Sierra Nevada, California
*** I believe the benefits of sharing this project outweigh the downsides, but first want to add an important disclaimer. When visiting any wilderness area, PLEASE respect the land by following Leave No Trace principles. And come prepared with the necessary skills, gear, and permits. The Sierra backcountry requires permits to visit, and can easily kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing. Also, never blindly follow someone’s gps track. Most of the routes below are reproduced from memory and may not be perfectly accurate.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range is a special place. It's the longest chain of mountains in the contiguous US and is home to Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous US. East of the range lies the Owens Valley which is the deepest valley in the country, as well as the White Mountains, Inyo Mountains, Great Basin, and Death Valley. In 2018, I decided I wanted to shoot every single place in and around the range that was photographically compelling to me. As of writing this in April 2022, I've done exactly that. Choosing where to go for this project has simply been about which aspects of the landscape speak to me; I've never been particularly interested in peakbagging, hiking specific routes, or shooting a location just because it's popular. Over the past few years, I’ve spent 7 months of cumulative time in the range, hiked/scrambled over 500 miles in the backcountry with heavy camera gear often alone and off trail, and spent thousands of hours on the computer planning trips and editing this set of photos. Living in the Bay Area and Los Angeles throughout this time also meant driving usually 10-15 hours per trip. This project has been about many things, including connecting with these wonderful mountains in a unique way. To my knowledge, I’m the first to photograph quite a few of these places.
These mountains have given me so much, beyond anything I could put into words. A few trips stand out as particularly significant. In March 2018, a sunrise in the Alabama Hills profoundly impacted me. Witnessing the pink light grace Mount Whitney, Lone Pine Peak, and other snowy granite fortresses of the Sierra Crest towering above the desert floor was awesome in the fullest sense of the word. Something in me stirred that morning, and I felt a strong pull to make this type of experience a regular part of my life. In August 2019, I did my first off-trail backpacking trip, scrambling up a series of boulderfields to a ridge and pristine cirque just north of Mount Haeckel. This trip opened my eyes to the beauty of solitude in the high alpine, and gave me a new vision for how the range could be photographed by using high ridges as compositional leading lines up to prominent peaks getting hit with alpenglow. With this, the entire mountain range became a giant playground. On following trips, I started developing systems enabling me to safely navigate off trail in the dark and find the optimal vantage point on a ridge or summit by the crack of dawn with enough remaining cognizance to operate my camera, or do the reverse after shooting sunset. I also came to learn that ascending/descending consequential terrain alone for hours in the cold mountain air under a sea of twinkling stars really seems to expand the mind. In August 2020, I had probably the single best experience of my entire life after an unsuccessful attempt to shoot Gardiner Basin and Mount Cotter from atop a nearby ridge. I left the car at around 11:30 that morning and got back to the car 24 hours later, during which I didn't sleep at all. It was mostly just a sufferfest filled with bushwhacking and thunderstorms and loose scree for the first 17 hours, but during the last 7 hours I dropped into an incredibly beautiful state of consciousness. I hardly have words to describe it, but it touched me deeply and catalyzed a tremendous amount of personal growth. In December 2020, I carved out a week for journaling and introspection near Hunter Mountain overlooking Panamint Valley. This was perhaps the second best experience of my life, which the snowy desert landscape played a big role in. This week out here also made me decide to expand the scope of this project to include the nearby desert ranges. In July 2021, I had a powerful experience getting to and from Trojan Peak. It's probably the most objectively difficult thing I've done in the mountains to date and it felt like the crux of this whole project in some ways, but in the moment it felt surprisingly simple. Being capable of climbing both Mount Barnard and Trojan Peak in the middle of the night, shooting a sunrise photo I was pleased with after lying half-asleep in my bivy sack for an hour on the summit, climbing back over Mount Barnard to continue on with the rest of the trip, climbing Mount Russell on a whim the next day, and feeling completely at ease while doing all of this was a nice affirmation of the many skills I've refined in the mountains. There's a longer description of this trip under the "Whitney Zone, Barnard, Trojan, Russell, Carillon" route on the map below.
These are just a few of many wonderful experiences I've been lucky enough to have in the Sierra. When shooting, I usually write down notes about the place, trying to put into words the essence of the place and what it made me feel. I’ll also take a short video of the surrounding landscape if there’s time. When editing, I use these as references to try to infuse the same emotional tone into the final photo. While this varies somewhat between each place in the region, the Sierra and nearby high desert have consistently given me a sense of timeless cosmic wonder. I hope this project conveys a piece of it.