The elusive ‘Firefall’ returns to Yosemite Valley

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FireFall occurs every year during the last two weeks of February. On the back side of El Capitan flows Horsetail fall, which is the vessel for this phenomenon. (Angel Pena | Viewpoints)
By Angel Pena

After my first failed attempt at capturing “Firefall,” I spent an entire year contemplating on how I would pull this shot off.

Fast forward one year and I found myself there again, ready to settle the score.

Nestled between the Sierra Nevadas lies Yosemite Valley, a valley known for its majestic waterfalls, unforgettable landscapes and towering rock faces.

Mixed with the roaring waters of Bridalveil Fall and massive granite faces of El Capitan and Half Dome lies a phenomenon that only occurs for two weeks every year.

“Firefall” occurs in the last two weels of Feburary during the final few minutes of golden hour, during the last two weeks of February, when the sun hits Horsetail Fall at a specific angle that produces what looks like a flow of lava coming off the back end of El Capitan. 

Thousands of photographers flock to Yosemite every year in hopes of capturing a glimpse of the mirage. However, due to COVID-19, only a few hundred were able to enter the park this year.

A limited capacity of 700 people a day forced visitors to acquire a day pass in order to enter. Guests had to wake up early when the passes were announced to secure one. They sold out in a matter of minutes and it would be a week before more were issued.

Those who were able to get one were treated to a virtually empty park and prime viewing locations for “Firefall.” Many arrived days in advance to scout out their own locations and prepare. 

 photographers claimed their spots hours before sunset, set up their equipment and prepared their minds for the long wait.

I wallowed in disappointment last year after missing the shot and blaming mother nature for thwarting my plans. At least I had learned the layout of the park and, most importantly, I knew that I needed to prepare. 

I upgraded my equipment, researched prime locations and acquired the knowledge I lacked in my previous attempt.

Finally, the time had come. I scored a park permit and was ready for the six hour drive north. The long road trip would not be in vain this time.

We posted up in a primitive camp. Bearing the below freezing nights in a rickety wooden structure covered by a canvas tarp sparked in me the determination to land this shot. The scene was set.

I walked a combined 11 miles the next day just to find the perfect, most desolate shooting spot — a trek worthy of the rugged pioneers and mountain men that walked these forests before me. I set my gear down, looked up and zeroed in on the location I’d been searching for.

I trudged over to the location, set up my equipment and waited six more hours. Photographers gathered as each hour passed, patiently waiting for the “Firefall.”

After all the waiting, the golden hour kicked off. It seemed like the freezing temperatures and exhausting hikes were about to become worth it. 

This could’ve had a fairy tale ending, however, mother nature had an ace up her sleeve. At the last minute, clouds rolled in and covered up all the sunlight. A familiar feeling of disappointment and frustration set in and I only had one more day to get the shot.

That night in my tent was the worst. My thoughts and the rain beating on the canvas roof kept me up. 

“Tomorrow is a new day and another opportunity to get what I came for,” I kept telling myself.

Morning came and immediately the pressure was on. I hopped in my car and headed for the same spot that I had claimed the day before. I was ready.

Both my cameras were set up with different focal lengths as I was trying to maximize my angles.

Most of the day it had been sunny with not a cloud in sight. But a thick cloud cover rolled in a few hours before “Firefall,” snuffing out any amount of hopeI had left. I stayed put just in case.

I noticed shimmers of light seeping through the trees as I leaned on a fallen pine.

“Could it be,” I thought to myself.

I stood up and had my shutter at the ready.

The sun broke through the clouds like a scene out of a movie, revealing an everflowing stream of lava coming down the cliff side. It happened: “Firefall” had begun.

I had only five to 10 minutes to capture the shot before the light faded. I fired off as many shots as I could, making sure I didn’t miss a thing. 

As I looked back at my photos, a sense of relief and euphoria went over me. I had done it, I finally captured “Firefall.”

Many photographers scout their preferred location days before the event begins and enter the park at 5:30 a.m., when it opens to ensure that they get their desired location. (Angel Pena | Viewpoints)
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