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Big Bend '17: No. 7 - South Rim Sunset

From the South Rim's unobstructed vantage point, just about any location provides an incredible view of the Chihuahuan Desert South of the Chisos Mountains. However, as we rounded the Western corner of the South Loop Trail with the sun sinking ever lower in the cloudy sky, the crest of a tall, sloped cliff came into view and it was obvious that it would be the best location to soak in the last minutes of Big Bend daylight.  

We hiked West along the Southeast Rim Trail until it turned right and headed North. We had originally planned to just find a flat, rocky spot along the Southwest Rim Trail to eat and watch the sunset, but as we turned the corner, our view was consumed by a large, nameless cliff face that sloped gently to a ragged peak. With the sun reaching ever closer to the horizon roughly in front of the cliff, we decided simultaneously that the edge of this prominent cliff would be the optimal location for viewing the sunset over dinner.

While standing on the edge of the Southern face of the projecting ridge, the scale of the South Rim escarpment and its long, steep descent into the valley 2000 ft below was all the more evident and commanding. It was easy to feel small in this incredible space, but never insignificant.

It's hard to capture the incredible scale of the South Rim view with anything less than a panoramic shot. However, my Nikon D750 does not excel on its own in this arena and requires substantial (and heavy) equipment to create highly detailed panoramic shots. This is the one time where my iPhone 7 can take a better image with considerably less effort.

In-camera panoramic shots are impractical with a DSLR due to the fact that the focal node (optimal point of rotation to reduce distortion) changes for each lens at each focal length. However, I hope at some point they will create a Nikon-native program that can take panoramas effectively as long as the camera is set up properly with a specific set of prime lens (I suggest the 50mm or 35mm primes for FX) where the designated rotation point would be constant. I have a complicated panoramic rig from Nodal Ninja that has helped by to create full resolution panoramic photos in the past, but it is generally too heavy for these sort of multi-day, desert backcountry hikes as the water took up the load capacity that I would need for the gear. That being said though, having experienced the grandeur of the view, I may very well haul the gear out to the rim the next time I'm in Big Bend.

The sharp glare of the setting sun between the clouds made ghosting and lens flares inevitable. The shadows grew long and the environment took on a bright orange hue with a distinct increase in contrast. We fired up the Jetboil Flash to quickly boil some water and sipped on gatorade to replenish all the salt we had lost to the hot desert sun. The food was simple, freeze-dried fare, but the incredible view made it one of the best and most memorable meals that I have ever had.

As the sun neared the cloudy horizon, the once homogenous glare shifted into golden rays of brilliant light. Layers of dust began to glow between the shadowy ripples of the sleepy South Chihuahuan Desert. The brilliance of the sun on the horizon made it seem as if the view went on forever into a golden, unreachable eternity.

The sun's light faded quickly, and the variation between light and dark increased as night and day battled for dominance. Endless layers of mountain topography created a jagged gradient of fading light.

One the other side of the horizon, the day still survived, but the low angle of the sun set the layers of the distant Sierra Del Caballo Muerto ablaze with detail not easily seen during the day. Further to the East, the moon began its slow rise into the sky, ensuring that the reflected light of the sun would still bathe the sleeping desert even after the it had long since disappeared over the horizon.

Sunsets are one of those situations where HDR is almost mandatory. While developments in camera technology have exploded over the years, the dynamic range of an image sensor is still well below that of the human eye. I used three images, hand-held, at 1 exposure value (EV) above and below optimum exposure to create this image. I’m not a fan of the unnatural, overexposed forms of HDR, but I appreciate Aurora HDR's ability to tweak difficult images so that they better represent what the landscape looked like at the time.

The fading sunlight left the cold desert below and lifted into a sky of swirling clouds. We sat contentedly and watched every minute of the calm transition from day to night. This simple but unforgettable moment was comprised of two friends, two chairs, a hot meal, and an incredible sunset on the edge of a mountain. Few moments in life are ever this good, and it made the 9 miles of hiking that day more than worth it.

With our bellies full, and the light nearly gone, we packed up our gear and headed back to the SE1 campsite. However, as is usually the case when I have a camera in my hand, it wasn't time to go to sleep just yet.

© 2017-2018 Shaun C Tarpley

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