Frontrange Imaging

Yoho Stars, Sept 2014

Hike to Stanley Mitchell

Takakkaw Falls from iceline trail

Takakkaw Falls from iceline trail

No matter how many times I have seen Takakkaw Falls, the magnitude, beauty and roar of it always amaze me. I climbed the rock route next to it earlier this year, a fun and stunning route, and we talk about the quality of Rockies rock while getting ready in the parking lot in Yoho Valley.

We hike up the Iceline Trail to Little Yoho Valley to the Stanley Mitchell hut. The day is warm and beautiful, with a few puffy cumulus clouds in the sky, and the Iceline trail gives us spectacular views of Takakkaw falls and the Waputik icefields that feed it.

Stanley Mitchell hut

Stanley Mitchell hut

We get to the hut just before 5:00, and it’s full of fun folk, with a big group of 14, and then my long-lost friends Char and Francois show up with their kids. Julia is cooking up a giant pot of borsch that will end up feeding her, and everybody else in the valley, for the next 5 days.

Saturday Evening Stars

Sunset over Little Yoho Valley

Sunset over Little Yoho Valley

My main goal for the weekend is to capture the magnificent Milky Way above the President Range. I’ve been in this valley before and scoped out the view, and this weekend the moon will be below the horizon, ensuring very dark skies. Of course, the weather is the big unknown. It’s been questionable all week, but the forecast improved towards the end of the week and the Friday forecast was for clear skies, both from the excellent Mountain Forecast and Clear Dark Skies websites.

I’ve hauled all 10lbs of night-photography gear in to Stanley Mitchell hut, so have been keeping a keen eye on the sky all day, watching the clouds come and go. This evening the sky is about 30% cloud, but they are small cumulus clouds, which I’m hoping are just the result of the daily accumulation of moisture in the atmosphere from solar heating.

Crescent moon heading behind President summit

Crescent moon heading behind President summit

In a entire year, there really are only about two good weeks for photographing the very rich southern Milky Way in Canada. During the dark winter months the southern Milky Way (around Sagittarius) is far below the horizon, and during the spring and early summer the sky is too bright (due to the long days at our northern latitude) and often rainy. Each month has only about one week on either side of the new moon to provide nice dark skies. Add in the variable weather and social, work or other commitments that conspire to keep one from getting outside. Fortunately it all comes together in September, when we often have nice clear weather, the sky has been cleared of dust by the first snow falls, and the summer haze from forest-fires is gone.

The plan is to hike up a trail north of the hut, into the moraines towards Isolated Col, to get a good perspective on the President and Vice President peaks, with the southern Milky Way soaring above. But there’s no point going up there if the sky is not going to clear!

Sunset on the Louise Group of peaks

Sunset on the Louise Group of peaks

7:00 is my decision time, and I’m off up the trail behind the hut, with a pack full of camera and bivy gear. The sky still has a few remnant cumulus clouds but I’m hoping they will clear as it cools off after sunset. Hoof up the good trail through the forest towards the col under a gorgeous sky that is still 30% cloud, now glowing brilliant yellow. Should have left an hour earlier to enjoy the sunset! From the hut it’s only about 35 minutes to treeline, and I decide to stop at a closer knoll rather than go for a higher rocky bench, so as to still capture the tail end of the sunset. Take a couple shots with the big lens and then setup the fisheye lens and shoot a time lapse of the darkening sky, from about 7:50 to 9:00.

The evening cools off quickly, and by 8:45 I have all my clothes on, including heavy long underwear and a big puffy jacket. The bivy bag is setup, with a thick air mattress and warm down sleeping bag, and is wonderful to lie on while studying the sky above, getting darker and richer with stars by the minute.

By 9:30 the sky is fully dark, with no residual glow of daylight visible in the 15-second exposures and I stop the time lapse. Then I decide to do a some “selfies” with the headlamp beaming out into the universe. Futzing around with this takes another 1/2 hour, by which point the Milky Way has moved quite a bit to the west and is no longer close to the Presidents. There is also a fair amount of glow in the sky tonight, filling the sky near the horizon with a greenish / yellow light. Annoying for photography, but it’s a natural phenomena, caused by the ionization of oxygen (green) or sodium (yellow) in the atmosphere.

Under 100 billion stars

Under 100 billion stars

The sky glow does not fade and the day-time moisture, evidenced by the cumulous clouds in the afternoon, is constantly condensing on the camera lens. Frustrated by both these issues, I pack it in around 12, with the Milky Way still straight overhead, a glowing band stretching from horizon to horizon. The constellation of Cygnus, the swan, is slowly rotating to the north and setting, while in the east, Pleiades appears over the ridge. I crawl into the bag and get some sleep. Sleeping out under the stars can be a little chilly, but the astounding beauty makes it an amazing experience. Whenever you open your eyes while drifting off to sleep, there, in glowing spender, are the billions of stars that make up our home galaxy!

Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades in the 4:00 am sky

Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades in the 4:00 am sky

After a few hours of solid sleep, I wake up at 3ish to the sight of Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades soaring high over the Presidents! Despite the cold and my delirious state from lack of sleep know that I will have too get up and capture this. But first another quick bit of shut eye… Wake up again at quarter to 4 and those three gorgeous constellations are still there, now hanging just a bit further to the west. Shake myself awake and get mentally prepared to crawl out of the bag into the cold.

From 10:00 until 4:00 the sky has rotated 90 degrees, and now the northern Milky Way is situated to the south-east. The summer sky has dropped below the horizon and been replaced by the familiar constellations of the winter sky.

Drinking a thermos of tea tastes and feels fantastic, and helps me wake up as well as warm up. I’d guess it’s about -5C. Setup the tripod and star tracker again, which I had put away inside the backpack to keep from getting frosty overnight, then get the camera out and start shooting. The air is still humid, and the lens gets a thin coating of water on it by the end of even a one-minute exposure, so after every shot and repositioning of the camera I dry the lens off with a clean shirt before taking the next exposure. Becomes a tedious exercise, and I’m hoping the dew will not wreck the images. I could be sleeping instead of fighting with this most-annoying moisture that constantly clouds the lens…

The eastern sky starts to brighten as dawn approaches, and over the course of close an hour slowly turns different shades of blue as the stars disappear. Watching the transition from night to dawn to sunrises is one of the incredibly beautiful experiences life has to offer, especially out here, surrounded by spectacular wilderness.

Dawn over the Presidents

Dawn over the Presidents

Still delirious from lack of sleep, but excited and wide awake by the incredible beauty I’ve just witnessed, I stuff all the frozen and frosty gear back into the bag for the hike back down to the hut.

It’s nice to get back to the hut, see the place busy with all the folks, drink more tea and have some breakfast! Chatting with Char and Francois and their kids, Julia, and some of the others, I load up with a peanut butter bagel and a hunk of Francois’ banana bread and one of Julia’s donuts, down a bunch of warm tea and promptly pass out on the bench, the lack of sleep suddenly feeling overwhelming. The hut is a hurricane of activity, with the group of 14 also having breakfast and getting packed to hike out, but I manage to sleep through it all.

Sunday, Kiwetinok Pass and Mt. Pollinger

Layered shale

Layered shale

Folded geology at the toe of the President Glacier

Folded geology at the toe of the President Glacier

After everybody is gone, Julia and I go for hike up to Kwitinok pass, turn right at the lake and head up towards Mt. Pollinger, an easy scramble. My energy is just gone, and I’m lagging behind as we hike up to the lake. Around the lake and up big boulders of a mixture of limestone and shale, layered in patterns that when weathered reveal beautiful contours. Beautiful rocks, but it’s tedious picking our way among the car-to-house-sized boulders. Working slowly, energy low, we finally get up the ridge.

President glacier. Ski tourers, note the crevasses!

President glacier. Ski tourers, note the crevasses!

The peak is to the east along the broad ridge of very funky shaped limestone, and we decide not to push on, but stop at a false summit with fantastic views all around. To the north is a group of heavily glaciated peaks, which we later identify as the Mummary Group. Pick our way slowly down and are back at the hut by 4. The sky has remained stunningly clear, a deep blue, with no clouds to be seen on any horizon. I’m excited about this opportunity to go shooting again tonight, but also a dreading it a bit as I’m so tired!

We talk about ideas for tomorrow and come up with the plan that I’ll go up to the higher viewing location, with all my gear, spend the night and then Julia will come up and join me in the morning so we can hike Whaleback. That’s going to be some work, hauling my heavy pack up 600m to the ridge, but the views hiking the 2km of the Whaleback should be worth it.

Julia has made an enormous pot of borsch, enough to feed her for at least a week, and I have no choice but to put down three bowls for dinner in the hut. Yum! But now I have to haul my dinner for tonight out, instead of eating it! Fortunately we have three new guests, Tom, Sue and Sharon, and I overhear them say they forgot their pasta. Well, do I have a deal for you! Of course, they all get bowls of borsch as well. I wish I could hang around and chat with them – fun folks, and the wine is starting to flow – but by 6:30 I’ve packed all my stuff into the bag and am heading up the trail again. One slow step at a time up the trail towards Isolated Col, and somehow the bag feels even heavier than it did on Saturday.

Sunday night, more stars

After and hour and a half of heading up the trail towards Isolated Col, I’ve found a nice viewpoint, across the stream and up and over a lateral moraine to the edge of flat spot. There’s a grand view of the Presidents and a decent view south, with a long ridge to the west. The flat spot looks like it occasionally catches water, and is perfectly flat, which will make a great place to sleep and a excellent place to set up the tripod, but it is fairly exposed, about 200m higher than last night, and a bit windy. Going to be cold! Unload the pack and put every piece of clothing I have on: thin and thick long underwear, fresh warm socks, three shirts, one soft shell jacket, a toque, and a puffy jacket over top. The atmosphere seems much drier today, and I am hoping that the condensation problems, that were such a nuisance last night, will be better tonight. Also yesterday’s sky glow is much reduced tonight. I have no idea why the sky glow varies from night-to-night.

Once the camera gear and bivy bag are setup it’s about 8:30 and time for a nap while the sky turns fully dark. Lay down on top of the bag and get about 15 minutes of sleep, then wake up feeling much better. Start writing this journal while the sky continues to darken, then focus the camera and start shooting the Milky Way over the Presidents, the shot I did not get last night!

Click to zoom into the high-resolution mosaic. Frames are 2-minute exposures, 28mm lens at f4.5, ISO 1000.

It’s come together tonight: the weather, the location and the season! The setup here on the edge of the moraine is perfect, with a great sitting rock right behind the tripod so I can be writing this journal on the iPad or gazing up at the sky while the camera and Astrotrac whirl and capture the universe above. As hoped, the air is dry and there are no condensation issues at all tonight! Perfect conditions!

The multiple 28mm lens frames assembled here cover roughly 110 degrees horizontally, east-to-west, and maybe 120 degrees vertically, south-to-north.

Deep Sky Objects

I had two main photographic goals this trip: first to capture a large chunk of the night sky over the big peaks in the Yoho valley, and second to capture the Sagittarius region at the core of the Milky Way, which is best observed (in Canada) in late August and September.

Sagittarius region

Sagittarius region

The Sagittarius region is incredibly rich in nebulosity and clusters, with 19 objects in Messier’s classic catalog visible here, and more below the horizon.

Of the dozens of deep-sky objects in this image, I was able to just capture two fascinating ones that were barely above the horizon. Orbiting around the bulge at the centre of our galaxy – a bulge that is clearly visible here as the bright, wide part of the Milky Way at the horizon – are well over 100 globular clusters. These ancient balls of stars are typically nearly as old as the Universe itself, and contain around 100,000 stars packed into a tight sphere. And because they orbit fairly close to the centre of our galaxy, most of the brightest ones are in the southern sky.


Messier 55 globular cluster. Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Messier 55 is an globular cluster of about 100,000 stars who’s age is estimated at 12.7 billion years. It is just barely visible above the west ridge of the President, in the constellation Sagittarius. One of the most detailed images of this stellar gem is shown above, from the European Southern Observatory.

Helix Nebula, composite image by Hubble Space Telescope and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Helix Nebula, composite image by Hubble Space Telescope and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

The Helix nebula is also barely visible as a fairly large, dim fuzzy spot to the left of the Vice President, below the constellation Aquarius. This unimpressive little fuzz-spot is actually a massive shell of gas ejected by a dying star, and is expanding into space between 30 and 40 kilometers per second (over 100,000km/h). Best viewed from a safe distance.

For me, this is what is so fascinating about astronomy – it is infinitely deep! The big picture; the full expanse of the sky on a dark night, is absolutely stunning! And the closer and harder you look, with more equipment and more energy and effort, the more detail you see, and the more beauty and complexity is revealed. It’s a true look in to the infinite.

Cassiopeia and neighbours

After finishing capturing the southern sky, I switch lenses and overhead targets and move to the high eastern sky, where Cassiopeia and Andromeda are suspended in the midst of the northern Milky Way. This is also a very rich region of the sky, with the large and (relatively) nearby Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies easily captured by the 50mm lens.

Cassiopeia and Andromeda

Cassiopeia and Andromeda

Daily trivia: the Andromeda galaxy is the closest major galaxy to our own and, at 2.3 million light-years, the farthest object that you can easily see with your naked eye.

Nearby to Andromeda is another of our galactic neighbours, the Triangulum galaxy, M33. At 50,000 light-years in diameter, it is about half the size of our own Milky Way, and the third-largest galaxy in our local group of galaxies, after Andromeda and the Milky Way.

Hiking out Whaleback

Moraine bivy site at dawn

Moraine bivy site at dawn

The experience of waking up high in the alpine is amazing! Watching the sky slowly brighten and the “golden hour” of light sweep across the land and cast long shadows is incredibly beautiful. By around 9 in the morning I’m all packed up and Julia has hiked up from the hut to meet me and hike out over Whaleback Ridge.

Hiking up toward Whaleback, with Isolated glacier behind

Hiking up toward Whaleback, with Isolated glacier behind

First light on the glacier east of the Vice President

First light on the glacier east of the Vice President

There are two normal routes to Stanley Mitchell hut in the Little Yoho valley. The valley trail is quick, direct and easy, while the very popular Iceline Trail climbs up above treeline on the south side of the valley to a high bench and wanders through recently de-glaciated terrain and past some remnant glaciers before dropping through moraines. The third route is not an official hiking trail, but a scramble route up steep terrain on the north side of the valley that gains the crest of Whaleback Ridge and follows it most of the way to Isolated Col and then down to the hut. It adds an extra 600m vertical to the regular route, but offers superb views south to the Presidents, west to Isolated Peak, and north to the peaks of the Wapta Icefields, Yoho Peak, Collie, Rhonda and Gordon.

Julia photographing the valley cloud rolling in

Julia photographing the valley cloud rolling in

As we hike along the ridge, thin high clouds come streaming from the SW around mid-morning, then puffy valley cloud rolls into the Little Yoho valley up from the main valley. At the end of the ridge you need to scramble down steep, loose, vertically-tilted strata to get to the hiking trail. A bit of obstacle, but I’d highly recommend the route, if you’re comfortable with steep scrambling, as a longer but super-scenic alternative out from Stanley Mitchell!

Thanks for the fun weekend Julia!

Darren Foltinek, 2014.

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