Kickstarter Campaign Begins!

The Amazing Mount Hesperus being engulfed by clouds, Revelation Mountains.

The Amazing Mount Hesperus being engulfed by clouds, Revelation Mountains.

We Need Your Help!

The photographs are finished, the essays have been written and the designers over at Mountaineers Books are busy working on the layout. We now need to raise the final funds needed to get this book out to the world!

We have started a Kickstarter campaign and need your help in spreading the word. I am offering tons of great rewards including: copies of the retail book, prints, an awesome limited edition print-book set and even a backpacking trip in one of my favorite places, the Delta Mountains of the Alaska Range!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/photographalaska/the-alaska-range

Updates:

10/30 – 24 Hours to Go!

We are at 160%, totally amazing! can we get to 200%?

10/5 – We Did It: We Past Our Minimum Goal!

Not only did we reach our minimum goal of $9,000, we rocketed right by it! The book will be published! I can’t express how grateful I am for everyone’s support. In five days we raised over $9,000 for the project and we have 25 more days to go!

So lets keep the good vibe going. We are not being greedy, we can use every cent we can get. First we can use the extra money to cover the Kickstarter fee, which is between 8-10% of the total. Then we will use extra money to cover costs of the rewards. After that, it all goes to the book. We can print more of them, increase its distribution (hopefully to Europe) and if we raise a lot more, increase the physical size.

So thank you for making this long over-due celebration of the Alaska Range come to life!

Caught in the Kichatna Mountains

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Flying into the Tatina Glacier. There is something wrong with this picture.

My stomach ached, a combination of hunger and anxiety. The clouds were creeping lower down the monoliths, the wind gust were increasing in velocity. After four days of relentless weather, a window had opened, an escape from the clutches of the mountain gods was revealed, but our chances were dwindling. We had packed our bags, waiting for that unmistakable sound, the roar of an approaching plane.

After thirty Alaska fly in expeditions under my belt, I was highly aware of the plane waiting game and my mind was so familiar with that sound, that it had began to recreate it, knowing how desperately I wanted to hear it.

“I think I hear something.” I projected loudly to Sy. But there was nothing. Defeated, I began to unpack and prepare for another night of being shaken and stirred in our tiny tent. But then, the lion roared.

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Legendary Mountains. North Triple and Middle Triple Peaks.

The Kichatna Mountains are legends. I had heard of them long before moving to Alaska. I listened to stories and dreams told over fire and beers. My big wall climbing friends were always planning a trip, but never committing, the Kichatnas were to be celebrated and feared. When I moved to Alaska, I met very few people who had ever set foot on their glaciers. A few years ago I flew around them and was blown away by their steepness. It is said that the Kichatna Mountains have the highest concentration of granite spires in Alaska, and I have no doubt about that. The spires of the Kichatna Mountains are so densely concentrated that flying around them didn’t do them justice. I don’t like aerial photography from above the mountains. I like to be eye level, mid mountain,  which isn’t possible in the Kichatnas, the valleys are too narrow. So the only way to really experience the majesty and boldness of the peaks and to capture their true nature was to be in  mountains.

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Middle Triple Peak. This beauty could push Mount Russell off the top of the ” Most beautiful peaks in the Alaska Range” list.

I had hesitated for many years on going to the Kichatnas. They are very remote and a flight there is expensive. But the main reason I resisted their power was their unfriendliness towards visitors. The Kichatna Mountains are the prow of the mighty, central Alaska Range ship and take the brunt of all the weather coming from both the south and the west. The winds in the mountains are said to rival the notorious winds of Patagonia. Extended tent time is common for all expeditions. Alaska: A Climbing Guide reads: “Prepare for only three pleasant days in thirty of horizontal rain, sleet and snow. The Kichantas are a ornery bunch.”

We landed on the Tatina Glacier on a perfect day. We knew it was special weather because Paul, our pilot, was enjoying the scenery and taking pictures. We could tell he would have preferred to join us that day and we could feel his unhappiness about leaving the mountains.

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Sy exploring an icefall below Flat Top Spire.

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I think we will have dinner on the patio tonight.

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Last light on the north face of Flat Top Spire.

We made camp in the amphitheater at the head of the Tatina Glacier. Granite exploded out of the glaciers in every direction, with the mighty North and Middle Triple Peaks dominating all the others. That afternoon we explored the valley and icefall below the north face of Flat Top Spire. The next day was a little hazy but still calm and clear. We skied up over Monolith Pass, the most impressive pass I have ever been over. Imagine three El Capitan’s towering above you, so close together you feel like you could throw a rock between them. The peaks of the pass are Mount Nevermore, North and Middle Triple Peaks.

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This image doesn’t capture the immense scale here. Monolith Pass.

On the third day we descended Tatina Glacier. Our plan was to go down and around to the Cul-De Sac Glacier, spend a day or two there and then to the Shadows Glacier to get picked up. The descent was long, but enjoyable with great skiing. My new, rigid sled system worked great but Sy had a lot of trouble with his set up. At the bottom of the glacier was a large frozen lake. We decided to camp there. My leg was hurting after the long descent (this chronic condition is still bothering me!). The scenery was nice and it was obvious there were lots of animals that used the area and I was hopeful that we might get to photograph some wildlife, but we had no visitors.

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Sy skiing down the Tatina Glacier, Mount Jeffers looms above.

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Frozen lake at the toe of the Tatina Glacier.

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Huge, loose moraine. Obvious sign of recent glacial retreat.

The next day we crossed over to the Cul-De Sac Glacier and gradually made our we to the base of the mighty Kichatna Spire. The Kichatna Spire was hidden under a cap of grey, swirling clouds. It would remain that way for the rest of the trip, I never got a chance to see it in its entirely.

We set camp up under worsening conditions. The wind came in rushes. You could hear it coming right before it slammed you down. The next four days were a lesson in patience as the wind continued without a break. We kept in contact with our pilot who continued to ask how much snow we were getting? Denali, 50 miles to the north was getting hammered, with over three feet of new snow at base camp. But we were only getting wind, relentless wind.

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Sy, master of snow wall construction.

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Block Party

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Cold ice and warm rock.

Saturday, our pick up day arrived. A huge “sucker” hole lingered above, triggering a sense of hope that we might get picked up, but the wind refused to submit, it was determined to keep us hostage. We spent the day repairing walls, napping and watching the red, low battery signal on our ipods, trying to guess which song would be our last.

We emptied our thinning food bags and began the process of rationing food. We had passed the option of skiing out, we definitely had to rely on the mechanical bird for rescue, the question was, how long could we stretch our food? Actually, the more concerning part was whether we had enough fuel to melt water?

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Our life for five days.

We experimented with using black bags and sleds to melt water, which worked with limited success. The next day was much of the same. My nerves were on edge. Unable to travel or photograph in the conditions, stuck waiting for pick up, with limited supplies, was wearing me down. Sy continued, as always, to be up beat and unphased our predicament, laughing at my dwindling patience and pessimistic outburst. We could see the summits of most peaks and the valley was clear. However, our pilot said it was raining in Talkeetna and when he looked towards the Kichatnas, all he could see was low, black clouds. We could sense that he was not believing that we were having favorable weather. I am sure they have been tricked by many, desperate climbers.

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Weather improves just enough to reveal some of the beauty that’s been hiding in the clouds. Riesenstein Spire.

We spoke with the flight service in the afternoon and they said they would give it a try. We prepared the runway and packed up all but the tent. Sy skied around and I sat with my camera, making poor, uninspired images of the amazing peaks. Hours passed as we watched the clouds lower and felt the gusts of wind increase, building more strength as if fueled by our desire to leave.

As soon as I began unpacking I heard a noise. The wind I figured. Then again. Loud then soft. And then the unmistakable, beautiful whine of a plane engine bounced off the granite walls. We both went into the “plane is coming” frenzy, I rushed to take down the tent, Sy rushed down runway to pick up the sleds and bags after the plane landed.

At times the trip seemed like an eternity. I was disappointed with my attitude, the mountains had worn me down, my leg was still hurting, my project was nearing its end and i felt helpless, unable to control my life.

The flight away from the mountains is often a time of reflection. There is a great, overwhelming release, followed by sadness. I have yet to understand why the mountains play the tricks they do with my mind, why they can sometimes repulse me with their weather and yet fully engulf me with their beauty.

No matter how terrible or amazing my trips are in the mountains, as soon as I am leaving, as soon has I am above them, heading back to civilization, I am plotting my return.

The Back Up Plan: Ski tour through the Delta Mountains

Brad enjoys the last light on the beautiful north face of peak 7680.

Brad enjoys the last light on the beautiful north face of peak 7680.

“No flights today.” she said on the phone. This was our second day of waiting and our allocated time for adventure was slowly vanishing. We either had to give up on the trip or find an alternative. The central Alaska Range was choked with dense clouds and was getting pounded by high winds, there wasn’t much of a chance we would ever get to fly into the Eldridge Glacier, so if we wanted to salvage this trip, we needed to travel in on our own.

I suggested one of my favorite places, the Delta Mountains. I had heard there was plenty snow and the area would  be less crowded now that the infamous Arctic Man was over. Neither Brad or Neil had ever been to the Delta Mountains, so it was decided, ski tour through the Deltas.

The night before leaving Neil spoke with some USGS employees that had just returned from the Gulkana Glacier Research Hut and said there was a perfect trail busted and plenty of fresh snow. They also mentioned that the hut was unoccupied and that we were welcome to stay there a night or two.

Monday we made the long, five-hour drive to the area known as the Hoodoos, near the toe of the Gulkana Glacier. We drove up the plowed road that led to parking and camping area for the Arctic Man event.

Light on the Gabriel Icefall

Light on the lower Gabriel Icefall

Under warm skies we loaded sleds and made quick up work up the river and then onto the glacier. I had been (still am) suffering through a nasty groin-hip problem and after about four hours of dragging sleds up the glacier, my leg was ready to call it quits. Neil was blazing a trail and it took work for Brad and I to catch him. After some discussion we decided to put up camp above the lower Gabriel Icefall. By the end of dinner, the weather had begun to change, a stiff wind picked up and grey clouds drifted in.

The next morning we woke to low, swirling clouds. We knew that the USGS cabin was about two miles ahead of us. It sat precariously perched on the bottom of a rocky ridge. We could occasionally see the ridge, but it would constantly disappear. The smart thing to do in those conditions, would be to hang tight and wait for an improvement in the weather. Purposely heading out onto the glacier, in whiteout conditions, would be an obvious lapse in judgment and yet, before I knew it, that was what we were doing.

Guess you could say we had cabin fever. The siren song of an old, dilapidated structure was too hard to resist, so we pushed into the white void. The conditions gradually got worse. And like and man coming out of a coma I thought to myself, “What the hell are we doing?” I pulled out my compass and tried to get a bearing off the ridge that the cabin was on, but it was too late, it had vanished.

Forced bivy. Brad and Neil enjoying our trench in the glacier.

Forced bivy. Brad and Neil enjoying our trench in the glacier.

Being in a whiteout is a strange feeling, especially for the lead person. You have no reference, no idea if you’re on the edge of a cliff or on flat ground. Your mind begins to play tricks and you start to see things: rocks, bumps, hills, things that aren’t there. But your mind is so desperate to find something it recognizes, that it ultimately creates things.To your partners behind you, you look confused as you wanderer aimlessly. They have you and the rope as a reference, so they will constantly yell, “why are you going that way?” . This can all lead to tension amongst the team.

As soon as tensions began to rise, we got smart and stopped and dug into the glacier to get out of the wind and blowing snow. We decided to sit and see if things improved. If they didn’t in an hour or two, we would set up camp.

Just when we started to get chilled and began to contemplate setting camp, the hut magically appeared. It was less than a quarter mile away, right above us. We quickly packed and made the slog up the steep slopes to the tiny USGS Hut.

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Neil approaches the Gulkana Glacier Research Hut after a long day of ski touring.

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A rare, perfect sun dog and the Gulkana Glacier Research Hut.

The USGS Gulkana Glacier Research Hut is used by both the USGS and the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a emergency shelter for scientist and students. It has room to sleep two, three if someone sleeps on the ground, which Brad graciously volunteered to do.

Within a few hours the skies would clear and we would have four gloriously clear days in the mountains. We did have some high winds on the upper slopes, but it was hot when sheltered from them. We spent two days exploring the endless ridges and icefalls that are scattered throughout the area. The skiing was perfect, six inches of thick powder on top of a stable, deep base.

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The amazing hanging glacier on the north face of peak 7680 dominates the view from the hut.

I took one day off to rest my aching leg while Neil and Brad went bagging peaks. They had a fun time on steeps slopes and chunky, thigh burning powder. I never like to spend too long in one place so we finally said goodbye to our comfy little abode and skied down glacier. We explored the upper Gabriel Icefall and had a an amazing ski down, the hero snow made me feel like I was a good skier. We put up our final camp at the base of the icefall. The final day was a brilliant ski on perfect snow, making turns with ours sleds, something that is rarely successful!

The delicate beauty of ice and shadow, Moore Icefall, Delta Mountains

The delicate beauty of ice and shadow, Moore Icefall, Delta Mountains

Firn crevasses, Moore Icefall, Icefall Peak in the background.

Firn crevasses, Moore Icefall, Icefall Peak in the background.

Strastrugi Formations and peak 8110

Strastrugi Formations and Snow White in the background.

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Neil contemplates his options.

I was bummed not to get to the Eldridge Glacier, one of the only large Alaska Range glaciers I haven’t visited. But is was a successful trip; great skiing and good friends in some of my favorite mountains in Alaska!

High winds stayed with us most of the trip.

High winds stayed with us most of the trip.

Neill skiing below the Gabriel Icefall.

Neil skiing below the Gabriel Icefall.

Sun sets behind Mount Shand.

Sun sets behind Mount Shand.

Mountain Profile: Mount Russell

North ridge of Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

North ridge of Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

In the far western corner of Denali National Park and Preserve towers a peak of unrivaled beauty, Mount Russell. Unknown by the majority of Alaskans, only those who search out such beauty know of its presence. Mount Russell is a classic, pyramid shaped peak, with crumbling black rock and dripping, fractured glaciers that defy gravity.

At 11,670 feet in height, Mount Russell isn’t super tall, but it remoteness and miserable weather make it a challenge to climb. The first ascent was in 1962 via the south ridge and ten years later, in 1972, the north ridge was climbed. The north ridge is now considered the “standard” route. Both Alaska climbing guides feature Mount Russell and its north ridge route and yet, the mountain sees maybe one ascent every couple of years. The loose, steep and terrible looking east face was climbed once and for those looking for a true adventure, the awesome west face is still unclimbed.

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South Ridge and the wicked east face of Mount Russell.

There are two ways to see Mount Russell from land. One is to land on the Yentna Glacier near the base of the North Ridge. The other is to land on the remote Purkey Pile strip and hike a few days to get a fantastic view.

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The sunlit west face of Mount Russell, the north ridge splits the light and dark. The west face still awaits an ascent and even a ski descent…hint hint.

Personally, Mount Russell is one of those mountains that is best appreciated either by climbing it or by the air, where you can truly admire its shapely demeanor.

Coal Country

A band of sanddstone stretches across the valley.

A band of sandstone stretches across the valley.

I don’t like coal. It’s a dirty fuel whose negatives far out weigh it’s positives. But coal is cheap energy and it isn’t hard for a hand full of people to get rich, fast. So the world continues to find a source for their coal habit. One such source is Alaska and the Alaska Range. It is estimated that Alaska has one of the largest coal reserves in the world.
The Alaska Range is home to the only active coal mine in Alaska, a massive open-pit mine near Denali National Park and Preserve.

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

The Usibelli Mine is about 20 miles from the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. Founded in 1943 outside Healy, the mine sells coal to six state power plants as well as South Korea and other Pacific Rim countries. The exported coal is transported on the Alaska Railroad about 300 miles to Seward, which is an ice-free port and home to Kenai Fjords National Park.

Alaska? Looks like Utha or Arizona.

Alaska? Looks like Utah or Arizona.

In September, my Dad and I did some exploring in the mountains east of Denali National Park, near the Usibelli mine. I have seen signs of coal during many of my expedition in the Alaska Range, but in this area, it literally oozes out of the mountains. It is a bizarre landscape, resembling Utah or Arizona. Honestly, I have never really seen anything like it in Alaska. The Delta Mountains have some pockets that look similar, but this area is really special and fun to explore.

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

There are a collection of narrow canyons you can follow. The sand stone in these canyons is super soft and crumbles easily, the ground was moist and gooey. We were forced to stay in the canyon bottoms, though occasional I would try to scale the cliffs to get a better perspective, boots sinking into the sticky soil.

A geologist playground.

A geologist playground.

I spent as much time admiring all the fascinating rocks as I did taking photographs. We both felt that at any moment we would stumble upon some great fossil of a mammoth or dinosaur and we naively searched, having no idea what to look for.

The sandstone is so soft that this willow, blowing in the wind, creates grooves in it.

The sandstone is so soft that this willow, blowing in the wind, creates grooves in it.

I have been bullied and harassed throughout my years photographing in the Alaska Range. I have been told by many an old-timer to “Stay out of their mountains” and to “leave the miners alone”. These sourdoughs still cling to the frontier Alaska of long ago. A time of Mom and Pop mines, rough lives living in the Alaskan bush, adventure and solitude in remote wilderness.

That Alaska spirit of solitude and adventure still exist. It is alive and well in the hearts of guides, bush pilots, boat captains and remote lodge owners. It is alive and well in Alaska’s wilderness, wildlife, healthy rivers and ocean.

A strange landscape.

A strange landscape.

To me, there in nothing that screams non Alaska more than big industrial coal and gold mines. Mines run by big business, with product and money being sent to foreign markets. Mines that actually threaten the things that make Alaska different then anywhere else in the world, the things that make Alaska…Alaska.

sandstone detail.

sandstone detail.

Learn more about industrial coal and gold mining in the Alaska Range at:

usibelli.com

www.groundtruthtrekking.org

northern.org

www.denalicitizens.org

Chasing the Northern Lights in the Alaska Range

Wild Aurora over Denali.

Wild Aurora over the Tokosha Mountains, Mount Hunter and Denali.

I have never been a fan of roadside photography or images of iconic places during “perfect” light. I like to photograph the unfamiliar, I like the challenge of the unknown. Don’t get me wrong, I am a diligent trip planner, I can spend months looking at maps and Google Earth. But once I am in the field, I like to just “go with the flow”, work with what the wilderness gives me.

However, I am a professional photographer and sometimes I need to “go after” a shot. I have been on over twenty expeditions in the Alaska Range and have never had a chance to photograph the Aurora Borealis. It’s not that I haven’t seen them, I have, but I never had an opportunity to photograph them. I was hoping to photograph them on last year’s Gillam Glacier trip. We had seven days of crystal clear skies and the setting was perfect, with towering peaks in all directions, but the lights refused to dance for me.

Part of me just wanted to let it go, to forget about them, but I decided that the Aurora did play a part in the Alaska Range story and should be included, so I decided to go “Aurora Chasing”.

I watched the weather forecast and the aurora forecast simultaneously, looking for the perfect combination. Last weekend, the two lined up and I felt I would have a good chance of photographing them. It was also a full moon, which was perfect for illuminating the mountains but also required that I put extra effort into finding a good foreground, something many night photographers overlook.

I seduced my two regular partners in adventure crime, Opie and Sy and we headed up to Denali State Park, the closet access point into the Alaska Range from Anchorage.

Up to that point, we had a record-setting warm fall and winter. I had a feeling that there would be some open water, which could act as an interesting foreground. We arrive at the South Denali Overlook around 11:00. It was stunning, super clear with the mountains exploding out of the ground. I was tempted to stay high, with unobstructed views. It would be easy to head up higher towards Curry Ridge or Kesugi Ridge, we had skis and sleds, but I wanted something different.

Moving river ice and the last light on Denali.

Moving river ice and the last light on Denali.

I could see that the Chulitna River was open with moving ice in it, that was what I was looking for. Dropping down to the river would mean we would lose many of the mountains, so it was important we found a spot with plenty of open space.

We loaded up sleds and packs, leaving the skis behind. It was a crisp 0F at the car and we knew that it would be a solid 10 degrees colder down by the river. We post holed and bush-whacked our way down the steep cliff to the river floor. Within a few minutes we found a perfect spot for camp and photography.

The Chulitna River was really flowing and was deep and swift. It was pretty scary, being that close to it. I truly hate cold water and the thought of making a stupid mistake at 4 in the morning, like getting too close to the edge and busting through the ice was very unappealing. There was a lot of thin ledges of over hanging ice with deep water underneath, I even put a foot through some ice, that I thought was thick enough and far from the open water, I was wrong. I spent a good amount of time scouting locations, marking safe places where I could set up. It was similar to the precautions I make on glaciers, when our camp is surrounded by crevasses, I mark safe areas to photograph for late at night and when I am tired.

We were amazed how quickly the day ends in January, before we knew it, the mountains were bathed in beautiful pink light. The pink light was quickly replaced by the white light of the amazing moon, so bold and powerful. The shadows of the trees stretched with its arrival.

Around 5:00PM we decided to begin brewing hot drinks and food. We couldn’t get the stove lit, for some reason the bottle wouldn’t hold pressure. Turning on our headlamps (the moon was so bright, we didn’t really need them) we realized that fuel was pouring out pump, total failure. We didn’t bring a second pump because this was just a quick, overnight trip.

We decided to go old school and make a fire. Opie and Sy went into the willows and alders like ravenous beavers, dragging out log after log of dead wood.

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The fire worked well and before we knew it, hot food and drinks were plentiful. We kept the fire sizzling the rest of he night.

The first glimpse of the lady Aurora showed as a gentle glow north behind the mountains. With each hour it would move higher into the sky and quicken its movements.

Photographing the aurora is not easy. Of course, modern cameras are amazing and have greatly simplified and improved the quality of aurora photography. A quick search online and you realize how popular aurora photography is.

Aurora over Denali and the Chulitna River on a full moon night.

Aurora over Denali and the moving ice in the Chulitna River on a full moon night.

Because of the bright moon, I wanted to include some nice foreground. My first challenge was to get decent depth of field in the image. The other challenge was to have a quick enough shutter to stop the dancing aurora. Too long of an exposure and the aurora becomes more of a smooth splash of color instead of dancing swirls and waves.

Huge aurora band over Denali.

Huge aurora band over Hunter and  Denali.

I kept my ISO around 800 and stopped the lens to about F4. This gave exposures around 4-6 seconds, really fast for night photography, that was because of the full moon and the reflected light off the snow. A few images I stopped down to f5.6, but then the exposures became 15 seconds and the aurora was less defined, I increased the ISO to 1600, the max I am happy with on my d800e, which quickened the exposure but there was some detail loss in the mountains.

Critical focus is key with night photography. The infinity mark on most AF lenses isn’t really infinity, you can’t just manually set it and shoot. The best method is switch to live view, zoom in on a star and manually focus it. Seasoned aurora and night photographer then tape the lens so the focus can’t get changed, I forgot the tape so each time I put my camera away during a lull in the activity, or switched lenses,  I would have to re-focus when I pull it back out, lame on my part.

Somebody turn out the lights! Its wasn't the cold that kept us awake, it was the full moon and the aurora!

Somebody turn out the lights! Its wasn’t the cold that kept us awake, it was the full moon and the aurora!

By 2:00AM the aurora had moved south-east and directly above us and away from the mountains. The three of us were frozen stiff, even with the fire going and filled with hot drinks, sitting around 10 hours at -15F, your body finally says “Get moving or crawl into you bag!”. So we crawled into our bags and tried to settle in. I got up to pee around 4:00AM and the aurora was bursting from the sky. It looked like color rain pouring down on me, it was the mighty corona aurora. I thought of putting all my warm gear back on and dragging the cameras out but decided to just enjoy the lights, sometimes, my best experiences are when the camera is put away.

The lights begin to move south east away from the mountains, but gain in intensity.

The lights begin to move south east away from the mountains, but grew in intensity.

I woke to catch the sunrise on the mountains, but the camera gear would have none of that. As soon as I took the lens cap off the lenses, they were coated with a sheet of ice. Oh well, I did laps around camp to stay warm, watching the amazing scene in front of me. Soon Sy and Opie woke to enjoy the scene. With no stove and the fire stone dead, we quickly made haste out of there.

It was great experience. Good friends experiencing a truly dazzling night together, I would happily have cold feet and hands again to share that experience with others. It is something every Alaskan should do, get out of your comfort zone and experience one of the great light shows on Earth.

Alaska Range Project: 2014 Review

2014 was a wild year, full of drama and spectacular wilderness. It started off strong, with two amazing trips and then slowly deteriorated, with family emergencies, wicked weather and cancelled trips. However, I made some strong images for the book and feel confident that this will be an exciting publication and a real tribute to the mighty Alaska Range.

I want to give a big thanks to everyone who helped spread the word in 2014. Images from the project were printed in United States, Japan, Germany, France and Italy.

The biggest exposure came from online venues including: The Adventure Journal, Mother Nature Network, Project Pressure, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, National Geographic Adventure Blog and Nature Photographers Network.

Photographs from the project were used by numerous climbers from all over the world. With the help from my images, some of them made hard, first ascents. I hope to add a climber support section to the blog this year.

My expedition partners are key to the project’s success, so a big thanks to: Sy, Opie, Phil, Brian, Julie, my Dad and my wife Pam and son Walker. A special thanks to all the pilots who flew me into the wilderness this year including: Jim Cummings, Jim Green and OE.

Thanks to all the 2014 project sponsors and supporters including: The American Alpine Club, The Mountaineering Club of Alaska, Patagonia, Black Diamond, Naneu, Alaska Alpine Adventures and The Alaska Center for the Environment.

And final shout to Kate and the crew at The Mountaineers Books for all their support and for making this project a reality.

Okay, now some photographs!

 

Mountain Profile: Denali

I am starting a new little series on the blog, short mountain profiles from the Alaska Range. From the famous to the nameless, unclimbed to overrun, I will try to cover a variety. Some mountains I have many images, others only one. First up, the most famous mountain of them all, Denali.

Denali reflection, taken from the south.

Denali reflection, taken from the south.

Denali needs little introduction. The tallest mountain in North American, it is the most sought after peak in North America, by climbers and tourist alike. Its official name is “Mount McKinley”. The quickest way to show someone you’re not from Alaska is to call it Mount McKinley instead of Denali. The word Denali is Athabaskan and roughly translates to “The High One” or “The Great One”.

Not only is Denali the tallest mountain in North America it is also one of the largest on Earth with a vertical gain that rivals most mountains in the world, surpassing Everest by over 4,000 feet.

This image is taken from the north and highlights Denali's massive size and the wicked Wickersham Wall.

This image is taken from the north and highlights Denali’s massive size and the wicked Wickersham Wall.

The first ascent of Denali was in 1910 when two Alaskan prospectors—Peter Anderson and Billy Taylor—from a party of four reached the summit on summit on April 3. They climbed 8,000 feet from their 11,000-foot camp to the summit and returned to camp in 18 hours. The Sourdough Expedition team were climbing novices who spent 3 months climbing to win a bet with a bar owner who said it would never be climbed. They wore homemade gear made mostly from caribou fur. On summit day, they carried doughnuts, caribou meat, 3 flasks of hot drinks, and a 14-foot-long spruce pole and an American flag. unfortunately, they climbed the North Summit, not realizing that the South Summit was taller. Many of the old-time climbers that I know still give them credit for the first ascent.

The first ascent of the higher South Summit was on June 7, 1913 by Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum from an expedition led by Hudson Stuck. They climbed the Muldrow Glacier route.

Wild weather on Denali. The mountain is notorious for terrible weather.

Wild weather on Denali. The mountain is notorious for terrible weather.

Is Denali shrinking? It was originally surveyed at  20,320 feet (6,194 meters) above sea level, which was established in 1952. However, a survey conducted in 2010 using modern technology pegged Denali’s elevation as 20,237 feet (6,168 meters), shrinking it by 83 feet (26 meters). Many people reject this new height.

Denali is a tough mountain to photograph. While it can be seen from many vantage points from around south-central Alaska, it is hard to find something unique. If you get too close to the monster, it becomes a shapeless mass, it is better to capture it from a distance, which helps highlight its massive size.

Denali is often capped with a cloud. Denali creates its own weather and tourist have about a 30% chance of a clear enough day to see the mountain's summit.

Denali is often capped with a cloud. Denali creates its own weather and tourist have about a 30% chance of a clear enough day to see the mountain’s summit.

Alpine Flora of the Alaska Range

“He who can take no interest in what is small, will take false interest in what is great.”  -John Ruskin

Bear Flowers and Stream, Clearwater Mountains

Bear Flowers and Stream, Clearwater Mountains

The mountains of the Alaska Range command a visitor’s attention. It often takes days to allow oneself to look beyond them, or more accurately, below them. I just returned from a trip into the Clearwater Mountains. My goal was to focus on the more intimate side of the mountains, to see beyond the grandeur.

I want this project to be a complete visual story of the Alaska Range. The plants, lichens, mosses and insects are a small but vital part of the mountain landscape. The mountains are stoic, they do not share their weaknesses, the plants, lichens and insects however, can tell us much about the health of the Alaska Range.

Lichen, Clearwater Mountains

Lichen, Clearwater Mountains

Caribou antlers and waterfalls, Clearwater Mountains

Caribou antlers and waterfalls, Clearwater Mountains

Rosewort, Clearwater Mountains

Rosewort, Clearwater Mountains

Pink Plumes, Clearwater Mountains

Pink Plumes, Clearwater Mountains

 

Reality in the Nutzotin Mountains

Our objective rises above the lateral moraine, Peak 8505, or Hidden Peak, because it was almost always hidden from view.

Our objective,  Peak 8514, or Hidden Peak, rises above the huge lateral moraine. We named it Hidden Peak because it was almost always hidden from view.

“I think we might try and climb something” I said to Sy, my long time partner of Alaskan adventures.

“Really? What mountain, where?” he responded with a mixture of skepticism and intrigue.

“Well, I need to photograph in the remote Nutzotin Mountains, but I am willing to take a few days off and focus on climbing a peak. None of them have names, don’t even know if they have ever been climbed?” I replied.

That was all that needed to be said to seal the deal; remote, no names, unclimbed.
The Nutzotin Mountains are the far eastern anchor of the Alaska Range. Tucked in behind the mighty Wrangell Mountains, and lingering on the Canadian border, the Nutzotin Mountains are rarely visited by climbers, or anyone for that matter. The majority of visitors visit the historical mining town of Chisana. Gold was discovered there in 1913 and the rush lasted until the early 1920s. There are a few old buildings standing and about 20 hardy residents.

After a seven and a half hour drive from Anchorage, we arrived in McCarthy. It was mid-May, and the town was still waking up from its winter slumber. Buildings were partially boarded up and only a handful of people mingled around, the majority at the bar. Our cell phones didn’t work so we couldn’t contact the pilot, Gary of McCarthy Air. We went to his shop and office, but it was locked up and stuffed to the ceiling with unopened boxes. We went to the bar and was quickly hustled to the side of the building by a uncharacteristically Alaskan, well groomed, young man.

“Hey guys, could you hang out over here for a few minutes, we a filming a shot of the front of the building” he pleaded. When asked about “what” they were working on, we learned that McCarthy had falling victim to the new Alaskan disease, the reality show.
Since October, a film crew had been filming, interviewing and generally probing the full time residents of McCarthy. The crew bolstered with great pride about the project, but all Sy and I could think was that it was going to be another highly manipulated, over dramatized show that had a very little to do with what Alaska was really about, what it meant to go on a true Alaskan adventure, what real wilderness was.

Most Alaskans have grown tired of seeing our beloved state get turned into a Hollywood fantasy. Reality shows and fictional movies, that are so absurd, so mind-blowingly stupid that the whole world thinks that Alaska is full of uncultured idiots with quick tempers and that going into the Alaskan wilderness is a sure ticket to death, a suicidal mission into such extreme wilderness that only the most macho of people would dare go.

This interaction made us desperate to get out of Dodge. Ironically, only the Los Angeles film crew’s cell phones worked, so I borrowed one and gave Gary a call. He had an interview with the film crew at 2:00pm and would meet us afterwards, around 3:00pm, in front of his office.

Our pilot, Jim of McCarthy Air.

Our pilot, Gary Green of McCarthy Air.

Sy and I loitered in sunshine, looking at brochures on flight seeing and glacier hiking. When Gary showed up he was flaunting a clean, red and black plaid flannel shirt and a cowboy hat. Sy wondered if it was for show or if that was how he really dressed. After some chit chat about all our shared acquaintances, he got down to business. He didn’t have a key to his own office but did have a credit card swipe for his IPhone.
“How much was I going to charge you again?” he asked.

“$500 a piece” I said.

“Right” he replied, unaware at the killer deal he was giving us. The other pilots I called wanted $850 a piece to fly to the same spot, needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when he quoted me $500 round trip.

We loaded into his tiny truck and bumped along the dusty road to the “McCarthy International Airport”. Gary filled the plane while we shuttled gear and packed the plane, loading the “sharps” : ice axes, climbing gear, poles and all other accessories in first, followed by packs.

“Okay, where are we going again?” Gary asked.

“Ugh…Baultoff Creek” I said with apprehension.

“Yeah, right, get in.” Gary gestured and we squeezed into his tin can, a silver, polished 180. He skipped the usual flight jargon, either assuming we had spent enough time in bush planes to be unnecessary or he wasn’t quite in the tourist groove yet. Gary’s casual demeanor was both refreshing and a little disconcerting. Within seconds we were buzzing into the Wrangell Mountains. I have experienced at least fifty bush flights in the mountains of Alaska, but this was my first time through the Wrangell Mountains and I was blown away. Imagine desert and ice together. We swerved in-between huge, crumbling plateaus of red rock with glaciers dripping from their flat tops. It was a vision of the Earth’s past, when the ice of the poles pushed much closer to the equator, a few hundred million years ago. Off to the south we could see the massive white world of the Bagley Ice field and its countless ice clad summits, some of the tallest in North America.

We shot out of the Wrangell’s over some rolling hills. It was a shock to go from those massive peaks to what appeared to be a flat landscape. I felt like it was criminal to leave those mighty Wrangell Mountains, and for what? A small collection of insignificant humps? But the deeper we plunged into the Nutzotin Mountains, the quicker I forgot about the Wrangells and grew excited by our chosen mountains.

We raced into Baultoff Creek in a rage. The plane rattled and roared. I saw the strip ahead of us and figured we would do a pass over, there was no way we were going to land at the speed we were going, I was wrong. We touched down on the over grown landing spot like a jumbo jet, skidding with flaps down. Before I could get my bearings the plane was being whipped around 180 degrees, sputtering to a stop.

After unloading Gary asked “So, when am I picking you guys up?”

“ugh…Sunday Morning” I said with a concerned tone.

“Right” Gary nodded with a smile.

“We will be here by Saturday afternoon, so if you want to pick us up that night, you know, if the weather looks bad for Sunday, that would be fine.” Sy said. Sy had to be back to work on Monday and was a little worried by Gary’s nonchalant reply our of chosen pick up date.
I had been feeling lately like my wilderness journeys had been getting watered down. The last six or seven trips I have had a SAT phone. When we first started using them they were ONLY for emergencies and at five bucks a minute, there was no way you’re were going to make late nights calls to your girlfriends.

But now you can rent one for a $100 a week with twenty free minutes. They are no bigger than a large Smartphone. They had become a mandatory piece of gear. The problem was that we were using them for non emergencies, like calling family on a daily basis, getting frequent weather reports, calling the pilot early for pick-up, just because we wanted to go home. In a fit of rebellion, Sy and I decided to forgo the SAT phone. We could only rely on the pilot’s word that he would come on the date we chose.

Gary raced out of the mountains as quickly as he came and a calming silence over took us. We stood motionless, enjoying the cool wind, the sound of the creek and the splendid landscape.

We lumbered under our heavy packs up Baultoff Creek. The rotten overflow ice was still solid and made for easy travel up the river bed. The same could not be said for the lingering snow, which had absolutely zero strength. One wrong step and you were up to your knees in watery slush. The patches became more frequent so we choose to climb over hills and loose rock than suffer through the foot numbing smoothie.

Sy using the rotten river ice for quick travel up the creek.

Sy using the rotten river ice for quick travel up the creek.

Another piece of technology I had come rely too heavily on was Google Earth. I have come to rely on its high-resolution images to choose photography locations and routes through remote wilderness. However, much of Alaska has poor image quality and the Nutzotin were one of those areas. This meant we had to rely on our 60-year-old topo maps and our years of back-country experience. This just added to the value of our journey and simply made every decision more rewarding.

Tired and hungry we made camp around 10pm. We watched pink light dance on the rounded peaks as we relaxed on the tundra. We were entertained by the cliff-side antics of Dall Sheep. With warm food in our bellies, we came to the conclusion that few things are better than a spring evening in the Alaskan wilderness.

Post dinner map reading and sheep watching.

Post dinner map reading and sheep watching.

The next morning we slogged up to our chosen base camp, at the base of the massive terminal moraine of the Baultoff Glacier. It was getting harder and harder to avoid the patches of soft snow, so we took are chances on the unstable, lichen spotted boulders of the moraine. We were often seduced by the smooth ease of the snow, quickly cursing our poor decision as we struggled to extract ourselves from the frozen mush.

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Beautiful lake in the middle of the moraine.

After we established camp, we went bounding across the moraine, free of our heavy burdens. We hunted for views of the surrounding peaks. I had picked a handful of peaks that, from looking at the map, could have potential for fun climbing. None of them had names nor any recorded ascents. The fact that we had to make our own route decisions, no guidebooks to refer too, no beta from others, was so liberating, so exciting that our stomachs ached with anticipation and anxiety. High up on the moraine a large peak came into full view and instantly we knew that we would try to climb it.

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Were shared the area with a wiry red fox.

I realized that I hadn’t heard a plane or seen a jet since we were dropped off (and we wouldn’t our entire trip), a rarity in Alaska, or anywhere in the world for that matter. We watched a skinny, calico fox hunt ground squirrels as we told stories and shared our growing fondness for the Nutzotin Mountains.

Spring was trying hard to arrive.

Spring was trying hard to arrive.

As the evening approached, the wind began to pick-up. Low clouds stretched over the summits, a sign of approaching weather. A few hours later and we were in a full on storm. We dove into the tent and watched it bend with each punishing gust, which easily reached 45 miles an hour. Snow came whirling down from above and worked its way into every weak spot. The heavy snow began to build up under the tent’s fly, coating it’s mesh body.

After a restless night we woke to partial clearing. With hazy minds, we dragged ourselves out into a new scene, winter. Luckily, by mid day the sun was blazing again and the new snow melted quickly. During the storm, I had gotten up in the middle of the night to take a leak and walked out onto the old snow, it was firm and held my weight. That confirmed what I had suspected, the only chance we had on climbing any mountain was to leave at 3:00am and try to get back down before the snow got too soft, which was around 8:00am.

Sy making breakfast after the storm

Sy making breakfast after the storm

After a day of lounging and exploring, Sy went to bed early. I wanted to crawl into my bag too, but I am photographer, driven by a subconscious force, an uncontrollable need to follow the light until it has faded into darkness. I stumbled into the tent around midnight. It’s always hard to sleep before an alpine start, I was anxious about what we would discover higher up. We couldn’t see the mountain, it was hidden from our camp, nor could we see the summit from our mountain view spot, we had no idea what to expect.

Gentle evening light

Gentle evening light

Under a bright, glowing night sky we walked up the old river ice towards the toe of the glacier. It’s crusty surface made for easy travel through the jumbled moraine. With hesitation we crossed large swatches of snow and were pleasantly surprised by their firmness, we knew that once we got out of the moraine, it was all snow. We had brought snow shoes, a last-minute decision that we were happy we made. We decided not to wear them until it was totally necessary, knowing how much more slowly we would travel once they were on. We needed to move as quick as possible in order to summit and get down before the snow softened up and would no longer support us.

About an hour up I decided to take a photograph of Sy coming up through the moraine and then realized I had left my camera at the tent. Over twenty years as a working professional photographer and I had forgotten my camera! If I went down to get the camera we would lose valuable time, possibly killing our summit attempt. But Sy and I knew I had to go back. We decided he would keep going up the glacier and I would try to catch up.
I dropped my pack and sprinted down the river, happy that it was still frozen enough to support myself running in boots. I reached the tent and bolted back. I did the round trip in 45 minutes.

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The spot where I realized I had forgotten my camera. By the time I returned, the sun was coming up.

I reached my pack and scanned the mountain looking for Sy and was surprised to see him so low on the mountain. I followed his tracks as they grew deeper into the snow. One inch, two inches…at about five inches, he switched to snowshoes, so I did the same.
I caught up to him as he lounged in the snow, eating a snack. The sun began to crest the distant mountains and he was enjoying its warmth. The sunlight on the snow would hasten the snow softening process, our time was running out, it was time to push ourselves. I took over the burden of leading through the soft snow. The stellar views were becoming a distraction, a sea of endless peaks. We reached the large plateau below the main summit pinnacle, quicker than we expected. We had two ascent options. One was a huge 40 degree face, about 800 feet high. There was some obvious slide activity on the face and after the all the new snow and wind, we decided it was too sketchy.

Our other option was the south ridge. It was a very aesthetic, narrow ridge with delicate cornices and a few steep bugles. It look great. We decided to stay unroped and switched to crampons. I let Sy have the honor of leading the way up the beautiful precipice. We shuffled around a few rocky sections, crampons desperately gripping the loose rock. The views just kept getting more and more outstanding. Our excitement grew as the ridge became less steep and the sky above grew larger and larger with each step. I felt like surging to the top, adrenaline at its maximum, but we both knew we needed to be wary of the Alaska Range’s infamous, hidden summit crevasses.

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Sy reaching the top on the south ridge.

Without incident we arrived on the skinny summit. We both smiled, it was a 360 degree view, clear as could be. The mighty Wrangell Mountains demanded our attention, rising up like frozen sentinels, guarding the sea. It was flawless, a perfect summit. Everything went as planned. It was pure bliss and yet, I wasn’t completely at peace.

I couldn’t help thinking that it was all too easy. Was this really an adventure? What would others think? Dull and boring I figured. No speed records or extreme routes accomplished, no epics, no fighting, no animals out to eat us, there was no drama, no story for Hollywood. I realized that no matter how much I had tried to avoid all the crap about Alaska and modern “adventure”, it still had sunk into my own subconscious. I sat down and took a deep breath and looked at Sy, who was enjoying the moment, feet dangling off the steep north face.

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Sy on the summit of Hidden Peak, peak 8514, Nutzotin Mountains.

I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want or need any of the drama our society told me was required for a modern adventure. For Sy and I, this journey was everything we needed from the mountains. Alaska had given us the gift of true wilderness. We felt isolated and remote, but not alone. It was a classic good time, with a good friend, in a truly wild place, it was the reality of real Alaskans.

If you want to know what happen during the rest of our journey read this post Grizzly Gorge.