Fanes National Park, Italy (January, 2014)
Unseasonably warm weather this January drove me to increasingly higher terrain in search of some frosty winter goodness. I chose to spend a four-day backpacking trip at around 8,000 feet in elevation because I expected to find a winter wonderland that could pretty much photograph itself. Oh yes, it would be full of wind-whipped sastrugi, stands of frost-encrusted trees, and classic alpine cumulus clouds all day long…
Or not. Just my luck, the unusually warm temperatures began to take their toll at even higher elevations by the morning of my arrival, making the next few days very unfavorable for photography. It melted all of the snow off of the trees, caused the air to stand still for days on end, and brought grungy grey skies for each sunrise and sunset. My trip became a protracted exercise in futility, as I repeatedly faced whimpers of dull color hanging over a landscape crisscrossed by tracks left by every animal and backcountry skier who had passed through in the last, windless week. On my final morning there, I was not at all excited about dragging myself out in sub-zero temperatures for more of the same at sunrise.
Nevertheless, curiosity prevailed, and I reluctantly strapped on the snowshoes and headlamp to make the one-hour ascent to this plain with an eastward view. It soon became apparent that this morning was going to be different. Unlike the other days, thick fog filled the valley, and wind was whipping frozen crystals through the light of my headlamp. When I finally crested the ridge above the valley and its fog, I found that a dramatic transformation had taken place overnight. At long last, the lingering heat had burned off the dense shroud that had been blocking the sun, and wind had erased most of the tracks in the snow. Looking to the east, I could see right away that the impending sunrise had the potential to be utterly glorious: splayed out above me was a shelf of beautifully sculptural cumulus clouds, with a perfect opening at the horizon for the sun to shine through beneath them. If you’ve never seen someone dance ecstatically on snowshoes before, then let me just tell you that it can be done.