Brian's Photo Blog — Article 515
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Great Basin Adventure Postmortem
Tuesday 2 February 2016   —   Category: Miscellaneous
When someone is telling me a story, it drives me crazy when they tell me all of the details before getting to the main point. Therefore I will get to the main point: after a lot of preparation, I ended up not going on my planned one-week trip through the Great Basin to Bryce Canyon and back. If that is all you wanted to know, you can stop reading this article now. Otherwise, carry on for more details.

So what happened? I was so excited about going! I put so much time and effort into planning and preparing. I made special purchases just for the trip. After all that, how could I not go? I think there are three main issues which, when taken together, caused my enthusiasm to slip away like air from a punctured tire. During the previous week or so, I was constantly checking the weather conditions at major points along my planned route. For a while things were looking iffy because of forecasted snowy conditions, but eventually things took a turn for the better and the coast was clear. At that point all systems were go, and I was set to make the trip, so I made hotel reservations in Winnemucca, Nevada, and at Bryce Canyon.

Unfortunately, in my eagerness to keep an eye on the weather in the Great Basin, I neglected an important location much closer to home: the Cascade Mountains, which are a major barrier between my home in the Willamette Valley, and the Great Basin on the eastern side.

By the time I realized I had left the Cascades out of my plans, it was already late last week, just a handful of days before my planned departure. When I started researching the forecasted weather conditions in the Range, I was shocked to find that a major snowstorm was going to be dumping snow all weekend and potentially into the early part of this week, including on my planned route over the Willamette Pass. Things were not looking good!

Alternate, longer routes through the Cascades,
via Portland and the Columbia Gorge at the northern end of Oregon,
or via Ashland and Klamath Falls at the southern end.
In purple is my preferred route via the Willamette Pass.
On Friday I spend some hours feverishly exploring alternate routes over or around the Cascades — from the I-84 through the Columbia Gorge in the very north of Oregon to OR-66 between Ashland and Klamath Falls in the very south of the state. All of the alternate routes would have added many extra miles and hours to my already-tight itinerary.

I really wanted to stick with my original route of OR-58 over the Willamette Pass, mostly because it is the most direct route to the western edge of the Great Basin. By the end of Friday I still had a lot of preparations to make, and the weather forecast was for snow on Monday, my day of departure, for multiple points along my route. I needed to make a decision soon, so I would still have time to prepare, or time to cancel my hotel reservations to avoid a penalty.

After sleeping on it, Saturday morning I decided that I just didn’t feel like fighting a snow storm at the very beginning of a 2,000-plus-mile journey through four states. Even though the forecasted snow did not materialize on Monday as I had feared, there were a couple of other considerations which were major factors in deciding to cancel my trip. I absolutely love cold weather and detest hot weather. So when I saw that overnight lows during my time at Bryce Canyon were going to be around 0°F, I was thrilled rather than horrified. I dug out all of my cold-weather clothing which I had purchased for a previously-planned winter outing. I even bought some snowshoes and a pair of special winter gloves for photographers.

Perhaps I was all set to endure and conquer the arctic weather, but what about my photo equipment? Not only can such cold temperatures be hard on the human body, but they can debilitate or even ruin cameras. Condensation can be a huge and damaging problem. When bringing a camera from the cold outside to the warm inside (even in a car), the difference in air temperature and humidity can cause condensation outside and, more catastrophically, inside the camera. There are other difficulties as well, which you can read about in Winter photography tips: Protect your gear in extreme cold.

I was planning on going out early Wednesday morning to photograph the sunrise over Bryce Canyon. Accoring to the weather forecast on Sunday, the temperature at that time would be a mind-boggling, frostbite-inducing -4°F! I have never attempted photography in such low temperatures. Was my body and my camera ready for such extreme weather?

When I open the door of the freezer in my garage, I see that the temperature is around 0°F. That is pretty darn cold! Was I really going to stand in a huge, outdoor freezer for hours on end, trying to take pictures of the beautiful scenery, while my camera struggled to keep working? How long would I and my equipment endure such conditions?

To complicate matters further, there was a winter storm warning ending less than 24 hours before my anticipated arrival at Bryce Canyon. Snow accumulations were expected to be between 1 and 3 feet, with wind gusts up to 30 MPH blowing all that snow around. There was a good chance that the roads would not be cleared very well by the time I got there.

Then on Monday I saw that a backcountry avalanche alert had been added to the winter storm warning, issued by the Utah Avalanche Center: “Heavy snow and wind has created dangerous avalanche conditions, leading to a high avalanche danger. Natural and human-triggered avalanches are likely. Avoid being in or beneath steep terrain. If you know anything about Bryce Canyon and the surrounding area, it is famous for its dramatic, steep terrain.

So, let’s put all this together. I was planning on heading to an area which had just received 1 to 3 feet of snowfall and was under an avalanche watch. I was going to be photographing for the first time in 0°F temperatures, and walking around in snowshoes for the first time in my life. All of these factors combined added up to conditions that were just too extreme for me. Sure, I wanted adventure, but I felt I was trying too much all at once, and getting in way over my head. If you were to hang out with me for any length of time, you would discover that I can occasionally be obsessive about certain things (understatement of the century!). When planning a trip, I can expend a tremendous amount of time and energy in obsessive attention to details and contingencies. I was never a Boy Scout, but I live their motto — “Alway be prepared!” — with all of my heart!

In order to be able to post articles and photos from the road, I spent about a week updating and testing the back-end portion of this Web site, as I detailed in Preparations For Going Mobile. I also spent many, many hours testing various text-processing and photo-processing apps on my iPad Mini, but have not yet had time to report on what I have learned.

I spent another week pouring over maps, planning routes and sites to visit, calculating mileages and times between sites, scoping out gas stations and restaurants through the sparsely-populated Great Basin, making alterations and fine-tuning my itinerary. To the right is a screen shot of the notes I made for just the two-day Albany to Bryce Canyon portion of the trip!

During this time I was neglecting the processing of my huge backlog of photos from 2015, as well as other daily activities. Maps and plans would float through my dreams like the ghosts of dead wagon-train pioneers. I was obsessed!

I was also neglecting my physical preparations. Although on Tuesday I had practiced putting snow chains on my truck, on Wednesday I realized that I had not nailed down a way to boil water in my truck. While in such arctic weather, I absolutely wanted to be able to make tea and instant soup from my truck, which would be my mobile base while out taking pictures. I did some quick research and ended up ordering two products from Amazon, despite their mixed ratings.

I spent much of Friday afternoon sitting in my truck in the driveway with the engine running, getting more and more frustrated as these two beverage heaters proved to be incapable of boiling water with any degree of efficiency. Perhaps I was taking my attention to detail and contingency planning too far.

After all my weeks and uncounted hours of intensive preparations, I was starting to feel really burned out. Added to my drained emotional state was Friday’s weather forecast of the Willamette Pass and eastern Oregon being impacted by snow on Monday. Combined, they completely took the wind out of my sails. In a short amount of time I went from being eager to go on this trip to feeling dread. But when I considered the option of canceling my plans, I felt strong feelings of guilt wash over me. During the rest of the weekend I went around and around in my head, trying to decide what to do. This was pretty strange because usually I can come to a decision fairly quickly.

Each time I would lean towards continuing with my plans, I felt like I would be going out of obligation rather than desire. But obligation to whom? I was not being driven by anyone other than myself and my own desire to travel. If that desire had suddenly left me, why should I feel obliged to go, and why should I feel guilty if I didn’t? All of this introspection was only making my burnout worse!

In the end, the only reason for me to go on such a trip was for my own enjoyment. If, for whatever reasons, I was not going to enjoy it, then there was absolutely no reason to go. So I decided to take the false guilt and the false sense of obligation, and, as Johnny Cash unforgettably sang (albeit in a different context), flush them from the bathroom of my heart. Ah, that feels good!

Well, that’s the autopsy of my aborted adventure in the Great Basin. You may be wondering if this is the final death of my plans, or only a postponement. Well, I’m wondering the same thing! If I can rekindle my excitement, I may end up going later this month or in March. I would absolutely never go during the hot, crowded tourist season.

On the other hand, perhaps the weeks of planning somehow, in a virtual sort of way, filled my need for adventure, and the desire to actually go on this trip will never come back. Who knows? All I can do is wait and see what happens and take what comes.

For now, my biggest desire is to process the huge backlog of photos I took in Portland, which goes all the way back to July 2015. At this moment that need is pressing much more on my psyche than a 2000-plus-mile, eight-day drive to Utah and back.

Besides, on an outing like that, I would only bury myself under a new avalanche of photos that need sorting and editing. In the final reckoning, it seems like it was the best decision to avoid both kinds of avalanches ... that of snow and that of photos!
UPDATE — Later in the day after I posted this article, I saw a relevant headline on PetaPixel: I Waited for 117 Hours in -50°C Temperatures to Snap These Polar Bear Photos. Daisy Gilardini’s article made me wonder if I was making too big of a deal about the difficulties of cold-weather photography, and if I wasn’t just being a great big wimp! Well, she got some great photos for all her efforts!
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 515
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