My Journey as a Photographer, as Framed by Baxter State Park

Me on the Pamola Summit, 2004
Me on the Pamola Summit, 2004

Sixteen years ago, just as I was entering my senior year of high school, I planned a family vacation to Maine’s Baxter State Park that would end up defining my adult life.

It was in Baxter that I realized my passion for landscape photography, took on my first big-mountain hike, and ultimately decided to go to college in New England. I credit this trip, and to a lesser extent the two visits that followed, for shaping the person I became. Today, I want to pay tribute to these trips while also reflecting on how much I’ve grown as a photographer and outdoorsman since my first visit.

In 2004, I was an eighteen-year-old band nerd who was not yet a photographer nor an outdoorsman. My parents and I had been camping extensively throughout Pennsylvania (while I was shooting with a film point and shoot), but they were all summertime car camping trips in which we’d set up in an established campground and go on moderate day hikes or calm canoe trips. However, it was during this time that I started developing a sense of environmental stewardship and pride in our public lands. As I approached the end of high school, I realized that I wanted to pursue an environmental line of study in college and discovered Unity College in Maine. I decided I wanted to tour that campus and planned a trip that would tie that together with my first visit to Baxter State Park.

Baxter State Park’s stated value is “wildness first, recreation second,” and this is significant to me because it was my first time experiencing a wilderness-like setting. However, it’s important to note that this trip did not represent a departure from our norm. We’d still be camping next to our car in a full campground, albeit the campground was more primitive and spaced out than others we had experienced. And I didn’t yet have anything that I’d now consider “real” photography equipment. But in August of 2004 I summited Mt. Katahdin, one of the most challenging mountains the east has to offer after doing nothing of relatable strenuousness previously. In the process I also captured the first photos that I was really excited about.

I wouldn’t return to Baxter for nine whole years after this, despite my unwavering belief that it was my favorite place on earth. In that time, I inherited my mom’s film SLR and later upgraded to a digital SLR, which allowed me to take technical and creative control of my photography. I moved to Vermont for college, started to backpack a little, and experienced more in the way of adverse weather in the woods. Prior to my senior year I spent the summer backpacking around Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness, performing various trail maintenance tasks. After graduation, I moved to northern Vermont where I began to work for the Vermont State Trail Crew, found myself hiking strenuous mountains regularly (in my free time), and turned my photography hobby into a business.

So what led me to Baxter State Park in the first place?

As best as I can recall, right up until 9:45 AM on Sunday August 22, 2004, I had never breached treeline on a hike. But I was always drawn to trails described as “difficult,” so as I became more familiar with the Appalachian Trail and its heralded northern terminus, it’s no surprise that Mt. Katahdin captured my fancy. One of the grandest mountains in the east could be hiked in a day? Yes please. On top of that, I had never seen New England north of Boston. Boston itself is a city of great significance for my parents, and I almost felt obligated to explore New England deeper than that. So I set about planning a trip that would focus as much on the journey north as the park itself, and created a route that would take us over Lake Champlain, through the northern Green Mountains of Vermont, past New Hampshire’s White Mountains, on to the famous Maine coast, to the Unity campus for a tour, and finally up to Baxter State Park in the great north woods.


Sunday, August 22, 2004

On our last night on the road before entering the park (Friday the 20th), which we spent near Belfast, we paid close attention to the weather forecast so that we could take on Katahdin on the nicest day of the weekend. Both Saturday and Monday called for rain, but Sunday’s weather was promising to be warm, sunny, calm and clear — the perfect recipe for a pair of fair-weather hikers. And so it was that we arrived in the Nesowadnehunk Campground on Saturday in the rain, got up super early on Sunday to tackle the great Katahdin, and then spent our Monday doing low-elevation, low-intensity exploring.

(NOTE: My 2004 images were shot on film and transferred to digital format via scanner or smartphone camera. Although several, including this one, do have focal issues, much of the blurriness you see is a result of the digitization.)

Roaring Brook, one of the first images I shot on the morning of our hike Sunday, 8/22/04. I was drawn to the serenity of the scene, but my lack of experience and proper equipment resulted in that getting lost in translation.
Roaring Brook, one of the first images I shot on the morning of our hike Sunday, 8/22/04. I was drawn to the serenity of the scene, but my lack of experience and proper equipment resulted in that getting lost in translation.

Sunday morning began for us at 3:45 AM so that we could arrive at the Roaring Brook Trailhead before it filled up. Our route that day would take us up the Helon Taylor Trail to Pamola Peak, across the Knife Edge to Baxter Peak, down the Saddle Trail to Chimney Pond, and the Chimney Pond Trail back to Roaring Brook. My Dad and I took off from the trailhead at 6:30 and embarked on what became my first memorable hike. In the beginning, the hike felt really familiar. As I wrote in 2004, the first mile or so of the Helon Taylor Trail reminded me of “any of our more challenging hikes from Pennsylvania,” but when we grabbed our first glimpse of Pamola Peak, it “struck us as much more serious than anything we’d hiked before.” The trail began to get more serious even before breaking treeline, though. When presented with large boulders in the trail, we’d have the choice to scramble over them or find an alternate route around them. I’d always opt to scramble over them, and I noted that Pennsylvania trails certainly didn’t offer this challenge to its hikers!

“As we neared the treeline,” I wrote in 2004, “we stopped at a rock for drinks, a small snack, and a chance to take in the remarkable view. I changed my film here, and got nervous as I felt the wind pick up. I began to wonder how bad the wind would be on the Knife Edge.” I’d like to note that the weather report we saw in Belfast was correct — it was very calm up there. It’s amusing now, looking back on my first big-mountain anxiety, knowing all that I’ve done since (such as the Knife Edge in 2013). But it is good to know that I’ve had a healthy dose of apprehension from the start; it may be why I’m still alive and mostly unhurt.

To me, this shot epitomizes the truth that I had no idea yet how to capture fog. It has since become one of my favorite subjects but this image is A) out of focus and B) incredibly flat. The beauty of fog is in its ability to creatively add depth to a photo, and I really missed the mark here.
To me, this shot epitomizes the truth that I had no idea yet how to capture fog. It has since become one of my favorite subjects but this image is A) out of focus and B) incredibly flat. The beauty of fog is in its ability to creatively add depth to a photo, and I really missed the mark here.

Continuing on, “the trees gradually turned to shrubbery, and… we arrived at the portion of the Helon Taylor Trail that we nicknamed the ‘big bad stuff’… Keep Ridge is actually just a bunch of boulders dropped on the mountain, where the real challenge is finding the best path through the boulders and then pulling yourself up over them. Exciting as it was, looking down was always a bad idea. At one point, I had to stop because my knees were shaking from a fear of heights I didn’t know I had.”

Below are some photos from this portion of the hike, but it was disappointing to discover that I didn’t have any shots that showed off the so-called “Big Bad Stuff.” Either I let fear and tiredness distract me from capturing photos, or I used a poor composition/perspective that failed to capture the severity of the terrain.

Upon arriving at Pamola Peak, “we were both sore and tired, but Dad was especially worn. We ate lunch, and, after more than enough time to rejuvenate, we headed for the Knife Edge!” Even though the ascent to Pamola seemed to get the better of us, physically, I was totally hooked at this point. Life above treeline was the best. We had views in all directions, beautiful weather (can’t complain about a gentle breeze), and the exciting, unique Knife Edge taking off right in front of me. I was energized, enthused, and so in my element. Unlike my 56 y/o companion, probably, I was biting at the bit to continue our hike and my physical discomfort seemed to vanish in the breeze.

Even more memorable than our ascent on Keep Ridge was my first descent down into what is called The Chimney between Pamola and the Knife Edge. As I recalled in 2004: “The beginning section of the Knife Edge was my scariest adventure as a hiker to date. It was a small valley next to Chimney Peak where we climbed basically straight down and then straight back up. I let Dad lead the way down; my heart was pounding like mad. When we made it to the top of Chimney Peak, [fellow slow hiker] “Orange” told me ‘I saw you taking notes in there. You’re tough!’” Well, maybe. But while standing on the floor of the Chimney, I saw an older hiker with varicose veins bust up the side we had just come down in a fraction of the time. “Now *that’s* tough,” I had thought.

Next came the actual traverse of the Knife Edge. Dad told me I could go ahead, so I crossed it essentially as a solo hiker, stopping every now and then to at least let Dad get back into my line of sight. No breeze, no clouds, no worries. Several hikers traversing the opposite way stopped to congratulate me on a great job — I must have looked like a teen who had taken on Katahdin totally by himself. That’s a nice confidence booster for a kid whose lifelong relationship with the mountains was growing at that very moment. I arrived at Baxter Peak long before Dad and while waiting “another hiking party fed me candy… because Dad had all the food.” Not sure what made us divide up our supplies that way, but what a strange choice in retrospect.

Dad eventually did arrive at the summit and was clearly in need of a rest. I didn’t take note of how long I spent up there, but I know that I didn’t mind a minute of it! First above-treeline experience or not, I felt totally comfortable at the top of world, and I took advantage of this time to chat with more experienced hikers, take in the incredible scenery around me, and soak up the perfect weather. (“Mom must be making sacrifices to Pamola [the God of the mountain],” Dad had said earlier.) When we finally took off, we cruised down through the Tablelands – a surprisingly flat boulder-strewn plateau opposite the Knife Edge – and began our descent on the mostly-stationary rockslide that is the Saddle Trail. We finally reentered treeline over an hour and a half after I arrived on Baxter Peak, putting us at a total of seven straight hours of exposure. (Even today, sixteen years later, that’s one of the longest blocks of time I’ve spent above treeline in a single day.) It took us another hour to arrive at Chimney Pond after dropping below the trees, thanks largely to what I assume was Dad’s full-body exhaustion and my lack of foresight in not breaking in my new boots.

I consider this my best shot from the hike. A great photo should tell a story, and this one does from the tired expression on Dad’s face to the hiker (“Blue”) straddling the trail behind him. In this case, the use of human subjects in my composition played to my favor — I didn’t even remember that I crossed anything this thin until I saw this photo!
I consider this my best shot from the hike. A great photo should tell a story, and this one does from the tired expression on Dad’s face to the hiker (“Blue”) straddling the trail behind him. In this case, the use of human subjects in my composition played to my favor — I didn’t even remember that I crossed anything this thin until I saw this photo!

We checked in at the Chimney Pond ranger station and they radioed Roaring Brook so that Mom could get confirmation that we had made it off the mountain safely. From there, we hiked the roughly three-mile Chimney Pond Trail back to Mom and our car. We had hoped that this trail would be an easy and quick three miles, but it wasn’t as flat as we had hoped, it was very rocky, and the sun set on us when we were only about halfway through it. I had noted that “in a different situation, this trail would have fascinated me,” but at the time we were going on 14 hours of hiking and just focused on making it back to the trailhead. I don’t even remember passing Basin Pond, even though I’m fairly sure we did so in daylight. Our hike officially ended at 8:25 PM and as Mom was driving us back to Neso Stream we all had our first moose sighting along the dark Tote Road.

As I mentioned earlier, the days before and after our hike were rainy and foggy, and there was no resisting the moody conditions in the great northern woods. I’ve included some of my other images from 2004 below, before transitioning to 2013.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Me on the Baxter Summit, 2013
Me on the Baxter Summit, 2013

Fast forward nine years to September of 2013. To set the scene, my (now) wife and I lived in St. Johnsbury, VT and I’d been out of college for 4 years. The past two-and-a-half summers I’d been working on the Vermont State Trail Crew, and the bearded 50-something-year-old Alex had been there with me, mentoring me in the ways of rock work and outdoor living. Alex had hiked the Appalachian Trail in its entirety twice in the 80s, has hiked every 4,000 footer (and many of the trail-less 3,000 footers) in New York and New England, and has a plethora of other outdoor experiences. He has no shortage of fantastic stories revolving around places I’d come to love. During my third year on crew I decided I wanted to revisit Baxter with Alex and Galen, the youngin’ on crew that year. We decided (well past the open window for making reservations at Roaring Brook) on a weekend in early September and planned on snagging one of the first-come first-served sites outside of the park gates.

Roaring Brook the morning we left for our hike. As you can see, my sense of composition has improved, as I used the river rocks to create a sense of depth. My technical ability has also grown, as I now shoot with a long exposure to create an artistic effect in the water, and I blend exposures together to reveal all the tones across high-contrast scenes.
Roaring Brook the morning we left for our hike. As you can see, my sense of composition has improved, as I used the river rocks to create a sense of depth. My technical ability has also grown, as I now shoot with a long exposure to create an artistic effect in the water, and I blend exposures together to reveal all the tones across high-contrast scenes.

That Friday, Alex and Galen drove to our apartment in St. Johnsbury, the closest point between the three of us to Maine. Piling into my Subaru, I drove the three of us up to Baxter in a much more efficient fashion than nine years prior — with no stops, we made it in about 6 hours. Alex directed us to the Abol Bridge section of the Golden Road, which we arrived at only a few minutes before sunset. We passed a swamp with a bunch of young saplings in it, all donning peak red foliage lit up by the dynamic last rays of the day’s light. There was a photographer set up there and I was tempted to stop, but Alex reminded me that we were in a rush to claim a spot before others did. As we passed over the Abol Bridge, we had a clear view of Mt. Katahdin with a large, sunset-lit cloud hovering over it. Galen named this cloud, which looked like it had the singular purpose of abducting the mountain, “The Mothership.” Again, I passed up a dramatic photo opportunity in favor of finding a place to camp. We claimed a spot with plenty of space for three tents right along the Penobscot River, and after dropping off Alex I sped back to the Abol Bridge only to find the dramatic light had vanished.

The following day was Katahdin day. Galen and I planned to follow the same route I had done with Dad, while Alex decided he wanted to claim the only trail on the mountain he had not yet hiked — the Dudley Trail. As I write this seven years later, I don’t remember my reasoning for sticking with the Helon Taylor up, Saddle down route, except for my desire to experience the Knife Edge again (and, of course, to let Galen experience it for the first time). I was drawn to both the Cathedral Trail and the Dudley Trail, the former of which is the park’s most technical route and the latter the steepest. It’s very likely that I didn’t want to do the Chimney Pond Trail twice (Cathedral and Dudley both take off from Chimney Pond and our starting point was Roaring Brook), and it’s possible I wanted to retrace my steps with my improved camera skills specifically in mind. I remember considering at one point descending via Cathedral instead of Saddle, but the park strongly discourages that.

Whatever our reasoning, we left our campsite around 8 and made it to the Roaring Brook parking lot as it was starting to fill up. Galen and I took off first and headed for the Helon Taylor Trail. Alex had a more relaxed timeline, as he was planning to ascend via Helon Taylor and descend Dudley, summiting only Pamola that day. Per the ranger’s suggestion, he adjusted his plan to ascend Dudley, and took off on the Chimney Pond Trail shortly after we left.

The view that greeted us on Pamola. The clouds were simply plowing over Hamlin and Baxter Peaks.
The view that greeted us on Pamola. The clouds were simply plowing over Hamlin and Baxter Peaks.

We ascended the Helon Taylor Trail under overcast skies this time, at a much quicker pace than before. Galen and I were both fit hikers (I was actually the slow one here), and we were really only stopping for the photo opportunities I’d see. Galen’s a great sport, and when I asked him to go off trail and climb a boulder for perspective, he agreed and seemed happy to put in this extra work for my creative vision. As we made our way above treeline the wind really started to show its fierceness, and made I an effort to capture its power in my photos. Keep Ridge ascended the leeward side of Pamola Peak that day so we were (somewhat) sheltered and weren’t yet feeling its full effect, but it was strong enough to create a memorable and more exciting ascent than 2004’s.

Upon arriving on Pamola Peak, the wind hit us full tilt. It was easily strong enough to knock us over if we didn’t plant our feet against the rocks and lean into it to brace ourselves. Given this, we estimated the wind we were feeling fell between 40 and 60 miles per hour, and it was indescribably exciting to witness. As far as my photographic instincts were concerned, this was the pinnacle of our hike. The wind was blowing clouds in and out all around us, and was drastically changing the scene every few seconds. It was exhilarating and chaotic all at the same time!

We were up there for a good long while. Not only was I snapping constantly to try and capture the ever-changing drama, but we began to reconsider the wisdom of crossing the Knife Edge. I had remembered from 2004 that there were three short sections on that ridge (I refer to them as the “bridges”) that were particularly narrow, flanked on either side by… nothing. The wind was blowing perpendicularly to our direction of travel. Was it safe? Well, it wasn’t raining, and I felt that if it stayed that way, we could maintain solid traction on the rocks. By spending so much time up on top of Pamola, we could gauge the weather’s trend and determine if the likeliness of rain was increasing or decreasing.

While we were hanging out on that windswept summit, a couple hikers joined us. One group of three guys (one of whom – wearing a green jacket – was a dad to at least one of the boys) followed us up from the Helon Taylor Trail. The two boys decided they definitely didn’t want to attempt the Knife Edge in the wind, but the dad, who I believe had done it before, wanted to experience it again. He told his boys that he was coming back, dropped down into the Chimney and climbed up the other side, and disappeared for a while. Galen decided that he at least wanted to experience the Chimney if we ended up forgoing the Knife Edge, so he followed the dad down the Chimney and up to Chimney Peak, where he stopped and donned his orange “goon” hat. Since he was in my line of sight the whole time, I was comfortable with that. And I mean, really, who am I to say no to some extra photo ops at Galen’s expense? As he came back and was ascending Pamola again, I got some fun photos of the wind ripping over him.

After the party of three took off again down the Helon Taylor, one hiker (wearing a blue jacket and bleeding from his forehead) joined us from the Dudley Trail. (We learned the following morning that this was the quickest hiker in the party that Alex had tagged along with.) He took our photo at the Pamola summit and shortly after that we noticed that the blue sky in and out above the Knife Edge seemed to be getting more prominent. We took this as a sign that the weather wasn’t deteriorating and, even though the wind wasn’t letting up, we left Pamola, descended into the Chimney, and took off onto the Knife Edge. (It turns out, Alex wasn’t far from the Pamola summit at that point and we almost shared it with him, but ended up never seeing him.)

As I descended into the Chimney I noticed that it acted as an incredibly fierce wind tunnel, possibly the fiercest I’ve experienced. I have no idea how much it may have magnified the effect of the wind, but crossing the floor of the Chimney was super exciting and magnificently chaotic. There’s a boulder sitting on the Chimney floor that I ducked behind for relief and would pop up from for the briefest moments to try to capture the view. This was a poor comparison, but at the time it was chaotic enough to feel like a soldier in wartime. I took some shots while shouting at Galen how crazy this was, and then we climbed up the opposite side. The ascent up to Chimney Peak follows a route on the leeward side of the wall, so it felt tame in comparison to what we’d just done.

My favorite shot from the floor of the Chimney, making use of a classic framing technique.
My favorite shot from the floor of the Chimney, making use of a classic framing technique.

Galen did the Chimney three whole times that day, but despite how intense that is he really didn’t show any signs of fatigue. Once we were on Chimney Peak, the wind was gusting from the side, as we expected, and we didn’t have a view, so we just boogied onward. We were in and out of a view for the first bit of the Knife Edge, and we’d pause here and there for photos or to duck behind a wall if one were available. I had both my tripod and camera on this hike (although that lighter-grade tripod would’ve been useless in that wind), and I was keeping them outside of my pack. (The camera bag was hanging free by my hip.) Generally, that’s not a great inconvenience to me, but I could feel them catching in the wind as we traversed the exposed ridge. My camera, especially, was quite the inconvenience as I crawled my way along the “bridges.” Each of these bridges was a four-limbed nerve-wracking experience, and I had to concentrate on gripping both the rocks and my camera bag so as not to blow over or trip on the straps. Despite this, all three felt a little easier than I had anticipated.

After the third and final bridge, Galen and I were resting in an exposed spot and one of only three or four hiking parties passed us going the opposite way. We watched as one female hiker had a meltdown at the start of the bridge, while her significant other patiently and heroically coached her across. We couldn’t fault her for the breakdown — as I’ve said several times, high winds make things feel chaotic. High wind in tame terrain can cause stress by itself, as can these Knife Edge bridges in calm weather. Combined, its easy to feel an abundance of stress and fall into the mental trap of believing that the terrain isn’t passable. Fortunately, nothing like that happened to me or Galen up there, but I would feel an overwhelming stress on a mountain the following year. Once the feeling of helplessness and “what am I doing here” sets in, it’s hard to shake. Kudos to that hiker for overcoming her fear and getting across the bridge. That struggle only made her stronger. In my experience, every time I put myself outside of my comfort zone on a hike, the better I’m able to handle the stress of the next unusual situation. It’s like mental gymnastics.

Galen and I continued, by now mostly enshrouded in total fog. We came across a husband and wife hiking party at some point and I felt compelled to ask them a question that I hate. “So uh.. it’s been a while since I’ve been up here and I can’t… how are, uh, how far back there did you.. uh, we getting close to Baxter?” I don’t like when people ask “how much further” in any form. But I’m so, so glad I chose to engage this Mainer, for he gave me the only response a Mainer could: “Ayuh, you’re gettin’ they-uh!”

Sure enough, there we were getting and it was maybe ten minutes later that we stepped onto the fully socked-in Baxter Peak. We didn’t spend long up there, but as we were heading down into the Tablelands this somewhat neurotic lady with a Minnesotan accent named Trish came up to us and was impressed to hear we had crossed the Knife Edge. She immediately told us that her friend Pam had been really struggling up the Saddle Trail and she was wondering if we could stick around until they tagged the summit. Yeah, why not? She hung out with us while waiting for (and worrying about) Pam, and I mentioned how bummed I was that the sun didn’t start breaking out for us by the time we reached Baxter.

As Pam came huffing up the Saddle Trail (she was out of breath, but hardly in as dire a state as we expected), Trish left us to tag Baxter with her friend.

Capturing depth in the Tablelands while waiting for Pam and Trish.
Capturing depth in the Tablelands while waiting for Pam and Trish.

As we promised, we waited for Pam and Trish in the Tablelands, and I really didn’t mind at all. The Tablelands are a beautiful and unique feature for such a mountain, and I stayed fully entertained photographing the blowing grass and capturing depth through the fog. Before long, Trish and Pam returned to our location and the sun started to break through. Trish started cheering for the sun and absolutely lost her mind when the clouds broke and revealed the full landscape around us. She was ecstatic for me! She insisted on taking our photo next to the cairn where we were, and we accompanied the two of them to the top of landslide that the Saddle Trail descends. Trish had asked us to accompany them only this far, but before we took off I asked her if she was sure. After all, descending the slide is considerably trickier than ascending it or walking through the Tablelands. Trish, though, was insistent that she didn’t want to hold us up any longer (and Pam never really wanted our help in the first place), so Galen and I took off down the Saddle.

When we got to Chimney Pond, we swung by the ranger station briefly to report that we were off the mountain and that we were pretty sure we were experiencing winds around 50mph. He replied that he had absolutely no doubt that this was the case, and implied that we might’ve even underestimated it. (I have no doubt that the windspeed was considerably stronger in the Chimney.) I guess we’ll never know for sure, but I absolutely know that this was, and continues to be, one of my favorite hikes ever. We were motivated to get the Chimney Pond Trail done as quickly as possible and busted it out, again bypassing Basin Pond in favor of a timely return to Roaring Brook. We arrived back at the trailhead before dark (for a total hiking time of around 10 hours) and were happy to hear we’d only been keeping Alex waiting for less than two hours.


Saturday, September 23 - Sunday, September 24, 2017

On my third visit to Baxter State Park, Galen and I returned with another trail crew friend Kyle. My goals were to photograph Green Falls (a beautiful and remote waterfall that flows into Lake Wassataquoik in the vast wilderness north of Mt. Katahdin) and to bag the Cathedral Trail. Alex had talked up the Dudley Trail after our 2013 trip and I had developed a great interest in it, but in 2016 a massive landslide had knocked out that trail and it had yet to be rerouted.

(Even as I write this in 2020, the Dudley Trail has yet to be reopened. Crews are working to reroute it, but “the terrain is very challenging.” Well yeah, I don’t even know where they’d put it! I’m just glad to know that reopening the Dudley Trail is apparently a goal of the park.)

Mt. Katahdin from Whidden Pond.
Mt. Katahdin from Whidden Pond.

Despite my love for mountains and treeless alpine zones, waterfalls had become my priority as a photographer for most of the decade. When I learned of the beautiful Green Falls that was barely visited thanks to its remoteness, I decided I had to make it happen. We agreed on a weekend in September and I reserved a lean-to in Roaring Brook for three nights. Cathedral Trail + Knife Edge one day, Green Falls the other (planning for the nicer of the two days for Katahdin).

That wasn’t how it was meant to be, though. During a trail project three weeks prior to our trip, I blew out my right shoulder and lost my range of motion for a month or so. Feeling that I could still support a backpack we decided to carry out our plan, but I knew I shouldn’t do the Cathedral Trail with all of the overhead reaching that it’d require. Instead, we’d split up, Galen and Kyle doing the mountain via Cathedral (Kyle’s first and only time on Katahdin), and I’d do a solo adventure to Green Falls.

After a somewhat lazy morning, Kyle and Galen took off down the Chimney Pond Trail while I forked north and headed up towards Russell Pond. It was a warm, beautiful September day and there was no shortage of campers in Roaring Brook or hikers sharing the trails with Kyle and Galen. But once I branched off to head to Russell Pond, I had the trail to myself.

My first stop that morning was at Whidden Ponds, where I was treated to a fine view of Mt. Katahdin in morning light (but well past the golden hour). From this perspective, about half of the Knife Edge was obscured by Pamola, but it nonetheless ranked up as perhaps the best view of Mt. Katahdin I’d seen across my three visits to Baxter.

Continuing on, as I sauntered through the quiet forest on the mostly flat and sometimes muddy trail, I began to hear some leaves rustling and a couple subtle “moo” sounds. Naturally, I looked to my left, and not even 50 feet off the trail were a bull moose and his two cows. Their conversation promptly stopped as the bull gave me his full attention. My camera was around my neck and very easy to access (I had been trying to capture what slight signs of autumn I could find) but I didn’t want the action of raising my camera to my face possibly taken as a sign of aggression. So I kept walking, the bull’s gaze following me every step of the way. I couldn’t help but feel defeated as I left the moose’s line of sight — I had given up one of the most unique photo opportunities I’d ever been presented with. But I don’t really trust moose, especially male ones that have mating on their minds.

When presented with a choice between staying on the Russell Pond Trail (more direct, but over a hill) or merging onto the Wassataquoik Stream Trail (flatter but longer), I chose to stay on the Russell Pond Trail. Before long, I was hiking into the Russell Pond camping area, where I swung by the ranger station to tell him about the moose and find out if I made the right call. (Essentially, yes. Moose are unpredictable but it wasn’t yet rutting season and he was likely pretty docile.)

I continued my solo journey onto the Wassataquoik Lake Trail, a wild and remote trail that passed a few beautiful ponds with a canoe or two stashed near them. As the trail weaved in and out among the ponds and the quiet forest, I had never felt further removed from civilization. One other small hiking party passed me as I was approaching the big lake, and I saw nobody else until I was back at Roaring Brook. I was having a great time in pretty much total seclusion, and it occurred to me that this was likely the furthest north I had ever hiked. I also realized that Kyle and Galen were likely having a dramatically different day up on the mountain.

As I came upon Wassataquoik Lake, I discovered a small rack of canoes which are used, I assume, to access the campsite on the island. I also startled a flock of mergansers, who then made their way swimming and diving over to the opposite shore. These were the first mergansers I had ever seen, and I thought at first I was seeing loons. However, while mergansers can also swim under water, they were spending considerably less time under water than loons would’ve and they seemed a little too active. I would later learn that their name is derived from the Latin word for “plunging goose.”

The “comb” that appears as the water filters through the moss.
The “comb” that appears as the water filters through the moss.

From here I had to hike about halfway the length of Wassataquoik Lake (which was longer than I expected) to get to Green Falls. I far prefer overcast days to sunny ones when it comes to shooting waterfalls, and yet here I was putting in an intense amount of effort to reach this remote waterfall on a cloudless day. Would it be soaked in sunlight? I (foolishly) hadn’t thought to check the aspect of this creek before heading out, but fortunately it was northeast and I was grateful to find it in the shadow of Wassataquoik Mountain. As I came across this delightfully unique waterfall, I forgot all about my hunger and tiredness and instead set my mind to photography and scampered about the rocks to find the best perspective.

I must’ve spent the better part of an hour at this remote waterfall, trying to capture its unique beauty, enjoying true solitude, and eating lunch. On my way out I hiked down to the shore of Wassataquoik Lake to take in the view from the stony beach at the canoeists’ access to Green Falls. Again, I was impressed by what I was seeing: the mountains that flank the lake are (smaller than Katahdin, but) adorned with large cliffs and slopes of scree. It occurred to me that if Alex is interested in camping with me here in the future (and why wouldn’t he, he loves canoe camping), we’d have lots of cool things to explore, on and off trail.

I made my way back to Russell Pond, keeping my eyes open for photo opportunities that spoke “autumn.” Aside from a growth of mushrooms, which I enjoy shooting for their unique textures and colors, I didn’t have much success. Beyond Russell Pond, I decided to make my hike more interesting by branching onto the Wassataquoik Stream Trail, although I admit that my thought process at the time may have been more geared towards the promise of flatter terrain than additional scenery. I’m happy with the decision. It led me to a (bridged) creek crossing with a fairly strong essence of autumn, and then an unexpected surprise in the form of a ford that was almost deep enough to submerge my waist. I had to hike the last few miles with squishy socks, but hey, that’s just an added bonus of hiking in a wilderness setting. Although nothing close to peak color, I finally captured some pleasant fall reflections in the moving water at both of these spots.

I returned to the Roaring Brook campground after a total of 22 miles, and this turned out to be one of my highest-mileage single days on foot. I returned just as the dark was setting in, and to no surprise, several hours after Kyle and Galen. All three of us were tired and in retrospect questioned the original plan of taking on these two hikes one day right after another. We decided to cut our three-night visit down to only two, and we would take off the following morning.

The top tier of Katahdin Stream Falls. I like the shape and texture of this tier, and I’m glad I caught some light cloud cover to help balance out the highlights naturally.
The top tier of Katahdin Stream Falls. I like the shape and texture of this tier, and I’m glad I caught some light cloud cover to help balance out the highlights naturally.

The next day, after we packed all of our stuff back into the car, I asked if Kyle and Galen would be interested in visiting one more waterfall before we left. They were open to it, so we drove to the Hunt Trailhead and managed to squeeze into a parking space. It was another warm, cloudless day and the hikers were heading up the mountain in droves. We were only heading 1.2 miles up though, to Baxter’s most popular waterfall, Katahdin Stream Falls.

This triple-tiered waterfall was more open to the sun than Green Falls was, and it made photography difficult. Nevertheless, I explored three different vantages. First, I shot from the overlook in the middle, which is right off the trail and provides a full, but partially branch-obscured view of all three tiers. I shot right from the edge of the bank to minimize branch interference. Second, we found a small herd path leading down to the cliffs and pools below the falls, and walked up the creek a bit for a nice perspective of the lower tiers. Lastly, we followed the trail up for close-up views of the top tier, which is easily the most unique. When I was done here, we hiked out and headed home.



If anything is clear to me after retelling the stories of all my visits to Baxter, it’s that Baxter State Park has played a critical role in my life story. The first trip in 2004, in particular, made a heavy impact on the person I became. I went up as a mostly inexperienced hiker/car camper with a point and shoot camera and limited knowledge of the art of photography. I came back the same way, but with three important developments:

  • My unimpressive tour of Unity College led me straight to Green Mountain College in Vermont, where I earned my degree and met my wife.
  • I discovered a passion for landscape photography. Although my images from 2004 are largely unimpressive, my excitement over those images ignited a spark that led me to develop what became a very serious hobby and eventually a business.
  • I experienced a treeless alpine zone for the first time, and fell in love with it. This no doubt influenced my decision to join the Vermont State Trail Crew after college and begin to tackle the northeast’s 4,000-foot peaks.

When I returned after nine years, I was a very experienced hiker and backpacker thanks mostly to my years on various trail crews. I was also the owner of a camera that allowed me to take control of my creative process — a digital SLR — and had just recently begun selling my photos. Although the type of person I was becoming was already plenty evident (an outdoors lover with a propensity for taking photographs in sketchy places), this second trip has also played a role in shaping me:

  • I expanded my comfort zone with uncomfortable situations and conditions. Having a tolerance for such things is critically important in both trail work and (my approach to) waterfall photography. As I mentioned in the 2013 Knife Edge recounting, the “mental gymnastics” that you take on when leaving your comfort zone do wonders for that tolerance.
  • I grew to further appreciate “nasty” weather for memorable photo opportunities.
  • I saw myself practicing sound decision making in a chaotic environment.

Above all, this project demonstrated that my photographic skills have improved, and continue to improve, considerably from where I started. The nine years between 2004 and 2013 saw significant leaps in both my technical ability and my creative vision, and it’s immensely obvious. But despite how awesome and inimitable the conditions were in 2013, I’m most excited about my growth between 2013 and 2017. Take a look at my photos of Green Falls. My precise control over my shutter speed, focal point, depth, and color demonstrate that my technical ability was continuing to improve. But most importantly, I had also been continuing to define my creative vision, which is what truly makes me an artist. My vision, not my technical prowess, is my voice, and is defined by all the things that make me me: my experiences, my biases, my emotions. While I am greatly excited by my 2013 fog photos, I am most proud of the images from 2017 that I can distinctly call “mine.”

These were exciting trips to rediscover, and I thank you for taking this journey with me.

Introduction to Backcountry Ski Photography (Spring 2015)

My favorite capture from the Bruce Trail shoot. It was a sunny day and contrast was very high, but I found I was able to save this shot by reducing contrast in the forest.
My favorite capture from the Bruce Trail shoot. It was a sunny day and contrast was very high, but I found I was able to save this shot by reducing contrast in the forest.

As anyone can well imagine, fulfilling a dream of becoming an adventure photographer is a road full of obstacles. In my case, the need for willing and able adventure buddies (read: subjects), the prohibitive cost of the necessary gear, and the limited extent of my outdoor adventure skills almost clouded my vision of that goal. Winter, in particular, scared me. You know, winter, the season most revered by extreme mountain enthusiasts.

This past spring, though, many of those clouds lifted and I caught a clear vision of my dream starting to take form. Thanks to the friends I made as a seasonal employee at Stowe Mountain Resort, I was offered chances to shoot backcountry skiers in incredible locations. In essence, I was being offered the chance to gain experience that I was unsure would ever come my way.

I participated in three backcountry shoots between March and May (Bruce Trail, King Ravine, and Mt. Jefferson), and all three resulted in those rare photographic gems I like to call “keepers.” Please read on for stories and photos from each event:


3/23 - Bruce Trail, Stowe, VT

I started modestly, riding a lift to the top of Stowe with a group of friends and taking a backcountry, but forgiving, route down to the XC center. The Bruce Trail — the first, but now abandoned, trail cut on the mountain — was the perfect candidate: narrow, fast, and filled with moguls and little jumps. I skied ahead of the pack, stopping and waiting at pitches that I felt would make for the most epic photos. We managed to squeeze in two runs before the lifts shut down, and I completely enjoyed the challenge of setting up on skis.


4/15 – King Ravine, Mt. Adams, NH

The morning commute.
The morning commute.

My next trip was a significant and awesome step up from lift-serviced backcountry terrain. This would be the trip that would test my endurance, tolerance for extreme terrain, and adeptness for catching photos at the perfect time. In one of my greatest triumphs to date, I began talking to our mountain dispatcher, a simply indefatigable adventurer named Aaron who has an insatiable appetite true backcountry skiing. Last year, he had skied King Ravine (whose headwall is imposing and nerve-rattling in the summer, mind you) for the first time and wanted to hit it again. He invited me along, claiming it would be a great start for my quests in adventure photography. He is not a liar.

We started this trip out on the evening on the 14th, tent camping near the base of the trail so that we could use the whole day for hiking into the ravine and skiing. We woke before sunrise on the 15th and headed back to the car to organize our gear for the day. We headed out about an hour after sunrise, Aaron gliding effortlessly up the grade on skis with skins, and me trudging up behind him on snowshoes. I chose not to bring skis on this trip due to gear restrictions, but I had Aaron’s patience so I was all set.

Once we arrived at the headwall, we stashed our unnecessary gear — Aaron’s skins, my snowshoes, etc — behind some brush that would protect it from a possible avalanche and secured our crampons on our boots. This is where the fun began.

Pausing for a breath on the upper section of the Great Gully.
Pausing for a breath on the upper section of the Great Gully.

From what I have read, King Ravine (whose slope reaches roughly 50 degrees near the top) is about as steep as any winter mountaineer would want to attempt without ropes. With that in our minds, crampons on our boots, and a mountaineering axes in our hands, we headed up the Great Gully. Unshaded from the sun, the climb was hot, slow, and tiring. The slope, probably about 20 degrees in the beginning, was steep enough to make normal hiking rather impossible. Instead, I had assumed a stab kick kick, stab kick kick pattern, placing just about all of my body’s pressure on the two front spikes of the crampons.

Halfway up, we stopped at the cliff dividing the Great Gully Trail from a gully containing a notorious ice bulge, and Aaron warned me to avoid that during my down climb. We also made plans for Aaron’s second run — he would climb into the Seven after his run, and if I made it down to this spot quickly enough I could shoot him skiing down from this spot. Wishful thinking, as it turned out.

Nearing the lip of the headwall, on a roughly 50-degree slope.
Nearing the lip of the headwall, on a roughly 50-degree slope.

Continuing up, we hit the steeper slope but stopped for shade only once. Eventually, we hit Thunderstorm Junction, marking the end of the headwall. The summit of Mt. Adams stood less than a mile in front of us, and Aaron made the impulsive decision to ski down from the very top, despite the spotty nature of the snowpack. I hiked up with him, scouting wind lips and good vistas on the way up, and then hiked down before him, waiting at a predetermined spot. I botched the shot of him leaping over the wind lip, but shook it off and met back up with him above the headwall. We put our packs back on and once again I headed down first to wait at a steep spot with a great view.

Skiing off the top of Mt. Adams.
Skiing off the top of Mt. Adams.

This doesn’t need to be stated, but down climbing is not as fun as skiing when it comes to descending a mountain. I was facing uphill and picking my way down with a kick kick stab pattern. Flying down a mountain on a pair of skis may seem terrifying to the uninitiated, but it has nothing on the slow, burning, essentially-blind descent I was experiencing, all the while entrusting my life to a pair of metal teeth. I found a good spot, dug in, and waited maybe a minute for Aaron to come flying by. I caught the moment, took some extra shots to patch together into a panorama, and then packed the camera away and concentrated on the down climb. My heart was pounding — I knew that if I missed the trail to the right, or worse, slipped, I would find myself trapped on an ice bulge (or injured below it). I didn’t really want to find out just how trapped (or injured), so I descended slowly, kicking, stabbing, and kicking some more, and eventually found my path to the right. I noticed Aaron returning from his second run down below and knew that I had taken too long to get back to this spot.

Now on a friendlier slope and with the danger of the ice bulge gone, I relaxed and sped up my descent, even putting into practice the butt glissading that I had perfected during my time as a snowmaker. Back at our gear, Aaron and I agreed to rendezvous at the end of the ice caves, but after putting on the snowshoes and making my way down to the junction, Aaron wasn’t there. My first thought was that he went ahead without me, but that wasn’t his style so I scanned the area. I found him awkwardly balanced between boulders in the ice caves, holding skis and poles in one hand and trying to prevent himself from falling into the deep crevices with his other. Eventually back to safety, he explained that he missed the turn for the trail when skiing down from the gear stash, and had found himself at the top of the ice caves in snow that was too deep and too soft to climb out of. He had no option but to continue through the boulders, and admitted this was the most frightening aspect of the trip for him — the snow lying between the boulders obscured the caves’ true depths, and would not have supported him if he slipped off the rocks.

A quasi-panorama I made from the upper half of the Great Gully.
A quasi-panorama I made from the upper half of the Great Gully.

Aaron skied down the approach trail and arrived at the car within minutes, I’m sure, while I trailed hours behind him, fighting the sun-softened snow and “postholing” on just about every step of the way down, even in snowshoes.


5/1 – 5/3 – Cog Railway, Mt. Clay, Mt. Jefferson, and Jefferson Ravine, NH

The view of Mt. Monroe from Jacob’s Ladder.
The view of Mt. Monroe from Jacob’s Ladder.

While standing atop the summit of Mt. Adams two weeks prior to this trip, we were treated to an outstanding view of Jefferson Ravine and the significant snow fields therein, persisting into the spring. This, understandably, made Aaron restless, so here we were again, poised for another excursion into the White Mountains with skis on Aaron’s feet and snowshoes on mine. Now, however, we were parked on the opposite side of the of the Presidential Range, in the parking lot for the Cog Railway that leads to the top of Mt. Washington. Our plan for the three days in front of us consisted of hiking out to the Perch (an RMC-maintained lean-to) by way of the railway cut, Mt. Clay, and Mt. Jefferson, photographing Aaron skiing in the ravines for the following two days, and making it home healthy, happy, and in good form. Easy. Straight-forward. Bada-bing, bada-boom.

The Cog Railway from Jacob’s Ladder.
The Cog Railway from Jacob’s Ladder.

Roughly ten hours later, I stumbled into the opening for the Perch, lightheaded, slightly delusional, and with shoulders, neck, back, and legs all screaming in pain. I asked Aaron how far we had traveled that day, and he warned me that I wouldn’t want to know. He added up the mileage anyway, and shattered any sense of accomplishment that I had felt from arriving at our destination.

Our hike started out on the Cog Railway cut. Although it was the first day of May, snow still coated the ground down at the base of the mountain, so we put on our snowshoes or skis right from the start. We hiked up next to railway, whose every tenth crossbeam was numbered. This offered an odd distinction from all my other hikes — for better or for worse, our progress was easily measurable and often hard to ignore.

Aaron waits where we split off from the Cog to head to Mt. Clay.
Aaron waits where we split off from the Cog to head to Mt. Clay.

We worked our way uphill, the grade falling roughly in the middle of what I’ve encountered over my years of hiking. I fell behind Aaron, but not drastically so, as I felt my lack of sleep from the night before start to catch up to me. It wasn’t too long before we arrived at Jacob’s Ladder and a great view of Mt. Monroe. It was now that I realized conditions would be simply stunning for black and white photography — a fairly low cloud ceiling scraped the tops of the mountains while little spots of sun broke through, illuminating the mountaintops. I shot some photos and then decided I would be both safer and more efficient if I finished out the climb on the tracks themselves.

Aaron heads toward Mt. Clay.
Aaron heads toward Mt. Clay.

The trek to Mt. Clay turned out to be the easiest walking of the day — we left the tracks as they veered towards the summit of Washington and walked a wide, gradually ascending plain towards our first summit of the day, standing only a few hundred feet above the col. Aaron started to peel further ahead of me as I approached this summit, due in part to our differences in gear (and level of fitness) but also to the call of my camera. Not only was I intrigued by the fantastic weather conditions against the dramatic scenery, I also wanted some space between my camera and my hiking partner to give the landscape some perspective.

I left the summit of Clay and plodded along in Aaron’s tracks, getting tired and hungry but promising myself that I would be on top of Jefferson soon and that I could break then. I had to keep moving — I was catching only glimpses of Aaron high on the mountainside above me.

Aaron’s tracks leading me over Mt. Clay.
Aaron’s tracks leading me over Mt. Clay.

This ascent up Mt. Jefferson turned out to be far demanding than I anticipated. Exhaustion was setting in as I coaxed myself up the peak, and I felt my upper back, shoulders, and neck begin to give way to very sharp pain. (My neck muscles, especially, have a history of sensitivity to backpacking.) Even my legs were starting to feel the pressure of the difficult ascent, fighting the steepness of the peak, the increasing deepness of the snow, and the tiredness from the long ascent up the Cog line. It felt like hours before I arrived at the spot where I had last seen Aaron, and I became aware that I was only halfway up the peak or less.

Eventually, after possibly the most taxing 700+ vertical feet I’ve ever climbed, I reached the summit of Mt. Jefferson in failing light. Aaron was nowhere to be found and he hadn’t left me with explicit directions to the Perch, so I looked around quickly (“this seems like a nice summit”), identified what had to be his tracks (turns out this was his intention — he went ahead with the specific purpose of leaving tracks to the Perch while there was still light), and headed down immediately (“screw eating, it’s late”). Aaron appeared to have some fun on his descent, but, choosing to prioritize not getting lost, I stuck to his tracks. On one particularly steep snowfield, during the last of the descent into Edmands Col, I lost my balance, fell over, and felt the weight of my pack drag me down the slope. I was able to self-arrest with a pole, and made it into the Col with everything but the pole in tact, and found a message in the snow reading “KEVIN, THIS WAY TO THE PERCH ——->”.

The setting sun illuminates Castle Ridge as I made my way across Castle Ravine.
The setting sun illuminates Castle Ridge as I made my way across Castle Ravine.

I ate a quick snack in the Col and continued on with the last of my hike. About a third of the way across the lip of Castle Ravine, I found Aaron, skinning his way back up from the Perch to check on my progress and well-being (he had turned around as soon as he had arrived at the Perch and was very relieved to find me past Jefferson). We had a view of the sunset as we trekked across the top of the ravine, and then hiked halfway down Israel Ridge by headlamp. Eventually, I stumbled into the Perch.

I had walked only five and a half miles.

Now, of course, it was time to reflect on why, exactly, it had taken me over 10 hours to walk 5.5 miles. In the summer, a 5.5 mile loop up a mountain and back would take me no longer than 3 hours, unless I was waiting for light conditions to change. I was moving at less than a third my average pace. The following is a list of possible explanations for my snail’s pace, and inherent lessons for future winter travel:

  1. Travel on snow is always slower, and walking on snowshoes is naturally more awkward. The most efficient form of winter travel is skinning on skis (though I haven’t yet tested that theory).
  2. I was low on sleep — early and proper preparation is key for any outdoor adventure.
  3. I had an overnight pack on, which slows my pace even in summer. Consistent training is necessary to condition my body to heavy loads.
  4. Due to the added difficulty of moving on snow and the body’s need to produce more heat, higher caloric intake is necessary during the winter. I was holding off on snack breaks to compensate for my slower pace, resulting in undernourishment.

The following morning, sensitive to my body’s reaction to the previous day’s activities, Aaron suggested that we keep today’s activities a little more low-key than we originally planned. We got a slow start to the morning, a bummer to my photographic sensibilities but a huge relief to my aching but functioning body. Some rest, food, and Ibuprofen tablets later, I was ready for the (unexpectedly easy) trek back up to the ridge.

Aaron skis down from the top of Mt. Jefferson.
Aaron skis down from the top of Mt. Jefferson.

We scouted out an acceptable vantage point of Jefferson Ravine, a rocky outcropping with a pretty fantastic view of the Presidential Range stretching from Washington to Madison. The entirety of Jefferson Ravine lay in plain view below me. Aaron left me here and skinned to the top of Jefferson’s summit, providing me with a view of his runs both down the snowfields of the peak and the steep, narrow chutes of the ravine.

Thankfully, I did not miss the runs, but was disappointed and somewhat surprised by the limits of my 270mm zoom lens. Although an expensive purchase and a heavy, cumbersome item, I am now considering upgrading to a 400mm lens for projects such as these.

The remainder of our adventure concluded as any should: we got an early start on Sunday, saw the early sunlight illuminate Castle Ridge, had a much easier time ascending Jefferson and Clay than I was anticipating, missed shooting Aaron skiing down Monroe Brook from Jacob’s Ladder (because I embody Murphy’s Law), and met up in good health at our car.

I plan to return to the Whites next winter.

Hike to the top of Mt. Washington via Huntington Ravine

The Pinnacle and start of the “fun” trail as framed by a yellow birch at the base of the boulder field. Shot at 11mm (ultra-wide). The boulder field ends at the patch of snow closest to the center of the photo.
The Pinnacle and start of the “fun” trail as framed by a yellow birch at the base of the boulder field. Shot at 11mm (ultra-wide). The boulder field ends at the patch of snow closest to the center of the photo.

Having ignited the “gotta catch ‘em all” fire in my ex-neighbor Tim in 2012 (but only in regards to the White Mountains of NH), our sights were set on Mt. Washington for the spring season of 2014. Our journey started at daybreak on this June morning at Pinkham Notch with nonspecific, rather hazy plans of ascending Washington in the greater Tuckerman Ravine/Lion Head area. (The importance of proper preparation, with up-to-date information, cannot be understated, folks. But that’s neither here nor there.) Tim’s old, out-of-date information warned him that the Lion Head Trail may be closed for erosion, so we headed inside the visitor’s center for information regarding the trails before heading out. There, we learned several little tidbits that some would argue were important:

  1. The trail we wanted to hike down, through Tuckerman Ravine, was closed due to the waterfalls. The snow depths that had formed within the ravine were still melting out (halfway through June, because, well, because Mt. Washington is Mt. Washington) and were not stable enough for travel.
  2. Lion Head Trail is open and fine.
  3. Huntington Ravine Trail is open, but is “technical. You don’t need ropes, but people will use them. It may be a little wet.”

Excited as always by the promise of a challenge, I was immediately attracted to the idea of hiking on the Huntington Ravine Trail. I asked Tim if he wanted to hike Lion Head up and Huntington down, and halfway through his first of several “I’m up for anything” shrugs, the lady behind the desk informed us that “we don’t recommend anybody going down Huntington Ravine because it’s too steep. You should do that route only going up.” “Huntington up and Lion down! Sound good, Tim?” “Sure, whatever.” And so it would be.

Huntington boulder
“Dude, this is NOTHIN’ compared to King Ravine!” we said.

Our hike started out on the Tuckerman Ravine trail under overcast skies. We were following the Cutler River for about half a mile so the clouds delighted me. (Waterfall photography, or really any photos of flowing water, do not work so well on sunny days due to the high contrast of light filtering through the trees, as this tends to eliminate the natural highlights caused by the movement of the water.) We slowly hiked our way up to Crystal Cascade, where I met a tripod-free photographer impressed by my level of preparation (because only the most prepared adventurers plan to hike an unstable trail) and inquired about our route. I informed him of our intention to hike up Huntington Ravine to the Alpine Garden, and his reply? “Ah, I’ve done that once. Never again! It’s scary stuff — hope I see you up top! You have a macro lens for the Alpine Garden Trail?” (I did.)

Completely unfazed, we continued upwards, eventually branching off onto the Huntington Ravine Trail and crossing over several roaring but scenic creeks. The sun was out by this point so any good [flowing water] photography was out of the question, but I marked the lower Huntington Ravine Trail in spring as a great spot to add to my overcast day checklist. As we approached the headwall, we joined up with a father/son climbing team also headed into the ravine. At the base of the headwall, the climbers pointed out where the trail would take us: “You’ll follow the boulder field right up to that patch of snow — see where that person with the red backpack is? From there the trail gets… fun! Don’t follow us onto the talus slopes.” Resting for only a minute or so, we launched ourselves up the boulder field and quickly began reflecting on the fact that the King Ravine Trail up the headwall of Mt. Adams was steeper.

Up towards the top of the boulder field, and much to my surprise, we encountered two rather strongly flowing streams — seasonal paths for the spring runoff. I paused for a second to really reflect on the depth of the snow that must have been sitting on top of Washington this past winter. For these waterfalls to be flowing as consistently as they were, this high up on the mountain, this late into spring… It was beyond what my imagination could grasp. The first one that we noticed was flowing down next to The Pinnacle, a large rock formation upon which we saw a group of climbers. As I spotted the flow, I turned to Tim and shouted excitedly “TIM! I HAVE to get below that!!” But it wasn’t possible at that spot, so we hiked on up and came to the second stream. As we crossed it, I pulled out my tripod and the super-wide lens and took some pictures of a mini cascade flowing down from the peaks above. I was very limited in the amount of perspectives I could capture (repositioning myself too many times may have resulted in my tumbling down a boulder field), but using a super-wide lens allowed me more options than I would have had otherwise. As a tradeoff, it also meant I had to crouch within the spray of the water. If you ever plan to do this, take a lens cloth with you — you’ll be using it after every shot. I slacked on this necessary step a couple of times (when bracketing exposures, I tend to click them out one after another without pausing), and as result I had to crop a water splotch out of my best result. The lesson here? When standing in the spray of a waterfall to get a super-wide perspective, cover your camera with a rain cover, keep the lens cap on between shots, and wipe down the front of the filter with a lens cloth the moment before you click the shutter each and every time.

Huntington Stream
A springtime stream flowing alongside the Huntington Ravine Trail in the mountain’s shadow. 0.8 seconds at f/11.

Tim was waiting for me at the patch of snow where the boulder field ended. Mr. Red Backpack and his partner had actually turned around here, and now we could see why. The boulder field had led us up to a sheer cliff, and as a surprise only to fools, we saw blazes leading right up it. The Pinnacle towered over us to the left, opposite where the trail went, and while Tim pondered on whether he was up for the challenge, I told him I was going down to the bottom of the first waterfall. He told me to be careful, and with only slightly shaky knees I meticulously stepped down a dangerously unsettled talus slope.

For those unfamiliar with mountainsides, allow me to explain something about talus: it’s loose. It is a slope (in this case, a steep one) covered in tiny rocks that are always moving below your feet and feel ready to tumble down in an avalanche of rocks, ice, and body parts at any given moment. I made my way down being especially careful to nudge as few rocks as possible, switchbacking when the terrain allowed and finding all the large, stationary rocks that I could. Fortunately, the trek to the bottom of the waterfall wasn’t very long, so I stepped onto the equally unsettled material at the base of the flowing water, set up my tripod as motionlessly as I ever had (great training for wildlife photography, perhaps?), and started clicking away. After I caught all the wide exposures that I wanted to, I changed lenses to capture only the top portion. This whole time, I should note, I was terrified that all the recently-deposited material would wash down the ravine, taking me with it. It didn’t, but my fear (and severe lack of options) prevented me from seeking out additional perspectives. Before heading back up to Tim, I picked up an old, broken ice axe some winter adventurer had dropped from The Pinnacle’s sheer cliff walls.

I returned to Tim my legs shaking from fighting the talus and my mind shaking from the whole experience to find him chatting with a dude who had hiked Huntington Ravine some fifteen times before. Listening to him speak of the climb ahead in a casual sort of way and then watching him effortlessly glide up the wall gave both Tim and me the confidence we needed to keep going up. He was out of sight within minutes, and as I watched him maneuver the headwall I turned to Tim and said “Oh, we’ll be fine. We just go that way, then that way, and then step over that wet slab like he did, and then we’ll be golden.” Even standing directly in front of our path, it was easy to underestimate the length and difficulty of what lay ahead.

It only took about the first five steps or so before I began to understand that maybe, just maybe, I had finally tried to tackle something that was over my head. Perhaps it was my shaken mental state from the waterfall chase, but I was struggling to conquer just the first pitch. My camera bag, full of an SLR and three lenses, was hanging across my body, swinging freely. At times it felt like it would knock me off balance, sometimes it obscured my view of potential handholds or footholds, and other times it simply prevented me from pulling my body close enough to the rock. I was also wearing shoes whose soles had long been worn out. As Tim waited for me on the first landing, I frantically worked my way up the cliff, convinced that my shoes would slip out from under me while I searched for handholds that weren’t there. (The wet spot I had noticed from below, I should note, was not an easy step like a fifteen-time veteran would lead one to believe.) I have no photos of this spot, but plan to change that for next time by packing away my extra lenses into my pack before this ascent, securing my camera (with the most diverse lens I have attached to it — the 18 – 300mm) to my waist where it can’t shift, and using footwear I have confidence in (climbing shoes may be the best bet for this section).

Tim ascends the headwall.
Tim ascends the headwall.

My normally stable mountainside mindset was in shambles on this headwall, and it was Tim who took over the leadership role and voice of confidence for the first half of the climb. As I was struggling to pull myself to the second landing, I noticed two girls down at the snowpack studying the headwall like we had been doing several minutes before. They seemed to be under the belief that hiking over the snow would provide a better route up the cliff than our route — the blazed route — would, and I began to panic for them. Tim wisely instructed me to keep my focus forward, invaluable advice for such terrain. He firmly reprimanded me further up the headwall as well, when I looked behind me while pulling myself up a boulder to see someone’s pack lying in the ravine below. “Do you think someone fell down there?!” “FORWARD!” This man did not take long to develop a strong mountain instinct. Eventually, I did regain my confidence and snapped some photos of Tim scaling the wall after the most gut-wrenching stuff had passed.

This technical hiking lasted considerably longer than either of us expected — at least half a mile — but we both made it up to the Alpine Garden Trail unscathed, where we were immediately blasted by incredible wind gusts. This flat trail followed the rim of the ravine, and the only challenging aspect of it was walking forward without getting blown over. The noontime light was flattening the landscape around us and the alpine flowers, I learned later, were blooming a week earlier but were bare as we walked by. With my camera packed away for this trail, we breezed through that mile and soon enough found ourselves only .9 miles and 1,000 feet away from the summit. We were above Tuckerman Ravine as we started heading back upwards, and soon found ourselves engulfed in the clouds trapped by the terrain.

After seeing the obviously relieved photographer from Crystal Cascade (“SO happy to see you guys!”), several exhaustion breaks, and the completion of the most difficult staircase we’ve ever climbed (along the obligatory growling at the kids running up the steps after emerging from their parents’ cars), we found ourselves on the completely socked-in summit, blasted by cold, wind, and clouds. As we got in line for our summit photo, we were joined by the girls we had seen below us at the start of the headwall. Once we all realized that we recognized each other and why, we exchanged congratulations and powerful high fives that made me wish I had remembered to pack gloves. Then into the cafeteria we went to escape the winter conditions, grab food, and wait a little while to see if the clear sky everywhere else would eventually catch up to the infamous summit of Mt. Washington — home of the “world’s worst weather” while sitting 6,288 feet above sea level.

Finally on top and braced against the winter-like conditions.
Finally on top and braced against the winter-like conditions

Inside unfolded a scene that belonged nowhere near a mountaintop, complete with a post office, fully working bathrooms, a cafeteria full of delights such as pizza and coffee, and a plethora of sightseer hopefuls that had not hiked to the summit. This bustling building also contained a plaque that came almost with a shock: a list of everyone who had died on the mountain. Two of the most recent items on that list, one in March of 2013 and one in November of the same year, took place in Huntington Ravine. The first was a solo ice climber who fell in an avalanche while climbing in the Pinnacle Gully, and the second was a hiker who had ventured off trail to “get closer to a waterfall.” I walked away from that list relatively convinced that I had picked up a dead man’s ice axe and that I should have died doing what I did.

I suppose the lesson here is that it’s important to consider the costs and benefits of your actions. In the world of photography, you have to take risks. Interest in photography has exploded in the age of smartphones, and for those of us who take it seriously, unique perspectives and a willingness to leave our comfort zones is essential to stand out. However, there’s nothing wrong with a quick little cost/benefit analysis before diving into the deep. Know your limits, and understand how your unique perspective tests them. No image is worth your life. I’ll let you guys be the final judge here, but if you ask me, the low angle of the runoff cascade is not any better than the image of the Pinnacle taken from the safety of the boulder field. Poor cost/benefit analysis, but an experience I do not regret.

DISCLAIMER: Trekking off-trail is dangerous, particularly in bad weather, and can result in injury or death when hiking above tree line. Know your limits and do not attempt to surpass them, even for unique photo opportunities. Also remember that Alpine vegetation is fragile. Stay on trail (or tread carefully if off-trail) to minimize environmental impacts.

Tuckerman Ravine
Clouds swirl above Tuckerman Ravine, taken during the hike down on the Lion Head Trail.

Back to the summit. Although photos taken in fog have the potential to be extremely compelling, and I am personally interested in capturing such conditions, I was feeling uninspired up on the summit. To begin, there were too many buildings around, and the fog was really too thick for any interesting “vanishing point” perspectives (such as repeated rock cairns). There wasn’t much in the way of vegetation growing among the rocks, and the clouds weren’t parting to offer even glimpses of the surrounding land or swirling clouds. (My trek up Mt. Katahdin the previous September was far more rewarding, thanks to the diversity of sky conditions.)

We waited about an hour for the view to clear and then headed down the Lion Head Trail to emerge from the cloud right above Tuckerman Ravine. We made it off the mountain without incident, and as we drove past the north side of the mountain on the way home, we noticed that the clouds had finally cleared from the summit. No doubt, this would thrill the swarm of sightseers trekking to the summit via car and train.


Hi everyone! Thanks for stopping by to check out my new blog! This is just an introductory post so I’m keepin’ it short (and real).

Here, I hope to chronicle for all of you my various camera-accompanied adventures, where I’ll share my hard-learned lessons, some photo advice, and the (entertaining/hair-raising/enlightening) stories behind my photos!

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