The pack he slung onto his shoulders carried enough gear, water, and food to last them at least two days, should they need to stay out longer. He had a tent, bear spray, and bear-proof canisters to store the food. Prepared – and practical – about the chance of success, he started up the trail into the Wyoming wilderness, boots crunching in the wet gravel. The trail was still sloppy from the winter melt. The morning warmed quickly, the sky crystal blue. The Glacier Trail wound 8 miles up 3,300 vertical feet through the high alpine wilderness. The only other person he saw that day was a solo hiker headed back down, nearing the end of the 25-mile descent from Gannett Peak. They chatted about the trail conditions, nodded and went their separate ways.
He hiked six miles before veering off the trail and up the rock-strewn hillside. At the top of the ridge he stopped, covered his brow to block the sun and scanned around. He’d dreamed the night before of damp knees and tear-streaked cheeks. Saw himself alone in the forest kneeling over the camera – picking it up out of the soggy dent it’d left, a cry catching in his throat. It was a dream he knew well, one he’d had many times since the previous summer – sometimes at night, sometimes when his mind drifted in the lab while he worked to repair faulty sensors and patch weather balloons.
He’d spent ten months planning, plotting, and studying Google Maps. He watched the weather, waiting for the snow to melt, for the roads to clear, for the trail to solidify from a muddy mess into something reasonably hikable. For the last three weeks he’d watched the forecasts, waiting out the rain, thunderstorms, and a steady, piercing wind that wouldn’t seem to end.
And then a window of opportunity opened. All the planning, all the waiting had come to this – with no clear sign that any of it would pay off. Chapters opened and closed and opened again. His endurance flagged, before some new bit of evidence fueled it back into a blaze. Only his self-determination propelled him – not money or fame or fortune or folly, but a desire to do something meaningful. To close the circle with ends that just wouldn't seem to meet.
To find the needle in a 50-acre haystack.
You attached a Go-Pro to your helmet on a ski trip, while Patrick Cullis built a rig so he could mount his own camera on a boom dangling ten feet behind him as he snowboarded through the backwoods. You shot pics of your neighborhood from a drone, while Patrick Cullis sent a camera into the stratosphere on a weather balloon. You spent a couple weeks backpacking through Europe? Patrick Cullis spent a year at the South Pole.
His job as a mechanical engineer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took him to the South Pole in 2009 as part of the winter over crew – one of forty-some hardy souls who remained after the rest of the crew departed on the last plane in February, before the temperatures dropped so low that any plane’s engine would freeze up. Over the course of two months the sun circled in a slowly descending spiral, cruising closer and closer to the horizon until it finally dropped below for good and plunged the polar landscape into darkness. The sky danced with ribbons of green and purple aurorae. The stars shone in a way that made him think he’d never before in his life look up at night.
And in the darkness of the Antarctic winter, Patrick Cullis taught himself to take photographs of the night sky. He set up cameras, fingers numb from the sub-zero temperatures as he triggered the shutter.
“I’d take my gloves off and then have to wave my arms back and forth to keep the blood flowing to my fingers,” he recalls of those early, photographic experiments. “Then I’d go back inside, have a cup of coffee, and do some work while I waited for the exposure time to pass.”
Some photographers keep detailed notes on f-stops and shutter speeds. But in the sub-zero temperatures, batteries have a tendency to drain quickly and unpredictably.
“I’d set it for a timed exposure, but never really knew how long the shutter was open,” he remembers. “Most of the time the batteries would fail and the shutter would automatically close. It was a lot of guesswork.”
That guesswork resulted in stunning night sky photography that ended up on websites and the pages of publications around the world. When his time at the South Pole ended, his future wife met him in New Zealand and together they spent a month living out of a van, hiking and teaching themselves to shoot mountain landscapes.
Back in Colorado, he brought the two passions together, with dramatic photos of constellations rising over the Boulder flatirons and the Milky Way streaking up from behind the iconic Maroon Bells. He’d wake after midnight, gather his equipment and hike into the hills to shoot the early morning sky before hiking back down to head into the office. Work trips sent him across the country, camera and tripod in tow. During the day he’d send climate-monitoring equipment up on weather balloons. At night he’d shoot long-exposure scenes. He got better and better, learning from his mistakes and developing his skills. His creativity drove him toward unique perspectives, and his gentle one-upmanship pushed him to find new ways to capture images that stunned other photographers.
Eventually, he decided to mount a camera on one of his weather balloons and send it up into the stratosphere to see what kind of pictures he might get at an altitude of 70,000 feet.
In many ways, the eclipse was a lesson for many that a camera is woefully incapable of doing justice to something so grand as an astronomical event like an eclipse. In that epic moment of galactic cog-turning, seeing really was believing, and every moment spent looking into a camera, pointing a smartphone at the sky or posting to Instagram was a wasted one.
Unless you're a one-upper like Patrick Cullis.
He began planning three years in advance, scouting locations, examining traffic data around prime viewing locations, and studying weather patterns. He had the full brunt of NOAA’s weather array at his fingertips. He practiced shooting photos of the sun and ensured his filters, batteries, mounts, and computer-guided tracking were all up to snuff. He sent cameras up into the atmosphere attached to the climate-monitoring equipment – called ozone sondes – dangling from a weather balloon. The balloons would eventually pop due to the low pressure at high altitude and then fall back to earth on a small parachute.
“We’d follow the GPS signal to recover the sondes,” says Patrick. “And I’d get my camera back.”
The images taken by those cameras reveal stunning views of the landscape far below. One sees the curvature of the earth. The razorback ridge of the Rockies. The golden wash of Aspen trees in late fall. They are marvelous photographs, made more stunning by Patrick’s technique of printing them on large-scale, back-lit, translucent paper. They seem to glow in the light of the sun that bounces off the face of the planet. It was, then, a no-brainer to include a high-altitude camera in the array of photography equipment he’d take to capture the Great American Eclipse.
As the day approached he made peace with the idea that he would go as far as the Oregon coast if the weather forced his hand – even if it meant going solo.
“The location was changing every 12 hours as new cloud forecasts hit the weather models,” he says. “As the predictions showed that western and central Wyoming were looking good, we committed. I gave the group the GPS coordinates of our final destination – we knew there’d be no service once we left pavement. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to see another forecast once we left, so it would just be what it would be.”
His voice trembles a bit as he recalls these moments, like he suffered some trauma that he doesn’t like revisiting.
He and his wife, Shondia Houtzer – herself an accomplished photographer – left Boulder at 3 am on August 16, the day before the eclipse. Traffic was lighter than expected, and they made good time, eventually meeting up for breakfast with two others of their group, Emrys and Sara, in Dubois, Wyoming. Together they caravanned up 27 miles of washboard road into Union Pass, passing hundreds of eclipse enthusiasts set up along the roads, in fields, and on tops of cars waiting for the eclipse. Eventually they made it to the spot Patrick had scouted years before on Google Maps.
“There was no one there,” he remembers. “It was perfect.”
They set up camp and waited for Chance and Holly to arrive, the last two of their party of six.
“Later that night they arrived, and we all hugged each other. The eclipse was coming and we were ready.”
“It felt a lot like when you get through security at the airport, or when you finally get into the arena for a big concert,” he says with a smile. “The set of nerves about missing something drop away, and now it’s just anticipation of what comes next. But you made it. All we had to do was wait and hope for the sky to stay clear.”
Despite the haze of forest fires in the distance, the sky stayed cloud free as the crew set up a tracking mount with his small, 400mm telescope, a ball-head for another camera with an 85mm lens, and another tripod with astro-binoculars affixed with solar filters. Knowing the morning would be crazy, he aligned everything ahead of time and checked – and double-checked – all the balloon gear and computer trackers he’d brought along.
In the morning they would send a weather balloon up into the stratosphere equipped with a camera. If all went according to plan, from high in the atmosphere the camera would capture images of the curvature of the earth and the gigantic, round shadow cast by the moon on the face of the planet.
“I should have slept with the batteries in my sleeping bag,” Patrick says, a look of despair hiding on his face. “I didn’t realize how cold it was going to get. It surprised us all.”
When they awoke on the morning of the eclipse day, water bottles and dog bowls were frozen. The group set about making breakfast while Emrys, Chance, and Patrick got the balloon gear ready.
It’s hard to concisely capture the planning and attempted precision involved in their work that morning. Attached to the balloon were two cameras. One was a GoPro in a vertical orientation that Patrick hoped would capture the actual eclipse framed against the black of space. The other was a Canon 5D Mark II with a 17-40mm lens aimed at the ground. While a shot of the moon eclipsing the sun would be impressive, it would also be incredibly small and not as dramatic as his real target – the dark shadow of the eclipse moving across earth’s surface, which people on the ground experience as twilight.
The eclipse would happen around noon, when the sun was roughly 50 degrees above the horizon.
“A difficult thing to photograph,” Patrick admits. “I knew from planning that the Tetons would be visible, as well as Yellowstone, the Gros Ventre Range, the Bridger-Tetons, and the Wind River Range. I was hoping to get the shadow with these object glowing at the edges of the eclipse shadow. The main thing I didn’t know was just how dark the shadow would be, and therefore didn’t really know what settings to use.”
In other words, he could send the camera up at a particular exposure and f-stop – and end up with grainy, dark, unremarkable images. He had one chance to set the camera’s setting before launching the balloon. No take backs once it left his hands and headed aloft.
He also had to account for timing. Normally he set cameras on balloons to take pictures every 10 seconds during flight.
“It gives me a warm feeling hearing the shutter click before I let go,” Patrick says. “You know it’s working.”
But for the eclipse, the actual event was only two minutes long. Hoping to save the camera’s memory card for the sweet spot of totality, he set a programmable timer for a 60-minute delay after which the camera would begin taking pictures as fast as the memory card would allow them to save.
“It seriously scared me that if I set the timer wrong it might get up there and not take a single picture during the eclipse,” he says.
If all went well, the camera would begin snapping pictures at 60,000 feet and not stop for 38 minutes, with the totality occuring right in the center of that time at about 72,000 feet. The balloon would rise to an altitude of just over 100,000 feet before popping. Then the cameras would descend back to the ground on a small parachute while transmitting GPS location data as they fell.
“I also had my older camera ready to go,” he remembers. “It was a gametime decision which one to risk losing. I ended up going with the Mark II because it’s a much higher resolution. It would hurt a lot more if I lost it, but the extra resolution would be well worth it if it worked.”
As the time approached, Patrick was a bundle of raw nerves.
“I was a mess,” he manages. “Nerves, anticipation – feeling like I would pass out or throw up the entire time. Thankfully, Emrys and Chance [both NOAA employees themselves] knew what they were doing, and I’d planned everything out months in advance.”
He’d developed a script about when to start filling the balloon, how many PSI to put in, a list of when to power on each camera and tape up the various styrofoam enclosures. Once filled, the balloon had to be maneuvered into a launch position by the trio before it was released.
“The main thing I hadn’t accounted for was the sheer lift of the balloon once it was filled,” he says. “We were using 30-pound test nylon cord and it was really hard to grip – we struggled to get the balloon positioned in a controlled manner.”
Emrys stepped on the cord with a foot and wrapped it around his leather gloves, but the balloon’s lift as they got into position for launch made the cord want to slip free. The friction ended up burning his hands in spite of their precautions.
“I was worried,” Patrick says. “Afraid it would get loose and snap or break the camera rig in an uncontrolled launch. But we finally got the balloon up in the air.”
Patrick alone was holding the camera in its styrofoam above his head as the balloon tugged and pulled on the long cord, struggling to climb free.
The group counted down and at zero he let go.
The camera was on its way to the stratosphere.
Attention turned to the actual eclipse already in progress. They ate, relaxed, and watched through their eclipse glasses as the dark crescent bitten out of the sun grew bigger. It wasn’t until ten minutes before totality that things started to feel different. The light was strange. The air cooler. One of the most noticeable things were the shadows of hair seen on the ground. Even the shadows of wispy hair on arms were sharp and distinct.
Only in the last seconds before totality did it really get dark. Then suddenly, the Great American Eclipse of 2017 hit like a ton of bricks.
And high above them, dangling at the end of a nylon cord, Patrick’s camera snapped picture after picture as a dark, circular stain crept across the surface of earth.
With other objects, long, steady viewings are required to reveal details. As you look at faint objects like the colorful bands of Jupiter, each time you look through the telescope’s eyepiece exposes more detail on your retina, and the brain processes the data into its visual memory. It’s as if your eye and your brain are painting the details bit by bit. Each time you look through the eyepiece you see a little bit more than you did the last time. It takes patience and endurance and a fair amount of luck.
But a total eclipse of the sun smacks you in the face with clarity.
“It was the most powerful event I’ve ever experienced,” says Patrick of that final moment of totality. “The lights went out and we couldn’t help screaming. The sun became a black disc in the sky – that was the object. A black hole in the sky.”
Like many who’ve witnessed a total eclipse, he stumbles over descriptions but tries his best.
“As my eyes adjusted, the corona became clear as day,” he says of the luminous tendrils of gas that stream like flames from the edge of the sun. “It was a real-life angel hanging in the sky,” he says, “and the corona was its wings extended several diameters out in either direction.”
While the group stood in awe, Patrick’s earth-bound cameras shot picture after picture as they tracked the sun-moon conjunction across the sky. The results are stunning, with layered, composite imagery showing the details of the corona and the luminous face of the moon.
“But no pictures I’ve seen are as good as the real thing,” Patrick admits. “Mine are complete garbage compared to it. Camera sensors are linear and you need to fake what it looks like with composites, but eyeballs are logarithmic. They see the vast magnitude of the corona and solar prominences and the dark face of the moon with ease. Your plain eyeballs are the best way to see it.”
Two minutes after it began, the "Diamond Ring" brought it all to an end in a shocking explosion of light that forced the group to look away in its brightness.
“We just screamed again,” Patrick remembers with a laugh. “Truly incredible.”
They all sat, basking in the afterglow as light returned to the world. Along with it came mosquitoes.
“Not quite as charming as the birdsong they talk about,” he laughs.
They checked the data transmitting from the balloon. The two GPS monitors showed its location and altitude, sending their signals without a hitch. When the balloon popped as expected at 101,000 feet, though, one of the GPS monitors disappeared in a blink. As the position of the falling camera tracked across the display, Patrick speculated that the jolt of the balloon popping may have affected the dead GPS.
“At the time, I was happy we’d put the second one on,” he says.
As Emrys and Chance hopped in the car and drove up the road to a high point in an attempt to get a last point before the camera fell behind a ridgeline, Patrick watched as the remaining GPS tracker blipped on and off before finally fizzling and disappearing at 50,000 feet.
“Cold batteries and temperature in the stratosphere finally got to it,” Patrick says, shaking his head. “If we’d kept the batteries warm all night we might have held onto the signal.”
As disappointment set in, their hopes were reignited as the GPS signal returned.
“It was super noisy, and couldn’t achieve a satellite lock – probably because of spin,” he hypothesizes. “It was bouncing all over the place – jumping a couple thousand feet up and down. We finally lost the signal at 13,000 feet. My heart sank a bit.”
He nods, takes a deep breath as he remembers those moments.
“It was going to be incredibly hard to find,” he says. “But at least I’d seen the eclipse myself.”
They stayed at the campsite overnight and ventured out the next day to make a quick search. The data from just before the signal was lost suggested the camera would at most be several miles from the trailhead used to access Gannett Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming.
“We hiked four miles up the trail and searched the forest under the last reported GPS packets,” he remembers. “We got a dose of reality.”
From the bottom of a valley they looked up at 3,000 feet of rocky cliffs and steep slopes up to a ridgeline in the east. Their hopes of finding it at all – let alone that day – vanished. Dejected, they headed back to Boulder. Over the course of the next week, Patrick studied the GPS and re-ran multiple flight predictions using NOAA’s wind data from the area. A glimmer of hope: The new projection pointed to an accessible area up the ridgeline. He and Shondia returned the next weekend and hiked 12 miles back and forth across the ridgeline, but came up empty handed.
“I just figured at that point that we’d make it an annual spot, and add a little bit of grid search every year until I found it,” he says. “Or until I gave up.”
“I wanted to make one more attempt, but the weather in September turned nasty and snow fell,” he says. “So I shut down the search until the melt next summer.”
Working with Allen Jordan, the NOAA programmer who built the balloon prediction software they used to track locations for recovery, Patrick was able to sift the data enough that usable glimmers began to resolve against the detritus of noise. Using geopotential altitude drawn from pressure, temperature, and humidity data transmitted back to the camp station, Patrick and Allen were able to screen out the GPS altitudes.
“We saw that the meteorological radiosonde tracking the flight jumped every time the camera jumped down in altitude,” Patrick says. “Filtering the data by altitude really cleaned up the latitude and longitude.”
Suddenly, instead of a garbled mess of data that pointed them nowhere, they had something like a straight line.
“Our confidence in the flight data grew,” he remembers of those cold winter days hypothesizing in the computer lab, months after the actual eclipse event. “Allen was able to use the wind data gathered on the ascent to build a prediction down through the now-filtered GPS descent data. Aligning it with a 5-degree shift in the winds predicted to happen when the temperature dropped as the shadow moved across the land gave us a great idea of where the camera should have landed.”
It was clear that the areas they’d searched the summer before were too far west and too far north. Their conservative estimate put the camera in a 50 acre area, but they were fairly confident it was in a 10 acre bullseye.
“I was building a heat map of where I had searched,” Patrick says. “Now I had a new area to start filling in.”
The drive from Boulder to the search site was seven hours each way. Patrick wanted to assemble a crew to go up with him and scour the area together, but he also didn’t want to waste their time. He decided to scout the area first to get an idea of what kind of terrain they’d be dealing with, and he packed a backpack, got a bear box and bear spray, and was ready to head up for two days if the weather broke.
“For three weeks it rained, with thunderstorms and wind that kept me from going up,” he says. “It was tough, waiting.”
Finally a window of opportunity opened and he headed up with Rya, hiking along the trail before finally turning off and beelining overland, scrabbling along the ridgeline he’d searched before, slowly making his way across the high alpine tundra before descending into the bullseye.
“I started to think about how I’d react if I found it,” he remembers. “Would I scream? Would I collapse? Would I just be in shock?”
His plan was to drop his larger pack and make a north-south sweep back and forth carrying only his smaller pack. He spotted a gnarled, dead tree standing out by itself and figured that was as good a marker as any for him to leave his big pack. As he made his way toward it he stumbled upon a small, styrofoam box next to a rock.
“My first thought was, What are the odds I’d find another weather balloon up here?’” he says with a laugh. “I just couldn’t process that it was my balloon.”
The realization arrived that what he’d found was the tracking unit that had been attached near the base of the balloon. The styrofoam box that had held the camera was split open and empty. The camera was nowhere to be found.
A cold panic set in – had the cord snapped? Had the camera plummeted elsewhere, never to be found again? He threw off his backpack and began to run around in a willy-nilly search. Second later he located the camera rig, about forty feet away.
The camera body was demolished. It looked liked it had gone lens-first into a rock, smashing the metal and plastic to pieces. The glass lens was several feet away. The camera looked the way one would expect a camera would look after falling 100,000 feet before spending ten months outside in the rain and snow.
“The busted lens had been sitting upright like a cup, and I could imagine the snow and rain filling it,” he says. “I wondered how much water had made it down into the sensors and circuit boards. The LCD looked like it was in pretty bad shape.”
But he had it. Later, he’d learn that the camera’s final location was 315 feet away from the exact location predicted by Allen Jordan’s data.
Alone on the hill, eight miles away from his truck, Patrick realized he hadn’t brought another camera with him, so all he could do was examine the cards visually.
“I didn’t have a way to check to see if they had even taken any pictures,” he says. “But I had some confidence that if there were pictures then they would still be on the cards, even in spite of the weather.”
It was only 10 am – just several hours since he’d awoken in the back of his truck.
“I had no intention of camping out there again,” he laughs. “I wanted to see what was on those cards.”
So he packed the cameras into his already heavy pack, and used duct tape from his medical kit to hold all the busted bits of styrofoam, string, and debris together as he carried it back out of the wilderness.
“Leave no trace, right?” Patrick laughs.
The hike took him eight miles back down to the trailhead in the heat of mid-day sun.
“It was miserable,” he says. “I hadn’t really thought about adding all that extra weight if I found the camera rig.”
But seven hours and 16.2 miles later – ten months after the Great American Eclipse had entranced the country and painted a black smudge on the face of the planet – Patrick Cullis arrived back at his truck. He opened the driver’s side door, hoisted his exhausted body up into the driver’s seat, and grabbed his other camera from the back seat.
“I slid the card in, turned the camera on, and saw that I’d hit the jackpot,” he said. “Everything I’d done – every mile driven, every hour spent pouring over the GPS data, filtering out bad data points, and staring at the terrain in Google Earth was worth it. It was the easiest 7-hour drive back to Boulder.”
These attempts are easy. They cost us only the effort to reach into our pockets and withdraw our phone-camera hybrids. It’s not necessarily that we are lazy by choice, but maybe more that we’ve gotten to a point where we can’t help but take the path of least resistance.
In the face of an event like a total eclipse it becomes clear pretty quickly that the truth can’t be contained in a feeble medium – an Instagram post or a Facebook update. These are approximations of reality. Periods instead of elipses. Hints and suggestions – sometimes decadent and satisfying in the short term – that ultimately reveal themselves as ethereal.
In the shadow cast by the moon passing in front of the sun, we are all reduced to our most base form – animals howling at the sky, humans reaching for the heavens, people trying their best to follow some plan to the finish, whether that finish is fortune or folly.
• • •
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