It's Sunday and Fabio and I are thinking about going to Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugarloaf is a thirteen-hundred-foot-tall morro (Portuguese for mountain) of quartz and granite that dominates Rio's shoreline.
We're playing it by ear as there is stormy weather forecast. Throughout the day, Fabio and I touch base via IM to see how the weather looks, before deciding whether or not to go. The initial idea was to hike it, but we decide against that as it would be slippery if the predicted rain comes—besides, it's hot and humid and I'm lazy. The cable car would save me some trouble and would actually be fun.
The skies are mostly clear, so we decide to go for it. It doesn't make sense for me not to go because of the chance of rain. There's also the possibility the weather could be fine, and I don't want to miss the chance for the view, especially if worse weather is expected for the week. This could be my only shot on this trip.
Sunset is scheduled for 7:35 tonight. Fabio picks me up at 5:20. That should be plenty of time for us to drive the short distance from Botafogo to Sugarloaf, park, buy tickets, get to the top, and get set up for shooting the sunset overlooking Rio.
Some members of the local photo club have hiked up the first mountain and we see them there. One cable car takes visitors from sea level to the top of one morro, a second car to the top of Sugarloaf. Fabio and I take a few shots from the first mountain, but we don't stay long, as we want to get to the top well before sunset.
On the way up, I see a girl I recognize from the hostel in Botafogo. Her name is Hannah and she is Finnish, but is living in Spain. Her English is near perfect. I also hear her rattle off some Spanish, which is also excellent. Then there's me and my English, ten words in Portuguese and twenty in Spanish. Most people I'm meeting are multilingual.
When we arrive at the top, Hannah asks me to take a few photos of her with her camera, which is on the fritz. I try to help tweak the settings on her camera and she tries to figure out why it's misbehaving. I patiently snap a few shots, anxious to get my gear unpacked and start shooting with a real camera.
After finishing with the portrait session, I take out my camera and walk around to the other side of the visitor's center to check out the view.
As I peer to the North, the sky is dark. A storm is coming. I extend the legs on my tripod, attach the Arca Swiss quick release plate to my D3, and mount the camera on the tripod. Fabio expresses frustration that he forgot his cable release, which simply serves to remind me that I forgot mine, too. As it turns out, it won't make any difference—a cable release doesn't buy you anything in gale force winds.
Fabio doesn't bother to set up his tripod. He just tells me that if the weather is bad enough, they will shut down the cable car. Visitors can be stranded here all night long. It couldn't be any worse than a noisy youth hostel, right? Hanging out with interesting people from around the world in an interesting place is okay with me.
Shortly, Fabio says "The storm is coming. Let's go." I respond, "I'll see you later." His slightly sarcastic reply—which I appreciate—is, "You do realize there's a storm coming, don't you?" I say, merely, "Yes."
After Fabio's departure, I move to the corner of the platform for the best view over all of Rio. I can see from the North and even across the bay on the right all the way to Copacabana on the left, Cristo straight ahead on the mountaintop overlooking the city.
As the wind speeds increase, the platform becomes roomier as a packed cable car descends—apparently not everyone likes spending the night on top of a mountain. Those of us who remain experience winds that almost blow us off the mountaintop and into the Atlantic. I firmly hold my camera and tripod, teetering on the edge of this steep rock. For a split second, there's a pocket in the wind. It feels like the mountain is falling over forward. Then, my support, the wind, returns to hold me up. A Dutchman next to me leans forward into the wind. People all around are tugging on their shirts as the wind tries to remove them. Hey everyone, look at my gut! It feels as though the wind is trying to tear my eyelids off. I hope that my LASIK surgery doesn't get undone. Please hang on, corneae!
We see a plane coming South, hugging the mountains before turning left one-hundred-eighty degrees, flying over the bay, and lining up for final. The winds are out of the West and are strong. He overshoots base to final by a mile. He doesn't even get close to the airport before aborting and calling for a missed approach. We don't see him again.
Those of us who have remained are having the time of our lives. I'm not the only one who would say this is the best experience of my trip. There is lightning all over the horizon and it's getting closer. Not having a special sensor that detects lightning and automatically trips the shutter, I use the longest shutter speed possible and just hold down the shutter, firing off dozens—nay, hundreds—of frames, hoping I'll get lucky. Someone remarks that it would be something if I got a photo of lightning striking Cristo. I agree and forget, knowing that would be almost an impossibility, verifying my camera settings, checking my histogram and shutter speed. The aperture is shut down tight—f/22 on this lens, my Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8. My shutter speed is one second. I throw on a neutral density filter and increase the shutter speed to six seconds. This will make it easier to capture lighting.
Occasionally, there is a massive lightning bolt that lights up the ever darkening sky with fifty-thousand degrees of electrically-generated heat. We all yell with glee, competing with the roaring wind. This is the show of a lifetime.
As the storm moves South over the mountains and closer to us, I adjust my camera to take in the scene where I think the highest likelihood of lightning is—the place where the sky is darkest and rainfall is heaviest. I continue holding the shutter down almost constantly. Then it comes. One massive lightning strike to the left of Cristo, one to the right, then one in the mellon. Cristo just took one monster lightning strike on the head! And I got it on film! Everyone partakes of my joy.
Before long, the wind dies down and then comes the rain. We take cover under the overhang of the small restaurant. I take this brief respite from shooting to grab a Coke. It neither rains heavily nor does it last long. Within five minutes, a gal from Russia is back out with her Canon 5D and 16-35 wide angle lens—her primary lens, a 24-70, was broken earlier on her trip. Oh, the agony of it all. I can't image life without my 24-70. I follow shortly behind her and begin shooting again. Now, the sun is gone and the city and clouds are illuminated by millions of burning hot slivers of tungsten. The scene is serene and beautiful. The air is fresh and the stormy weather has mostly passed. What a wonderful evening.
It's almost 9:00 PM. The last ride down will be leaving soon. We pack up our equipment and just look out over the city for a few minutes. As the Russian commented, we photographers sometimes don't see the beautiful scene until we get home. It's worth the little extra effort and time to enjoy it in person—without the viewfinder blocking the way.
Having had enough excitement for the day, I get a taxi back to the hostel—less than a five-minute drive. Had I left earlier to avoid the storm, I would have missed the most exciting moment of my trip so far, and possibly a big money-maker and several gorgeous images of Rio.