Total Eclipse over Grand Teton National Park
For a while, I treated the 2017 eclipse like any eclipse I've experienced before. The moon blocks part of the sun and you use a pinhole in thick paper to project the event onto a surface. But, as I dove deeper into the information and read stories from experienced watchers, I became hooked. There was something new and different to be experienced in an eclipse totality. At 100% coverage (totality), the world gets weird and I wanted to see what everybody was talking about. Instead of any location in the path, I was determined to combine the eclipse with an interesting landscape as part of my new broader venture to sell large-format wall art.
About two weeks prior, I began running calculations, looking at the path of the moon's shadow and cross-referencing it with landscapes. The chosen landscape would have to be tall and/or I'd have to be very close to the landscape as the eclipse was to happen at around 50 degrees up. I immediately spotted that the eclipse was traveling straight through the Grand Teton National Park. Recalling my visit there a few years back, the amazing angles and views, I thought it would be a good candidate yet the eclipse would happen to the Southeast at an azimuth of 134 degrees (azimuth 0 degrees is North) which is far out of frame while looking West at the Teton Mountains.
Then, I wondered if there was any way to line up the eclipse looking over the mountains from the West side. A few places lined up but most interesting was Table Mountain which located quite close to the Teton Mountains and lined up the eclipse right over the saddle between the Middle and South teton peaks at an elevation of about 40 degrees above the tallest peak (Grand). The trail is well-maintained and popular. Perfect!
Further research was troubling, though. The hike up Table Mountain was steep to the tune of 7 miles and 4400 feet of gain with no water above 9500 feet as you ascend towards the peak at 11,106'. That kind of elevation would be difficult for me without much gear on my back, but I learned that I'd need sufficient food and water, a sleeping bag, tent, filter for more water, warm- and cold-weather clothing, a heavy bear canister to store food, bear spray and finally a robotic camera shooting device that I thought would make for a unique photo at the expense of 10 more pounds (gigapan rented at lensrentals.com). Total pack weight clocked in at somewhere around 50-60 pounds.
I tried to prepare my heart, lungs and legs in Seattle over the next week or so by loading my pack and hiking the steepest thing I could find in the nearby Discovery Park. At the same time, my friend Chris from LA area became interested in joining me through our many text chats. We spent many hours thereafter chatting about what-ifs and how to best execute this hike and even wondering if we could even make it. We are not experienced hikers so this was a great deal of unknowns. Luckily we both found people that had recently hiked this mountain and they were willing to answer many of our questions such as permits, water supplies and how long it took them to do the hike.
I left Seattle at 1am Saturday morning and, due to several nap breaks at rest stops, arrived 23 hours later in the pitch dark of night to find a weird parking space on a dirt road. There were so many people here with the same idea and the parking lots were overflowing! I just slipped into a spot, climbed into the back and fell asleep. (big thanks to Julie for letting me put miles on their SUV. It would have been very difficult to constantly refuel my electric car over that distance)
That Saturday morning, I did a trial hike to see how I handled the elevation (7500 feet) with about a 1/2 loaded backpack. I struggled through about 2 miles and 1000 feet up. I stopped, did the math and realized that I might not make it if I waited for Chris' 9pm (estimated) arrival. There were too many unknowns so I made the call to head back down to the car, fully load my pack and immediately start my hike to attempt to get as far as I could get that day. Chris was coming in late due to a shoot he was committed to near LA and I also was confident that he'd push his way up and meet me somewhere near the top. He's a pretty strong dude.
I recharged my water and food, put the pack back on and headed up the valley trail. What amazing views! I plowed upwards to about 9500 feet and totally ran out of gas that first day. That pack was so heavy. As the sun was setting behind the mountain, I set up camp just short of the switchbacks up to the ridge. In this part of the trip, I could clearly see the destination WAY up on the hill above.
I woke up at sunrise, collected my stuff and continued on the trail. It was fun meeting up with other climbers here for the same goal. Many of them cheered me on as I was clearly laboring my heavy pack.
I made it through the switchback and arrived at the ridge. I was still a few miles and hundreds (thousand) of feet below my destination, but it now looked attainable.
I continued up the path and to the point where the Valley and Face trails combine. There, it got much busier and I was starting to feel the time crunch as it was about 8:00 am... 3.5 hours until the eclipse. I was getting close and the trail was getting steeper. After a large rock field, I decided to ditch my heavy tent, sleeping bag and bear bin. I then rejoined the trail and heard someone behind me say, "Sean??". I turn around to see my buddy, Chris. We were close but both confessing to be at the end of our physical wits. But, we pressed on and made it to the top.
Atop Table Mountain, a probably 30x200' plateau of rock, I was initially greeted to 200 people that had made it up and claimed their viewing spots. Not everybody was a photographer so I was able to negotiate with a nice couple for a prime position close to the south edge. As I was setting up the Gigapan and talking to excited people around me, a veteran nearby was shouting out the timing and amping people up. Many people had solar glasses and were watching the moon to begin transiting the sun.
As the time neared, someone shouted to look to the west for the shadow as I put on my coat to combat the dramatic drop in temperature. Everyone on the hill sorta quieted down and peered over as it began to approach. It was amazing to see the shadow move towards us across the vast Idaho landscape which was viewable from our elevation. As the shadow approached, stars and planets became visible above and a sunset band materialized on the horizon in all directions. Then, the large bright disk of a sun QUICKLY shrunk into a small ring. Everybody lost their minds. Cheering, yelling and cameras clicking.
The eclipse is kinda hard to describe. It's kinda like watching a crazy firework explode for 2 straight minutes. It's exciting because you get to break a rule you've learned your whole life not to break: look at the sun. For the same reason, I found it hard to look at it, initially. I made a few quick glances then I set my gaze. I promised myself I would spend some time looking at this before starting any photography and I think I also nudged Chris next to me to look at it instead of adjusting dials on his telephoto camera.
I also remember that the transformation between day and eclipse seemed to have a perceived muffled sound. It is sorta a similar feeling you get when you drop something and time slows. But, as I write this I remember the 2 minutes passing in 2 seconds. So, it's both. Insane.
I spent a few more moments looking then started my robot shooting and took a few photos with my 2nd camera and wide-angle lens. I read many articles online from experienced people advising others to not photograph this event in order to fully experience it, but I made a deal with myself that I'd shoot this one because it was a one-time merging of such amazing natural landscape and a rare event, truly a product not a sum. For 2024, I'll put the camera down and really take a long, hard look.