I think we can all agree that 2020 was a bummer year for the record books. From struggling through an out-of-control global pandemic, to choking on wildfire smoke for months on end, to enduring the daily depredations of dumpster-fire politics -- almost every single day of 2020 seemed to serve up another steaming poo platter for us to digest. Personally, as always, I turned to nature and wilderness to find peace and balance amidst the chaos of the world.
Despite the woes of the pandemic, I actually had a very photographically productive year, in large part because I'm fortunate to live in a remote part of Colorado with endless trails practically at my doorstep. While much of the world was stuck at home in lockdown mode, my wife and I were lucky to still be able to hike and backpack in the mountains, and for that I am very much grateful. For the first time in many years we did not travel abroad to any foreign destinations, and in fact I only did one out-of-state trip this whole year! 2020 was a year for exploring closer to home and social distancing in the great outdoors.
Anyhow, I'd like to share here my favorite photos and highlights from 2020 in chronological order, along with some stories, thoughts, and memories about each one.
The New Year started out with a bang (nice pun, huh?) with a hair-raising experience when I ran into a pack of mountain lions while trying to snowshoe to an overlook to photograph the fireworks over Ouray. Fortunately they just stared at me and didn't pounce, but it was enough to get my adrenaline pumping! I wrote the whole story of the encounter here. Though the lions thwarted my attempted overlook destination, I'm still stoked on the fireworks photo I was able to capture from a backup spot.
From December through March I was having one of the best splitboarding seasons in memory, largely due to an unusually stable snowpack here in the San Juans. The snow was so stable that we were able to ride big lines in February that normally we wouldn't even think about touching until later in the spring. I racked up 40 days on the splitboard by March.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic dropped like a bomb and put a kibosh on all that fun. In March nobody really knew how dangerous the virus was or how badly the pandemic would spread, and following a string of high profile accidents and rescues in the San Juans, backcountry skiing and snowboarding started to seem like an unnecessarily risky activity given the general atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. One of the final nails in the coffin of the ski season was when the Silverton sheriff threatened to fine or jail anybody who parked at a trailhead in the county.
By April the world was in a full blown pandemic panic attack. Amidst an atmosphere of pandemic lockdown, we were still able to venture out safely for several overnight backpack trips in some canyon areas here in southwest Colorado. This was quite an epiphany to me to "discover" such spectacular canyon country just an hour drive from home, in regions that I've previously always just drove right past on my way to southern Utah. I suppose this was a silver lining of the pandemic lockdown; it forced us to explore and discover these great areas closer to home. Check out my photos from these Colorado canyon adventures here.
By May the snowpack had solidified and I took advantage of a good weather window (in this otherwise relentlessly windy spring) to do an awesome high camp up on an exposed 13,000-ft ridgeline. It's pretty rare to be able to safely camp up so high in Colorado, and what a treat it was to soak in this view of the Sneffels Range all day long! You can see my photos from this San Sophia high camp here.
This photo of the sun rising behind Wetterhorn Peak was taken during the same camping trip as the photo above. Oftentimes I put in major amounts of effort to plan out and execute photos like this, but this one was just a total lucky surprise that I wasn't thinking about beforehand. I was shooting a wide-angle panorama in the other direction when I just happened to turn around and noticed that the sun would be rising directly behind Wetterhorn. I quickly switched to my telephoto lens, and voilá - one of my favorite photos of the year!
Colorado's aspens are famous for their golden autumn glory, but in May after a long winter, their bright green freshly budded leaves are nearly as spectacular. On this cloudy May afternoon I returned to this amazing vista (for the first time since 8 years ago) to try to capture it with spring greens rather than autumn golds, and I think this panorama does a good job of conveying that glorious Colorado spring feeling.
In June I did another ridiculous high camp, this time in the San Miguel Range near Telluride. Getting to spend an entire afternoon and evening on such a high perch in perfect calm weather was just pure awesome. This panorama after sunset is probably my favorite photo of the year. Check out all the photos and my description of this absurd tent spot here.
As usual the high peaks were still snowbound in June, but I did a bunch of short overnight backpack trips to lower elevation destinations, including this paradisical little pond off in remote aspen groves. This evening here was classic Colorado -- quaking aspens, bugling elk, ominous thunderclouds, and some lovely light before sunset that illuminated the entire landscape with a warm, glowing bounce light.
In late June and early July with summer backpacking season in full swing, I did several multiday backpack trips in the Lizard Head Wilderness near Telluride, which you can read about and see lots more photos from here and here.
In a year full of bad news, Comet NEOWISE was one bright spot (another pun, yay!). This was a really amazing evening hanging out on a high 13,000-ft ridge photographing this cosmic phenomenon over the Sneffels Range.
In early August, Claudia and I did a 5 day backpacking loop in the Elk Mountains near Aspen. This was just a beautiful, classic Colorado trek and this scene shown above epitomizes what I love about backpacking -- a peaceful evening with lovely light at a pristine lake with nobody around but my love and I. (...okay ...and some mosquitos too if I'm honest).
By mid August after drought conditions since winter, Colorado and California were ablaze with some of the largest wildfires in recorded history and the entire western US (and often much of entire North America, for that matter) was blanketed in smoke and haze. After enduring this for a few weeks, in late August I decided to bust out to the Washington Cascades - the only place in the US with clear skies at the time - for an ambitious 10-day trek around Glacier Peak. This turned out to be the highlight of my summer, and easily one of the all-time best treks I've yet done.
The photo above sort of sums up the trip for me, with this majestic view of the volcano as misty clouds swirl past. As I wrote about in more depth in my trip report, this particular evening was just sublime, and I ended up falling asleep in my hammock above a sea of clouds, with the volcano shining in the full moon light. That was the moment of the year for me.
Back home from Washington, with a break in the wildfire smoke in September I went out on a quick backpack trip near Mount Sneffels where I fell in love with the San Juans all over again! I really enjoy scouting out and finding fresh perspectives to photograph, so I was elated to catch this one with rich sunset light illuminating Sneffels, reflected in a high alpine pond.
My 2020 retrospective wouldn't be complete without including a hammock photo! I dove into the world of hammock backpacking this last summer, and now it's my preferred camping method for solo trips. I love backpacking anyways, but hammock backpacking adds a whole new level of fun and novelty to the experience. It's so much fun to reach camp and look around for the perfect trees to hang between, rig it all up, then get to relax there in style. Even getting all the gear and rigging dialed in has been a fun learning experience in itself.
From the very first night of hammock backpacking, I was already eager for autumn when I would be able to hang up the hammock between golden aspens. And once the aspen colors turned, I did exactly that!
In late September and early October I was out hiking a lot in the aspen forests. Though we were plagued by relentlessly clear and smoky skies (a bane for landscape photographers), the aspen colors were quite good this year and I had a ton of fun hiking through the forests and trying out some creative and experimental photographic techniques such as vertical overhead panoramas, distorted fisheye perspectives, and ultra macro close ups.
Later in October after the aspen leaves were all gone, I did a sunset hike up to a high summit and was fortunate to see this fantastic glowing sunset. The warmth of the image belies the fact that my fingers felt like popsicles in the frigid, windy air!
In September and October we also did a number of trips down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This particular photo was actually a reshoot of the same exact photo which I had originally taken back in 2006 with a crappy old digital camera. For 14 years I've meant to go back down there and try to reshoot the same photo with a better camera, and finally I got it done this year!
Since late October I've been quiet on the photography front, as I've been mostly hunkered down at the computer working on some big projects and awaiting winter. Here's a recent snowy photo from Ridgway, though, just to round out the collection.
As 2020 comes to a close, COVID vaccines are starting to get distributed and I dare to start dreaming of a hopefully not-too-distant future when things that we used to take for granted are normal yet again -- like hugging people, having dinner at friends' houses, eating in crowded restaurants, seeing live music, and dare I say, traveling on an airplane to foreign lands! But in the meantime, I feel incredibly grateful that my family and I have remained healthy so far and that we've been able to safely enjoy the outdoors even in the midst of a global pandemic.
For you who are reading this, I wish you health and optimism in the coming year, and let's all hope for a brighter 2021!