Before sunrise, I was awake, packed and bundled up for first-light photography of Wilson Peak. Located just southwest of Telluride, this perfectly sculpted mountain has graced its fair share of Coors commercials, and for good reason. Few mountains embody the drama of the Rockies better.
I knew of one good vantage point — Sunshine Campground, located just off Highway 149. But from that angle, the peak is a bit tucked back and not nearly as dramatic. So, I decided to head to the Telluride Regional Airport, which is situated on a plateau across from the peak. As light crested the San Juan Mountains, I headed up the winding road, passing one drool-worthy/scorn-inducing estate after another.
My only problem was that the foreground was still obscured in a long shadow, which limited me to my long telephoto lens, a fixed 200mm. And while I got some great shots — like the second image in this post as well as this one of Wilson Peak — my composition opportunities were limited. So, off the plateau, and up to Sunshine Campground, a good 20 minute drive. By the time I got there, my coffee was gone and that rush hour into Telluride from points south was in full force. I’d shoot some and then return to the airport road … I’d seen some awesome barns along the route that I wanted to work with.
In 2002, Hailey and I camped at Sunshine Campground in the middle of Colorado’s worst wildfire season on record. Two weeks earlier, we had unwittingly rafted into the out-of-control Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs with my parents just as it roared over a ridge and down toward the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. Stranded, the four of us spent the night at a family friend’s place in Carbondale before heading over Independence Pass the next day, only to see the volcanic-like plume of smoke coming from the Hayman Fire, which was on its second and most destructive day. That evening, my parents’ house in southwest Denver was put on notice for possible evacuation.
Their status was in limbo for five weeks as the Hayman Fire advanced, retreated, spread, double-backed, exploded, and played tricks on fire forecasters. To this day it was the most unsettling summer I’ve experienced.
By the time our Telluride camping trip arrived, the Missionary Ridge Fire in Durango had flared up, casting haze all over Southwest Colorado. Governor Bill Owens got flack for saying that “all of Colorado is burning,” but there was some truth to it at the time. No matter where you went in the Rockies that summer, you found smoke.
On a personal note, something was burning a hole in my pocket on that trip — an engagement ring. I’d saved for it, I’d asked Hailey’s parents for permission, and I was going to pop the question regardless of the haze and smoke, probably on our hike into the Mount Sneffels Wilderness. But I didn’t quite get that far — on a short 1-hour hike to Cornet Falls (above and below), I popped the question.
So after I shot a bunch of images of the barns and Wilson Peak, I returned to the New Sheridan to meet Hailey and Varenna for the journey to Cornet Falls — a nostalgic must for us. We set Varenna in the Baby Bjorn and made the steep but short climb to the burgundy box canyon falls. Varenna giggled, flailed her arms and kicked repeatedly, as she usually does on hikes. But I took it as a sign of something more cosmic. Here we were, returning to the falls for the first time since that amazing moment, and we were bringing our child — and she was thrilled to be there.
Moments after reaching the falls, Renna fell asleep. It was a very sweet sight … curled up on Hailey’s lap, with blue socks on her hands to keep them warm. Eight years had passed since the proposal — a lifetime it had seemed — and now things were advancing even faster with the trajectory of Varenna’s life and development. We hiked back out, and she awoke with smiles as we passed the creek.
We wrapped up the Telluride portion of our trip with a ride up the gondola to Mountain Village for pizza in an empty piazza. American ski resorts and their phony European charm are rather hilarious places to be. However, I must say, on this day, the San Juan Mountains surrounding Telluride and Mountain Village looked a little like the Dolomites. With the gondola speeding over the piazza, with our waiter actually being Italian, with a glass of cold red wine on a warm day, could it be?