32mm, 1/500, f16, ISO 400
I parked my car at the winter lot downhill of Underhill State Park late in the morning. After a leisurely hike up from the campground I broke out of the trees and onto Sunset Ridge. Although a trio of hikers passed me not long ago, the trail was difficult to find on the ridge. The fog was thick and the wind was quickly filling in the shallow footsteps in the snow. Staying on trail was doable in the daytime but I began to have concern about finding the route in the dark if I remained on the mountain for sunset.
I broke out of the clouds shortly before the junction with the Laura Cowles Trail. The summit was towering overhead, set against a deep blue sky. I arrived at the intersection with the Long Trail and almost immediately clouds began blowing over the ridge, socking in the mountain. Although I wasn’t intent on summiting, climbing higher seemed like the best chance of regaining any kind of view.
As I left the small gully that leads to the summit I was immediately blasted with powerful winds. It had been blowing since breaking out of the trees but this was on a different level. The gusts only became more ferocious as I climbed the last pitch to top out on The Chin. I’m not sure what the wind speed was but it was a struggle just to stay upright at times. Clouds blasted over the summit like a freight train, occasionally offering a few seconds of view. I had planned to spend some serious time stalking compositions along the summit ridge but under these conditions that wasn’t going to be possible. I pulled off a few quick handheld shots when the clouds parted enough for a view and then packed up to depart.
I started my descent and entered the gully but to my surprise the snow was suddenly waste deep. I quickly realized I wasn’t in the same gully and had gone off trail. I turned around and thought I had righted myself only to find I still was not on route. I climbed back up to what I thought was the summit, to again discover I was not where I thought I was. I couldn’t believe that I had become disoriented on a mountain I had hiked so many times in the past. A moment of genuine fear flooded through me as I considered what to do next. I stayed put for a minute and looked around hoping for any view of a familiar landmark. The fog momentarily lifted and in the distance I saw the sign for the West Chin Area and my racing heart calmed.
I began my hike down and was able to make it off Sunset Ridge before dark, returning to Underhill State Park by headlamp. It was a humbling day and an important reminder to always respect the mountain. The shoot didn’t produce a big folder of images as I had hoped, but one solid photograph was more than enough success for this memorable day.