Monday, March 24, 2014

A Scouting Adventure!

One of the engineers at work, and fellow photographic adventurer Steve West is fond of telling me that "Luck rewards the well-prepared".  I guess that is true as experience goes a long way towards a successful conclusion.  This last weekend, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) had another ARGOS run, which uses a laser to help correct the atmospheric distortion of the telescope image.  I had some fortune in imaging the laser beams from a distance the last observing run in November, and wanted to improve on it.  I consulted with another staff photographer and the implication was that we weren't welcome at the Observatory this run, so decided to check out Heliograph Peak (HP) - shown at left here when I last visited the LBT last October.  If we had a good view of HP from LBT, conversely there should be a good view of LBT from there!  Time for a scouting reconnaissance run...

Fortunately the 2 day run fell on a weekend, but clouds early on Saturday delayed my plans - we decided to take in a movie instead of the road trip, even though it cleared late...  Oh well, that left Sunday.  Even though thick clouds were moving in, I decided to hit the road to scout out the situation.  Actually, there had been some homework to do first.  I checked with the Forest Service about access to Heliograph Peak earlier in the week.  No permits were needed, but unfortunately, there was a locked gate where the access road met the main road - motorized access for the antennas and fire lookout only.  I also wanted to run a couple cameras and a small telescope from a single tripod to save weight, so tried and found that one of my adaptors would hold both the little Meade 80mm APO plus hold the 70-200 zoom with my wife's camera.  The setup is shown at right.  So I figured the tripod, pair of cameras and optics would be packable.  Good to go!

It is a good 3 hour drive to get to the top of Mount Graham.  While it had been weeks since we last had rain, I was a little surprised to see snow on the upper elevations of the mountain, given the warm temperatures we've had lately.  I got to the locked gate about 45 minutes before sunset, loaded the lil' scope and zoom in a backpack with a water bottle and snacks, made a sling from some webbing for the tripod and had 2 cameras in a lightweight case.  Hitting the trail, I was immediately hit with the quadruple whammy - first, I'm not in that great of shape, second, the hike started at over 9,000 foot elevation and the mile-long hike included over 600 feet of elevation gain, third, the hike was over mud and slushy ice and snow, and fourth, I was humping about 30 pounds of gear.  Let me tell you - that hour-long hike to cover that mile was the closest thing to real work I've done in recent years!  My heart rate climbed faster than the elevation, and even stopping frequently, like every 40 yards, it was hard to get the heart rate to drop or catch my breath. 

By the time I got to the switchback that provided the view I was after, I was soaked in sweat and just about exhausted.  And it was so dark that there was barely enough light to use live-view for focusing the 2 cameras - but it has potential to be a great vantage point!  The view to the left is the wide-field view with the zoom set to 200mm.  Besides the Large Binocular Telescope, the Sub-Millimeter Telescope (radio telescope), and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope are labeled.  While it looks pretty light yet, it is a 16 second exposure!  At left is the view with the 80mm F/6 (480mm equivalent).  I'm thinking if it was possible to drive to the site, it is just about perfect as there are very few places where there are good vantage points of the Observatory on the Mountain because of the forestation.  For about the first time since leaving the main road, there was also good cell reception, so was able to check in with Melinda, and also with fellow photographer Ray who was shooting the ARGOS from San Pedro Vista on Mount Lemmon.

I had planned to stay a while in case it cleared, and while there were some stars visible, there seemed to be some low clouds hanging over the Mountain.  But I had also started shivering, and knew I needed to get back down, as the temperature was dropping below freezing and my sweaty clothes weren't helping me much.  I repacked and headed down by flashlight - fortunately going down was much easier, though the mud and slush was starting to freeze.  There were a couple slippery spots, but was mostly good going.  Reaching one of the western switchbacks, I got a text from Ray, who had heard from LBT that they were going to shoot the laser shortly.  By then it had nearly totally cleared (of course, since I was headed down), but my decision was made and it had been a good choice.  Rounding a corner to head towards the NW towards the LBT, bam - there was the ARGOS beam!  While from my previous observations from tens of miles away the beam was at best barely visible, from here at only 4 miles distant there was no mistaking this beacon.  I stopped, too tired to even set up the tripod, but mounted the fisheye lens (the only lens I had packed besides the zoom and little scope), leaned it on a rock and exposed for 30 seconds.  It looked very much like the picture - the brightened areas are evidently where there were a thin layer of clouds to better scatter the light.

Even stopping to take a few exposures, the hike down was faster than the trip up.  I waited to get back to the van to munch on my snack and ran the heater on the drive down.  It was an uneventful trip back to Tucson, arriving about 12:30.  But even with the death march, it had been a good evening, and I learned a lot about the area.  I need to see how many hoops I need to jump through to get access past the gate next time!

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