29° and dark was the biting forecast just outside my tent at the base of the California Eastern Sierras a few frosted high desert mornings ago. Because I was nestled in the comforts of a toasty -25° Kelty sleeping bag designed for an Arctic field surveyor, the cold hadn’t bit me just yet. Aggressively nibbling it was, as the winter chompers of that eager morning were on alerted standby. My goal was simply to catch the morning glow as it would creep upon the highest mountain peak in the contiguous 48 states, Mt. Whitney. At 14,505 feet, this colossal point among hundreds of lesser-known across the freshly powdered Sierra Nevada was within a short 10 minute drive from my campsite. In order to witness the lovely thulian-and-rouge-hued “magic hour” light casting over these majestic peaks, which was scheduled to make an initial appearance around 6:20am, I had to bear the inevitable and mentally excruciating sound of the un”zip” and force my thermal-layered buns out of that cozy tent. With a pocketful of chilled Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies as my motivating breakfast, I hit the road to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the bumpy and barren Alabama Hills.
6am arrival. Twilight slowly stalking the Sierras like a bobcat moving stealthily towards an unsuspecting desert cottontail rabbit. Gloves off. Ice cold tripod the reminiscent temperature of the 3 Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen beers I guzzled down 8 hours earlier. Camera mounted. I set up my shot and waited patiently in the soul-numbing silence of desert dawn. The cheek-numbing cold was omnipresent as well, but mostly ignorable due to the epic scene that was unfolding before my stretch-deprived eyes. Like the sun melting beyond an ocean horizon, the first light of day emerges quickly. A blanket of magenta-colored clouds hovered over the jagged mountain tops, acting as a quick cue to position the finger on the trigger.
Not more than 20 seconds later, boom…and there it was. Ideally, my first instinct is to admire such a scene with eyes wide open panning a full 180° panorama. But in order to provide visuals along with my story, my default view must come primarily through the small square prism of my cropped camera viewfinder. I clicked away with an overwhelming awe. The “magic hour” light usually peaks and begins to fade within a window of a few short minutes, so you have to make efficient time of your shot selection. I photographed as much as I could while I was rewarded the most beautiful light of any morning I had witnessed throughout the trip, while framing the rugged contrast of the peculiar Alabama Hills in the foreground of the towering and magnificent Eastern Sierras.
If there was ever a confirmation of my long-standing claim that the most beautiful time of the day is to be experienced at first light, this was a universal, unanimous jury. You can deprive me of hand-warmers and cookies all you want, but you can’t deprive me of the desire to witness this Earth at its most captivating and inspiring hour (or minutes) during its steady revolution around the big “glow”.