As I was setting up my camera gear to try and capture the aurora last night on top of 11,990′ Loveland Pass, I heard voices off in the distance. Voices? I thought I was alone up there in the dark, 37 degrees, no moon or wind, just me and the stars (though I had noted that there was one car at the top of the pass when I arrived at 2130 hrs.). I looked across the valley to see several headlamps on the saddle, descending from the ridgeline above Loveland Basin Ski Area. I continued setting up my primary camera to start ‘looking around’ to see if the aurora borealis was out, though it wasn’t in any way obviously visible, though it seemed to me that the sky near the horizon had a very, very faint reddish hue, but I’d seen that before, given all the light pollution to the west.
What were they doing up there above the pass at night?
Since the aurora was not yet obvious enough to concentrate on, I started capturing random images of the Milky Way to the south, occasionally seeing the headlights poke up above the ridge line. I could hear them chatting and calling their dog, which at one point howled back at some coyotes off in the distance. Even though I knew the aurora was liable to be behind me to the north, I kept returning to the hikers on the ridge line, wondering what they could possibly be doing on this cool October night. I decided to set up my second camera body for a time-lapse of the Milky Way over the ridgeline they were on, hoping that they would return directly to my location, providing something unusual to see, given that it was nearing midnight.
Brennen Griffin, Matt Dolbec and Kevin Millonig were on a ‘tribute’ hike, in honor of their friend, Army Spc. Timothy Fulkerson, who died in the line of duty in Tikrit, Iraq on 10/8/06. They told me a bit about Timothy and how each year since, they had done a night hike on Loveland Pass on the date of his passing in his honor, even in near white-out conditions one year ago, in 2012. I showed them some images of them high up on the ridge with the Milky Way above, and they were quite interested in seeing the results of the night’s shooting. I told them how to get a hold of me, and this morning I received this email from Brennen, quoted here with his permission, as I cannot possibly convey the story any better:
This is Brennen Griffin. We met last night up on top of Loveland Pass; I’m the one that lives down here in Golden. Just wanted to shoot you my email and touch base with you about maybe getting a pic or two from you. I know I had briefly told you of what we were up to last night but if I may, I would like to tell you a brief story behind it, as I love to share short life stories of those heroes that are no longer with us.
The soldier we were honoring last night is named Timothy Fulkerson. You see, I was a Ranger Medic in the army for 6 years and Tim was a .50 cal gunner on my team. Our team was extremely close, as we were a counter sniper/counter IED team that operated only at night; hence the reason for why we do that hike at night. Tim was killed on one of our missions the evening of the 8th of October, 2006 in the city of Tikrit, Iraq. We’ve been doing that hike ever since. Our team suffered severe losses during our last deployment to Iraq, June 2006 to Sept 2007 and more specifically during the months of October, November, and December. Tim was the first teammate to fall, followed by nearly half of the other members of my 13 man team.
Tim was by far the most light hearted of all of us. He kept us laughing even in moments of pure terror. Our team had a very high operational tempo and we rarely had contact with our families but on the night Tim was killed in action, he had sent an e-mail to his parents reassuring them that we were safe and not in harms way. And in the purest Tim form, his last words to his parents were, “Mom and Dad, I do not want you to worry about me and my team. It’s not that bad this time over here. In fact, it is safer here than in Michael Jackson’s bedroom…” and in my opinion, that last phrase that Tim shared with his parents sums up his personality and the affect he had on all of us. In the face of adversity, and minutes away from departing for what he knew would be an intense and potentially grave mission, he still had it inside of him to reassure his family and one last time, make them laugh.
I appreciate you letting me share this information with you. As I said earlier, I feel it is my responsibility to share the lives of those individuals with others who may never know anything of their existence. Thank you for being there to capture a moment that means more to me than most will ever know. Your pictures you showed us were truly impressive, I hope you got some great shots last night.
What follows below is the time-lapse that I felt compelled to create–for some unknown reason–despite my intended subject being behind me to the north. The sequence of 30-second exposures covers from 10:02 to 11:29 PM, when I packed up to head home. You can see their headlamps at the beginning of the video in the center, then a few seconds later descending the mountain to the saddle of Loveland Pass.
I was glad that I crossed paths with Brennen, Matt and Kevin, a chance meeting late in the night, high on top of a mountain pass that I once flew over often in the middle of the night, a place where I’ve spent a lot of time hiking in the winter. A chance to learn a bit about an American hero who died for his country, in defense of preserving the way of life that we all enjoy here in the United States.
Thanks to Timothy, and to Brennen, Matt and Kevin for keeping his memory alive in a way that allowed me to share it with whomever might read this.