Back in the year 2000, I signed on to work with an Australian landscape photographer on a book project of his that had brought him to the United States. He was hunting for someone who might help him get his book, America Wide: In God We Trust, distributed and sold. His name is Ken Duncan, and when he told me about his book and the story behind it, I felt it would be a privilege to work with him.
The book was very successful, mostly because of the originality and beauty of the photographs themselves. All the images were film, shot in panoramic and covered all 50 states. I marveled at Ken’s skill and passion, and one day I asked him what it took to achieve such a high level of photographic skill. He simply said, “I am just an average photographer with a very great God.” I have pondered his remark ever since.
One day in early April 1999, about a year before I met Ken, I experienced first-hand what he meant by his comment. In 1998, I had climbed Mt Rainer. It was my first experience on a “big mountain,” and I was excited by the challenge. I spent five days on Mt Rainer learning the techniques of mountain climbing. We spent two full days on the Ingram Glacier, 2500 feet below the summit, practicing the arts of the trade, including climbing out of deep crevices, self-arresting, as well as many other techniques of surviving the dangers that exist on any high peak.
So, when I learned that the guides for the Rainer trip were going to lead a “early spring ascent” on Mt Whitney, I quickly signed up.
The team assembled at a motel in the little town of Lone Pine, California in early April. Altogether, our group numbered 11 climbers; these were people I had never met before, except for the guides. It is always exciting to meet new people who more or less have common interests, at least when it comes to mountains. We reviewed the itinerary and discussed the objectives for each day, plus did an equipment check as we would be climbing in some areas that would require roping up. As I recall it, we would be following the Mountaineers Trail that winds up the front of the mountain, emerging at a flat snow packed, dry lake area beneath the steep granite peak of Whitney. We would spend a night on the plateau before attempting the final ascent.
The next morning, we ascended to the summit via a long icy “shoot” that positioned us about 400 feet below the top. From there, we headed up one by one attached to a fixed rope that protected us from a fall. The climb itself went quickly and soon enough we were on the open summit looking out over the vast desert landscape far below.
After about an hour of absorbing the views, we descended to our tent site for a last night. In the morning we awoke before sunrise to begin the job of packing up our gear before heading down to the trailhead and the road back to Lone Pine. At higher elevations, the world before sunrise often is bitterly cold and miserable, especially if clouds obstruct the warmth of the light from the emerging sun. But nothing stood between the sun and the gray, dormant rocks, looming all around us. So, as day broke, the rocks seemed to awaken from their slumber and catch fire and dance as the orange sun rose above the distant horizon.
Across the way from our tents stood the Needles, four sculptured spires that rise up to the south of Mt Whitney itself. They might be looked at as four steeples of a natural cathedral standing guard against the sometimes-brutal winds that besiege the massive walls of Sierra Nevada’s.
Suddenly, the light of the sun transformed the stone spires of the Needles into a luminous, serrated gold bulwark set against the deep blue of a desert morning sky. Even though I had been concentrating on packing, I realized I did not have a moment to lose. Luckily, my camera was out, so I picked it up and, without hesitation, shot four or five frames of the fleeting image before me. I only had black & white film in the camera, so I knew I had no way of capturing the momentary golden color of the rocks, so I merely resigned myself to remembering a wondrous scene rather than capturing it on film.
Several weeks later, after the film had been developed, I saw that I had caught something even better than the color picture I had wished for. To my surprise, my camera had captured the light’s reflections off the rocks of the Needles in just the right way at just the right moment. If I had hesitated just a little longer, the light would have changed, and the rocks would have reverted from something alive and exceptional to just rocks near the summit of Whitney. Instead, the camera caught an image of beauty and majesty that displayed the work of a very great God, even if in the hands of a very average photographer.