I don't remember what time my alarm went off the morning of our Subway hike, but I'm pretty sure it started with a "4." In order to limit human impact on this fragile area of land, Zion National Park has adopted a lottery system that cuts off at a maximum of 80 people per day. From looking online, I knew that today was maxed out. I realized that not all 80 people would be photographers; some would be doing the top-down technical route, some would be casual bottom-up hikers, and some would be photographers but would be getting a later start than we were. Nevertheless, I wanted to arrive well before sunrise to insure that we would get the shots we were after in relative peace.
Having packed up all of our gear the night before, we grabbed some breakfast and headed out. As we say in the south, "as the crow flies" the trailhead is not all that far from Zion Canyon. However, we are not crows, and it was a 45 minute car ride from our hotel. We pulled into the parking lot only to find that we would not be the first car to arrive that morning. There could only be one other person crazy enough to arrive before we did that day...
If you are reading this blog or if you have seen my videos, then odds are you know Ben Horne. And if you aren't familiar with Ben, you can change that right now by checking out his work here (benhorne.com) and his fantastic YouTube channel here (YouTube). I consider Ben to be a friend, yet I have no problem also saying he is my favorite photographer. Of course his images are amazing, but there's more to it. There is integrity in his work, if that makes any sense. When I see one of his images, I know that it's what the location looked like...even if it takes days for the light to cooperate. In this day of over-the-top processed images, it's nice to see an artist do things the right way. Also, I have learned a lot from Ben over the years, both indirectly through his videos and directly through email conversations. He is extremely knowledgeable and would make an excellent workshop instructor...
Although we were second to arrive, we quickly set out and were first on the trail well before sunrise. The first half mile of Subway is a relatively flat stretch of trail. Although it's flat, it is still easy to get lost as you pass over several washes that mimic the trail. If you have never hiked Subway before, I definitely do not recommend hiking in the dark on your first try. I have been once before and was aware of the washes, yet I still managed to get off trail twice.
After this flat part, you come to the descent, around 500 vertical feet and virtually straight down. If you took a wrong step here, it would not end well. It is on this part of the trail that Ben caught up to us. We talked for a bit, and then he took off. I'm a fast hiker, but am still amazed at the ground he covered and the weight he was carrying. Of course, it also helps that he could see. It is on this hike that I discovered that my headlamp was grossly underpowered. I have since remedied that, but it had a major impact on our hike that morning.
Eventually we reached the bottom of the trail, with the sound of the Left Fork of North Creek greeting us. Here the trail is a combination of clear paths, some not-so-clear paths, and rock-hopping across the water multiple times. The headlamp really became an issue at this point of the hike. Whenever the trail would dead-end at the water and we had to cross, there was not enough light to see where the trail picked back up on the other side. Also, while crossing the Left Fork, the water was pitch black beneath us. It is unsettling to be walking across rushing water and not be able to see it.
At one point, we really got off the beaten path. It's virtually impossible to get lost (after all, you're hiking in a river at the base of a canyon), but there are definitely paths of lesser resistance. We backtracked and bushwhacked a trail for about 15 minutes, always staying close to the water, and eventually found our way back to the trail. I cannot wait to use the new headlamp this year!
Finally, we were able to make out the first bits of light. I absolutely love experiencing a new day this way, being there for the transition from night to day. Finally able to see, our pace picked up quite a bit. As I tend to completely neglect rest and water, Marc was in charge of making me stop and take breaks from time to time. This was important as last year I became dangerously dehydrated on this trail. We took several breaks along the way, and this allowed a group of two photographers (let's refer to them hypothetically as the Workshop Guys) to pass us.
At first I didn't think much of it. However, as we started hiking I saw the Workshop Guys breaking out trash bags, and my heart sank. I knew exactly what they were doing; they were gathering leaves to throw in the emerald pools in Subway. The leaves would swirl in the water, an effect that would be noticeable in longer exposures. I didn't want anything taking away from that gorgeous color. However, they now were up to THREE trash bags full; a deep uneasiness set in.
We again picked up the pace in order to put as much space between us and them as possible. At this point in the hike, the canyon walls were noticeably closing in on us. Eventually, we reached the first set of slick rock cascades. These cascades (I don't know if they have a name or not...I always refer to them as NOT Archangel Falls) mark the point where most of your hiking is done in North Creek itself. Marc and Tommy decided to stop here and take their first image of the day. It's certainly a beautiful scene, but I wanted to make sure I arrived early to Archangel Falls.
I headed on and eventually made it to Archangel Falls just as Ben was exposing his last sheets of film. As he broke down his camera (it's obscenely heavy by the way), I started working on my composition. I had intended on taking a horizontal shot, but there was a slight problem. No matter how hard I tried, I could not compose horizontally without including the sky in the upper left of the image. This of course would be a distracting, blown-out area on the film...definitely not desirable. As I talked to Ben about it, he said he was able to get around this by using rear camera movements to enlarge the foreground. As I was using my wide angle lens, major movements like that are not possible for me; my filter system causes vignetting on my 90mm lens whenever I use movements. I know I need to upgrade, but to replace everything I have to the next larger filter size will cost me $1500. That's a tough pill to swallow!
Eventually I abandoned the landscape orientation and settled for a vertical image. I made sure not to cut off that large tree in the background or any of the white water in the foreground. I took two sheets each of both Fuji Velvia 50 and Kodak Ektar 100. Even though it was a very high contrast scene, the Velvia shot captured plenty of detail. I don't mind at all the dark areas beneath the slabs of sandstone; those areas were dark in real life!
I named this image Acte d'Ouverture...French for "Opening Act." Archangel Falls is the first of three main photographic opportunities in Subway, followed by the crack and Subway itself.
By this time, several other photographers started to filter in, including a guy shooting a RED Dragon! As it's rare to see these cameras doing still work (or any work for that matter...that's some serious high end gear), I asked the photographer about it. It turns out, he was on assignment for RED. They are really wanting to enter the fine art photography market and he was charged with gathering images from National Parks. This man is living my dream!!! Also arriving was Justin, the photographer I met in the Narrows a few days prior. If you're scoring at home, that's an 8x10, a RED Dragon, two 4x5's, and various DSLRs all at the base of Archangel Falls. That combination of cameras will NEVER be seen again!
I loaded up my gear and headed further upstream for the last half mile to Subway. While the Narrows wins as my favorite hike for its sustained beauty, there is nothing on Earth that compares to this last half mile of the Subway hike. At this point, the stream has thinned out to shallow sheets of water gently cascading over the brilliant red sandstone. The hike is almost exclusively in the water now, and the trail passes several waterfalls along the way. I had this part of the trail to myself and I savored every single step.
Another treat is passing "The Crack," a 3-4 inch gash in the sandstone that water rushes through. Whatever you do, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HOW SLIPPERY THE ROCK IS BEYOND THE CRACK!!! I had forgotten this and was not being careful with my steps. I suddenly found myself sliding down the sandstone, completely unable to stop or control where I was going; it might as well have been a sheet of ice. Eventually I stopped, thankful to not have fallen!
Much more carefully this time, I made my way toward Subway. As I approached its tubelike structure, it's tough to describe how I was feeling. It's almost like I was entering sacred ground. The air was completely still and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck start to stand. It may sound ridiculous, but that's how much I revere this place.
I was the first to arrive on the upper "platform" of Subway, and I easily set up my composition. There is a large pool of water just to the right and beneath the shooting area. I used the border of this pool as a leading line into my image. Everything else basically composed itself; this is a scene that is really well suited to the 4x5 ratio of the film that I shoot.
Other photographers began to arrive and set up around me, but I knew that I had the prime location. As the light was not yet good, I had no intention of moving. To be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable camping out like this, but I discussed it with a few others there and the general consensus seemed to be, "Don't sweat it; you were here first."
If you arrive early, there will be a distinct glow on the left and right sides of the far wall. As the reflected light starts to intensify, you'll notice that the glows will start to meet in the middle. It's go-time at that point. I exposed 4 sheets of Kodak Ektar 100, with my longest exposure, five minutes and thirty seconds, being the best of the bunch. Thankfully, Workshop Guys held off on throwing their leaves in the pools until we had all taken shots.
For my final shot of the day, I had envisioned shooting the "back" of Subway on black and white film. I thought the curved walls and reflections on the water would create nice textures that would be well-suited to a monochrome image. Once again I used a leading line in the lower right, and once again the rest of the image easily fell into place. I focused and was just about to expose a sheet, when a group of top-down hikers started to rappel (abseil for any of my European readers) toward the back of my image. At this point, it was starting to get late in the afternoon, and I was definitely aware of the time, wanting to avoid making the final climb out in the dark.
I stood by my camera in disbelief as it took a group of 4 people THIRTY SIX MINUTES (I timed it) to rap down a 25 foot wall. Now, I understand that I'm a rock climber and can rappel with my eyes closed (That's actually not an exaggeration. My climbing mentor thought that setting up an anchor and rapping off of it was so important that he made me learn to do it with my eyes closed.), but this was ridiculous. After all, you are supposed to have canyoneering experience before attempting the top-down route, and it was clear that some in their group had never rappelled before. One girl in particular would lower 2-3 inches and then lock off and reset her feet before repeating the process.
I stared passive-agressive death rays at them as, one-by-one they made their way down. Of course, I had to wait another ten minutes once they passed by so that the water would settle back down. Ugh! Definitely not my most Zen-like moment. I took a few deep breaths and calmed down, upset at myself for not being cooler about the whole situation. Eventually I got my shot and packed up my gear.
I named these images "All Good Things..." and "Journey's End" respectively. In a literal sense, for bottom-up hikers, Subway is the turnaround point...the end of your hike. In a more figurative sense, at the time I made these images, I had intended for this to be my last trip to Subway. There was sort of a melancholy closure to this hike, and I wanted that to be reflected in the images I took. Of course, now I do think I will make the hike again this year.
I slowly made my way down and out the tubelike exit of Subway. Sad to leave, I tried to be completely aware of every step that I took, desperately trying to engrain every part of it in my memory. I eventually caught back up with Marc and Tommy, and we made our way down stream to the exit point. The emotional "high" of seeing such a magnificent scene lasts for quite some time, but then reality kicks in.
After a grueling hike, your reward is ascending the roughly 500-foot canyon wall. We arrived at the base of the climb and took a long rest before beginning. Much to my surprise, it actually was not too bad and we were at the top in seemingly no time. The remaining flat trail is a good time to reflect, as the setting sun filters through the trees. Subway makes you work for it, but it is the epitome of Zion landscapes. I realize that I am very fortunate to have my trip to Zion go so well in 2014. Almost every single day, the conditions were absolutely perfect, and I was rewarded with images that I am truly proud of. In this regard, Subway was no exception. The conditions were ideal, and the film turned out exactly as I hoped it would. The entire day is an experience that I will remember for a lifetime.