It is 4:44 AM, and like a true landscape photographer, I am up in the mountains. If Ansel Adams was alive, he would be here too. Then I would have someone to talk to.
I am standing on a cold stone outcropping, looking across empty space to Liberty Bell Mountain and the Early Winters Spires. These element-etched granite peaks guard the eastern approach to the North Cascades Highway, a hard road across the top of Washington.
I rose this morning at 4:00, and drove West from the town of Mazama, hoping to be in position by sunrise. I've achieved my goal: the sun is just beginning to add its orange glow to the eastern horizon. As the stars slowly fade I realize that the angle will be wrong for a nice sidelight. The sun, when it comes, will illuminate the mountains straight on. The curse of geography.
Despite living in Washington for years, yesterday was the first time I saw these mountains. They were covered in clouds, cloaked in a fine mist sifting through the alpine trees. I pulled off the highway at Washington Pass and took some pictures, but a thought kept troubling me: would it be worth the effort to backtrack tomorrow morning before sunrise?
There would be no hesitation in the heart of a true landscape photographer; Ansel would probably have camped on the mountainside to wait for the light. But I'm not Ansel: the fact that I did hesitate about returning suggests that I never will be. These days I prefer street photography, a genre whose subjects are rarely afoot before first light.
Even though it is a summer morning, it is still cold — mid-forties. The temperature is a harbinger of what's to come. The North Cascades Highway is closed for a significant part of the year, buried beneath an unplowable blanket of snow. Frost has yet to silver the slopes, but I expect it is only a matter of weeks. The harsh winters are partially responsible for the fractured outline of the mountains. Seeping moisture works its way into cracks, and the freezing cold uses it as a wedge to tear the slopes apart. Natural forces are aided by the biological: the stone beneath my feet is covered with crusts of lichens and moss. These primitive, patient organisms, in conjunction with the action of more elemental forces, are slowly reducing the mountains to sand. It is a testament to the power of persistence.
The sky grows lighter, the first birds burst into song. At 5:29 sunlight glances off the left-hand peak of the mountain. A glowing orange penumbra crawls slowly toward the treeline, rolling back more of the shadows with every minute. I snap away at intervals with my Leica, and when the entire mountain has been illuminated, take some shots with the Bronica RF645, which is sitting on my tripod.
And then it is over. The mountain is fully lit; the light has become hard and harsh. I pack my cameras back in the car and head back down the hill toward Mazama and a steaming cup of coffee.
Ansel would be proud.