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Capturing winter wonderland

Catherine McLennan takes over husband Chris’ column this issue, and talks about her experience following Chris to the icy-cold depths of the US

24 December 2015


Catherine McLennan takes over husband Chris’ column this issue, and talks about her experience following Chris to the icy-cold depths of the US

Catherine McLennan

For nearly 10 years Chris has been trying to get me to join him on one of his trips to the US. For some reason I am always dragging my feet and coming up with excuses, most of which are based on the winter temperatures involved, as he is usually over there for ski shoots. This year was no different. Chris was scheduled to be at Snowshoe Resort in West Virginia, followed by a quick stop in Colorado. As always, the temperatures were extreme, and we experienced a couple of minus-25 days during Chris’ ski shoot at Snowshoe, but it seemed Colorado would be slightly more bearable, as the forecast was showing a temperature of minus three. How could I refuse?

When you are married to someone who jet sets across the world, armed only with a bunch of cameras, a roll of gaffer tape, and a woolly hat, there finally comes a time when you have to stand tall and put your best foot forward. Although in my case my feet weren’t going anywhere until I had my fluffy, white eskimo boots in my suitcase — a gift from one of Chris’ previous attempts to get me into winter climes — which he insisted I bring, and which I vehemently denied I would ever wear. Regardless, my bags were ultimately packed, and I was on my way to Colorado where I would meet Chris in Denver before driving through to Vail. Expected elevation, 2475 metres: current temperature, minus one degree: risk of developing frostbite if I didn’t wear my stupid eskimo boots, high. 

After a couple of days off in Vail, which was just as gorgeously glitzy as I had imagined, and a quick shoot in Avon, it was holiday time. We hit the highway and headed south with the intention of exploring Utah. We had 10 days up our sleeves before our homeward flight out of Las Vegas, and a huge American four-wheel-drive rental at our disposal. Think big — his-and-hers air conditioning, fancy stereo, heated seats, cruise control … all of which was of no use whatsoever when we slid off the side of the road on Scenic Highway 24, just out of Hanksville, during a snowstorm. It’s not as scary as it sounds — we had actually pulled off to take a photo, but the snow was covering a very thick layer of silt-like mud, which coated our tyres and meant we wouldn’t get up the bank and back onto the road any time soon. Considering the town motto was, “Where the hell is Hanksville,” it was fortunate we were able to wave down a couple of pleasantly inebriated — and very friendly — locals who went home to get a chain (of the towing sort, not the tie-them-up-and-torture-them sort) to pull us out. 

Hanging Lake, Glenwood Canyon, Colorado; Nikon D810, 24–70mm, f/16, 3s, ISO 31

Our first stop after leaving Avon was Glenwood Springs, in Colorado. This was a location Chris had visited before when he hiked up to Hanging Lake in the summer. It was while having coffee in ‘Sticky Fingers’, a tiny and very quirky cafe in Minturn, that we noticed a stunning picture on the wall of Hanging Lake in winter. With a little research we discovered that the hike was passable with the addition of some chains to provide grip on the bottom of our hiking boots. A bottle of water and a few energy bars later, and we were kitted up and ready to go. Climbing the steep track through snow, over black-sheet ice, and alongside some fairly steep cliffs, was a fast introduction to America’s great winter landscapes, and the best way to set the adventurous mood of our holiday. The weather was fairly warm, at about four or five degrees by midday, so the waterfall was not fully frozen — though it was still stunning nonetheless. After patting myself on the back for such a sterling effort making it up the steep climb, the ‘fun’ part was actually on the way down, the results of which were felt for the next few days.

View from our riverside suite at Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab; Nikon D810, 24–70mm, f/8, 2.5s, ISO 200

From Glenwood Springs we continued across the border and into Utah — first stop Moab. We could have spent weeks here, not just the three days that we allowed ourselves. Driving alongside the winding Colorado river, with vertical red cliffs all around, it was hard to know which way to look, so when Chris suddenly pulled off the road, told me to “come quick” and leaped from the truck, I thought that he’d seen a body floating in the river. But no, the light was hitting Castle Rock in the distance and we needed to photograph it — like right now, before the light disappeared. Good photography is definitely all about timing and light, and this was just another instance during our trip when we seemed to turn up somewhere stunning at just the right moment. 

Sunset at Arches National Park, Moab; Nikon D810, 14–24mm, f/16, 1/3s, ISO 64, exposure bias +1.7 steps

Moab is a wealth of scenic sights, with Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park headlining the numerous natural rock features prevalent in this area. We spent most of our time simply driving around and exploring, at one point taking an hour to drive the 14km stretch of road alongside the Colorado River from our suite at Red Cliffs Lodge into Moab, due to our many stops, followed by a full day at Arches National Park. The park contains the largest number of natural stone arches in the world — over 2000 — and features a scenic drive that twists and turns through a seemingly endless landscape of dramatic and ever-changing sandstone rock formations. We hiked and climbed and explored and photographed, not wanting to leave when the sun finally set and darkness sent us home.

For me, part of being on holiday was leaving my phone switched off and reverting to non-digital forms of entertainment. This involved hunching over a paper map in the evenings, deciding where we were going to drive the next day. We chose the scenic back routes 24 and 12 from Moab to Bryce Canyon, via Capitol Reef, and the Boulder pass at 2926 metres, and set out full of enthusiasm — despite the pending snowstorm. The roads are so well maintained in the US, with ploughs out from daylight onwards, that driving in the snow is more of a pleasure than a pain — other than if you leave the road, which we’d learned the hard way early on. But other than that one mishap, driving through the winter wonderland of snow-laden trees and pillow-topped fence lines was like something out of a storybook. We explored little walkways and scenic routes when we came across them, and travelled in the constant hope that we would find a decent New Zealand–style coffee at any of the tiny towns we passed through. If you ever end up in the area drop into Eklectica in Moab or Café Soleil in Zion for the best offerings. Along the way everything looked so attractive covered in snow that I even found myself photographing the public toilets at every rest stop, of which there were many because, Chris being concerned that I would suffer altitude sickness, he had me drinking gallons of water every day.

Natural Bridge at Bryce Canyon National Park; Nikon D810, 24–70mm, f/8, 1/640s, ISO 100, exposure bias +0.3 step

We arrived in Bryce Canyon to catch our first glimpse of this spectacular national park — and the red ‘hoodoos’ the area is known for — through a curtain of falling snow. Caused by seismic activity around 50 million years ago, the ornately carved and vermilion-hued cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau have sustained ongoing weathering from rain, streams, ice, snow, and wind, all of which have worked on the different rock layers to leave rock pillars, windows, balanced rocks, and other eerie, and sometimes human-like, formations bunched together in an amphitheatre-style setting. With the wind whipping the snow into stormy flurries, the views were wild and moody. And to top it off, I was in my eskimo boots and loving it — don’t tell Chris. It gave me an excuse to stomp through the two or three feet of fresh, powdery snow, ignoring the cleared trails and instead forging my own path just like the explorers of old … in my lime-green snow jacket and pocket hand warmers I was a more modern version, but you get my drift.

The following day dawned bright and clear. It had been the biggest snowfall they had experienced all season, and the park looked magical. On days like this I can see why Chris loves his job. I was already up to photo number 4287, though my hit rate is possibly not quite as good as his. But with both of us madly snapping away it was taking a long time to get anywhere fast.

The view from the Canyon Overlook trail at Zion National Park; Nikon D810, 14–24mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 400

We had booked yet another off-season-discounted-rate suite at Zion National Park, this being the largest one at 93 square metres. We were frustrated by the overcast weather, but we nevertheless made the hike up the Canyon Overlook trail, only to be stunned by the view from the top, which we wouldn’t have appreciated if the sun was out in full force — the valley was very steep, so the left-hand side would have been completely in the shade. I would have liked to have spent more time here exploring some of the longer hikes and trails in the park, which promised spectacular scenery, and seemed fairly intrepid as well.

From Zion it was back to civilization (if you could call a night in Las Vegas an accurate representation of civilization) before our flight home to New Zealand. Considering the US had never been on my list as a must-see destination (having been there as a 16-year-old and driven the west coast with my parents, I didn’t feel there was much else I was missing), I was surprised at just how much the US had to offer, and how sad I was to be going home. As Kiwis we tend to blow our own trumpet a bit, and I always thought we had things down pat when it came to welcoming tourists and putting on a good show. I have had to eat some humble pie in recognizing how well the US does so many things. The roads had no roadworks, no boy racers, no traffic cops, and everyone drives to the speed limit. The people were great, with the best example being the car-park attendant who asked if we’d like to hear a song, before proceeding to play his guitar and sing us an original song from his ticket booth as we left the parking building. The scenery shows our mountains as little hills compared to those in the US. The accommodation, where we stayed in suites at every stop, ranged from US$125 to US$179 per night. The prices in the US stand out, it only cost us US$27 to fill our truck with petrol, and $3 for a 24-pack of mineral water. And the food was great, with the best meal being coconut shrimp at Bubba Gump Shrimp in Las Vegas. Everything was spectacular, and I can only hope Chris will try and drag me over there again, fluffy white eskimo boots and all.

This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 66. Missing this issue from your collection? You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: