Donnelly Dome Aurora Shoot

A band of aurora hangs over the Alaska Range.  The bright object is Jupiter.

A band of aurora hangs over the Alaska Range.  The bright object is Jupiter.

The bright moon was shining in a crystal-clear sky, the aurora was out, and I didn’t have to wake up for work the next day: it was finally time for a Donnelly Dome night climb.

I packed up my gear and started driving down the Richardson Highway. About halfway to the dome I did a double-take when I saw my car’s thermometer reading: -22 °F! What?!! It was above zero when I left town... 

I planned for a subzero climb but I wasn’t expecting -22 °F. At that temperature, I couldn’t be confident my car would start if I left it sitting all night. Luckily, temperature inversion was on my side and my thermometer read -11 °F at the base of the dome, warm enough that I knew my car would start later. I parked and started walking up the relatively flat portion of the trail with my headlamp on. A minute or two later, I saw some movement up ahead—two moose scurrying away from the trail in the moonlight. A third moose simply stood and watched me as I passed by. The aurora was dancing brightly across the sky, and as tempting as it was to chase after the elusive ‘moose under the aurora’ shot I’ve imagined for a while, I decided to keep moving.

The snow covering the lower part of the dome wasn’t very deep in most spots. I found it easy to climb by stepping in moose tracks (and probably some caribou), and after a few minutes I felt nice and toasty despite my minimal attire and the subzero cold. I made it to the ridge and proceeded from there with my headlamp turned off—the moon was that bright. The ridge was a cakewalk compared to climbing in the snow, and I paused only to gaze at the aurora periodically, anxiously noting that it was growing weaker.

During the final stretch to the summit, I began to feel a slight chill despite my exertion. A very gentle breeze was blowing, and the temperature definitely felt colder than -11 F. When I finally reached the summit, I dropped my backpack and donned my heavy parka and mittens, and that was the last time I felt cold. I brought my goggles along in case it was windy but I ended up not needing them. I set my camera on the tripod and started waiting for the aurora to reawaken.

With the aurora still in a lull, I headed down the southern slope of the dome looking for a rocky spot where I knew the edge dropped off steeply. I noticed some footprints along the way from some other hardy soul who made the climb up from the highway in the last few days. I found the spot I was looking for and the aurora started to brighten like clockwork. I snapped several shots, then walked back to the summit. I experimented with several camera angles while the aurora waxed and waned, but the aurora kept stalling just short of what was needed to match the moon in the night sky. I took a break and drank the hot chocolate I packed and sat down to check aurora activity on my phone.

When I glanced up after a couple minutes I was startled to see a bright green ribbon twisting violently in the sky above the lights of Fort Greely in the distance. I ran back to my tripod and instantly started shooting, not knowing whether the display would last for a few seconds, a few minutes, or a few hours. The aurora began sprawling across the sky, stretching over the mountains of the Alaska Range to the south and swirling over Fort Greely to the north. I spent the next half-hour maneuvering my tripod on top of the dome as the aurora shifted around the sky.

The aurora comes alive over the lights of Fort Greely and Delta Junction.

The aurora comes alive over the lights of Fort Greely and Delta Junction.

The display slowly dimmed until only a faint glow remained. I packed up my camera and started heading down the ridge, turning around to catch one last surreal glimpse of the snowy summit glowing under the moonlight with faint green patches of aurora shimmering in the sky overhead. Mount Hayes and Mount Moffit loomed like motionless sentinels in the distance.

I picked up my tracks in the snow and followed them quickly back to my car. The temperature had warmed up at the bottom to -5 °F, but it was still hovering near -20 °F on the Richardson Highway until I drove past Fort Greely, where the wind was blowing heavily and the temperature was above zero. The feeling that I had just been on the moon quickly expired as I drove by several early risers on their way to work.  

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