Capturing a Mountain’s Character

There are two ways to photograph a mountain. One way is to try and capture its changing moods. This usually involves wider angle shots that encompass the mountain’s surroundings; dramatic light and weather are often part of the image. The other is trying to capture a mountain’s character. But what do I mean by character? In simple terms, I mean photographing a mountain in a way that reveals the mountain’s “structure”. Is it smooth and featureless? Or blocky and fractured? Is a mountain a series of ridges or hanging glaciers? Or is it a single sheer wall, that rises from the ground to sky without interruption?

When capturing a mountain’s many moods, we usually photograph during that magic light of early morning or late evening and sometimes during storms when the mountain is barely visible. But to reveal a mountain’s character, we must spend a day observing the light as it travels across the mountain, waiting for that time when all of the mountain’s secrets are revealed. Some photographers find this to be boring, preferring the drama of capturing a mountain’s mood over its character, which can often be during the middle of a bright, sunny day.

Obviously, the time of the year and the angle of the sun plays a role, along with the aspect of the mountain your photographing. Often, especially with big mountains, the light never reveals a mountain’s secrets, they hide in the shadows (cold and in the shadows is one of a mountain’s many moods).

Below is an example of trying to capture a mountain’s character. The mountain is Thunder Mountain in Denali National Park and Preserve.

The light is not illuminating the face, creating a cold, moody image, but not capturing the mountain's character.

The light is not illuminating the face, creating a cold, moody image, but not capturing the mountain’s character.

The light is at the right angle to reveal the mountain's fractured surface and to reveal the warm color of the rock.

The light is at an angle that reveals the mountain’s fractured surface and highlights the warm color of the rock.

The sun is low and directly facing the mountain. It is a dramatic look, especially with the dark blue sky, but many of the features of the mountain are lost due to the flat light.

The sun is low and directly facing the mountain. It is a dramatic look, especially with the dark blue sky. There is some nice texture, but some features of the mountain (like the fluted ridge) are lost due to the direct, flat light. The color of the ice and mountain is less obvious.

This is the type of light most photographers are after. It doesn't really work on such a tight shot of the mountain. A wider angle image with a interesting foreground might have worked well with this light, which could have been a nice moody shot, but not a great one for revealing character.

This is the type of light most photographers are after. It doesn’t really work on such a tight shot of the mountain. A wider angle image with an interesting foreground might have worked well with this light, which could have been a nice moody shot, but not a great one for revealing character.

Which is your favorite? I prefer the second one. It does the best job a revealing the mountain’s unique texture and form. Many people prefer the more colorful images but that is not necessarily the best way to share a mountain with people.

It is true that I have a climbing background and that this way of looking at a mountain and trying to discover its character is influenced by a mountaineer’s perspective, who is always looking for lines in the mountain’s surface. Even so, I still think if you can reveal a mountains secrets, even non-climbers will fall under the mountain’s magical spell, which is a spell most people enjoy being under.

Kahiltna Trip: Final Post

The Games Mountains Play

Wind loaded slaps avalanches were everywhere.

Wind loaded slap avalanches were everywhere.

I checked my watch, it was 6:00am, if I wanted to catch sunrise, I needed to start getting ready. I stayed still. Ice covered my sleeping bag, I slowly peaked out of my bag, strings of ice crystals hung down from every point in the tent. Every time I moved, ice would fall all around, into my bag.

I couldn’t do it, I was cold inside my bag and it was a lot worse outside. I was a coward, I was a lousy excuse for a professional photographer. When the first rays of sun hit the tent, we all began to stir. It had been a rough night, the wind howled and I had felt it pushing through the tent.

We all dragged ourselves out into the sun, it was cold, but there is something about having direct sunshine that negates the cold, or helps you forget about it.

It may be sunny, but its still cold! Sy's icy beard.

It may be sunny, but its still cold! Sy’s icy beard.

After breakfast we packed up camp and headed down glacier, following the path Chris and Sy had broken the day before. Even with all the wind , the trail was easy to follow. Wind loaded avalanches were everywhere. The farther down we descended, the deeper the snow got. We switched leads, each taking their turn breaking trail. I got to travel through a nice crevasse section, which I enjoyed.

When we moved it was warm, but a stiff breeze from behind prevented us from stopping for any length of time. I shot mostly hand-held, just to spare my companions the extra time of waiting for me to set up my tripod. The scenery was sublime, the north face of Avalanche Spire was a beautiful collection of hanging glaciers. The light was really unique and was perfect for capturing the texture of the glaciers and the character of the mountain. Only the north side of the mountain is glaciated, the rest is steep, fractured rock of low quality.

The beautiful north face of Avalanche Spire.

The beautiful north face of Avalanche Spire.

By mid-afternoon we had reached a flat, crevasse free area of the Kahiltna. We could see the entrance to the Pika Glacier, about two miles away. We decided to put up camp. The evening was fantastic, with a great view of Hunter and these huge lenticular clouds over Denali. The temperature was rising. The clouds on Denali and the rising temps were a solid sign of the weather moving in.

Probing for crevasses.

Probing for crevasses.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali.

Chris Called K2 Aviation and let them know our location. We felt is was wiser to stay where we were, then to push down and then up the Pika. The snow was getting deeper, avalanche danger was a concern and we didn’t think we could get there and pack a runway before the weather went to hell.

Chris calling K2 on the SAT phone.

Chris calling K2 on the SAT phone.

We spent the next two days, packing a 1800ft runway, in whiteout conditions. The only good thing was, it had warmed up considerably. We also started to think about our escape. We could either try to ski an extra 40 miles to the road or wait and hope we had enough food to last until a plane came. We each began to think about rationing food, well except Sy, who had enough for at least another week. Sy had forgotten his spoon, and tooth paste, so Chris and I began bargaining with him.

“I will let you borrow my spoon for 300 calories of food”. Chris would say.

“You could borrow mine for 200!” I would counter offer.

On our scheduled pick-up day it was clear and beautiful. We called K2 and let them know that our weather was great. They however, in Talkeetna, were socked in.

Morning storm on Mount Foraker

Morning storm on Mount Foraker

“Make yourself comfortable and don’t pack up camp until you see our plane land!” K2 said, not very inspiring. Sy and Chris spent the morning doing laps on the runway while I photographed the changing light on Foraker.

Then Sy said “Carl do you hear that?”

“no” I replied.

“It’s a plane, take off your hood.” he suggested.

“How many hoods?” I asked, realizing I had three hoods and a hat on! When I pulled off my layers, I could hear it too.

Randy made a few laps before finally settling down. We were proud of our runway but Randy wasn’t impressed.

The plane, The plane!

The plane, The plane!

“Too short, not a wide enough turn around, not on a steep enough slope and the wind is the wrong way.” he balked, shattering our egos.

The flight down the Kahiltna was great with Randy sharing all his knowledge of the area.

In the end the trip was a minor success photographically. I like to get at least five strong images from a trip and I think I accomplished that. The camera issues were a major problem and I am trying to figure out what went wrong.

I hope you have enjoyed this journey. The next big trip is in June!

Kahiltna Trip: Part Three

The Price of Solitude

More Whiteout

More Whiteout, but getting better.

We packed up camp quickly, trying to get motivated for the icefall. It was still whiteout conditions, but the wind was gone. As we slowly descended more and more of the landscape was revealed and by the time we reached the top of the icefall, it had mostly cleared.

We used my camera and checked the aerial photographs I had taken.

“We need to right next to Hunter.” I said and led us around a few crevasses and into the fine gully between the mountain and the icefall. It was a perfect path. We descended down a steep slope to the Thunder Valley branch of the Kahiltna.

The beautiful Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna.

The beautiful Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna.

Very few people ever get a chance to visit Thunder Valley and that is a shame because it was nothing less than spectacular. The sun was hot, though ambient temp was still only 0F.

“We need to stop here, I need some time to photograph” I pleaded. We had only been travelling a few hours, the weather was great, a perfect day to get lots of miles of skiing in. But after two days of nothing but whiteout, I needed to get some photographs.

I pulled out my camera and began photographing. The next thing I knew the lens was fogged, not on the surface, but inside. I pulled out my other lens, within a few minutes it was fogged too. I was pissed.

“I need time to dry out the lenses, why don’t you guys ski down and find that smooth path through crevasses.” I knew they were antsy, and I figured this would keep them occupied while I figured out what to do.

I stuck both lenses on my pack and pointed them directly at the sun. Slowly the condensation on the inside faded except for a nickel sized circle in the middle. I realized that we needed to camp in order for the lenses to dry and for me to have time to photograph. I started digging a camp, checking the lenses every few minutes, but the small circle of moisture wouldn’t go away. I did everything right, kept the cameras cold, batteries warm. I couldn’t believe that the sun and probably the heat from my gloved hands had created enough warmth to cause condensation on the inside of the lens.

“Okay, I need to dry them out fast, but how?” I thought to myself. I kept digging, watching the beautiful light change, watching photographs vanish. After a few hours, they were still fogged. It was time for an experiment.

“Here goes nothing.” I put one of my lenses inside of my jacket, next to my body and zipped it up. I figured there was already condensation, so maybe my trapped body heat would dry them out. It would either work or make things worse. After twenty minutes I pulled it out, dry. I switched lenses, twenty minutes later, both were dry.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Sy and Chris were just coming back and I yelled at them to take a different route so I could take their pictures. With the camera on the tripod I shot a series of images of them in front and travelling through the icefall. Their tiny shapes were a perfect way to add some needed scale to the enormous scene.

I was photographing quickly, when Err.

“No, not again!” I screamed. I let the camera sit.

“Okay, maybe it just moving slow and needs extra time to process each image.”

So I waited thirty seconds or so before taking another image or before turning off the camera. That seemed to work.

The beautiful Thunder Mountain

The beautiful Thunder Mountain

“So we are camping here for sure.” Sy said, looking at my snow walls and the half set up tent.

“Sorry, yes.” I replied. They both began working on my half-ass site building job. Even though it was clear, a wind was starting to come down the glacier, right through our secret path.

I was having trouble taking images, my hands were cold and each time I touched the camera or tripod, the life was sucked out of them. Even wearing my warmest mittens didn’t work. My cable release was frozen stiff and was cracking, so it was not useable. So each shot I would use the self timer to reduce vibration.

Chris started up the stove and began brewing hot water for dinner. I was unable to keep warm, I needed to eat something, I had all my clothes on. The breeze was getting ugly, we all huddled in our little cook area, hiding from the wind.

“It’s -25F!” Chris said after checking his thermometer.

“What? it is not even dark yet!” I complained, we all knew that the night was going to be cold, really cold. The wind was eating us up. But without those hot water bottles, it would be a cold sleepless night.

When the last bottle was filled we charged into our bags. Chris, checked the thermometer one last time, -35F, add the wind and it was really cold, possibly -64F.


“I can’t read my book, the pages are too cold.” Chris said. Over the night huge crystals form around the tent. If anyone touched the side of the tent, it became a snow storm inside. Not being the type that uses a pee bottle, I got up once to take a leak. It was clear and beautiful, it took two hours for me to warm back up from being outside for less than a minute.

We all vowed to not return to the Alaska Range in March!

Next: Part Four: The Games Mountains Play

Kahiltna Trip: Part Two

The Storm

Strange light on Mount Foraker, Where is it coming from?

Strange light on Mount Foraker, Where is the light coming from?

“There is some cool light on Foraker.” Chris said as he fiddled with the stove outside of the tent. I quickly scrambled, putting on my numerous layers. The light was unique, like Mount Foraker was creating it from within. I took a few images but then became more concerned by the obvious decline in the weather, Denali and Hunter were lost in the clouds and little flakes were being spit from the sky.

After breakfast we roped up and decided to try and push up the Kahiltna as far as we could. I was still worried about the camera and the previous day’s failure. One idea I had was that it could have been the lens I rented, maybe there was and issue between it and the camera? I left it at camp and just took my 24-70.

We worked our way up the glacier, past Mount Crosson and then Peak Farline. The weather got worse the higher we went up, I was having trouble seeing, the whiteout was getting worse. We decided to turn around and head back to camp.

The storm grew, a strong breeze was now coming up the Kahiltna, but no snow, only the little crystals being blown off the mountains. We hunkered down early, this time I took Chris’s advice and put a warm water bottle at the bottom of my sleeping bag, that helped and I got a better night sleep.

Packing up camp.

Packing up camp.

We woke up to full-on conditions. It was blowing hard, the temps were cold, breaking down camp was tough. We headed straight into the wind, we figured a steady 10MPH with guts around 30MPH. After about twenty minutes, face masks went on, frost bite was a serious concern. I busted trail into the wind, the tips of my skis were all I could see.

After and hour or so I realized that it was dumb to keep pushing through the weather. We needed to either dig a snow cave right into the glacier or try to find safe shelter along the flanks of Mount Hunter. Those avalanches we witness were very fresh in our minds, hanging ice dripped off Mount Hunter’s flanks. Evey once in a while I would see hints of Mount Hunter. I looked desperately for a rocky area that had nothing ominous hanging above it.

The ambient temp was around -10f, add gust of 30 or so and we were playing around in -40F conditions, the safety barrier had been reached. We headed to the safest spot we could find and dug in, crossing our fingers we didn’t miss something hiding above us.

Needless to say, photography was not happening. Dug a quick camp out of the wind, under one of Hunter’s many rocky arms. The wind died down that evening as we brewed up and ate dinner. I passed the time cutting awesome blocks in the wind-hammered snow. Once hot water bottles were filled, we got in our bags and called it a night.

Making camp in full-on conditions.

Making camp in full-on conditions. Chris braving bare hands!

That night we called my wife Pam on the satellite phone in order to get a forecast.

“We are getting dumped on, at least a foot so far” she said, figuring we were being buried alive. “No snow here, just really windy and cold.” She was surprised.

“Forecast is to let up tomorrow and get really cold, then another storm rolls in.”

“Get cold?! ” I said, “It’s cold enough!”.

We knew if we had good weather tomorrow we needed to get through the icefall, it would be really hard to find that smooth path in a total whiteout and we all knew a crevasse fall in those temperatures would turn our little photo trip into a survival epic.

Next: Part Three: The Price of Solitude

Kahiltna Trip: Part One

Into The Mountains

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

It was snowing when I woke up and all I could think was “How many days do we sit around Talkeenta, waiting to fly, before we call it quits?” I kept checking the forecast, it looked bad, really bad. Chris and Sy arrived in a car packed to the gills, yet, somehow we managed to squeeze two more sleds, another duffel, pack, skis and myself inside.

We left town in a whiteout, counting how many cars were in the ditch along the way. As we headed north we began to see changes in the weather, a little blue here, a little there and then wham! Blue sky and Denali, clear as could be. Our speed picked up and our conversations became more positive and full of excitement.

We arrived at K2 Aviation around 11:15. “I am going to take some tourist up first and will check out the conditions.” Randy our pilot, told us. “Go into town and eat, come back in a few hours”. We hated the idea, it was clear, we need to go now, is all we could think. We over stuffed ourselves at the Roadhouse and rushed back to hanger, weighed our gear and stacked it next to the plane. We were excited, we were ready.

Randy returned and gave us the green light. We packed the Beaver and loaded up, Sy taking the shotgun seat. Some developing clouds made us nervous but as we left the foot hills and approached the mountains, all fears vanished. We flew over our route, which was important because there is only one way through the Kahiltna icefall, a skinny smooth path. I photographed the route, which was obvious from the air.We flew between the towering walls of Hunter and Foraker and then took a quick right to the South East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

The Kahiltna Glacier is the longest glacier in the entire Alaska Range. From Kahiltna Pass, it slithers 44 miles (71K) down between Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker and their numerous off-springs. The South East Fork is where the Kahiltna International Airport and base-camp is for those attempting the popular routes on Denali and Foraker. From Late April to Mid July, the place is hopping, with constant air traffic and hundreds of climbers and their tents scattered about.

I have always wanted to go to the Kahiltna but was never interested in climbing the western routes on Denali and had no interest in being in the mountains with literally hundreds of others climbers. This is the main reason I decided to go in March, solitude. Our goal was to climb up to Kahiltna pass and ski and photograph the entire length of the Kahiltna, getting picked up at the Pika Glacier.

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The Beaver sank into the deep snow as it slowed to a halt, Randy spun the plane around quickly, pointing it down hill. It was sunny and beautiful, the temp was a balmy -5F. Before we knew it, The beaver was gone, just a roar echoing through the mountains. The north face of Mount Hunter was amazing, huge and so close, its beauty made it hard to focus on getting packed and moving up the hill to establish a camp. I was excited, it was clear, there could be good sunset light, maybe even aurora?

Unloading the Plane

Unloading the Plane

We passed a strange cache site and wondered if someone else was out in the mountains. All the famous solo climbers were gone for the season. We found a great spot with straight shots of Denali, Foraker and the fantastic Mount Hunter. Sy and Chris dug in, allowing me the opportunity to photograph. They would dig a few feet, probe for crevasses and dig some more. Within a few hours we had a fortified camp and hot water was brewing. A stiff breeze was coming down the glacier and the temps were creeping lower.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn't get enough of that mountain!

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn’t get enough of that mountain!

All was quiet except for the thunderous avalanches that would pour down Hunter’s north face. I positioned my camera, mounted on a tripod, right at the area that was most active and waited. Then perfectly, while I was looking through the viewfinder a huge ice avalanche erupted, I got the entire sequence. However, when I went to take another photograph, the camera said “This card cannot be used”, and the Err signal kept repeating. I turned off the camera, same thing. I switched over to my second card slot, back to normal.

avalanche #1

avalanche #1

Avalanche #2

Avalanche #2

avalanche #3

avalanche #3


“That was weird” I thought to myself.

We decided to do a quick ski down the glacier to warm ourselves up a little. On the way down we saw the soloist heading towards his cache, he was moving painfully slow, dragging a sled with huge poles suspended from his shoulders (they were in case he fell into a crevasses.) We waved and continued our ski.

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

Epic Failure

The sun began to dip behind the massive Foraker and the temperatures plummeted. -10f, -15f, -20f. The funny things was, we were all warm, full of excitement and warm from our ski and hot drinks. I started taking photographs of the fading light on Mount Hunter and then, Err, what? I turned off the camera and started again, Err. I took the card out and reloaded it, Err. “What the Hell!” switched batteries, Err. Sometimes the camera would fire and then make a strange noise then Err. No images were being recorded. The camera was fried! I was panicking, couldn’t figure out what was going on. The batteries were warm, fully charged. It was the camera itself, was it just too cold? I took the hand warmers I had, stuck them to the camera, put it in the case and shoved in my sleeping bag, hoping that it just needed to warm up a little.

The light faded fast and Denali began to turn red. I pull the camera out, Err! “F#*@” I paced around camp, trying to figure out what was happening.

“Hey Carl, you still have your sun glasses on.” Sy informed me. I took them off and opened my plastic glasses case, snap, it shattered into pieces.”It must be cold.” I thought to myself.

I had brought a few freezed dried meals that a friend left me last summer after he had climbed Denali. I usually don’t like freezed dried meals but I wasn’t really craving anything and I figured I get one of the out-of-the-way. I sealed it up tight and put it inside my DAS parka. We sat quiet and admired the emerging stars and the glow of the rising moon.

All of a sudden I looked down and I was covered in Kathmandu Curry, the freezed dried meal had leaked. I was really a wreck, everything was going wrong and we had just got there! In a few minutes I was able to just brush off the now frozen food on the outside of my pants, though the inside of my jacket and numerous layers were still wet and smelt like Nepal.

I went into the tent, I had to figure out what was happening with the camera. Okay, I took the cards and the battery out. I let it sit. Put the battery and the cards back in. Checked the photos I had already taken, good, I hadn’t lost anything. Tried to take a photo, Err.

“Okay Carl, step by step, we have been a pro for twenty years, we can figure this out” I assured myself.

” It’s not recording images, why? Maybe its the shutter or the aperture on the lens is stuck?” I took the lens off. Put the camera in full manual and fired a few shots, shutter was working. Looked on the back and reviewed the images, they had recorded, okay. I put my other lens on (I had, at the last moment, decided to rent a second lens, the 70-200mm f4, to shoot details of mountains). Switched the lens (my 24-70) to manual focus. Fired are few frames, it was working.

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

I rushed outside and shot a few, hastily composed night shots, the camera worked. The images had been recorded. The night was mind-blowing. The near full moon lit the mountains up like daylight, we all watched in awe.

“Its 11:30!” Chris said. With those words the spell of the night and mountains broke and we all began to feel the cold. We rushed into our tent and settled in for a cold, restless night.


Part Two: The Storm

Back from the Kahiltna

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Made it back from the Kahiltna Glacier. We had a challenging trip, the Alaska Range living up to its notorious reputation for bad weather. Extreme cold (-40F), high winds, whiteout conditions and a little sunshine. A full trip report will be posted next week, just need to catch up on some submissions and spend some time with the family.

Keep in touch!