Chasing Angry Storm Clouds

Chasing Angry Storm Clouds

The computer prediction models indicated the rain storm currently at the house would culminate in a pretty special sunset someplace northwest of here. The question was, where exactly might that special place be?

I left hours before sunset. I wasn’t sure if I would need the extra time to hike Black Butte, or a short stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail where it crossed the Santiam Pass, or hammer my way up Black Crater Trail. I knew I needed to get to a location where I had a wide view that included a mountain peak. 

I reached the decision crossroads in Sisters, Oregon. Should I continue on and up Santiam Pass or turn and head up McKenzie Pass? I checked the software app for an updated prediction. I knew which ever direction I chose this would likely be the last chance for an update. I would likely be entering a ‘no service’ zone. I made a decision and opted to head for the top of McKenzie Pass. 

When I arrived at the Dee Wright Observatory I immediately made my way to the top deck where it’s possible to get a 360 view. As many as five distant mountain tops were visible; North & Middle Sister, Mt. Washington, Three Finger Jack and Mt. Jefferson. Black Crater, Belknap Crater and Little Belknap Crater were visible too.

There was still plenty of time till sunset. All around lightning lit up the sky with booming thunder to follow. I decided to try my hand at capturing some lightning strike images.

There was no predicting where the next lightning bolt would appear. I trained the camera on North & Middle Sister Mountain peaks hoping for that iconic peak top lightning strike image. 

I programmed the camera to shoot one frame a second for 30 seconds keeping my fingers crossed. No lightning luck! I repeated the process a few times but the lightning seemed to happen everywhere except where I had aimed the camera. Soon it stopped and the rain began. I retreated to the next floor down with a roof.

The storm dissipated a bit and then reorganized to the Southwest. It rained on and off for an hour. Sunset was an hour from now. I left the shelter and headed west to find a better view of North & Middle Sisters. I didn’t have to go far. I pulled off the road just passed where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road. 

This whole area is nothing but black lava rock, sharp and jagged! 

Between me and the mountains there was an expanse of tenacious trees and plants growing between small seams in the hardened volcanic rock flows. Beyond that was a big swathe of nothing but an old lava flow void of any plants. Beyond that a dense forest area and beyond that the barren slopes of the mountains. 

I navigated my way through the lava maze doing what I could to avoid snagging an arm or leg on the sharp rock. The terrain undulated. I aimed for a high spot I had seen from the road. A direct route wasn’t possible. I had to re-sighted my target each time I climbed out of a low spot.

I reached the target spot. I had a view with plants at my feet, the void lava flow zone, the forest leading up to the lower slopes, and a treeless top two-thirds of the mountains. Also visible was Hayden glacier clinging to the North slope of Middle Sister. I set up the tripod and composed a shot that included the mountain peaks, the darkening sky, and enough of the foreground and mid-ground to give the image context.

Sunset was now approaching. I was facing south. My hope was that the light from the setting sun would catch the West slope of both mountains. 

The oblique angle of the light scrapped across the trees tops in front of me turning some of them orange while others in low areas remained ‘shadow blue’. I waited hoping the light would reflect upward to the underside of the storm clouds.

Yes! Perfect! It was happening just as I had hoped. The West sky turned a pink-orangish color. I was tempted to turn the camera in that direction but stayed focused on the first composition. The underside of the clouds turned a redish-magenta. The clouds on the leading edge were dark blue-gray. The combination of colors made for a dramatic angry sky look.

I tested a few exposure combinations. It was getting pretty dark. My choice of exposure settings required a long,10 to 20 seconds exposure time. I took some 25 images. All the while thunder boomed and lightning lit up the sky all around.

I kept telling myself, just one more, just one more.

As the clouds moved towards me I knew rain was on the way. I also knew the retreat back to the car wouldn’t be a quick one. I stayed till the light required a 30 second exposure. Time to go. Headlamp on I negotiated the lava rock terrain back to the road. The rain began to fall as I loaded gear in the car.

The drive down McKenzie Pass was filled with loud thunder and bright lightning. I paused at an overlook contemplating another attempt at a lightning sky photo. At the last minute I opted out and drove on.

These photo experiences can be exhilarating, especially when the it all comes together as planned. I almost always let the files sit for a few days, sometimes even a week before beginning photo processing. This time I was eager to download and open the files. 

The next morning with a coffee cup in one hand and a computer mouse in the other I began the image import, triage and editing process. As I worked with the file I replayed the experience. It’s a rough job but someone has to do it.

As always thanks for your interest,



Steve J. Giardini

Giardini Photography