My first storm chase: Limon, Colorado – June 2019

My first real storm chase began with a drive and a good guess from metro Denver. Late June usually sees the end of the tornado / severe weather systems that wreak havoc on the eastern plains and into the wider ‘tornado alley’ of the connected U.S.

Having made just about every mistake I could have the first night I attempted to go get some lightning shots, I had a strategy this time and planned to stick to it come hell or highwater. I headed east on highway 70 and figured that Limon was a good starting place since it had roads that split in all directions like spokes on a wheel.

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Considering the majority of the tornado-warned storms had passed through the area for the year already I wasn’t too worried about getting caught in some crazy tornado, but the chances were good for tracking down a supercell – as long as I could avoid the hail. As I drove out of the city I refreshed the lessons I have been studying about storm tracking, but overall I had no real idea if my general destination would yield tangible results. It’s still guesswork at best. Or was, since I “guessed” right (based on my rudimentary knowledge.)

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As I pulled into Limon to wait for what’s called “initiation” (a storm going from messy cell to a ‘supercell shape’ as it traverses across open, flat land) I stopped for a Red Bull, thinking that if all went as planned I wouldn’t be home until well after 10pm. I checked Twitter casually and saw one of the handles I follow, Pawnee Storm Chasers, was also in Limon and looking to talk shop. Never one to miss an opp to ask a million questions to people smarter than myself, I replied that I’d head over to the parking lot where they were.

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After chatting for a bit they agreed to let me follow them – a wall cloud and severe thunderstorm-warned storm had developed on the cell we were tracking to the west and it was time to go. They had the jump on the other chasers by at least 10 entire minutes – it seemed the cell everyone else was tracking on the Spotter app was a dud, and you could see the little red dots change direction to the south after they realized their error.)

I’m glad no one else was there when I got out of my Jeep. I had never seen a supercell and I lost my damn mind. It was incredible. The storm is contained to a single mass of moisture on the Doppler, but the in-real-life scale of it is insane. Day turns to night and the speed of its rotation and velocity was so much faster than I could have imagined. Forget setting a timelapse to one shot every 10 seconds – this was one every two seconds, and even one frame per second would have probably been the better way to go.


Other important tips? Look both ways before crossing the road. For reals. In the few minutes of me jumping around screaming at this dark grey-blue mothership of a weather phenomenon, dozens of chasers showed up. All of a sudden ‘the middle of nowhere’ was very busy. I had no time for a second set up, which was fine since I discovered the ballhead on my tripod had busted and I had wasted precious minutes having my mental freakout at the sky. Turns out you get about 5-10 minutes (max) until you need to clear out of the way because it turns out these harbingers of icey tornadic doom go haul about 40-50 miles per hour.

Here’s me, burning rubber south like an idiot ten minutes later trying to swing under the RFD (the Rear Flanking Downdraft) for the shot. The red square is the tornado warning area, the yellow is the severe thunderstorm warning area. Also: never ever ever do this.

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In Colorado, the tornados are F0/1 most of the time with the occasional F2 to the south or north eastern corners where the state meets Kansas / Nebraska. Supercells march east and cycle up or down in their size and strength and that’s where you get the F3, 4’s and 5’s that do major damage and kill people. Several chasers have died this way when a tornado has shifted tracks or they get caught in a microburst. This storm being an exponential fraction of a larger, more intense storm you’d see to the east is my rationale but it was a dumb mistake that won’t happen again.

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I caught back up with the Pawnee guys back in Limon, with the cell just a few minutes behind us. While they quickly filled up with gas, I snapped the above pic of the first Mammatus clouds I’ve ever seen. Mammatus clouds form on the underside of the anvil, which usually blows out ahead of the actual cell core due to stronger wind shear at higher elevations (30-40-50,000 feet.)

Weather.gov has a great side shot of a supercell that shows what an anvil looks like. You’ve seen them, but you probably didn’t know what they were called:

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One thing that surprised the absolute hell out of me in a day of surprises was the strength of the inflow to the storm. I asked one of the guys what they thought they windspeed was and they said a good 40mph. It was so much stronger than I expected – I am definitely going to need heavier tripods.

We pulled out of Limon and were booking it to a town called Hugo to the southeast of the that same cell when I had to pull off to get the below picture. There was this horse in a field with a cow, and no other animals around. I approached the fence and you could tell they weren’t used to people approaching them and they both showed signs of nervousness. I talked to them and was as calm as I could be as what appeared to be a possible tornado was forming near the RFD:

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I was out there about 6-7 minutes and the amount of times the storm changed in those few minutes was mindboggling. I saw two possible tornados forming, rotation in the wall cloud in different spots that started to form a funnel but then didn’t, and the whole time the thing was getting closer and closer. These things are truly spectacular – several variations of those few minutes are included in the gallery at the bottom of this post.

Afterward, I caught up with the guys again who had some video of the rotation in the back of the storm. After much scrutiny and disagreement on Twitter, they put in a call to NOAA the next day to confirm that a small tornado had briefly formed. Not a bad first day for me, everyone agreed on that.

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The cell had cycled down by that point (two hours!) and we joined another couple of chasers – one of whom, I am told, was very very famous – and figured out what everyone’s next move would be. I didn’t hang out long after that –   The temperature was cooling down so the cells were blowing themselves out. Pretty though. Also,  I knew I had quite a drive home and it seemed the chase was way further east now, near the border of Kansas. Too far for me as much as I’d have loved to have kept chasing and just gotten a motel room somewhere. I thanked my new friends and started northwest back home.

I read the next morning on Twitter that some chasers had followed the cells into Kansas and been surprised by a microburst as they were pulling off a cell and everyone got their windows busted in from large hail. That sucks.

On the way back I managed to grab one more amazing supercell – a small, dark mothership looming in my direction. I pulled off the highway and nabbed this:

The beginning of the cell passing over me, caught with my iPhone. For scale, the white things on the horizon were water towers that weren’t too far away and also not more than 15-20 feet tall.

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I stood directly under this mothership supercell as it passed over me (the core was far to my south) and slack-jaw marveled at how low and dark the clouds were. It felt like I could just reach up and my hand would disappear into the dark black and blue fog. Warm inflow turned to icey cold outflow and a minute later I was being pelted by random nickel-sized hail, probably flung up in the cell above the core and out of the back of the system in the RFD – it was blue sky over my head when it started coming down, if that’s any indication of the wind associated with these storms. It wasn’t a lot, but it certainly startled me. Another lesson learned in a day of lessons.

There are storms all summer out here, but the bulk of the tornado-warned systems occur in May / June, so I have to probably wait a bit until I get more footage. The real chasers who do this professionally have all gone north to Canada this week, where Reed Timmer is posting some serious action from Saskatchewan if you want to see much better footage and photos of these kinds of storms.

Also, I would be remiss in posting this blog if I didn’t shout out a thanks to Pawnee Storm Chasers for letting me crash their day. They checked on me when we got split up to make sure I was ok, and were super knowledgeable about these systems. Check them out at https://twitter.com/PawneeStorm for some good photos and videos.

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Tornado-warned supercell SW of Limon, Colorado, June 21

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So I live in Colorado now and I’m never leaving (for now.)

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For the past….ten years…. or so I knew I’d be leaving Los Angeles at some point. For the past five years I knew I’d be leaving California altogether. Earlier this winter, knowing the baby numero dos was on the way, my backpack and I made several trips to the Denver / Boulder area and within five weeks was closed on a beautiful house in between Denver and Boulder.

With the pregnancy, the move, a curious and ceaselessly energetic toddler and the inevitable 9-5 grind it has been a strikingly long time since I picked up a camera or hit the nature trail (though I did get to go camping in January in Death Valley.) Along with a massive and slow seasonal melt, all of that is starting to change.

I started this blog as I learned to use a nice camera I purchased. I still have a long way to go in terms of honing my skills but I at least know how to use the equipment now. The things I’ve learned along the way have had little to do with the actual gear, and more about learning to work with nature and the thousand forces that affect what I’m trying to accomplish.

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The latest – and among the top of the heap in terms of importance – is the weather in Colorado. Specifically, the weather along the eastern plains once you get east of the city of Denver. Because the weather here will try to kill you if you are not careful.

Baseball sized hail, tornadoes, electrical storms. All of these are new to me because I’m from California where all we really worry about are earthquakes every 50 years or so. I’ve been studying local weather patterns relentlessly: convergence zones, dry lines, dew points, wind shear, storm fronts, low pressure, high pressure, various types of clouds, wedge tornadoes, rope tornadoes, funnel clouds, dustnadoes, inflow, outflow, down drafts,  super cells, front line cells, multi cells, where the bear cage is and most of all: Doppler and how to read those funny colorful pixels on a map.

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I am now a certified storm spotter, and learning to read Doppler has been a huge help in teaching me about storm tracks, positioning and planning.

Best of all, there’s been a lot of times so far in just the two months I’ve been here that I haven’t had to go more than steps out of my backyard to catch a killer electrical storm.

So as I learn how not to die in this new environment, please enjoy my latest shots!

 

 

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How the Shot Was Got Episode V: 2018

Hello! I am back with a mother of a video – episode five of my dumb behind the scenes series of my various trips combines several trips I look in 2018 to nab some timelapses, all of which you can check out below or by searching for timelapses on this page.

It’s a bit of a longer video than the other ones, but it’s got snaps of *all* the places I went, a snoring dog, a demon tree god, dozens of lakes, a good soundtrack, a cabin in the woods and a sweet emo ending to the dulcet tones of Joey Ramone. It pays off so give it a whirl.

Overall, a lot of what you see and places I went was….. hard. And awesome. I think the most memorable for me was that I was able to explore the Golden Trout Wilderness, which is the most remote part of the entire Sierra Nevada range – no roads come close to it except for on its north side, and that puts you at the top of an incredibly large section of the range that you have to hike (or ride, in this case) in order to see any part of it. Thanks to Rock Creek Pack Station for making that happen.

Other locations include the John Muir Wilderness, King’s Canyon, parts of Inyo National Forest, Yosemite National Park and Death Valley.

I had a blast, and can’t wait to return. Special shout out to Erika, the fastest hiker alive.

Check out the video below and leave a comment if you feel so inclined!

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Death Valley, January 2019

It took getting a new camera for me to remember that still photography is a thing. I’ve been so focused over the last few years of hauling out to a location to timelapse a weather event or meteor event that I forgot how much fun it can be to just take a single photo.

This feels like the hundredth time I’ve been out to Death Valley (and it might be), but this time it was unique: I got to take my 20-year-old cousin out there and introduce her to one of the most remote, disparately grand places on Earth.

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We started at the Devil’s Racetrack after an incredibly cold night at ~25 degrees. Waking up to the sound of complete nothingness and seeing the expanse of that valley, she was already impressed but when we reached the racetrack itself and she saw the moving rocks her mind was blown.

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With a full three days planned to see the western/northern ends of the park, I wasted no time in setting up my cameras to capture the moving skies overhead. We managed to skirt the rain all weekend, which was a blessing since I know how fast the water can accumulate and start wrecking the place.

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From there we hauled down south to Badwater the next day after back country camping in a secret spot I know. The weather did not disappoint – it was cold, but in the low 60s, which was perfect for hiking way out onto the dry lakebed itself. She really got a sense of scale after the first 2 miles and we were only a third of the way to where we were trying to be and not even close to the halfway point on the lakebed itself.

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For me, almost nothing is better than introducing a place like this to a new person who maybe hasn’t seen a lot of what California has to offer in terms of diverse landscapes and interesting places to visit. I also was able to grab about a dozen new timelapses of the various areas we visited since I was rocking my new D850. With a 90MB size for each raw still frame, though, it will be a while until I have time to edit all of them (glad for my fast processor and my 1080 Nvidia card…)

The full gallery is below.

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Ode: Domum – a visual poem-song to the Sierra Nevada (Timelapse)

An Ode is defined as ‘a poem meant to be sung.’

‘Domum’ is Latin for ‘home.’

Ode: Domum is my fifth and final entry into my Ode timelapse series focuses solely on a place I feel so at home: on the eastern and mid-Sierra Nevada range. The footage extends from the most remote places of the Golden Trout Wilderness to the south, to as far north as Yosemite National Park’s Tioga Pass Road. Some of the places will be instantly recognizable like Yosemite’s iconic Tunnel View and Mammoth’s Crystal Crag, while other places are so rarely visited like the remote Lower Hopkins Lake and Pioneer Basin. In the end, no image (animated or otherwise) can do justice in communicating the experience of being there, but I’ve sure had fun trying.

It’s a strange feeling to fall in love with a physical place, especially one as impossibly vast as the Sierra range, and any attempts to describe how that feels sounds crazy. I’ve spent the majority of whatever free time I can over the past 8 years crawling over as many of the trails that my aging knees can manage, desperate to see as much as I can of this truly infinite and deeply mystical place.

One technical note: The fidelity of this particular timelapse compilation is not as high as I’d have liked it to be, as much of the footage captured was done with a GoPro Hero 4 and an iPhone, which are much lighter to travel with when hiking long distances in the backcountry but not visually superior to my Nikons. But it depicts so many of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and will never forget.

Some of the footage is grainy, some of it shakes, but all of it was captured with a deep sense of wonder and a need to share it with people who love it as much as I do and people who maybe might visit some part of it one day.

I also took care to highlight each location – some of the footage was shot years ago, so I did my best from memory (and quite a few minutes pouring over maps looking for whatever obscure trail I was on…) If there’s a mistake it was not intentional.

Soundtrack: Ryzu: Ennui (Waffle Edit)

Yours in continuing adventure,
PT

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Ode: Noctis – a timelapse of the night sky

This entry into my “Ode” series pays tribute to the night sky, which I first learned to shoot in 2013 standing at tunnel view in Yosemite. Everything changed for me when I realized photography didn’t have to end after sundown, and I’ve spent countless evenings in the high Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert and anywhere else I could find without too much light pollution staying up all night listening to the shutters click on my cameras. There’s something so amazing to me about capturing star trails in night timelapses, like I’m capturing a secret dance I’m not supposed to see.

If you would like to see more in the Ode series, please check out Tempus Vernum (springtime), and Meritum (deserts) on this blog page. I am currently working on my next Ode, titled Domum (home), which will be a supercut of my best timelapses of the various eastern parts of the Sierra Nevada, the place I consider home.

Soundtrack: Main Theme from the upcoming GRIS from Devolver Digital and Nomada Studios, and the game is as beautiful as the song – check it out at grisgame.com and the composer – Berlinist – at http://www.berlinistmusic.com/.

More shoddy photography work at http://www.lessthanamateur.com.

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Golden Trout Wilderness… Finally

I have wanted to see what the Golden Trout Wilderness is like for a number of years now, and this week I finally got the chance to go pretty deep into it thanks to a trip with Rock Creek Pack Station.

There will be more to come, along with footage shot for a new timelapse series I’m working on (two, actually) – a revamped “Sierra Nevada”-specific compilation, and a new compilation of just astral timelapses. I have a lot of free time on my hands this week so I hope to dig into both and have them posted up here soon.

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How the Shot Was Got Ep III: Shit Gets Weird When You Spend So Much Time Alone (behind the scenes of ODE: Meritum)

On trips over the last year or so I’ve started vlogging more when I’m out on these trips to shoot. It’s a lot of time just sitting around with nothing to do, and I get super bored really easily. I also get weird.

But the behind the scenes stuff is a neat little reminder of the end result and what was going on behind the camera at the time of that particular shot – how far I had to hike, how hot it was, or cold, and yes, in one case I felt like a van that cruised by really slowly (three times) while I was out in the middle of a high desert plain was casing my gear and I was fairly confident that I could be easily robbed that day.

While shooting the poppies I happened to have company that day along for the ride, and while out in the middle of the backroads we came across a man and a woman, the man had a camera and the women was wearing nothing except a fur coat. Super bloom, indeed.

The full film, ODE: Meritum, is here: https://vimeo.com/254797340

Enjoy my weirdness!

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Ode: Meritum – a desert timelapse film

Ode: Meritum is the second and latest timelapse film in the Ode series.

Locations for this film include the Mojave, including the Mojave National preserve; Death Valley National Park; Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills; Blythe, California; Sedona, Arizona; Cactus National Monument, Arizona; and several locations throughout Nevada and southern Arizona, including Pheonix and surrounding areas.

It is my ode to the American southwestern deserts and it’s taken an embarrassingly long two and a half years to finish. I wish I could go back to all of the people who happened upon me in random locations over the last 20 or so months who asked what I was shooting and then wrote down my URL, only to be disappointed that months would go by without an update. Specifically a botanist we happened upon who walked up to us in the literal middle of the desert during the super bloom in Death Valley because I’ve never been more shocked to see another human being in my life.

Merium means ‘desert’ in Latin. And if you follow this blog at all then you know I love nature and the mountains, but the desert holds a special place in my heart. The first time I ever went to Death Valley was the first time I had heard such enormously loud silence. The huge skies and the cloud formations that only deserts see was enough to get me hooked.

So this is my ode to deserts. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it.

– PT

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