With an aurora borealis forecast reading a 4 (active) and clear skies predicted, I hit the road for an escape from Anchorage's city lights. I often watch the aurora dance above my house in Anchorage, but with conditions this prime, somewhere darker was necessary. I've hiked throughout Hatcher's Pass, inside the Talkeetna Mountains, many times. It's an old mining town that was shut down in the 1940's, with tons of beautiful abandoned buildings. The goal was to hike up to a mountain top and watch the aurora borealis from my tent.
After our long strenious hike to the top, I realized I had forgotten my sleeping pad. Sleeping pads are used for comfort, but also to separate your body from the ground. I figured that with such a high aurora forecast and perfectly clear skies, I would be occupied photographing the lights rather than sleeping. After setting up camp, I see my fear approaching- the moon. A 94% full moon creeped over the mountains and illuminated the entire valley, causing the chance of seeing the aurora a little less.
Hours went by and I decided to take a quick nap and check for the lights every half hour. Seconds later, I realized that I won't even be able to fall asleep while being so cold. The arctic tundra removed all body heat from myself. I removed my second down feathered jacket from my camera body and threw the down jacket I was already wearing. Over 4,300 feet high, sleeping on arctic tundra, and no sleeping pad, but two down jackets and a 20 degree sleeping bag, there was no way I could fall asleep while being this cold.
I managed to sleep every 15 minutes or so and even managed to catch the aurora dancing a little bit. I quickly woke up, setup my tripod and started shooting. 15 minutes later, it was gone and the show was over.
The sunrise made this whole trip worth it. It was absolutely amazing. Many colorful tones illuminated the sky. With so many thoughts running through my mind, all I could think about was how am I going to survive this winter? I became so overconfident of my equipment and was 100% sure I can take the cold. I loved spending hours out in 0 degree temperatures photographing birds, but this was nothing like that.
A fear was created inside me, I had the chills for days. This was truly a wake up call, a hint of Alaska's winters. Just like every experience, you learn something from it. Correct placement of the tent and always remembering a sleeping pad or two, will always be a top priority when winter camping. Was the freezing night worth these photographs? I'll let you be the judge of that.