Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ski Season Opener!

I do it every year. I think that I'm going crazy, starting around Halloween. Work is slow and any sort of routine and fitness from the summer seems long gone. Everything seems more dramatic and days drag on. And then it snows and we can ski. Life is good again. Skiing is so great, no part of me is capable of remembering how good it feels. Not in my wildest November imaginings can I conceive of how great skiing itself, the skiing lifestyle and the skiing routine. I'll read this again next year, despairing in the 'tweener season and think "it doesn't really matter that much, does it?" It does! But, alas, my feeble mind can't even comprehend how great skiing and the ski season is for me. And it has begun and I am happy.

Not only has it begun, but it's been quite the auspicious start! I skied one day in November, icy, limited runs available at Mammoth. But it was white and slippery. Annie and I had a few days of skiing at Mammoth separately in early December. This past Sunday, the 13th, we skied together at Mammoth in the morning, then launched into the Lakes Basin for our first backcountry tour. Tons of deep new snow slowed us down, both up and down. But it was great. I drove up with Paul on the 15th to ski some in the ski area and some out. Today I skied alone up Bishop Creek, 3000 vertical feet of thinly covered sage and talus. Great views though.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Crazy night of Meteors!

Tony Rowell makes the earth standstill for Nasa! Past proof is here, and here, and here (well kinda). Those linked pictures are each a past NASA "Astronomy Picture of the Day". And Galen Rowell's son is obsessed with photographing the night sky.

Galen Rowell is famous for super pretty pictures from all over the world and climbing most of the mountains he photographed. Galen passed away in 2002, and now Tony helps run the Rowell gallery here in Bishop as well as takes as many pictures of the night sky as he can. Sometime in the 1970's Galen photographed a bristlecone pine, at night. The result (I'd pirate a picture off the web, but since I'm writing about professional photographers, you can see some good modern examples when you google "bristlecone and star trails.") was what Tony calls one of the first "Astrolandscapes"- night sky, plus terrestrial something-or-other. And Tony is taking it to a whole 'nuther level! Technology and techniques, and just the shear number of folks out taking pictures have taken all genres of photography to crazy heights, literally and figuratively.

Tony came into our lives here at the Zoo when he tracked down Paul at the radio-telescope observatory where he works. Paul and his co-workers basically listen for aliens via these satellite dish-looking things. Creepy, huge and technological, artists of all kinds find inspiration at observatories like this. This past summer Tony Rowell acquired a new toy- a machine that actually turns his camera counter to the earth's rotation, effectively freezing the earth (or the sky, depending on your perspective) and eliminating those "star trails" you googled just above. To put it simply, the night sky is dark and capturing anything with a camera requires long exposures. Long exposures let in lots of light, but the sky changes during those long seconds or even minutes. It's just art, so some embrace the changes- again, see the star trails. That's the result of the earth spinning under the stars. The most notable other change that occurs during long exposures of the night sky is meteors. More on that later. Anyway, some engineer/astronomer/photographer set up this machine that cancels out the rotation of the earth. Tony got a machine and added his own twist, pun intended. He purposely frames his pictures with something in the foreground, sets up a long exposure then flashes the foreground briefly- creating his own astrolandscapes. He tracked down Paul in order to secure permission and logistical support for a shoot like this at the observatory here. The goal was to get a picture worthy of NASA APOD. He didn't score the picture of the day that time around, but he did tap into a pool of dirtbags willing to do anything for fame-and-fortune. Or even small-fortune-and-brushes-with-a-famous-family.

Fast forward to mid-December and what Tony calls a super-rare opportunity: The Geminid Meteor shower is forecast to "go big." No moon. Weather forecast calls for clear skies. Fresh snow on mid-elevation Eastern Sierra trees. And Tony's got his own vision to bring it all together. I won't blow his idea just yet, because even though only, like, three people read this blog, this stuff is important to Tony. We'll wait for the pictures to process and maybe even get published. Anyway, it's just hours before the forecast peak, about 8pm on Sunday December 13. Tony's got a heap of lights and cameras and tripods and earth-stopping machines. He's got a plan, but not without some gaps. He needs a strong back and a weak mind to go sit in the mountains in the middle of the night in single digit temps and flash lights and carry stuff through the snow. He calls Paul, asks for help and offers some bucks even. I jump at the offer and he's here at the house in 15 minutes. We load up, bundle up, and drive, on what back roads are plowed, looking for a suitable site. We found what he was looking for and within minutes Tony was taking pictures. I did my portion of the rigging, he did his. While we were driving and setting up, we saw at least one meteor a minute.

Once fully set-up, but in a lull adjusting cameras, we saw the hugest meteor Tony's ever seen. By far the biggest I've ever seen too, but Tony's the expert. (Tony's been watching and photographing every major meteor shower since 1994. Galen actually died on August 11, 2002- the date of the Perseid Meteor Shower. He said last night's show was the most spectacular! But he says a lot of things...) I don't even like talking about it, it was really scary. My back was turned at first, but this thing lit up the area like daytime! Apocalyptic blue light. As I snapped around to look, I saw the flash disappear behind the horizon. Tony saw the whole thing. I didn't know meteors came like that! We later saw another one that lit up the ground, but not quite as much.

Anyway, Tony snapped pictures and I fulfilled my for-now-secret role. The plan was to be out for the peak, forecast for between 10 and 1. It was 3am before we started for home! It was cold, but Tony's constant stream of banter and exclamations kept me on my toes. And Galen Rowell's expedition down parka kept me warm while sitting still. That's right, I spent a night in Galen's big-mountain down jacket. Every single meteor deserved a "wow" if he captured it, and an expletive if we were between shots. And the rate never let up! At least one per minute on average, we probably saw over 300 total! Going into the night, Tony said he'd be happy with just one shot that half-way met his criteria. He ended up getting 8 shots that fully met the criteria, as well as one that surpassed his "wildest dreams." Previewing the best one on his digital camera, he shouted himself hoarse with excitement. Bookmark the NASA page.