Alexander M Wolff

Eclipse Over the Tetons

16 Apr 2018

We were stranded at Jenny Lake, exactly as we had planned. Our pickup was 35 miles away, parked along Highway 22, where we began our journey two days earlier. We had just finished hiking the Teton Crest Trail, but now we were in for a real adventure, hitchhiking back to our vehicle. Leslie and I had never hitchhiked before. Getting a ride from one crowded tourist location to another seemed reasonable though. With the Great American Eclipse three days away, the busiest day in the history of Grand Teton National Park, crowds of people were piling into their vehicles. Besides, we could always reject a ride if we didn’t feel safe.

Cathedral Group of the Teton Range, viewed from the Snake River Outlook.

Cathedral Group of the Teton Range from the Snake River Outlook - The location where Ansel Adams made his iconic image, and the angle that we most often see the Tetons photographed from.

Several cars blew past us, but I was surprised when a modern sedan zipped to the side of the road. As we loaded our backpacks into the trunk the driver casually rolled down the windows, a wise and subtle move. It didn’t take long before we broke the ice and began chatting. They were a middle-aged couple from Long Island, New York. With the upcoming eclipse as the basis for our conversation, we began discussing nature and science. It turned out they lived close to Brookhaven National Lab, which I had visited for a scientific conference in May. They brought up the mysterious nature of the particle accelerators there, so I assured them that despite being esoteric, what went on in these places ought to inspire curiosity, not fear. At the sensory level, the research was not nearly as wild as people imagined, yet the scope of the ideas was so much wilder. They continued driving, and I grew surprised by their generosity. Leslie and I had hoped to get within a few miles of our pickup, at least back to Jackson, but these kind souls delivered us directly to our vehicle. As we parted ways, they wouldn’t even accept the cash I had packed along the Crest Trail for this very occasion. Angels.

Back at the truck, we cleaned ourselves up. Leslie educated me on homeless hygiene, knowledge that comes in very handy during our backpacking trips. In everyday life she works as a nurse, helping homeless clients with mental illnesses get back on their feet. While that could easily translate into a one-way relationship, Leslie treats her clients as individuals, sharing moments with them, and gaining unexpected knowledge. That knowledge is surprisingly valuable when we choose to go without during our adventures. After cleaning up, we thought about finding a proper camping spot for the night. No. We were dog-tired, so we slept in the truck. Hippies. We loved every minute of it though, the freedom was as intoxicating as the terrible sleep we got.

Trail Toes - Grit is part of any good adventure, but rarely makes the highlights.

Trail Toes - Grit is part of any good adventure, but rarely makes the highlights. Image Credit: Leslie Wolff

The next morning, we wandered into Cowboy Coffee in Jackson. Sunlight flooded into the valley, and java never tasted so good. There was an eclectic blend of business folk, hiker trash, and elderly tourists in the shop. I loved the diversity. There is something about coffee that brings individuals of all stripes together. It is funny how little habits can do that, but those interactions keep life interesting. After finishing our brews, we explored other local shops. Festivities for the eclipse were ramping up, and shop owners looked out upon the streets hungrily. Where were the massive crowds that had been predicted?

Leslie and I hoped to avoid those crowds. While we wanted to share this experience with others, we also wanted to maintain a sense of intimacy with nature. Lake Solitude sounded like just the place to do that, and being there would position the sun directly over Grand Teton during totality. On the other hand, all of the trails leading to Lake Solitude began near Jenny Lake, right in the middle of the congestion. We had to figure out how to get there without getting caught in the eclipse traffic jam. To circumnavigate this challenge, we decided to come in from the west side of the Tetons, and to arrive a day in advance. Approaching from the west side would be a challenge in its own right, since we couldn’t find a trail that crossed over the backbone of the Tetons anywhere near Lake Solitude. That was alright, venturing off-trail might be fun.

On the evening of the 19th we parked our pickup at the western foot of the mountains. It was time to hit the trail again. We hoofed it, with a goal of getting as close to our final campsite that night as we could. I don’t remember stopping to take in the scenery. My eyes were glued to the trail, and my feet beat in rhythm. We bedded down just off the path, ready to make the final push in the morning.

Early on the 20th, we found the perfect camping spot beside a small lake in Granite Basin. Initially, I didn’t see anyone else around, which shocked me. That would change soon enough. While setting up our tent, a man yelled, “Stop! Stella, No! Baaaad dog!” We turned to see a yellow lab sprinting full-force into the lake. The dog proceeded to swim around gleefully until the man made it down to the shore. After getting Stella under control, he waved and proceeded to setup his own camp with his wife on the opposite side of the lake.

Campsite in Granite Basin, looking up at Littles Peak in the Teton Range.

Location Location - We had it all here, proximity to Littles Peak, beautifully weathered trees, and a spot to enjoy the sunshine.

With camp situated, we decided to relax for a couple of hours. We had been going nonstop for days. Also, I had packed my camera and tripod up the mountain without using them. So, I began searching for images, while Leslie basked in the sun. Before long, I found my subject. It was a weathered stump, gnarled beyond belief. For some reason I continually find myself attracted to the resilient beauty of weathered trees and stumps. The flow and the swirls of the wood are pure art, designed by the erosive forces of nature that act upon them. After playing with angles, I found one that pleased me. I thought the patterns in the wood captured the essence of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. I’m not an art connoisseur, but that painting stood out in my mind after watching a passionate exposition by Neil deGrasse Tyson on the connection between art and science. During the high-point of his performance, Neil pops his button-up open evocatively, revealing a t-shirt plastered with The Starry Night. While capturing the beauty of this stump, my mind swirled with thoughts of art, nature, and science. This seemed appropriate, since I was on a mission to blend these three elements into a single image of our favorite star, the sun.

The gnarled roots of an old tree, taking a form that pays homage to Van Gogh's The Starry Night.

Van Gogh - The essence of Van Gogh's The Starry Night is captured by the flow and the swirls of the wood making up this gnarled stump.

While we were daydreaming and sunbathing, others were climbing mountains. Literally. Leslie and I saw two shadowy figures on top of Littles Peak. They appeared so tiny, that it was tough to tell if they were people. So, we squinted for a couple of minutes, until saw the shadows move. Now we were certain that someone was on top of the mountain. The Old Man with the dog was leaving for a hike as well. We decided it was high-time to explore our route to Lake Solitude.

A boundary pin dividing Targhee National Forest and Grand Teton National Park.

Boundary Pin - This pin marks the boundary between Targhee National Forest and Grand Teton National Park.

The boundary between Targhee National Forest and Grand Teton National Park runs along the backbone of the Tetons near Lake Solitude, but very few trails cross this ridgeline. After studying a topographic map, we thought that the slopes of Littles Peak looked tame enough. Thus, we planned to skirt around Littles Peak to Lake Solitude. We began by ascending to a high plateau along the northwestern side of the mountain, then hiked south along the plateau. Where level ground halted, we started climbing a very steep, grassy slope on the southwestern side of the mountain. A tingle of fear surged throughout my body, and I began to feel alive. As I waxed poetic in my mind, Mother Nature decided to wake me up with a blast of cool mountain air. It was mid-August, but we were on the side of a mountain, over 10,000 feet above sea level, where the breeze is always cool. Huddled against the southern slope, we took in the views around us. Grand Teton and the Cathedral Group stood majestically to the southeast. Mount Moran’s painted walls gave way to the shores of Jackson Lake and the flats below. Even though we were not on top of Littles Peak, the view was amazing. From this vantage point, we decided that we didn’t want to descend to Lake Solitude. We would watch the eclipse from this mountain.

Admiring Mount Moran from Littles Peak.

Admiring Mount Moran - On our dry run for the eclipse, huddled on the southern slope of Littles Peak, we found some amazing views of the most iconic mountains of the Teton Range.

With a sketch of a plan, we made our way back down to camp. Afternoon turned to evening, and my thoughts coalesced on the smoky atmosphere. While in Jackson, we heard several people mention their fear that clouds would obscure the eclipse. I hadn’t worried about that, but began growing apprehensive. Throughout the day the air filled with smoke from wildfires in Montana, replacing distant horizons with haze. Smoke particles mixed with clouds, and the western sky began to darken. Watching the sun drop into this layer of water and smoke filled me with inspiration, as well as anxiety.

Despite this concern, I realized the smoke was creating a beautiful scene in its own right. So, I cast my despair aside and got to work. Below the lake where we were camping, the canyon dropped sharply, leaving the view to the west wide-open. Looking this direction, I was surprised at the intensity of the sunlight pouring through the smoky clouds. “With so much light coming through, these clouds must be thin,” I assured myself. Surely they would dissipate overnight. The quality of the sunlight was superb. Red wavelengths passed through the clouds more easily than other hues, painting the landscape around us. I knew what to use this light for. I had waited all day to photograph a gnarled old tree above our campsite, so I ran toward it with my camera.

Smoke from wildfires in Montana filled the air, leading to a colorful sunset over Granite Basin in the Tetons.

Hazy Sunset - Smoke from wildfires in Montana filled the air, and we grew apprehensive, worrying that the eclipse might be obscurred the next morning.

A gnarled old tree in Targhee National Forest, painted red by the light from a smoky sunset.

Gnar Gnar - The light that made it through the smoky clouds painted the landscape red, which was perfect for highlighting the natural beauty of this weathered tree.

During these instances, I feel like a child on Christmas morning, running amok excitedly. I try to record the stunning beauty that surrounds me, yet I can barely contain myself, even though I recognize the importance of thoughtful composition. After photographing the tree, I turned back towards the western sky. As the sun dipped ever lower, a shining disc of yellow accompanied the rich hues of the clouds. Visualizing the solar disc felt like a preview of the eclipse to come, my lens pointed directly at The Warmth. In the final moment of the day, we watched the sun lay gently on a bed of clouds, then we settled in for the night.

The sunset on the evening before the eclipse, created by a cloud of smoke on the horizon.

Red Sun - On the evening before the eclipse, the sun set into a cloud of smoke on the horizon.

On the morning of the 21st, we sprang out of our sleeping bags. We gathered supplies and tossed them in a backpack. Down jackets, to stay warm when the temperature dropped. Camera and tripod, to capture the moment. A handful of snacks, and some water, to stay comfortable during our time on the mountain. At this point, we only needed to choose a location. We had originally wanted to setup at Lake Solitude, but after yesterday’s scouting trip we desired a higher vantage point. After seeing two figures on top of Littles Peak the day before, the thought of scaling it crossed our minds. Then, the Old Man with the dog had stopped by to say hello. He told us that he had hiked to the top of Littles Peak with his dog the previous afternoon. That settled it. In my arrogance I thought, “if he can do it, then so can I.” The mountain would temper that notion.

We started off on a similar track as the day before, approaching the ridgeline just north of Littles Peak. This off-trail hiking was relatively benign, and we easily made it to the talus field at the foot of the peak. The Old Man had told us to follow the ridgeline all the way to the top, so that was our plan for ascending. With trekking poles for stabilization, we traced a path. The talus field seemed to grow as we became immersed in it. From our tent this field of boulders looked like a thumbnail, and now it seemed that a couple of football stadiums could fit onto it. Leslie was leading the way, moving along gracefully. I was impressed as she scrambled up a particularly steep portion of the trail. As I approached this spot, I paused. The gravel looked very slippery. I started to think about what would happen if I fell, smashing my camera and my chance to record an eclipse over the Tetons. This was the closest I had come to having a photographic vision. I planned this trip for months, and now we were executing that plan, with a dash of spontaneity. I thought of Leslie, up ahead, and how we could endanger ourselves if we weren’t careful. This seemed far scarier than our hitchhiking adventure.

While I began psyching myself out, Leslie paused to wait for me. I looked back down, usually a mistake, and saw five young men climbing up the talus. They were scaling the rocks, rather than the gravelly trail. The first among them seemed very comfortable. He simply marched up the rocks as though they were stairs, installed for this very purpose. As he neared me, I exclaimed, “You must be part mountain goat!”. “Sometimes it’s best to just get these things over with,” he casually remarked, never slowing the pace of his massive steps from boulder to boulder. I think Mountain Goat sensed my fear, but he was going to let me handle it on my own terms. I waited for his four friends to follow, each of them trailing in their own manner. They seemed to be trekking in order of skill. The last guy was wearing a pair of skateboarding shoes, and looked about as confident as I felt. After standing in the same spot for several minutes while this group passed me, I had calmed down, and knew what I needed to do.

I collapsed my trekking poles and stored them, moving off the trail, and onto a boulder. The first one was stable, but the second rocked uneasily under my weight. I put my hands on the rocks, and felt relief wash over me. I could breathe again. I felt much more stable. I could do this! I ascended slowly, on all fours. I couldn’t walk up the boulders as though they were stairs, but I knew I could get to the top. Leslie had waited quietly and patiently the entire time, allowing the five men to pass us. With our new strategy for ascending, we made it to the top of the mountain without any problems. I was humbled by my experience, and thought of the Old Man with the dog. Why did I think that I could do something simply because he had done it? I knew next to nothing about him.

At the peak, there were nine of us: the five younger guys, two older gents, Leslie, and myself. The young guys were all from Colorado. Mountain Goat seemed to be the most charismatic of the bunch, and had a classic story. He moved from the eastern United States to the mountain west to experience the freedom and the thrills of the Rockies. He got addicted to those feelings, taking up rock climbing in the process, and had lived in Colorado ever since. As for the older guys, they took a canoeing trip together on Jackson Lake every year, but decided to hit the peaks for the eclipse. In fact, they were the two shadows that Leslie and I had seen atop Littles Peak the day before. They thought that a test run was a good idea too. It turned out they were both retired doctors, and one had gone to school in the Bay Area, so he advised me and Leslie about a restaurant that we needed to try when we returned home. What a coincidence! We were an eclectic group of strangers, gathered on a mountain peak to witness one of nature’s rarest spectacles.

Leslie found a mountain throne on Littles Peak to view the eclipse over the Tetons.

Mountain Throne - Leslie found a comfortable spot to lounge on the mountain top as we waited for the eclipse to progress.

Leslie was the only woman among us, which made it that much better when she settled into the perfect mountain throne to observe the eclipse. We had arrived nearly two hours before totality, giving her plenty of time to watch it all unfold. As the morning marched on, we saw small crowds gathering on other high-points nearby, and our anticipation continued to build as the eclipse came closer to fruition. The light began to dim in a way I had never seen before. It was as though nature was dialing down the sun. Cloudy days lead to diffuse light, and sunsets change the hue. This was different. The light was still direct, and the hue was unchanged. Eerie. Cold. Time to bundle up.

The temperature dropped, and the light dimmed, as totality neared.

Totality Approaches - The temperature dropped, and the light dimmed, as totality neared.

At just a smidge past 11:30, the darkness accelerated. We grew tense looking to the west, waiting for a shadow to pass over the land. I began to worry that my imagination had created a moment greater than reality would deliver. I practiced my shot nonetheless, making sure the Tetons were in focus. I was determined to capture this moment. The five amigos balanced my serious attitude with joyful banter. They had a flask of whiskey, a couple of cigars, and were basking in the moment. “To-tal-i-teeee!” one of them crooned. He was right! The sparkling brilliance of the sun’s corona was far beyond anything I had imagined. I still do not have the words to convey that moment, but I managed to capture a handful of images. Looking back, there were so many photos I could have made, and I wish those two minutes could last a lifetime.

To-tal-i-teeee! - The 2017 total solar eclipse.

To-tal-i-teeee! - The 2017 total solar eclipse.

Eclipse Over the Tetons - The 2017 eclipse, as viewed from Littles Peak in the Teton Range.

Eclipse Over the Tetons - The 2017 eclipse, as viewed from Littles Peak in the Teton Range.

After the thrill of totality, a couple of the guys came over to look at the images I had captured. We exchanged email addresses and said our goodbyes. The older guys descended via a southern ridge, and the five amigos trotted back down the talus fields to the north. Leslie and I dwelled for a moment, all alone on the mountain together. I felt the nostalgia well up inside of me, already missing the eclipse. I knew I should make the most of our position though, so I grabbed my camera once again. Looking west, I could see the valley we had trekked up to get here. Smoke dwelled on the horizon, reminding me how I had feared that the eclipse would be obscured. Yet somehow, it was that same smoke that caught the sunlight south of totality, and lit up the horizon in my image of the eclipse. Once again, nature had far exceeded my expectations. Despite my desire to dwell in that moment, it was time to traverse the talus field, descend through the valley, and return home.

Looking west into the Teton Basin from Littles Peak.

Teton Basin - Looking west into the Teton Basin, we dwelled on the mountain for a moment before beginning our journey home.

The eclipse had a final surprise in store for me, something I’ve heard is called the post-adrenaline blues. I had experienced depression after previous vacations, but this ran deeper. Most vacations are repeatable. Watching a total solar eclipse over the Tetons was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Despite living the first 24 years of my life in Wyoming, I hadn’t visited the Tetons until I was 25, and had moved to California. I had immediately fallen in love with them though, and I knew I wanted to watch the 2017 eclipse within this natural cathedral. While planning this trip, I didn’t know I would meet so many kind and enjoyable people along the way. That was the most important aspect of this journey; the eclipse brought us all together for a moment. People across the country forgot about political strife, family stress, and just focused on witnessing a natural spectacle together. To this day, I continue chasing moments like that, and I hope you do as well.

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© 2018 Alexander M Wolff