this experiment of a time-lapse of clouds swirling about Mt. McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, is a failure. Not so much a failure on my part, but rather Mother Nature was an unwilling subject. My goal was to take a sequence of still photos showing a fully socked-in McKinley turning into a brilliant clear mountain at dawn.
The chances of seeing Mt. McKinley (also commonly known by its Athabaskan name “Denali”) are slim at best. I had been told that it had been over a month from when the north side of Denali was last seen clearly in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
One of the secrets of seeing the mountain, particularly if you are camping or backpacking in the Wonder Lake / McKinley River area is to set your alarm very early for a peek at what the weather is doing around the mountain. Often, Denali will be clear in the very early morning hours just before sunrise only to very quickly to become obscured (in less than an hour).
With this in mind, I set my Nikon D3 on a tripod in the direction of the mountain, and connected a Nikon MC-36 intervalometer which I had programed to automatically take a photo every minute beginning at 11:15 p.m. and lasting until 5:30 a.m. A total of 409 still images were captured and then later turned into this video.
In the end, the very top of Denali was only visible for approximately 3 minutes during the sequence period.
It was probably the easiest shooting I’ve ever done. The worst part was listening to camera’s shutter open and close during the course of the evening – every minute after minute. When your ears are attuned to listening for large mammals (aka Grizzly bears) crawling about outside your tent, it made for a restless few hours of sleep.
There were a couple of other problems. Because I only had one camera, I couldn’t take other photos. The late evening light of sunset (around midnight) and the ensuing twilight are great times for photography. Once I started taking the sequence photos, I couldn’t access the camera for any other photography. It became painful when after starting the sequence I began to see all kinds of other photo opportunities. Another problem is that a fresh camera battery is completely drained after approximately six hours. Since I only have four battery packs for my camera and the nearest electrical outlet for recharging is almost 100 miles away, I had to limit my attempts of getting the sequence. Talk about gambling! A final issue to consider is whether you can afford to have your memory card filled up with photos. For me, that is not a problem as I carry plenty of large capacity cards.
While the experiment was a good trial run, what did amaze me was how quickly the clouds moved in and out of the the area, real changes in just minutes. This was evident when looking at the individual frames sequentially. There are huge movements in the clouds in just a 60 second period. Due to the enormous size of Denali, the mountain makes its own weather. That is why it is impossible to predict when you will get a glimpse of the mountains 20,310 foot north peak. It’s also a reminder of the need to be prepared for rapidly changing weather when traveling anywhere near Denali and the other nearby mountains in the Alaska Range.
Like many failures, this attempt makes me want to get perfectly the sequence even more. You can be assured that I’ll be trying this again.
To see our collection of video clips, click here.