Winter brings short days and long nights. While darkness may rule the clock, winter's light reigns over the landscape, as the sun's graceful arc swings a little closer to Earth. Winter is the golden hour that seems to last all day long. I find it an inspiring season for photography. It's also a great time to get out into the backcountry. Solitude can be easily found. Recently, my lady and I drove to Los Angeles to visit friends for the holidays. We had our eye on a few special mountains that we would drive past on our way to California. These spectacular mountains are known as "ultra-prominent" because their height surpasses 5,000 feet of prominence. This definition of prominence is courtesy of Adam Helman at COHP.org: "The height of a peak above the highest saddle connecting it to a higher peak. Here "saddle" means the lowest point on a ridge connecting two peaks. If you're a climber, you might think of prominence this way. If you're standing on the summit of Peak X, and you wish to climb a higher peak, the prominence of Peak X is how far you must descend before doing so, no matter the higher peak or route chosen." It turns out that 57 peaks surpass 5,000 feet of prominence in the 48 contiguous states. 55 peaks are spread across the west, and 2 of the peaks are located in the east. 5 ultra-prominent peaks were on our radar. In Southern Nevada are reclusive Hayford Peak and towering Mount Charleston. In Southern California are rugged San Jacinto Peak, hulking Mount San Antonio, and lofty San Gorgonio Mountain. By the end of our trip, we would enjoy the view from the summit of 2 ultra-prominent peaks: Hayford Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain. Click this text to open a map that shows the location of 55 western US mountains with at least 5,000 feet of prominence. We may not reach the top of every peak on the list, as some of the ultras are incredibly difficult to climb, but we are hoping to reach the top of every ultra that is within our ability. The geographical diversity of the ultra peaks offer distinct landscapes, climates, and cultures, many located in regions that I might not explore otherwise. This journey cultivates and inspires my photography. But enough with the mumbo-jumbo. Let's get to the goods. We stuffed our car with gear and a huge sense of adventure. We had no reservations and no expectations. It felt great to have a simple sketch to work with, without knowing the details of what lies ahead. On the Saturday before Christmas, we sped our Subaru west in a race with the sun. I lost the race but still enjoyed the prize. In a duffel tucked under my car seat was my new Olympus E-M1 with three lenses: the 12-40mm f2.8, 17mm f1.8, and 7.5mm fisheye. We pulled into Las Vegas, ready to rock and roll. And we promptly laced up our boots and went for hike. We set out for Lone Mountain, a tiny peak that sits a short 20 minute drive north of the city. The rocky summit block gave a huge vista of the Las Vegas mega-tropolis and surrounding desert. I tossed on the fisheye lens and fell in love with the funhouse effect. But let's get back to the begining...the very beginning, as I gas up the car in Boulder, Colorado, on a cold December morning, anticipating the long drive ahead. We'd cover 3000 miles by the end. The gas pump became a familiar sight. A cold front moved into Colorado overnight, glazing the roads with a thin layer of ice. The morning drive is damp and dreary, and escape is slow. But all is not lost. We find warm blue sky after a few hours of driving. Welcome to Utah. The wrong way? Hardly. Interstate 70 through central Utah offers some of the most beautiful drive-by scenery in the country. The highway bisects the rugged San Rafeal Swell. Thelma's last stand. God bless Utah. The rugged Great Basin landscape rapidly fades from the rearview mirror. We make good time driving through Utah at a constant 82 mph. It's not long before we stumble into the dusty Mojave Desert for sunset. We spend a few days in Las Vegas and hike a couple peaks. Satisfied with Vegas and eager to move on, we take off for Los Angeles. Somewhere in LA, probably while chomping on burgers, fries, and a tasty beer, we decide to make an honest attempt at San Gorgonio Mountain. Days later, we establish base camp in a Redlands Days Inn, where we ready our packs and lace our boots for a long walk in the wilderness. San Gorgonio Mountain, elevation 11,503 feet San Gorgonio Wilderness, San Bernadino Mountains, Southern California Prominence: 8,294 feet (ranked number 7 on the lower 48-state ultra-prominence list) Trailhead: Big Falls, elevation 6,005 feet Trail: Vivian Creek to summit Total distance: 17.3 miles round-trip Vertical gain: approximately 5,500 feet Hike time: 11 hours, 40 minutes Difficulty: class 1 hiking, some snow and ice Weather: mostly sunny, temps in the 40s down low, notably colder up high due to wind chill. The rangers are armed with ticket books and bear spray. Get the permit. This map shows the location of the three ultra-prominent peaks located east of the Los Angeles metro area. (Imagery copyright of Google Maps) This is our GPS track going up and down the mountain. (Imagery copyright of Google Earth) In California, signs always seem to include the words MUST, PAY, NO, DON'T, and OBEY. The Big Falls Trailhead was no different. The first sign declares that the parking lot would be gated closed from 10 pm to 6 am. The next sign declares that an Adventure Pass is required to park. After that come the standard warning signs that prohibit bad behavior. A little further up is a sign that declares bad things would happen if we stepped off the trail. And the last sign pretty much summed it all up: we would die in the wilderness if we continued any further. Oh, and have a nice day. The parking pass is $5 per day available at most sporting good stores. Warning! One can enter the trail only after confirming that all of your permits and papers are complete and filed correctly with the proper government authorities. At first, the trail meanders through tall trees beside a boulder-strewn dry creek bed. Uncle Sam provides one last warning and then we are on our own. We survive crossing the dry creek bed. The stones are settled until the next big rain. We regain the marked trail on the other side of the creek bed. The Vivian Creek Trail begins a steep ascent. We enter a beautiful forest. The trail curves past trees that are incredibly large. In awe. The grade is always gradual. Sharp and spikey seems to rule the roost around here. We reach a switchback in the trail and gain our first view of San Bernadino and the eastern expanse of the LA basin. We turn back to the trail. Welcome to the wilderness. It's the first sign that doesn't direct us to do anything. We are happy to be here. We descend into the rabbit hole... Larger than life. The definition of whoaaa. We soldier on. Time ticks away like woodpeckers. Don't forget to look up. We pass through "beary" bushes. Past broken and splintered trees. Immersed in the details. After a few miles of hiking, the trail emerges from the trees. We gain our first glimpse of the upper mountain. I'm not a tree hugger, but here I see how one could be. This forest is beautiful. Behind us, the view of the southland grows wider. The well-maintained trail continues at a constant grade. The trail will take us to the top of the distant ridge seen below. Impressive San Jacinto Peak dominates our view to the south. We've hiked six miles in four hours. It's now noon, and we are still two miles from the summit. My motivation seems to ebb and flow with each tiring step. We break from the trees. My outlook improves when I see the summit at the top of the ridge. I was wrong - the actual summit is out-of-view another half-mile beyond. The view at our backside is incredible. A cairn (Karen) greets hikers on the way to the summit. We are now 8 miles in and get closer with every step. A group of hikers leave the summit before we arrive. We reach the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain at 11,503 feet. A relentless cold wind rushes over the summit. It's a reminder that even on a warm day, winter's cold breath is never far away. The summit register could double as a bank vault. Made of steel and set in concrete, it provides an invicible home for a bunch of...junk. I toss on the fisheye lens and have some fun. I have no idea what I'm doing but I'm doing it. The view east, out over convoluted folds of sand and rock in Joshua Tree National Park. The view south, towards San Jacinto Peak. The sun keeps a watchful eye on us. We rest for 20 minutes behind a stone wind block. The world turns a subtle shade of peach. It's time that we go down. Shadows turn long and deep. We descend into the warm forest. The golden hour has arrived. The audience take their seats in anticipation of the sunset showing. In winter repose. Sun kisses Earth. Day leaves us for night. We still have miles to descend in the dark before we are off the mountain. Our headlamp beams create twisted shadows in the ever-darkening forest. We stop for a drink. The brisk mountain air cools our sweat-laced skin. I take one last picture and put the camera away. The black forest is completely silent. We have three miles to go. We can cover the distance in an hour if we put our heads down and keep moving. Now I focus on the next five feet of rocky trail ahead, illuminated by my headlamp, as we descend steep switchbacks to the dry creek bed. This section seems to go on forever and it is hell on tired knees. At the valley floor we sense the sweet smell of campfire smoke. It is comforting. 10 minutes later we step onto cold dry pavement at the trailhead. It's 7 pm, and it feels good to be back at the car. We stashed food and celebrate a successful summit with chocolate milk and brownie bites. I've had my m4/3 system for 6 weeks now. I started with the E-M1 and 12-40mm, and then added the 17mm f1.8 and Rokinon fisheye lenses just before Christmas. I feel the cost, quality, and size of the lenses are a huge advantage to the system. The IQ is pretty good too, every bit the equal or better than my older DX Nikons. It's just that the E-M1 is easier to handle and much more fun to use. Last night, I held my D600 for the first time in 6 weeks. It's a big brick, but man, that E-M1...it just feels right. I'm less enthused about the 12-40 lens although I have no regrets. It has some weird purple flare, barrel wiggle, and fringing. The lens is tack sharp - no doubt about it. I leave the 12-40 mounted to the camera and stored in a small Think Tank Digital holster that is on the floor of the car when it's not strapped to my hip. The pair have held together so far. I use my cameras pretty hard, so I suppose anything is possible. But that is the beauty in adventure: Not knowing what happens next. Thanks for viewing.