I need to begin by saying that I won’t do this justice. I couldn’t possibly. I was clearly building up this day and experience for a while and my expectations were high. But with hindsight I realize that my expectations were focused on the whole of the experience – the hiking together, the being on the top of a mountain sharing something cool with friends, the views. I had never seen a total solar eclipse, but like most people I think, I’d seen several partial eclipses and they hadn’t made that much of an impression on me. I knew this would be different, but I was completely unprepared for HOW different.
The kids were game in the morning, and gave no resistance to our early wake-ups – an auspicious start. My friend, his younger son, and their dog were planning to meet us either at the trailhead or on the trail, so we bundled up (still cold in the morning!) got our stuff together, and headed up.
We were hiking up a cat track for at least the first 2/3 of the way, so it was wide and easy to follow, but also a steady climb. My friend and his son met us shortly after we had begun (they were a bit more nimble than we were), and together we made decent time up the hill.
The kiddos did surprisingly well, but the anticipated calls for frequent stops to rest and “I’m tiiiiired”s started coming out at about the half-way point. We were getting excellent views of the valley behind us, but still no Tetons. We had counted on about a 2.5-3 hour hike and started in order to be at the peak prior to even the partial part of the eclipse starting, but we were actually ahead of schedule.
At about 2/3 up, we hit the top of the chairlift that serves that peak (but wasn’t operating), yet we still had another 500′ or so of vertical to go, which turned out to be the steepest part. There was a small path that led to the top via a long switchback, but Keeper and the other two guys were feeling strong and opted to bushwhack straight up in order to cut the distance down. I hung back with the girls and took the longer, less steep route in order to offer pack mule assistance, which took me to my exhaustion limit pretty quickly. A 40 lb Woodsprite on your shoulders is one thing, but Firebolt is a good 70 pounds I think, and tends to squirm — not good when you’re trying to balance, you’re wearing both her and a pack, and you’re at 9500′. I made my best effort, but realized I was breathing as swiftly and deeply as I could and was getting light-headed along with the exhaustion. I think she appreciated at least the short ride, and wouldn’t have enjoyed feeling her father pass out and crumble beneath her.
Things changed significantly one we reached the ridgeline and made our turn up to the final scramble toward the peak. Suddenly we could see everything, and even the girls were speechless. That last 1/4 mile seemed effortless.
We made it! The others had reached the peak about 15 minutes before us, and we found ourselves in the company of about 2 or 3 dozen fellow intrepid hikers (and one guy who had ridden his mountain bike up — kudos!), with a 360 degree view, perfect 65 degree weather, no clouds to speak of, and a slight buzz from the anticipation and the elevation. We could see the other ski area peak from our position, packed shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of people who had taken the chair lift up. Amateurs. Ha!
Here was our setup.
And then things slowed down.
The partial eclipse started and we all put on our glasses to look and to concur that yes, there was indeed a little strip of sun being blotted out by the moon, but of course you can only look at that for so long. So we relaxed, mingled with folks, took a few more pics, set up a time lapse videos… It was fun, and it was exciting. But other than the stunning setting and the headiness of having hiked up there, it was exactly how I’d remembered other eclipses. “Is it darker? I think it’s a little darker.” “yeah, I think so” [glasses on, glasses off] “Yup, it’s like a crescent now” “Yup, the light’s kind of weird. I’m pretty sure it’s a little darker” “Yeah, I kinda think so.” For about an hour.
I tried to take a few pics with the eclipse glasses over my phone lens, and they worked, but were pretty uninteresting. A tiny, orange, crescent sun in a field of black. Um, that’s nice. I bet there are hundreds of thousands of those on iPhones and Samsungs around the country now.
I had read something about not trying to take pictures of the eclipse when it happens, as there would be plenty out there that would be better than yours — rather to devote all of your attention to watching it and experiencing it, as it would be a ton to take in. Sounded good to me, but frankly at this point I felt like I had the time to take it all in 15 times over and still take a hundred pictures of everything I’d like to capture. Still, I opted to take that advice, and to set my phone on “time lapse” and let it capture things on its own, and borrow others’ pics later.
The kids started getting a little restless. “Is this it?” “No guys, it’s not, just wait. There’s much more” (aside to Tacco — “there is much more right?”)
The sun got smaller and smaller, and it still didn’t look that different outside. In fact it became very surprising to see how much of the sun could be obscured and still have it look like a mostly normal day. Yes, it was dimmer, yes, the temperature dropped a couple degrees and it looked like dusk, but all the way up to just a sliver — probably 95% obscured — the whole thing was fairly ho-hum. Keeper even tossed the word “bored” out there.
And then EVERYTHING changed.
I cannot overstate how different the next 2-3 minutes was from everything that preceded it.
Picture a 360 degree sunset at high speed. It was that, and we could see the moon’s shadow rushing up the valley toward us at 2000+ mph. I’m not exaggerating. The temperature dropped fast. I knew it would, but I didn’t expect it to drop as much as it did — about 30 degrees almost instantly. It was a race to look from the extraordinary view of the valley with the shadows tearing across and the street lights coming on, to the mountains, to the sun through the glasses as the last sliver of sunlight was blocked, and then back again. Stars and planets became visible. People started getting louder and louder, just babbling. “LOOK!” “oh my GOD!” You couldn’t look around or take it all in fast enough.
And then totality, and the sun which had looked pretty much like, you know, a sun up to just seconds ago, looked like something entirely different — like nothing I had ever seen before. Of course I had seen pictures, but seeing it right there with the diamond ring and then the fiery corona against the dark sky… again, indescribable, and completely primal. People were yelling, laughing, crying. EVERYONE was. I know I was babbling too, and I have no clue what I was saying.
Two minutes of that we struggled to take in, whirring around, staring, listening, yammering, shouting, and then boom, it was done. Just before totality ended, I remember seeing a deep red color around the corona which I had read about, and I tried to point it out to Keeper, but he was just as engrossed as the rest of us. He may have seen it, may not have.
Afterwards — no kidding just a few minutes after, if not seconds, everything looked pretty much normal again. Dim, yes, but normal. Except for the 40 or so people trying to make sense (out loud) of what they’d just seen and understand why a sight that everyone could’ve described in advance of seeing it had just affected them in a way that was so different than they’d thought it would. In retrospect, I think Keeper nailed it as well as anyone — for about 10 minutes, at just about full volume, he exclaimed multiple variations of “TOTAL. SOLAR. ECLIPSE, people!”
My time lapse video chose to focus on a point far nearer to us than to the sun, so unfortunately it’s blurry and more or less unusable. See Tacco’s post (and hopefully Keeper will write one too) for some amazing shots at totality. Here is us right after, trying to make sense of it. You can probably see the excitement.
Once it was over, no kidding just a few minutes after totality, we figured we might as well head back down. Not sure why I had envisioned staying up there for the whole thing, all the way back to a full sun, but that seemed utterly pointless after what we had just seen. The whole way down was a blur — we really were that affected, as was everybody else we happened to walk by. Took a few family and group shots along the way.
And that was that! There was actually much more to this day that I’ll get to in the next post hopefully, but by 1PM we were down the hill and done with Grand Targhee, getting ready to move on while still trying to figure out what had just happened.
If we can remember and recapture even a sliver of it, I’ll be grateful. Wow.
I just read your eclipse story, Jim…tears in eyes for so many reasons!! For your experience JUST as you described…for the effort it took to be there and experience it…and for the spiritual experience that is ALWAYS indescribable!! That can never be taken from you and your family!! Thank you for sharing!! It’s ALL worth what you are doing!!
Love you all!!