Posted on 28th February 2016 in Landscapes
kolarivision.com//kolarivision.com//www.nickspiker.com/blog/polar/

Winter was not kind to photographers in the Flathead Valley this year. While ski bums rejoiced in the amount of snow on the mountains, the same clouds that brought the snow were causing dull and boring photographs. I can count on one hand the number of days it was clear, and I was out of town for almost all of them. Refusing to give up, I became addicted to weather apps and snow reports, waiting for a window to capture fresh snow on a clear night. At the end of February, the stars aligned and I jumped at the opportunity to get in a shot. Any shot. It had been too long since I had ventured into the wilderness, underestimated how long I’d be gone, and then received “that look” from my slightly worried but mostly annoyed wife when I returned home late.

I throw my camera gear in my car and head up to Big Mountain. Whoops, I mean “Whitefish Mountain Resort”. Anyway, I get to the ski hill at 3:55pm. Last chair is at 4:00pm so I run to the lift, hop on, and I officially start my quest.

trees and snow on top of mountain
The ski hill

Once I reach the top, I realize the locations I scouted before are okay, but I’m searching for the perfect shot. It is a little after 4:00pm, and twilight isn’t until 6:30 so I know I have a little time. I start skinning around the ridge looking for options, cursing communication towers that keep ruining my shot.

snowy cell towers
Communication is key

After twenty minutes, I reach the first ridge and it looks promising, but I have time, so I decide to keep going.

snow and trees on curved slope
First ridge

I ski/hike a second and a third ridge, but can’t get the framing to work.

snowy mountains
Close but no cigar

I look through my quick shots and decide ridge number one is my favorite option. I glance at my watch and realize it’s 5:40pm. I have basically thirty minutes to get back to ridge one, a distance that had just taken me over an hour to cover.

snow and trees
Burning daylight

Putting it into overdrive, I return to the first ridge just in time.

camera and skis in snow
Down to business

I set up my gear and frame up the shot using the remaining daylight. The clouds haven’t cleared yet. No problem. I’ll just catch my breath and wait it out. As I lay in the snow, too tired to make snow angels, waiting for my pulse to drop below 1,000 bpm, I get the feeling I’m forgetting something. I just can’t quite put my finger on it. My wife keeps telling me I need to make a list. She’s probably right.

I stare up at a partly cloudy sky, stars poking out here and there, and it hits me. The moon. I have no idea how full the moon is going to be or when moonrise is. Rookie mistake. Damn, I really am rusty. I blame clouds. All of them.

Panicked, I check my phone (thank you ugly cell towers for your service) and see it rises around 9:00pm. I need these clouds to go away, and I need them to go away now. I start pacing and checking the time every 27 seconds because everyone knows that helps clouds magically disappear. Time seems to be flying by while the clouds take their sweet time finding a home outside of my frame. I am acutely aware how each second that ticks by shortens the length of my star trails. Eventually, I know I can’t wait any longer and I take the shot.

It’s over. The moon begins to rise as I hike back to the ski slopes. For the first time that day, I realize I am alone. There is no one to be seen or heard, and it feels awesome. My consciousness flips from analytical and focused to calm and relaxed. I ski down to the car using moonlight as my guide. The only sound I can hear is that of my skis cutting through the velvety snow. I feel part of the mountain, bonded to it even if only for a moment.

-Nick

Star streaks and snowy mountains
NIR photograph in the backcountry near Whitefish Mountain Resort, Montana, USA