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The Cable Route of Half Dome, at Night

We won runner-up in the People and Space category at this year’s
Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition!

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night

Tweet announcing our win1

Tweet announcing our win!

That’s right we WON! I am humbled and honored to say that we won runner-up in the People and Space category for the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year. This is incredible! It is a huge honor win second place in this category, competing with so many amazing photographers from all over the planet. Right now I just don’t know what else to say. Below is a write-up of that trip which was just over a year ago. And I say “we” because this photo was a group effort and we all share equally in the resulting images.

So what do you do when your friend proposes a backpacking photo adventure to capture a night hike up the Cable Route of Half Dome with the Milky Way standing tall right above it? Well of course you go. My friend Sean Goebel proposed this idea last year and it was exciting. I had gone with Sean and other friends back in 2014 to essentially re-do my 97 Switchbacks At Night photo of the Mount Whitney Trail but with our small army and 8 cameras shooting digitally instead of with film. The trip was a success, though I never gave it a proper blog write up. Similarly I have not done a proper write up of this trip until now. Our collaboration led to time lapse and stills from our 5 cameras that we employed to capture one of North America’s crown jewels under the spectacular night sky. Wade Meade, who hiked Mount Whitney in the dark for us in 2014, would climb Half Dome in the dark for us on this trip. Above you can see my version of our close-up shot, with an exposure time totaling 64 minutes. More on that later. We were not sure that our luck would hold weather-wise. We were prepared to make two attempts, but in the end we were successful on the first try. Check out the time lapse:

Half Dome Night Timelapse from Sean Goebel on Vimeo.

The wide view:

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night, Wide Edition

The Cable Route of Half Dome at Night, Wide Edition

The Milky Way:

Milky Way Over the Cable Route

Milky Way Over the Cable Route

Capturing Half Dome at night with the Cable Route visible meant setting up on the east side. We settled upon Mount Watkins. This 8500 foot granite edifice provided the perfect view, unobstructed just across Tenaya Canyon. From there to the floor of Yosemite Valley is a nearly vertical 4,000 foot drop. The round dome to the right is North Dome, which was too much of a straight-on view for what we were after. In the background center of the image is Glacier Point, which is revealed by all the car lights in the time lapse in the wide view. Olmsted Point, which has similar views of Half Dome, was ruled out as too far away and the view too obstructed by Mount Watkins among other bits of granite and trees.

Google Earth view of Watkins and Half Dome

Google Earth view of Watkins and Half Dome.

As Sean states in the video, we hauled in the end 5 cameras and tripods plus all our assorted backpacking gear and water over a 5 mile hike with 1800 feet of gain up to the summit of Mount Watkins. Two cameras were dedicated to time lapse, and 3 cameras were dedicated to capturing stills, or longer exposures that would be added together to make the stills. For cameras, we had the following:

Canon 6D with Rokinon 24mm F1.4. – Time lapse camera for wide view of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Glacier Point
Canon 5D Mark III with Zeiss Otus 85mm F1.4 – Rented, ridiculously sharp lens getting the close-up view of Half Dome for the time lapse
Canon 6D with Rokinon 50mm F1.4 – Camera capturing vertical images of the Milky Way over Half Dome but also time lapsing to capture the light trail
Sony A7R Mark II with Zeiss 25mm Batis F2 – Capturing long 8 minute exposures for the wide view of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Glacier Point to stack into star trails
Sony A7R Mark I with Zeiss 100mm Milvus F2 – Capturing long 8 minute exposures for the Half Dome closeup view to stack into star trails

For the time lapse cameras we had LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries powering the cameras all night and for the Sony cameras we just had a stack of Sony batteries since those cameras use lots of power. All told, our packs combined between camping gear and cameras totaled over 110 pounds, or about 55 pounds each. You feel that weight in ever step I can tell you! As it became dark, Wade was making his way from the valley floor up the back around Half Dome to get to the start of the Cable Route. We could communicate vie walkie talkie, telling stories and signaling when it was time to ascend or descend. In addition to his headlamp, Wade had a small lantern to help light up the trail around him in all directions as he hiked. There was no one else around hiking Half Dome at night that we could see. He had the whole thing to himself and enjoyed that quite a bit.

Post processing entailed adding the 8 minute exposures together for the sky and light trail, and averaging them for the ground to reduce noise. Grouping lots of images into one Photoshop file so you can combine them as an Smart Object for averaging makes for very large files (more than 10GB) and I am going to save detailed description of that tedious task for another post. My Sony cameras made a lot of noise! But in the end the images speak for themselves.

Here are some more views from along the way.

Dayligh view from Watkins

Daylight view from Watkins

Cloud's Rest (right) and Tenaya Canyon

Cloud’s Rest (right) and Tenaya Canyon

Yosemite Valley, 4000 feet below

Yosemite Valley, 4000 feet below

North Dome and Beyond

North Dome and Beyond

Last Light on Half Dome

Last Light on Half Dome

And finally a parting look

Half Dome Sunrise

Half Dome Sunrise

Tree Over Half Dome

Tree Over Half Dome

C o n n e c t
F l i c k r

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