Views from atop Mt. Ellen, Utah

A 360 degree panoramic view from atop Mount Ellen, Utah.  The center of the picture is approximately east-southeast.  The black portions in the sky and ground are due to missing portions of the image and the somewhat wavy horizons in the picture are from irregularities in the original source images.  To the left of the center of the image may be seen an excavation (the darkly-shadowed portion amongst the rocks) that is a remnant of the 19th and early 20th century heliograph stations.
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360 degree panoramic view from atop Mt. Ellen, Utah

Top left:  The northern portion of the Henry Mountains, as viewed from the west.  Top right:  Gordon (left) and Clint atop Mt. Ellen.  The view in the background is toward the northwest.  Middle left:  Clint (left) and Gordon eating lunch in one of the excavations that are the remains of the heliograph stations.  Middle right:  Another excavation on an adjacent peak.  Bottom left:  Gordon, descending the mountain on a sea of broken granite slabs.  Bottom right:  A closer view of the summit marker and the mailbox.  At 11000+ feet elevation, the sky really is darker blue than at lower elevations.
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A view of the west side of the Henry Mountains
Gordon and Clint atop Mt. Ellen
Clint and Gordon in the shelter of one of the excavations for lunch
Another of the excavations atop Mt. Ellen
Gordon, traversing a sea of rocks on the mountaintop
Summit marker with mailbox

On 17 September, 1894, the longest-distance known heliograph communications took place between a party of the Army Signal Corps atop Mt. Ellen, southwest of Hanksville in southeastern Utah, and another atop Uncompahgre Peak (near present-day Lake City) in southwestern Colorado - one of the highest points in the San Juan mountains - spanning a distance of over 183 miles (over 294km) breaking the previous 125 mile (201km) record.  This path was possible because of the high elevations of the two mountains:  Mount Ellen is 11522 feet (3513 meters) above sea level while Uncompahgre peak is somewhat higher - at 14309 feet (4361 meters.)  Most importantly, the intervening terrain is fairly low - never getting much above 5000 feet or so, thus preventing the curvature of the Earth from blocking the path.

A lot has changed since 1894, so I was curious as to whether such an optical path would still be practical - or even likely to be possible.  One point of concern was that in the general area of this line-of-sight path are several gigawatts of coal-fired electricity generation plants and it was thought that particulates from these pollution sources could drastically obscure the optical path.

For many years I've see the Henry Mountains sticking up out of the Utah desert and they have always intrigued me - especially since they were easily accessible with fairly good roads.  Interestingly, a running (and admittedly nerdy) joke was to call these mountains the "Inductance Range" - the basis of the joke being that the name of the mountains was the same as the unit of the electrical property inductance.  To our surprise, it turned out that this was, in fact, true:  The Henry Mountains were the last in the continental U.S. to be named  - by John Wesley Powell on one of his legendary river expeditions - in honor of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a proponent of funding for Powell's voyages.  Joseph Henry was also a leading scientist and researcher in the then-new field of electricity and electromagnetism, work that earned him the honor of the unit of inductance bearing his name.

On the 28th of September, 2006, I had the opportunity to go to Mount Ellen.  Fortunately, the weather was extremely good for visual sighting - deep blue skies, no nearby clouds, and clear air.  Only a few weeks earlier, much of the western U.S. had been blanketed by a pall of smoke from several wildfires, but the recently cooler and wet weather had quashed them.

On this day we took a fairly leisurely day hike to the top of Mount Ellen from the road at Bull Creek pass, starting at an elevation of about 10500 feet (3230m):  This hike is quite easy, gaining only about 1000 feet (about 300m) of elevation, and under 3 miles each way.  The only (minor) difficulty encountered has to do with the fact that most of the mountaintop is covered with a sea of irregularly-shaped rocks, making progress somewhat more awkward than it would otherwise be.  Living at a fairly high elevation (over 4200 feet or 1220m) and having done plenty of recent hiking above 9000 feet (2700m) the rarefied air wasn't really much of a hardship.

Once atop the highest peak at an elevation of 11522 feet (3513m) we began looking for Uncompahgre peak.  Having put Uncompahgre's location into my GPS receiver, I quickly determined that the true-north bearing toward Uncompahgre peak was a hair over 89 degrees.  Looking into the blue distance and using my transit compass, I could just see, in the indicated direction, a set of mountain ranges:  A pair of reasonably strong binoculars verified that these vague light-colored objects were, in fact, snow-capped peaks.  Further verification of the bearing was done by comparing readings obtained with the the transit compass with other identifiable landmarks that I had also stored in my GPS receiver.

Having gotten to the peak at about lunch time, we settled down to enjoy the scenery and to take pictures of our surroundings.  After having been there for about two hours, we noticed that with the now-western sun, the visible haze toward the east had cleared somewhat with the more-favorable lighting and we could see what we thought were vague clouds in the distance, past the mountain peaks.  At this time, I took more pictures - using a tripod, polarizer, without a polarizer, and combinations of wide angle and zoom lenses - hoping to get the sharpest pictures of Uncompahgre Peak possible.  Eventually, we gathered up our gear and wandered back down to the car and drove to that night's camping spot in the desert.

After getting home several days later, I examined the pictures more closely on the computer, comparing them with a synthetic view generated by a program using a high-resolution (1 arc-second) terrain database.  In positively identifying Uncompahgre Peak on the database (and on the synthetic view) I immediately noticed that the mountains that we we had thought had included Uncompahgre Peak were the San Juan mountains - but were those in the portion of the range that includes Mt Wilson in the area around Telluride and Silverton and were somewhat closer at "only" about 155 miles (248 km.)  What we'd thought were clouds on the horizon were, in fact, the peaks for which we were looking.  Fortunately, all of my pictures had a wide enough view and contained enough detail to include these features.
Various views toward Uncompahgre Peak, progressing to tighter zooms.  The bottom image is a monochrome and contrast-enhanced image, showing the location of Uncompahgre Peak.  Note that the color and/or contrast of these images has been exaggerated in order to improve image clarity.  (A .JPG version of the original source image for the bottom picture is here.)
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Wide-angle view toward Uncompagre Peak
Narrower-angle view toward Uncompagre Peak
More zoomed-in view toward Uncompagre Peak
Zoomed-in view toward Uncompagre Peak
Enhanced and processed view showing Uncompahgre Peak

The sequence of images to the right shows that Uncompahgre Peak is, in fact, visible from Mount Ellen on a clear day.  What is not apparent from the photographs - but can be seen from the maps - is that there is a mountain range just in front (just a few miles to the west) of Uncompahgre Peak - and only the top several hundred feet of Uncompahgre protrudes above them.  Because the camera that I used for these pictures (a Sigma SD-10) uses a raw image format for image storage, it was possible to go back and extract all available information from the original image, making recovery of such details possible.

Other related Heliograph links:
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This page and contents copyright 2007-2009 by Clint, KA7OEI.  Last update:  20110307
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