Spring Flight

Mount Foraker and a sea of mountains, Denali National Park and Preserve

Mount Foraker and a sea of mountains, Denali National Park and Preserve

The weather here in Alaska has been off the charts, warm and beautiful. My friend OE and I have been trying to match schedules and we finally had the opportunity to go for an evening flight in the Alaska Range.

The Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

The Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

We left Birchwood in his little Pacer around 7:30 and landed back in Birchwood at 10:30! It was a fantastic flight. The warm, windy days and lack of moisture have created some haze, even in the big mountains. The light never got really dynamic but it was still a beautiful and photographically successful trip. OE’s Pacer is a great little photo plane and I am looking forward to a few more spring flights before my summer expedition schedule goes into full swing.

The beautiful Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve.

The beautiful Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve.

A tighter shot of Mount Russell and it's glorious north ridge, Denali National Park and Preserve

A tighter shot of Mount Russell and it’s glorious north ridge, Denali National Park and Preserve

Little Switzerland, Denali National Park and Preserve

Little Switzerland, Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali towers over everything!

Denali towers over everything!

Southern foothills of the central Alaska Range

Southern foothills of the central Alaska Range

In search of foreground!

If I searched, I was able to find some beautiful rocks that helped add some color to the the winter world of blue and white.

I was able to find some beautiful rocks that helped add some color to the alpine world of blue and white.

I know it seems preposterous to complain about endless blue skies and as an explorer, I am not. However, as a photographer, perfect blue skies combined with a world of white creates a monochromatic world that after a few days,  begins to look the same,  Another photographic difficulty I had on my last trip was that we were so tight in the mountains that we never got low angle light, which can reveal the beautiful texture of snow, which is shaped by the wind into wonderful patterns and waves called Strastugi, great foreground subjects.

Glacial erratic and Mount Deborah.

Carl_Battreall_gillam-5

Same rock, different light, different mood.

Yes, this all seems petty, but it can be frustrating when your desperate to create, creative images. So I explored every rock, looking for a splash of color. I looked in crevasses, and was luckily able to find some unique ice next to one of the medial moraines.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Cool ice and Mount Deborah.

Ice and Mount Deborah.

The ice was too cool and became the main subject.  Accumulation and moraine layers, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

The ice was too cool and became the main subject. Accumulation and moraine layers, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

About to fall.

About to fall.

 

 

 

High Peaks of the Gillam Glacier

First light on Mount Hess (center) and Mount Deborah (right).

First light on Mount Hess (center) and Mount Deborah (right).

I have been wanting to go to the Gillam Glacier for ten years. I attempted two times to reach it, once by foot and once by skis. This time I took the easy way, Super Cub.

The Gillam descends from the north side of the eastern Alaska Range. It is shaped like a stubby Y, with one branch heading towards the base of Mount Deborah and the other to the bottom of Mount Balchen and Mount Geist. At the fork rises the imposing Mount Hess.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of Mount Deborah.

My primary photographic goal was the 12,339 ft, Mount Deborah. A legendary peak, known for its steepness and epics. One of the first mountaineering books I read was David Robert’s Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative, a classic book of mountaineering literature. Mount Deborah was first climbed in 1954 by mountaineering legends, Fred Beckey, Henry Meybohm and Heinrich Harrer, via the South Ridge. Our first camp was below the 6,000 ft north face of Deborah and the north ridge of Mount Hess.

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

Without a doubt, it is the 11,940 ft Mount Hess that dominates the Gillam Glacier. All of our camps had spectacular views of Hess. One camp, above the east fork of the Gillam was particularly stunning, as was our camp directly below the outrageous east face. One could spend hours (as I did) trying to find a way up that mountain, with its impenetrable hanging glaciers that never quit serenading you with thundering avalanches. The only route not threatened by hanging death appears to be the east ridge, though steep, loose rock would be its challenge.

The beautiful west ridge of Mount Balchen, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

The west ridge of Mount Balchen, with it’s beautiful grey, granite spires.

Shadow and Mount Geist. This is the lovely west face.

Shadow and Mount Geist. This is the west face. That is Mount Skarland’s summit peaking out.

At the head of the east fork of the Gillam are two fantastic peaks, 11,140 ft Mount Balchen and 10,121 ft Mount Geist. From the head of the Gillam, these two unique peaks are complete contrast. Mount Geist, is a black, ugly pyramid of loose rock. Mount Balchen is a beautiful series of light grey, granite spires. Balchen is the only peak around the Gillam Glacier, made of this pleasing grey rock.

beautiful light on the homely Mount Giddings

Pretty light on the homely Mount Giddings

I was also able to photograph Geist and Balchen from the west. A skinny spur glacier descends from the west faces of Geist and 10,052 ft Mount Giddings, a huge chunky peak, capped with grey ice. interestingly, Geist and Balchen take on different roles when seen from the west. Geist becomes the poster child of mountain perfection, a perfect triangle of ice, Balchen on the other hand, is a huge dome, my son Walker would describe it as “plump”.

The mountaineer in me was itching to climb. The bullet proof snow begged for crampons and the weather was perfect. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to attempt any peaks nor was my partner a big climber. I am not a technical climber, the routes that looked appealing to me were the elegant north ridge of Geist and the southwest face/ridge of Balchen.

Like on most of my expeditions, I find it’s not always the named peaks that are the most beautiful, in my next post I will talk about some the unnamed beauties in the area.

 

Bluebird

The beautiful west ridge of Mount Balchen, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

The beautiful west ridge of Mount Balchen, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

What can I say? I have just spent a week in the crisp, clean mountain air. A lonely cloud loitered on a mountain or two, but they never lingered long, being sent on their away by the relentless sun. Was it cold? Sure, my hands and toes are still thawing, aching to be warm for an extended period. My body still responds defensively to the sight of the setting sun, knowing the cold suffering that comes with its disappearance.

I won’t be doing my usual day-by-day, blow-by-blow blog posts, the trip was uneventful, a simple routine of freeze and thaw. I experienced more sunny days on this trip then I did the entire previous summer in the mountains, I can only rejoice.

When the sun sets, a world of hurt begins. Cold evening, Peak 9420.

When the sun sets, a world of hurt begins. Cold evening, Peak 9420.

Photography was productive, though predictable. It was a challenge to be creative in a world of white and blue. How many straight, uninterrupted, images of perfect mountain symmetry can one person take? There was no weather to play with the mountains, no clouds to absorb the colors of the sun. I became acutely aware of light and shadow. I searched desperately for color in a monochrome world.

Shadows and Crevasses.

Shadows and Crevasses.

For the next few weeks I will simply post a series of photographs from the trip, some with a theme, others randomly. I may or may not include a narrative or explanation.

Get ready for a celebration of the bluebird day!