where he had frost bites on two fingers while photographing a bison in Yellowstone in -40F just because there were two holes in his gloves.
But if you are a photographer, you would know we always want to get just that extra shot before we leave, especially when the snow was falling and the light was sweet.
I kept clicking and clicking, moaning at the same time as my finger no longer listened to me.
Another photographer was photographing as well. He was just a few feet from me.
He saw that I was struggling so he talked to me. I told him yea I forgot my gloves.
I saw him walked away, giving up the opportunity of good light with the mountain goat.
Few minutes later, he came back. “Here, I have an extra pair of gloves.” He said.
He walked back to his car just to get this for me!
I said “Thank you so much. I will return this to you after a few minutes.”
“Don't worry. Take it.”
I will always remember this warm encounter in the cold windy morning. The photographer's name is Richard Olsen. We still keep in contact. He has a beautiful picture of giraffe among his many wonderful pictures including bobcats and ermines.
Anyways, I told myself I got to be outta here ASAP. So I cut my June trip short and declared failure except meeting Richard and seeing the flying apple.
Besides the gust, there are FIVE things one needs to be careful when going to Mount Evans, Colorado.
#1. RESPECT THE MOUNTAIN GOATS. Though they look fluffy and cuddly, there has been a deadly attack at Glacier National Park. The mountain goats in Mount Evans are milder because they are more habituated to humans. However, one should still approach mountain goat especially goat kids very very slowly, and stop if you feel they are ever so slightly stressed. You don't want to scare the goat kids. If they run away quickly down the hill, it could take a long time for their mom to find them, which could be dangerous for their wellness.
#2. SUNGLASSES IS A MUST. Driving on the uneven and narrow road up the mountain is not for the faint of heart, especially the last few hairpin turns before the summit. If you want to go there in early morning, it could be complete darkness before the turn, and right at the apex of the turn, the sudden extremely bright beam of sunrise could instantly blind you. If you missed the turn ever so slightly, you and your car would go straight down the cliff. It probably would be a long painful fall as it would take quite a bit of time to hit rock bottom from 12,000 feet. I often feel a sudden lightness coming up from my bottom when I was doing the hairpin turn maneuver, especially when there was an incoming car on the opposite side. Sweaty hands on the steering wheel didn't help either.
#3. LIGHTNING IS DEADLY. Lightning on top of Mount Evans is not like the lightning in Los Angeles. Many people die each year there. Clouds tend to build up almost every evening. When it starts to rain, run don't walk, and flee the scene! I have seen a recent award winning pic of mountain goat kids in front of lighting. I salute the courage of the photographer but I wouldn't risk it. No shot is worth your life.
#4. THREE STORIES ABOUT HIGH ALTITUDE.
- DON'T RUN. The first time ever when I saw a mountain goat nanny and kid, they were about 100 feet below a slope. I was so excited I grabbed my cameras and jumped out from the car and sprinted downhill. There I met a photographer, Tom Redd, who would become a good friend, and who later would meet my good friend Roland Van Rijn (my cabin-mate in my first trip to see the bears) and Steve Uffman at the same plane ride to the Alaska Arctic to photograph polar bears. (Very honored to have Roland, Laura, Steve and Marian to attend my Smithsonian Award Ceremony few weeks ago.) Anyways. After I photographed the mountain goat nanny and kid with Tom for a while, we started to walk back up the hill. Just when I started to climb, I felt a sudden weakness in my legs. They were shaking uncontrollably. And my heart started to beat extremely fast, as if it was going to jump out. And even worse, my stomach was like upside down. I knew within any second I was going to puke. Experience told me that I had to calmly control my breathing to avoid puking, which was what I did. I looked around and made sure not a lot of people saw me like that. Tom asked “Are you okay.” I mumbled “RAAH” as I was keeping my lips closed to avoid accidental vomit spill. I had to rest for 15 minutes before I could walk again.
- PTARMIGAN. Mount Evans is famous for willow ptarmigan. I love ptarmigans. They look like the many white chicken that my grandma used to raise in my native village. Grandma treated the chicken very nice and they were only for eggs. Grandma would treat the chicken with very good food. How did I know? My elder cousin was a mischievous kid. One time while grandma was out, he fed me spoons of chicken food. As being famous for a good kid, I ate quite a few spoon full of it happily, until grandma came back and yelled at my cousin. People said I get good skin because of that feeding. Anyways I digressed. There was a large field next to the Summit Lake that's famous for ptarmigan sightings. I took my 70-200mm only as I knew I couldn't walk with my 500mm for more than 20 feet. After I walked for half an hour and saw nothing, my body literally stopped functioning like a robot out of battery. I couldn't walk an extra step. Ptarmigans has since become my nemesis species until last June where I finally photographed one in Nome, Alaska.
- UNEXPECTED VISITORS. I will tell the 3rd story at the end.
#5. LODGING. I have stayed in 3 places near Mount Evans. Each place has it's strength and weakness.
- IDAHO SPRINGS. Most people stay at Idaho Springs. Nice little town. I stayed at Blair Motel. It's the closest to get to the summit.
- BLACK HAWKS. It's a casino city. Ameristar Hotel is fancy with good restaurants. Luxury room, beautiful bathroom at good rate. A little further than Idaho Springs.
- GOLDEN WEST on I-70. Near Denver with lots of choices for better food. I found a very nice Vietnamese Pho Restaurant there that I went every day. But don't stay there during national holidays like Independence Day because the traffic can be so bad towards Mount Evans with hours of delay. But nothing can beat a good bowl of Pho noodle soup…
- One more thing. Don't forget the world famous coconut cake at the Echo Lake Visitor Center Restaurant.
The first time I went to Mount Evans, I hired a professional photographer, Weldon Lee, for one day so I could learn more about the safety precaution of the area and the sighting info. Weldon was the one who told me about the danger of lightning.
“Hey Weldon, what are the chances of seeing a mountain goat here?” I said.
“It's almost a guarantee if you stay for a few days.”
“What about the chance of seeing a newly born mountain goat kid?” I said.
“Well, that's more hit-and-miss. But still there is a chance.”
“How about if I want to see several mountain goat kid snuggling with each other on a rock in the beautiful morning light?”
Weldon laughed and said “That's too much to ask for, my friend.”
We had some decent sighting on the first day, but nothing “on the rock”.
Then, on the second morning, I was on my own driving around when I encountered a few mountain goats kids on a rock!
I felt like I was in heaven, clicking the shutter nonstop.
I got it, I thought.
Then came the night when I reviewed the photos.
I screwed up completely. I wasn't paying attention to the background. There was a very distracting man-made paved road in each picture, like a dagger to my heart. These were not usable.
I could not sleep the whole night thinking about the photos. How could I improve? Which spot in Mount Evans should I be to fix this problem? I kept imagining the potential shots and came up with an idea.
Would genius strike twice?
The third morning, also the last morning before I caught a plane home in the afternoon, I wake up at 4am and drove up to the summit in complete darkness.
I knew that if I sat on one particular rock and shoot at another particular rock, the man-made road would not be visible, while the background would be the snow-capped rocky mountain range. I could not use a 500mm because that would blur the background out. I could only use at most a 70-200mm lens.
I sat quietly on that rock, leaning on another bigger rock behind me, and waited, while giggling inside me for yet another genius idea, imagining how the shot would look so much better than yesterday. I looked through the viewfinder and it looked perfect.
Except I forgot one thing again.
Why would I even think that the mountain goat kids would stand on that particular rock?
The first ray of morning light started to shine and the light slowly moved towards the rock.
But it's so quiet. The mountain goats were nowhere to be seen.
Too bad. The idea was good, but the execution was terrible.
Just when I thought I would do better next time, I saw a head popping from below this particular rock.
I almost screamed as the light just shined right on that rock.
Then I saw two heads.
They started to cuddle with each other after they climbed onto the rock.
And then one of them suddenly jumped.
As I was controlling myself not to hyperventilate and faint, I clicked the shutter.
Siblings also helped each other.
P.S. Sometimes high altitude sickness may not be a bad thing.
One time I was resting my shaking legs behind a big rock in a evening, panting for air, I closed my eyes for a while to take a power nap.
When I opened my eyes, I got some unexpected visitors.