Packing my camera for the ski trip to the Centennial Valley, I had one thing in mind. Mountains. Everyone has an affinity for a particular landscape. There are ocean people, like my husband, who look out on the ceaselessly undulating water and envision a magical world beneath, so independent of mankind, where exotic and strange creatures flourish. There are flatlanders who are happiest in big prairies where you never have to look up to see the sky, but only out to limitless vistas where any direction you turn is wide open possibility. There are forest people who love the cathedral like columns of tree trunks and the green leafy sky lights that enclose them.
And then there are mountain people. I am a mountain person and the Centennials are my sorts of mountains. Rising four thousand feet from the Centennial valley, they pierce the sky above nine thousand feet with their glacier-sculpted rugged slopes. I envisioned hours spent trying to capture their changing moods as the sun arced across their peaks, following their unique east/west orientation. On the fifteen mile snowmobile ride from Henry’s Lake to Elk Lake, the mountains towered over us, a promise of spectacular panoramas in the days ahead.
The next morning, however, as I skied out toward the Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge, the mountains had disappeared. Banks of storm clouds avalanched from their summits and down their slopes. Rather than jagged ridgelines and snow crusted peaks, I was faced with what looked like a giant wave about to break on the valley floor. I am not unfamiliar with disappearing mountains. I went to college in Tacoma, Washington and it was four weeks into my first term before Mount Rainier appeared one morning as if by magic, looming through my dorm window.
But I didn’t have four weeks. We were only going to be at Elk Lake for two days. The weather did not break. As I watched the sky for some sense the storm would move out, I began to really see the clouds. Not just that they obscured the mountains I wanted so badly to photograph, but I actually saw the clouds themselves, and the way they swept across the sky like brush strokes of paint, creating an ever changing abstract work of art over my head. I began to understand the attraction of the “big sky” which was more like a movie than the single-frame grandeur of the mountains.
The world gave me clouds and so I photographed clouds, trying to capture just a hint of their ephemeral beauty. I realized you could never go somewhere with the plan to photograph clouds. All you could do was take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself. After all, the mountains would always be there. Or not.