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Bisti snowstorm, NM


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In April 2017 I set off on one of my periodic trips to the Bisti Wilderness knowing there was going to be weather around; but I wasn't completely foolhardy: the forecast for the Bisti area had recently changed from "rain and snow" to "overcast with possible showers." In fact outside my tent it poured all night (this in a place that gets less than 8 inches of precipitation a year). It seemed to taper off toward morning, so I got up early and headed out, figuring that was the end of it and I'd get some good landscape shots from the soft light of the expected lingering "overcast." Instead around 6 AM it began to snow.

That was okay for a while—sure added interest to the landscape to have snow on the hoodoos (not that the Bisti could be accused of lacking visual interest anytime)—except that it was really thick wet heavy snow, and from it melting all over me pretty soon I was soaked through. Worst of all were my hands, which were in light gloves so I could work the camera, and which I had to keep out and exposed even after they were soaked so that I could both take pictures and shelter the camera and lens from the driving snow just a little bit. And there was no prospect of the sun coming out to dry and warm me: the cloud cover was so thick I couldn't even tell in what direction the sun lay.

So there I was, soaked through and freezing cold—and worse yet, it turns out that the soil at the Bisti is all clay, and after that all-night rain and now the morning of wet snow, the whole place had turned to deep mud. And the odd quality of all that mud was that it was both slippery and sticky: I had to test every step, as if I were walking on black ice, and after just a few steps I had a mass of mud attached to both feet that stuck out like clown shoes and must have weighed a couple of pounds; knocking it off was pointless, since it immediately grew back. So the whole time I was out there every step was a chore. Going anywhere became absurdly challenging: how to proceed at all with this awkward heavy mass on my feet, and how to walk up even a slight rise without slipping back down.


Pretty soon I was about as physically miserable as I can ever remember being. But that raised the stakes even further, because the only justification for putting myself through that misery was to come out with at least a handful of good images. So now I dreaded the technical problems that would ruin all my shots: snow or mud on the lens, or fog behind the lens—but still I had to keep exposing my camera to the elements, even aiming up into the driving snow, because I had to get the shots that would justify being there at all.


I'm a pretty stubborn person, and I had set out prepared to hike all day, but I lasted not quite 2 hours. The end came when my wet-gloved hands, whose biting pain I'd been ignoring the whole time, finally became so stiff with cold that I could no longer operate the camera—couldn't grip the lens cap to take it off or even bend a finger to press the shutter. So I turned back.


In my mud-heavy clown shoes it took me over an hour, through unceasing snow from above and mud from below, to reach my car. It snowed nonstop till 4 PM. But I had figured out long before then that even when the sun came out it would be many days, maybe weeks, before hiking in the Bisti was possible again. So when there was a late-afternoon lull I trekked out to my snow-covered tent through several hundred yards of now-familiar deep mud, and packed everything up, and drove home that night.

STUART GELZER photography

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