Whenever I’ve taken these road trips in the past, I’ve always tried to take the safe course mainly because I’m traveling alone and in some remote areas where help may not be coming for quite some time. Well last night after leaving McDonald’s in Estes Park outside of Rocky Mtn. NP, I literally came to a fork in the road and decided on the wrong fork. I was hoping for one last chance at a great sunrise in the mountains and wanted to be up at an overlook on Trail Ridge Road above the tree line for first light. I also thought about some star shots with or without the Milky Way, and maybe some night shots with some movement in clouds of the partially cloudy sky I saw. It was a half moon and I thought it would light the clouds and the snow on the mountains. So when I came to the choice, right or left, I rejected going left towards the campground at a lower elevation, which was in the opposite direction of where I wanted to be in the morning that was much higher at around 12,000 feet. I chose to go right up to where I wanted to be in the morning and possibly do some night shooting. Well, when I got up to 12,000 feet, above tree line, the wind was still howling like the afternoon, so the idea of long, 25-second or longer exposures was out of the question. So I decided to spend the night at the Alpine Visitor Center a few hundred feet lower in elevation, down the road a bit on the west side of the mountain. There was a pit toilet there and I would be very near the overlook I figured would have good side lighting on the range across the valley when the sun came up in the morning. All very optimistic conclusions without a shred of information (weather reports, angles for sunrise, etc.) for them to be based on.
So I climbed into my sleeping bag and listened to the wind howl for a few minutes before falling asleep. At times during the night I felt the car shaking from the wind and just rolled over and fell back asleep. But when the alarm went off at 6:30am, it was all white outside the car and there was a blizzard going on!!! It slowly sank in that here I am, all alone on top of a mountain in a blizzard. I had food, water, half a tank of gas and barely any cell service if I had any at all. I was weighing my options whether to stay put until the snow stopped, having no idea when that would be, or head down in the storm, and if I head down, in which direction do I go: east or west? Should I wait until they plow the road later? having no idea if that would indeed happen (I saw some equipment to do that at lower elevations) or would they just say the season is over and the road will be closed until spring? Lots of things going through my mind. Even “Will I make my flight tomorrow?” But I did make the decision to hit the pit toilet first and go from there.
Back in the car, I started it up to get some heat going and have a granola bar for breakfast while I weighed my options, feeling just a little insecure about the predicament. Suddenly, through the storm, I saw some headlights coming from the east side, down from the highest point on the road. I kept turning my headlights on and off to get his attention and he came over to the car. He said he had come from Estes Park and that further below it was rain and that I could make it and he drove off. Well, I decided to give it a go and drove out of the parking lot heading up over the top toward the east side, but the snow was blinding, barely able to see the road and pulled back into the parking lot. I felt trying to go east and up higher, conditions would be worse before they got any better while the poor visibility and going uphill made that option sketchy. I also knew that most sections of the roadway had severe drop-offs without any barriers whatsoever. That’s what gave me pause to drive out in the first place. I did feel a little confident after handling the car in the snow in Yellowstone and taking manual control of the transmission, so I decided to head down the west side even though it would mean a long drive around to get back to the east side of the range. It was getting a bit lighter out and I kept the car going at 20mph or less, following the road and tracks of the guy in the truck I spoke to earlier. If I had waited a few more minutes to decide, the tracks would have been covered, making it that much more difficult. But I was determined to be patient and always be in control of the car, no matter how long it took as I headed down, but found I had to drive a very long time before I saw any improvement or decrease in the snow falling and wind. The more I drove, the more I realized that this was no snow squall that would be over in a flash, and when I finally felt I was off the mountain and feeling quite relieved, I looked to my right and saw some of the blackest, most ominous clouds I have ever seen in my life!! The picture above from my cell phone does not, in any way, truly show the menace in those clouds; and that is where I came from!!
I counted my blessings for getting down the mountain safely and for being uninjured during this trip as well. There is truly some guiding force that propels me to places where I photograph the unexpected, and it is the same force that watches over my well being. For that, I am thankful. After the long drive to get back to the east side of the mountains, I spent the afternoon visiting with a former Cary neighbor who moved to Colorado Springs about a year ago into a lovely new home, enjoying lunch and dinner there before heading toward Denver for the flight back home tomorrow. There were times this morning that I felt I would have missed my visit and possibly even my flight tomorrow while not being able to communicate my whereabouts to them, or anyone, of my predicament. Thankfully, that truck passed by and gave me the courage to try to wrestle myself out of the predicament in which I so foolishly put myself. I’m just happy he didn’t pass by while I was inside the pit toilet!!