Rocky Mountain National Park – 1/22/11

February 2nd, 2011
The Front Range area got pounded with a lot of snow all week, so my skier buddy and I took a trip up to RMNP to do some touring/exploring/adventuring. I’ve been up to the Bear Lake area a few times, and the paved road access cannot be beat, save for Berthoud or Loveland Passes. However, the crowds that mass at those areas are nonexistant up here in the wilderness.

We set off from Denver in the dark at 5:00, passing through Boulder and grumbling at the two dozen traffic lights on highway 36 that seem intent on screwing over the very few early risers on the road for no reason. The ground through the entire drive was dry as a bone.

Finally, we entered the Park through the north entrance station. Instantly the conditions changed from dirt brown to wonderful, fluffy white. In the early dawn light, we spotted a herd of at least 50 elk huddled together near the side of the road! We stopped and got out to have a look. The air was warm, dark, and silent. I watched as the herd moved about in the tranquil scene, going about their business as we were going about ours. We left them be and continued to the trailhead.

There was definitely over a foot of new snow at the trailhead, and the sky was very dark and overcast, with strong winds. We started off on the Dream Lake trail in a southern direction, before hitting Tyndall Creek and turning due west. On the way, we met up with a solo ice climber skinning his way towards some falls a bit south of us. We stayed with him until the fork south of Nympth Lake, where he headed towards the big cliff faces near Chaos Creek.

Tom getting stoked for some Corps of Discovery type action
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It was dark and grisly, but the powder and terrain was beautiful
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Although the plan was to get above Dream Lake, we were greeted with a huge blast of gale force wind at the edge of the lake. We took shelter in the trees and evaluated our plan. We decided not to go any higher and instead head north on the bench, putting us above Bear Lake.

We made our way higher and higher on the bench, and the sun finally started to make its way out between the clouds. We finally topped out at about 10,500′, amid some rocky bands and trees. From here, we had a pretty good view of the whole line down to Bear Lake, save for a few steep rollers.

Scoping out our intended line. We decided to follow the natural fall line down and to the left in this photo. (Photo by Tom Armento)
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I am ready to drop in. First splitboard descent of the year for this guy! (Photo by Tom Armento)
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I dropped in first. The line was a moderate one, but the two feet of powder was excellent for surfing. I got to another lower bench and called down for my partner to follow. We dropped a good 300′ of steep powder before we got benched out.

Tom blasting the pow
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My turn to surf (Photo by Tom Armento)
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(Photo by Tom Armento)
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This is when things started going bad. The bench was too flat and my board was getting buried in the immense snow. I unstrapped and found myself up to my chest in unconsolidated snow. It was a little scary, especially when I found myself in a tree well or two. I started having flashbacks to a nightmare two years ago on Vail Pass. Eventually, I found a solid ridge that I was able to climb up on by taking off my pack and stepping down onto it to climb up. Then I reached down, pulled up my pack, and continued the process. It was exhausting, and I was in no mood for any more touring.

Luckily, we hit another steep area and I dropped down around some cliffs. My partner took a more direct line on a short headwall, setting off a small sluff slide, but nothing we couldn’t handle.

Hitting the steeps above Bear Lake
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Finally we made our way out towards Bear Lake, passing a few more ice climbers getting after it. When we walked way out to the parking lot, we past a much more crowded scene than we encountered at 6:00 AM. Dozens of snowshoers and a few skiers who were just arriving to start their day, while we kicked back and reflected on ours in true alpinist fashion with some cans of Old Chub.

Map of our ascent (green) and descent (blue).
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(Narrative and photos by Adam Reiner, unless otherwise specified)

Castle Peak, North Face

May 19th, 2010
El Nino has come through with his promises and has been hammering the Colorado Rockies with spring storm cycles. From my daily vantage point at DIA, I could see that Pike’s Peak was more white in May than it ever was in March. The rest of the Front Range was no different. After a long and dry winter, we had thought that the ‘big line’ season was going to be relatively short. This new snow has infused all of us with new confidence of a prospective spring season.

According to Lou Dawson, the guru of 14er skiing, the East Face of Castle Peak is a ‘plum’: sought by many, but plucked by few. Because of sheer avy danger, it is nearly impossible to descend in the winter. By the time the snowpack finally matures to stable spring snow, the eastern sun works the snow so fast that it becomes runneled and full of wet slides.

Barrows and I had suspected that because of the recent barrage of spring storms, that the east face ‘just might be in season’. Both of us being 200 miles away, with no insider contacts in Aspen, we decided to take the gamble and head up there on Sunday morning.

As expected, the trailhead at Castle Creek/Pearl Pass road was bone dry. We drove up to the first major snowdrift and then began the hike in. This was my fourth time up this valley, and I was well acquainted with the approach. The first section followed the north bank of the creek, which would be dry all the way to the bridge that crossed over to the shaded south bank. Reluctantly, we shouldered our boards and packed in up the road.

Mandatory springtime photo of a dude dry-packing in snowboard boots
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The snow was looking very good on the north face couloirs of Mace Peak. There was no sign of the dreaded ‘snirt’ layer, although I knew it was all there below the powder white surface. After a few short miles, we reached the fork in the road and headed south up Pearl Pass road, past the Tagert and Green-Wilson huts en route to the basin below the East Face. I had lost sight of my partner a while ago, and I figured he had already headed up into the basin. Up here I saw a lot of wet slide activity. It was a little intimidating, but I followed an existing skin track that avoided all of the debris. Still with no sight of my partner, I kept skinning higher and higher, as the sun was retreating behind the ridge to the west. Finally, I was up in the basin and got a good look at the East Face.

East Face of Castle Peak at around 6:00 PM
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Although I still hadn’t talked to my partner, I already felt a feeling of discouragement when analyzing this face. It appeard that a wet slide had propagated from the upper ridge, and fell into the thin couloir, where what looked to be a runnel had formed. In addition, the slide debris was blown all over the apron below the couloir. (read my analysis here)

My partner was still nowhere to be found, and I began to freak out. It was getting dark. I didn’t actually think he would have been higher up in the basin, so I figured I’d stand around for another ten minutes, calling his name, before heading down. Just before I was about to head down, I heard yelling far below me. He had taken a left back at the huts and was waiting for me down below. Relieved, I skinned back down to him and we reaquainted. Let that be a lesson in ‘keeping the group together’.

We held a meeting and decided the east face was a ‘no-go’. Not to be defeated, we decided to break for camp and make a go for the north face the next day. I had been up Montezuma Basin before, so I knew the way up in that direction. We camped not far from the huts, set up and made a little dinner while looking out at Mace Peak as it was engulfed in darkness.

Dick Nixon decided to show up for some stew
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It was a cold night and I didn’t sleep much. The alarm went off at 4:00 and we started to mobilize. Barrows saved the day with a really cool espresso plunger, and I was able to sit upright in my sleeping bag, drinking a strong cup of espresso. I was quickly energized and we departed at about 5:30 AM.

Heading up before dawn
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Montezuma Basin is really a spectacular place. It is a huge glacial-carved cirque surrounded by steep headwalls and peaks. The terrain up here is so gnarly, that a mid-winter attempt would be anything short of a suicide mission.

Here you can see the ‘hugeness’ of Montezuma basin, by the spec of the splitboarder below the huge peaks.
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Back in the 19th century, this was home to the silver boom that practically created the first of many ‘rich-ass mofos’ that would reside in Aspen for the next 150 years since. There are even the remains of some old cables where the mine carts followed on down the road. I’m a history nerd, so I snapped some photos for good fun.

On the descent, I actually threaded these cables. Probably not the safest thing to do on a snowboard!
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The first part of the approach was relatively mellow, but soon we had to skin up a series of headwalls, each one steeper and bigger than the last. By the third and final one, I was already beginning to feel gassed. The thing that motivated me was thinking of the amazing high speed corn runs I was going to make on them a few hours later. That, and the view of Castle Peak that final came in from the distance.

I called this final headwall the ‘meatgrinder’. If you make it through this, your reward is getting to grovel up the face of the mighty 14er above.
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Finally, I had made it into the familiar upper basin. In the summer time, Aspen locals will four-wheel all the way up here, to ski on the small ‘glacier’ that remains at the end of the basin. However, today we were treated with complete solitude high above treeline in the alpine zone. From here, I could see my partner already setting a skin track up the couloir, and I was in awe by the sheer epicness of the Elk Range’s tallest 14er.

Barrows setting the track up the couloir. You can see that it was skiied very recently
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I met up with him and switched over to crampons for the climb. At first, we discovered a good freeze and easy climbing. However, the conditions quickly turned to deep, winter powder. Climbing this thing was going to be tough, as each step resulted in a knee-length post-hole. Fortunately, the face was well shaded, and I had no concerns about losing the snow to the sun, so I eased my effort and worked my way up, slowly. The couloir was actually shorter than it looked: probably no more than 800 feet.

Climbing up the couloir
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As I slowly made my way up, I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings. My gaze alternated between my ice axe and boot steps in front of me, and the top of the couloir ahead. Fortunately, I took one break and looked around over my shoulder to the north. I was greeted with one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen in my five years in the mountains–all of the other 14ers in the Elk Range lined up in a row: Pyramid Peak, The Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak, and Snowmass Mountain!

God, I love Colorado!
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Finally, I pulled into the top of the couloir, exhausted. My partner was up on the summit, but my climb stopped here (I’ve been on the summit once before). The ridge was thin, and I was able to peer over into the entrance to the East Face that I had viewed from below the day before. I also looked out at the grand view of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Star Peak in the immediate vicinity, and the Sawatch Range far to the east
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The climb was over, and it was time to ride. We were both really looking forward to this descent. It is not often you can find a steep run of pure winter powder in May. All of the post holing and grovelling would be rewarded. Barrows dropped in first, and we leapfrogged all the way down. The snow was incredible.

Enough talk. Here is the stoke:

Barrows dropping in…
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Had a bit of condensation on my lens, causing this effect that looks like an acid trip I wish I once had!
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Great powder
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Finishing it out
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My turn in the white room (photo by Barrows Worm)
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The ‘Alaska Shot’! (photo by Barrows Worm)
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Then it was time for the bonus turns, another 1500 vert of awesome corn snow, all the way back to camp!

BTW, dude is pulling off this steez in hardboots!
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We made it back to camp right around 11:00 AM. The sun was shining and the familiar sounds of spring were all around. I laid out in a T-shirt, refueling on water and soaking up the moment. We decided that aborting the East Face and riding the North Face was the best decision of the year. This was by far my favorite line of the year, and is right up there as my favorite of all time…

…until next year, when the East Face beckons once more…

(Narrative and all photos by Adam L. Reiner, unless otherwise labeled)


Lindley Hut trip (Central Colorado) – 4/30/10

May 11th, 2010
As winter rolls into spring in Colorado, it is time for my annual hut trip in the Elk Mountains. While most people do the huts in the winter time, but I always prefer the longer days, shorter approachs, and safer snowpack of early May. Luckily, I was able to find a couple of other backcountry enthusiasts that have not retired their boards for the mountain bikes just yet.

This year I chose the Lindley hut, which provided a very short hike to get to. Even better, the winter gate at Ashcroft was open, which allowed us to drive an additional two miles to the summer trailhead.  All the way up from Denver to Aspen, we encountered every sort of weather condition imaginable. It was supposed to storm all weekend, so I was prepared for whiteout conditions at the trailhead. However, we were greeted with partly-sunny skies and light snow for our entire approach to the hut.

Ed da’Gnarly getting stoked at the trailhead.
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We skinned up Taylor Pass road through about four inches of fresh powder. This was my first time taking the left branch of Castle Creek road, instead of the usual right branch towards Tagert, Green Wilson, and Friends Hut. As we crept around Greg Mace peak, the rest of the Cooper Creek drainage came into view. We reached the hut in a little over an hour. I was already beginning to like this hut  .

Skinning up the road
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The hut was very large, and quite comfortable for our small group. From the south deck, we were treated with an incredible view of the Cooper Creek Basin

On the left is the north shoulder of Star Peak. On the right is an unnamed peak that separates Cooper Creek Basin from Pearl Basin (towards Pearl Pass)
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On Saturday morning, we decided to head up the basing towards the face on the right. The aesthetic couloir direct center was calling our names.

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We started up the Cooper Creek drainage, but greatly underestimated the steepness and rugged bushwacking required to reach the base of the mountain. Getting up there would have required many ups and down into creeks and ditches, and skirting cliffs. Its no wonder this area doesn’t get skiied much. It was much gnarlier than the standard approach to Pearl Basin from the other side. Regardless, we found some good features to ride back down towards the hut.

Ed riding a steep tree line
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Mike hucking a small cliff
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Rachel making turns below the cliffs
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After regrouping at the hut, we decided to head back towards the mining road that we came in on, and climb the north facing slopes above the hut. The terrain here was variable. There was deep powder in many areas, but really nasty and rotten ‘snirt’ in others. After an exhausting and frustrating climb, we finally made it near treeline, and switched over to drop in.

Mike
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Afterwards, we retired to the hut, opening the whiskey and running through the various board and card games there. (Let it be noted that I kicked Mike’s ass in chess, twice)

A few photos of the Lindley Hut
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The next morning, we awoke to a much more overcast day. It was snowing much harder than the day before. We cooked a hearty breakfast and prepared to leave.

Mike and Rachel out front
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Ed, locking it up. Goodbye, Lindley Hut!
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Just because we were on our way out didn’t mean we were done making turns. We had spied a small chute during our approach that we decided to return to. Mike left to hike up around it to get above the cliffs, while Ed and I ascended the chute proper.

Ed, dropping into the chute. Best powder of the trip right here (not bad for May!)
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‘Huckmaster Mike’ in action
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This hut trip was pretty casual. There were no huge lines descended. However, it was very relaxing for me to get away from the city life, avoid Facebook for three days , and just chill out with some good friends.

Until next year!

Indian Peaks, Mt. Audubon southeast shoulder

February 17th, 2010
The Indian Peaks are the prominent mountains that can be seen from almost everywhere on the eastern plains of Colorado. Their serrated, snowcapped peaks and ridges stand in stark contrast to the dry desert foothills in front of them. Every day thousands of people are subjected to their view while hurrying along US-36 on their daily commute between Denver and Boulder. Millions more have seen them out of an airplane window while flying into, out of, or connecting at Denver International Aiport.

The Indian Peaks seen from Denver International Airport (photograph provided courtesy of Denver International Airport)
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However, as beautiful as they are from a distance, 99% of those people are completly oblivious to the true feeling one will find when adventuring deep into the wilderness of these mountains. Ironically, although these mountains are within an hour drive of the most densely populated area of the entire Rocky Mountains, it is easy to find solitude here in the middle of winter.

I planned to meet my partner, Barrows, at the Brainerd Lakes trailhead early in the morning. This required the aforementioned drive along the Boulder Turnpike. As I drove, with warm coffee in hand, I enjoyed the sun rising in the bluebird sky, and lighting up my view of the Indian Peaks during my drive. With good tunes on the radio, I sat in silence for over an hour, enjoying the peacefulness of the morning.

Barrows and I got to the trailhead around 9:00 AM. I did not know what was in store. I knew the Brainerd Lakes trail involved a longer approach than I was used to along the usual ‘I-70 trailheads’, but I did not know how far we were going to go up the mountains. At least a foot of new snow had fallen, and the CAIC was reporting ‘considerable’ avalanche danger with ‘pockets of high’. This meant that the front range snowpack was very variable. It could be deadly in some areas, but perfectly safe in others. Because of this, we would have to use our keen observations and experience and make very smart decisions on this crucial day.

The initial approach was as expected–on a two mile snowcovered road. Although I was cursing out the local authorities for not plowing the road, Barrows was good at reminding me that if the road was plowed all the way to the lake, there would be ten times as many people out here. I was gracious for this, for if I wanted to be surrounded by crowds, I would have gone skiing with the rest of the masses at the ski areas on this President’s Day. Not my cup of tea.

The initial hike up the snowcovered road
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After a short while, the mountains really started to come into view. Barrows pointed out many of the peaks that give this range its unique name–such as Apache, Arapahoe, and Pawnee. I wondered back hundreds of years, what the local Indian tribes must have felt while exploring these mountains.

At Brainerd Lake (still on the road!)
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We were making progress along the road, and the weather was perfect. I was getting anxious to start making some vertical progress. Eventually, we made it to the ‘Summer Trailhead’. There were picnic benches, cabins, restrooms, and dumpsters all covered in a few feet of snow. This place would be bustling with activity in the middle of July, but here in February it was very serene. I got a good perspective on things when we skinned past the Indian Peaks Wilderness boundary. I have seen these signs all over the state on various trails in the National Forests–they all stand about five feet tall. Here, the snow all but covered the entire sign.

The standard ‘Wilderness’ sign found all over Colorado, they stand five feet tall on dry land
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We skinned a short while through the forest and came back out in a large clearing out in front of Mitchell Lake. Here, I had my first full view of the challenge that lie ahead. Across the cirque was the south shoulder of Mt. Audobon.

I am skinning across Mitchell Lake(photo courtesy of Barrows Worm)
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This relatively ‘short’ face was decorated with a half-dozen couloirs of varying size and steepness. One very long and narrow couloir branched up towards our right, but it looked like it needed more snow, as it had many rocks in the middle of it. We decided to head towards a lower-angle, wider couloir located on our left side of this face.

Barrows skinning up the basin above Mitchell Lake
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Bonus pic of some really cool looking north-face features on the ridge leading towards Mt. Toll
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As we made it up into the cirque, we performed a series of quick avalanche tests. Everything was feeling safe. I was feeling very strong, with intentions of conquering the couloir at this point. Once we made the apron, we packed the boards and began to boot up the couloir.

Barrows enjoying the February sunshine
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At this point my motivation started going downhill. The snow was very deep and unconsolidated. I had instant flashbacks to my attempt on Mt. Rainier last spring, where two feet of fresh snow had ruined any chance of us post-holing our way to the summit. Back here on Mt. Audubon, I was already starting to lose my energy with each step that I struggled to make in the snow. There were times where we could find rocks to scramble upon, until the rocks ran out, and we were left with the sea of snow. Sadly, I had had enough. Thankfully, I looked up and my partner was removing his snowboard from his pack. It was time to go down.

I am scrambling up the rocks in lieu of the deeps now (photo courtesty of Barrows Worm)
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I just couldn’t make the final 20 feet! (photo courtesty of Barrows Worm)
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The afternoon sun was already creeping down the western sky. I strapped into my board and waited for my partner to drop in from above. We were both nervous. All signs during the day pointed to a stable snowpack, but we all know that initial anxiety before dropping in for the first time. “Do I still know how to do this?” My partner asked.

“Just like riding a bike” I yelled in support.

With a quick hop out into the center of the couloir, he was off, making furiously smooth turns in the snow. As I aimed and shot my camera, I saw powder flying everywhere. The apprehension eased for a moment as I watched him ride all the way down the the basin below. Then the anxiety resumed: it was my turn.

Barrows dropping in
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Barrows down in the bottom of the couloir
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I got up on my toes and looked down below me, took three deep breaths, and throttled it. No worries whatsoever! I felt the thrill of the ride hit me, and suddenly remembered why I always put myself through so much torture for these 30 seconds of descent.

I met my partner back down in the basin and we looked up at mountain. The couloir was now decorated with two parallel tracks, making s-curves all the way down the mountain.

Looking back up at our fresh tracks
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It was getting late, so we made a few more turns down in the basin before switching back to our skins for the long slog back out to the trailhead. I stopped many times to look back up at the face. There was definitely a whole lot more to

Storm Clouds over Breckenridge

January 26th, 2010
IMG_4271, originally uploaded by Adam Reiner.

I just bought a Canon Rebel XT, my first step into the DSLR camera world. I’ve already started capturing some scenic photos. Here are some photos of some storm clouds over Breckenridge, taken from Keystone ski area.

See more here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamreiner