To Sled or Not to Sled?

Sleds and alders=Fun!

Sleds and alders=Fun!

Sleds, or ski pulks, have been part of my Alaska explorations for as long as I can remember. And like most explorers of snowy regions, I have a love-hate relationship with them. The terrain I may encounter is the primary factor when deciding on whether to bring a sled or not. Is there steep terrain? Will there be lots of bush whacking? Heavily crevassed glaciers? Dirt? So many possibilities can be encountered traveling through Alaska’s mountains.

On long, mellow trips, over easy to moderate terrain, with extensive winter gear and camera equipment, the comfort and ease of a sled is hard to beat. Two trips this spring warrant the use of sled, long glacier ski tours. One trip, to the Eldridge Glacier, has some big crevasses, but its early season and they should pose little difficulty. The second trip, to the Kichatna Mountains, should also be perfect for sleds.

This is the terrain that sled were meant for. The Black Rapids Glacier, during a 2006 traverse.

This is the terrain that sleds were meant for. The Black Rapids Glacier, during a 2006 traverse.

I have many times, brought a sled when I should have brought a big pack. What looks good on the map, doesn’t always translates to reality. A short, steep, alder choked slope can be a nightmare, taking literally hours to negotiate. Whenever there is a possibility of coming across bushy terrain, I make sure I have a good system for carrying my sled on my back.

Mountaineers are notorious for overloading sleds, paying very little attention to their design or the packing of them. I have been learning lessons from many of my winter, distance racing friends, and I have decided to give my sled an overhaul. The goal is to make it more streamlined and less haphazard. I will also be switching to a fully rigid system (designed by skipulks.com) removing the annoying slack that has the sled chasing, and frequently crashing into me, or passing me or worse of all, rolling down every hill or bump.

Overloaded, this is my sled on a ski traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier in 2013. Its way too top heavy and I am not using all the space in the sled. I plan to fix this problem this year.

Overloaded! This is my sled on a ski traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier in 2013. Its way too top-heavy and I am not using all the space in the sled. I plan to fix this problem and reevaluate my sled packing and design.

I will post images of my revamped sled on the #photographalaska facebook and Instagram pages so make sure your following them if your interested. Or course, full trip reports will be posted here on the blog when I return.

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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.

My Training for Wilderness and Mountain Photography

My main partner in crime, Sy, enjoying a unnamed summit in the Chugach mountains.

My main partner in crime, Sy, enjoying a unnamed summit in the Chugach mountains.

A while back I wrote an essay on the importance of physical fitness for wilderness and mountain photographers. I was recently asked how I train for expeditions? So I figured I give a brief run down on how I train and how my “training” has changed throughout my twenty plus years as an outdoor photographer.

First off, I am not a PT, PHD, FT or anything for that matter, never even attended college, so please talk to a specialist before you go off and get crazy with training! I am not a professional athlete either, mid-pack at best.

I have always been a runner and a mountain biker. And when I was in my twenties, running a few days a week, biking here and there and hiking was all I needed to do to stay in shape and feel good when on photography expeditions. But now I am pushing forty one and random exercise without focus doesn’t really cut it anymore.

First off, quality physical fitness is a combination of three elements: Endurance, Strength and Flexibility. Endurance is the most important and the easiest to build and maintain; simply participate in long, steady cardio vascular exercise. Running, hiking, fast walking, XC skiing, biking and swimming are all great cardio workouts that will pay dividends in the mountains.

I run three days a week: One long, slow run, one hilly run and one short, quicker pace run. I also XC Ski and/or bike for one-three hours,  two or three days a week. One day, usually on Sundays, I spend all day in the mountains, climbing a peak or doing a long ski/hiking tour. That long day in the mountains is crucial training for my photography expeditions. It is important to mimic the conditions your training for. Swimmers train by swimming, Cyclists by cycling…(though ALL professional athletes cross train). So whenever possible, get out and hike, with a good sized pack. If your next photography expedition is off trail, do plenty of off trail hiking. Trail running is probably the best alternative to hiking if you’re not lucky enough to live near the mountains.

The older I get the more I find that just training for my expeditions isn’t enough. It’s really easy to get lazy when exercising with only a few wilderness trips in the back of your mind. The way to combat that is to find an endurance sporting event to train for. You don’t need to do back to back Ironman or anything insane like that, but signing up for a running race or a ski or bike race can really add focus to your training. The goal isn’t to win, it’s just a way to get you motivated, focused and to have fun. I usually do one or two “races” a year. I mix them up.  Some years I focus on cycling, some years running and sometimes skiing. I am currently on a running kick, training for a marathon.

Rest is also important, I don’t have scheduled rest days, I rest when my body needs it, usually once a week or sometimes more.

As we get older our physical strength and our flexibility reduces. This is how we get hurt while in the mountains, or even while doing random things like playing with our kids or doing housework.  As our muscle mass decreases,  so does our strength. It’s important to maintain strength around those crucial joints, like knees, to prevent injury in the field.  I hate the gym as much as the next guy but strength training will also help your cardio fitness, you will feel the benefits of strength training when humping those big loads of camera gear up the mountains. Find a reliable and qualified Fitness Trainer or Coach and tell them what you like to do and have them design you a nice strength training routine that matches your activities.

As we age our muscles and tendons become stiff and less bendy, making them very susceptible to tearing and straining. It’s important to stay on top of your flexibility. It’s not necessary to travel to Indian and train with a Master Yogi (though if you have the time..) but taking a regular Yoga class or developing a regular stretching routine will really go a long way to injury prevention.

One last tip: Train like the pros! I find great inspiration from world class athletes. A follow the advice of the world’s premier endurance runners, cyclist, mountaineers and xc skiers. And even though I will never be a competitive athlete, using the techniques and skills from seasoned pros that I respect make me a better athlete even at my mediocre level.

Planning a Remote Wilderness Photography Trip Using Google Earth

I have six major trips planned this year along with a handful of shorter jaunts. I have spent the lasts few weeks digging through maps and staring for hours at Google Earth.

Obviously, the first thing I considered is “What areas offer the best chances for successful image making?” For some of my trips, there is a at least one major objective, and for the Alaska Range project, it’s usually a big mountain.

After I choose an objective, I look for bodies of water or other features that could add to an image of the major objective or just give me more variety. Other mountains in the area, steep valleys that could have waterfalls, glaciers that may have caves or interesting features and of course lakes, especially ones that have chances for reflections. Variety is key. There is always a good chance that your main mountain will never be seen, so there should be plenty of other interesting things to go explore.

Google Earth helps me figure out if a location has enough variety. One of the main issues I have found by using only topo maps is that its hard to figure out if you will be able to see your objectives. I have been in valleys that were too tight to see the actual mountains and have had views blocked by small hills that I hardly noticed on the map.

Google Earth’s Street View isn’t exact and should be only used as a guide but its usefulness can’t be denied. Once you have found the location you can use Google Earth’s night/day feature to determine if and when light will actual hit you main objectives. You can also get exact sunset and sunrise times along with the moon’s cycle. You just type in the exact dates of your trip and watch the screen as the light crosses the landscape, pretty cool.

lima bean lake

Google Earth View of Lima Bean Lake (it’s the blackness in the front) This is the Street View. This tells me that the mountains are in view from the lake shore and that there is potential for a reflection type shot.

Unnamed mountains reflected in Lima Bean Lake (local name), central Alaska Range

Lima Bean Lake, Denali National Park and Preserve. My study of Google Earth showed possibilities at this lake and  it proved right.

I never plan a trip where I am trapped by the terrain. I like to explore and if the there is just one possible angle of a mountain and not much else, then its just not worth the trip. If there are impossible icefalls, dangerous rivers, steep terrain or just too much bush whacking, then I look somewhere else.

Google Earth is really good for determining where the “green zone” is these days. Most topos of Alaska are over fifty years old. The green zone on those maps (the areas with bushes and trees) has changed dramatically. Some areas that were pretty easy to access just ten years ago are now nightmare bush whacks. Google Earth can also show you how far the glaciers have receded, which I find very useful since most of my trips involve glaciers! Pay attention to the date the images were taken (its in the lower corner of the screen), this can  help you decide when to go and what the terrain really looks like. Some images were taken in winter, which really doesn’t help you plan a summer trip. But I find late season images great for planning routes, especially on glaciers.

The next question is if you can actually get to your location? Are there lakes a float-plane could land on? long enough glaciers with enough snow coverage? Or gravel bars that a tundra plane could land on? There are plenty of secret strips in the mountains of Alaska and sometimes I can spot them on Google Earth.

Probably the most valuable tool for me, is using  Google Earth to identify mountains I have taken photos of, especially aerial images.

Google gives a pretty wide angle images but its still very useful for indentifing Mountains.

Google Earth gives a pretty wide-angle image but it’s still very useful for identifying Mountains. Can you see the shot below in the Google Image above?

The Citadel and Peak 8505, Mount Iliamna in the distance.

The Citadel,  Peak 8505 and Mount Iliamna in the distance. These peaks were easy to identify using Google Earth and a topo map together via the Hillmap Website.

If you don’t have two big monitors then its difficult to use a topo program and Google Earth at the same time, which can be frustrating. Luckily there is an awesome website called Hillmap. It splits your chosen topo with Google Earth and seamlessly moves them together, so what’s on one side is mirrored on the other, Brilliant! Their website is http://www.hillmap.com/

Google Earth has its flaws of course. Most of the remote areas have poor resolution, making the usefulness of the images questionable. We should try not to get our hopes up either. It’s always best to enter a remote area with a fresh mind, open to new things and not filled with all the possibilities you saw on a computer screen hundreds of miles away.

Happy Travels!

Tips for Using Ultra-Light Tripods in the Field

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali, central Alaska Range

Even with the constant improvements to image stabilized lenses and bodies along with the amazing high ISO capabilities of the latest digital cameras, a good old-fashioned tripod is still an essential tool to a professional outdoor photographer.

My work takes me to some of Alaska’s most remote and unforgiving environments. The weight of my gear, both camera and outdoor gear, can make or break one of my expeditions. Excessive weight on adventures that involve traveling through rugged or technical terrain can be dangerous. Lightweight tripods are also essential for international  travel, where baggage weight restrictions continue to get stricter. A small, light weight tripod doesn’t scream “pro” and is easier to maneuver through crowds.

Choosing a Tripod

Tripod design hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last few years, but the materials that are used to make them has. The latest carbon fiber can be made thinner and the diameter of the tubes smaller, than their counterparts of a few years ago. Tripod heads have also gotten smaller and lighter without losing holding strength or durability.

When I bought my first tripod, twenty-four years ago, the rule of thumb was “choose a tripod that has a maximum weight capacity that is double your heaviest camera-lens combo”. I have no idea where that theory came from, or if there is any truth to the statement, but it’s been one of those “golden rules” that many photographers have used over the years.

For my expedition work, my heaviest camera/ lens combo is about five pounds, a Nikon D800e and a 24-70 f2.8 lens. My lightest ball head weighs in at about a pound. That six pounds total, if I follow the old school rule, I would need a pair of “sticks” that can hold twelve pounds.  My current tripod, a Gitzo Mountaineer has a maximum weight rating of eleven pounds, close enough! The Gitzo Mountaineer weighs in at 1.6 pounds, add the pound of my ball head and I have a support system that is super compact with a fighting weight of 2.6 pounds.

What about the head? Through my extensive experience and testing I have found that heavier ball heads are essential on really lightweight legs. A little extra weight adds to the stability. I actually double the old tripod rule when it comes to heads. Sure, there are plenty of super-light ball heads that could hold my six pound camera-lens combo but those heads mounted on top of a ultra-light leg set-up are not very confidence inspiring. I would choose a heavier head over a lighter weight one with the same maximum weight capacity.

The less legs extensions a tripod has, the more rigid it will. However, more extensions means it will usually extend higher and fold down smaller.  Yes, light-weight tripods don’t extend very high, often less than five feet. Tall photographers will find this annoying. Working with these little tripods is all about adapting, if you need to get high then you will need to get creative! And honestly, how often is the best composition at eye level anyways?

Setting up the tent as the last light fades on Mount Moffit

A tripod is necessary for long exposures and timelapse work.

 Creating a Secure Set-Up

Small tripods are prone to falling over, not because they are terribly unstable, it’s that they can easy be blown over by wind or knocked over by the photographer who isn’t paying attention.

First and foremost, try to find a solid surface and have the legs as wide as possible, with each leg being the same width apart. I look for a large rock to put the tripod on. Sometimes, I will move flat rocks to where I want to set the tripod up at. If there are no flat rocks and the ground is soft and spongy, which is most of Alaska, I will try to pierce the legs through the top surface into the harder ground underneath. You won’t be able to have the legs  stretched to their widest setting but hitting that firmer ground underneath is crucial. Remember, the tripod will sink down lower, changing your angle of view.

What about that little hook on the bottom of the center post? For years, I couldn’t figure out an effective way to use it out in the field, opting to stack rocks on the legs (be careful, heavy rocks can damage the carbon fiber legs)instead. But then one day I came up with a super simple, lightweight solution. I use a  tent guy-line with a “ladder lock” attached. I bring a light tent stake that I secure into the ground and then attached it to the hook with the guy line. Then I use the ladder lock to create the needed tension to secure the tripod. Sometimes I will need to stack rocks on the stake to keep it from coming out of soft ground. Often, I won’t use the stake at all, instead securing the guy-line to a heavy rock. I have also used multiple guys (taken from my tent).

It was a windy day and the ground wet and spongy. I used my tent peg system to help secure the tripod to the ground. I used the telephotos tripod collar to help center the weight of the camera over the middle of the tripod.

It was a windy day and the ground wet and spongy. I used my tent peg system to help secure the tripod to the ground. I used the telephoto’s tripod collar to help center the weight of the camera over the middle of the tripod.

I often work in the snow which can be frustrating with a small tripod. If the snow is firm or has a solid top crust , I will just set the tripod on top and not attempt to sink it into the snow. If the tripod breaks through with the weight of the camera or the snow is just too soft, I will extend the tripod legs the whole way and then close the legs together to where they almost touch the center post. Then I just thrust the tripod through the snow like a spear. It can work pretty well, but if it’s warm then the tripod will get less stable as it warms up and melts the snow around it.

Helpful Accessories

There are some camera accessories that also help. First, use an L-plate. The easiest way to throw a tripod off-balance is to have all the weight hanging off to one side. L-plates allow you shoot vertical shots with the camera on top of the tripod, putting the majority of the weight in the center, equally distributing the weight to all three legs, the most stable position. Even when using lightweight telephotos, I try to use a tripod collar, which also helps balance the weight.

If you are using a DSLR, use the mirror lock-up setting. Use an electronic release or the self timer option, the less you touch the camera, the sharper the image will be.

With all the advanced features that cameras have these days it’s easy to think that tripods are becoming a dinosaur from photography’s past. But it’s quite the contrary, the high-resolution of modern cameras demand stability and in our busy and complicated world, the little extra time it takes to set up and compose an image with a tripod is exactly what we need to get into the moment and create meaningful photographs.

Neacola Nightmare

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I hate cold water. I always have. When I was a teenager I wanted to surf, but the water (central California) was too cold for me, even with a wetsuit. I have never liked like cold swimming pools or swimming holes, know matter how hot the outside temperatures were. When I moved to Alaska, my dislike of cold water grew. I learned  that is was possibly the most dangerous thing in the state, more dangerous than the bears or avalanches, cold water was an unforgiving killer and I swore to avoid it as much as possible.

We landed on the shores of the ethereal Turquoise Lake. It was late afternoon and we had many miles to cover. There were four of us: lead guide Andy, clients Colin and Patrick and me, the tag-a-long. I was not a client or a guide, however,  I was not an outside observer, I was part of the group and I wanted to make sure that everyone felt that way.

There have been many stories of photographers joining expeditions, brought on because of their mountain skills, not their photo skills, whom later let their team down, putting photography above the well fair of the group. I was not going to be that photographer. This was not my trip.

We worked our way up valley, switching between boots and river shoes, crossing braided streams, then rocky cliffs. It was drizzling and I was not amused. Alaska was having the best weather of any summer anyone could remember, except in the Alaska Range and except for me. This was my third trip this year and once again the weather was foul. But my mood was still high, this was only day one of a twelve day trip, the weather would get better.

Patrick crossing glowing moss and River Beauty.

Patrick crossing glowing moss and River Beauty.

Our goal that day was to camp near the firn line on the Turquoise Glacier. There is only one way to get onto the Turquoise Glacier and that was on the other side of the river. We marched on spongy, glowing green moss and around black lichen blanketed rocks. A fine mist hung on the mountain tops, we felt were sneaking into the mountains of Mordor, there was a gloomy, dark feeling to everything around us.

We reached the crossing spot, a place Andy had crossed before. It looked big, swift, scary. Andy went out a third of a way in the brown river and decided that it was too swift. It was already 7:00PM and we were wet and hungry so we decided to camp at the crossing and tackle it in the morning when the volume would be lower and we would be warm and well rested.

We had a great dinner under the cooking tarp, learning about each other, telling jokes, sipping a little whisky (Colin owns a popular bar in DC and had brought up some of his finest drink). The rain let up around 10:00pm and I spent the last hours of daylight photographing the moody cliffs and the abundant waterfalls that descended down every gully.

We got up early but had a leisurely breakfast, no one seemed motivated to tackle the river. It had rained all night and the river looked more swollen than the night before. During our after dinner explorations we had discovered a heavily braided section up river and decided that would be the better crossing.

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One of the many beautiful streams that rush out of the Neacola Mountains.

We were already a little behind schedule and had a huge day ahead of us, including a high, steep pass. We needed to get moving. We lugged our monster packs to the first of many braids and put on our river shoes, wrapping our boots over the back of our necks. We were only a mile from the toe of the glacier and the water was cold, evil cold, ice chunks were floating by. Quickly my feet went numb as we splashed through braid after braid, looking for a good spot, nothing. My feet slowly became bricks, lacking feeling. I was feeling nervous and apprehensive, I was having doubts the river would go. My feet hurt.

“Can we go another way, the other side of the glacier?’ I asked Andy, the only one familiar with the area.

“no, the river is the only way.” he insisted. He had crossed the river multiple times before, it would go.

I have always been known as mister safety, the guy who always turns back. I have had many disgruntled climbing partners, not impressed with my lack of courage and unwillingness to push the safety envelope. Part of me wanted to just say no, no way, and yet I didn’t want to be that guy again, safety boy, the one to alter the trip, end the journey.

We found a spot, ten feet across, but moving fast. We were all starting to shiver a little, it was time, now or never. We set up a pack line, Andy, then Patrick, Colin and me at the tail. We listened to Andy’s commands: left, right, left, right. I kept my head down, swearing to myself that I wouldn’t swim. We were hardly moving, I looked up and witnessed water boiling deeper up Andy, nearing his naval. Colin was shaking, so was I.

And then it all ended.

Andy went first, in slow motion I watched him go by, down the river. Then Patrick, six-foot four and 250 pounds, gone. Colin and I held our ground but it was useless, down went Colin.

I screamed, I was going to die the way I told myself I would never would, via cold water.  The next thing I knew I was under water.

Proper river swimming etiquette goes like this: Unbuckle your waist and sternum strap before crossing. Take pack off and sit, facing down river, feet up. You then use one arm to paddle to shore while the other arm holds onto your pack.

What I was doing was text-book alright, text-book on how to die!

I was rolling sideways down the river, like a big rock. Under water, then above, under then above. I screamed for help each time my head was up. What had I done wrong? I had made a stupid, critical decision, I had kept my sternum strap on.

I tried to un-snap it while I was rolling but my hands were unresponsive and I was panicking, Mr. Calm and Collective was freaking out. Then I snapped out of it.

“Shut up Carl, no is going to save you, save yourself.” My brain said, ignoring my cries for help. I struggled and got myself pointed down river, looked at the river and realized I was about to float near the shore, I flipped, swam like hell and clawed the bank, I made it.

I lay there, half way in the river screaming at my useless hands as I tried to undo the strap. Finally, I got it unbuckled and dragged myself on the shore. I put my head in my hands and tried to comprehend what just happened, why I did what I did. I was terrified but alive. I looked up and saw Patrick way up river, Andy and Colin were down near me. Andy looked at me and gave me the thumbs up, I returned the signal. Then put my head in my hands again. I looked at my legs, gushing blood, my feet were purple, swollen, cuts everywhere. One of my river shoes had been torn off. My ankle looked broken, but I didn’t feel any pain, but there could be no way that I was okay, everything looked bad. I looked up, Andy was still staring at me, Again he signaled, thumbs up or down? Down I signaled this time.

Something else seemed wrong, I couldn’t see well, I had lost my glasses. Luckily, I had a pair of prescription sunglasses too. But something else was not right and then I realized, I was on the other side of the river, they were not.

I was shivering and then my years of experience kicked in.

“Your own your own now, time to get moving”, I thought.

I stripped naked right there on the rocks, opened my pack and pulled out my dry bag, opened it with worry, but everything was dry. I put on warm dry layers and socks. I grabbed my tent, sleeping bag, water, a little food. I looked at Andy, he knew what I was going to do. I also noticed that Colin was jumping up and down and that he didn’t have a pack.

“Where’s Colin’s Pack?” I yelled across the river. Andy pointed down the river.

I don’t think I have ever set up a tent so fast and within a few minutes I was in my dry sleeping bag, eating food, getting warm. I sat there, angry at myself.

Ego usually plays the main role in mountain accidents. Had my ego played a role? Was being tough and brave all of a sudden important to me? It was strange. Part of me did believe the river would go and we made a team decision, my gut however knew it was a bad idea. No one was at fault, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had messed up, that I let Ego prevail.

And then there was the sternum strap issue that almost drowned me. It was a conscious decision. I knew better but I still didn’t unbuckle it. I think part of what I was thinking was that an explorer never loses their pack, your pack is your life. The other thing was that the pack was heavy and the sternum strap kept me balanced. If I had been calm, I would have unbuckled the strap as soon as I saw Andy swim. But I wasn’t calm, I was cold, scared and stubborn and was NOT GOING TO SWIM! If I would have just relaxed and went with the river, my swim would have been a much less dramatic of an experience.

An hour later I heard my name called. I crawled out, Andy was on a river bar mid-river.

“Are you Okay?” he yelled.

“Yes, I have got food, I am warm and I think I can hike out.” I screamed over the rage of the river.

“Okay, we are heading out, I will return, maybe tonight.” He waved and the three of them descended into the mist.

My swim was terrible, however, the others did fine. Andy got beat up a little and lost a river shoe. Patrick managed to muscle himself to shore, on his hand and knees. His knees were swollen and he had lost his boots and poles but he was in good spirits. Colin, the one with the least experience, had a smooth swim, calm and relaxed, until a huge rock hit him in between his legs, making him let go of his pack.

They hiked the four miles down to the lake shore.  Colin carried Patrick’s pack because  Patrick had no boots. On the way down they watched Colin’s pack float by and get stuck on a bar in the middle of the river. When they reached the shore, Andy called Lake Clark Air and scheduled a pick up for Patrick and Colin. He also told them to,

“Bring me a pack raft.”

Back in the tent. I kept going over and over the event in my head. I couldn’t shake it. I was mad and disappointed in myself. I believed the trip was done, I mean, Colin’s pack was gone (I didn’t know at the time that Patrick didn’t have boots either). I tried to listen to music but realized everything on my iPod was sad and depressing. Then I remembered that I downloaded a bunch of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me podcasts, just what I needed to lighten my mood.

I was still very concerned about my legs and especially my feet. They were very swollen but I felt no pain nor did any of the cuts hurt. I cleaned out as many as I could but ran out of wound care supplies.  I tried to keep them elevated.

The river, doesn't look so bad does it?

The river, doesn’t look so bad does it?

Twenty four hours past and still no Andy. Plenty of scenarios were running through my head. Again, my self-preservation mentality kicked in.I decided to prep for my escape. First, I needed to decide if I was going to be able to hike. My feet felt really strange; was it a cold related injury? impact injury? Or were they swollen for other reasons? I decided to hike up to the glacier and see if I could cross at the toe and come back down. Andy was positive it would not go, but I would rather take my chances with a glacier than a river, no matter how sketchy it was.

My feet worked, they felt strange but no pain. The glacier would go, I was sure of it. Unfortunately, on the other side of the river, near the glacier’s toe, was one of the most spectacular and frightening waterfalls I had ever seen. It exploded out of the mountain with utter rage and descended to the main river without hesitation, it was impassable. Another option was to head down river but at some point the river hugs the cliffs and I would be screwed.

I didn’t want to accept it but, I was going to have to cross again.

Survival mode sent me into a series of decisions.I couldn’t cross without poles (I lost mine during the swim). So I took my tripod apart and created two poles with its legs. My pack was too heavy to cross by myself or to swim with, so I needed to lighten up. The bear canister was drenched inside so I took out all the food out. Everything that was waterlogged; rice, noodles and granola, I dumped in the river. I decided to keep four days worth of food. I didn’t have a stove so I dumped my fuel.

My conversion from tripod to trekking poles. Worked great.

My conversion from tripod to trekking poles. Worked great.

The rain had stopped and a good breeze came from down valley. I draped all my wet gear on the bushes. My plan was to watch this small stream on the other side. It would be my meter on how much water was coming out of the mountains. The night before the swim it was just a trickle, now it was flowing really well. When that creek went down, I would look for a crossing.

An hour later I saw two figures heading my way on the other side. It was Andy and Colin. Colin? Why was he still here? He didn’t have a pack! They walked past me and went to an area where there were no braids in the river. Andy looked at me, made a swimming motion and pointed at the spot.

“No Way!” I thought,  “He wants me to just dive in and swim?”. I packed slowly, trying to imagine the suffering I was about to endure. Then I saw him blowing up a raft. (I would later find out he made a paddling motion, not a swimming one.)

We then shuttled the pack raft back and forth, first with my pack and then with me in it. It went without a hitch and the raft ride was fun. Our morale shot through the roof as we headed down stream, happy with our successful rescue.

“We plan to keep going” Andy said. I stopped.

“What? Colin doesn’t have a pack!”

“We rescued it with the pack raft!” Colin exclaimed.

With heavy heart I broke the news that I had dumped food and fuel. They had also lost food because of flooded bear barrels but they were bound and determined to continue the adventure. We stopped at the bottom of a pass that led on a different route. I got caught up in their enthusiasm and agreed to continue with them.

They hiked down to retrieve the rest of their gear and I stayed and rested. They were gone about three hours, long enough for me to come to grip with the fact that the trip was over for me. I was still rattled mentally and my feet were swollen and not right. Together, we barely had enough food and fuel for four days. We had a ton of extra gear: pack raft, paddles, ropes.

When they returned I told them I was going to head out. It just made sense, I was a third wheel now, possibly injured. I would carry the extra gear out and would give them my food. The fuel would last longer with just the two of them. I decided to stay one last night with them. We ate good and sipped more whiskey from the one flask that survived the river.

The next morning I left my two wet friends, huddle under a tarp. My pack weighed more than it did when we started the trip but I was happy to help them out. I wanted Colin to have a good adventure in Alaska. I was jealous that they were able to continue.

I marched for three hours under a heavy burden, both physically and mentally. It rained the entire time. My lifeless feet crossed slippery boulders, skirted cliffs and crossed braided stream after braided stream. The Neacolas were doing everything they could to encourage my departure. For the first time in my life I felt rejected by the mountains.

I set up my tent on the shore of Turquoise Lake and waited for the plane.Then the rain stopped and a brightness over took my tent. I crawled out to some glorious sun, the first I had seen the entire trip and at that moment the sound of the plane echoed through the valley. And for the first time in my life I said out loud,

” I hate you mountains”.

Glacier Trekking on Alaska Public Media

Inside a crevasse, Matanuska Glacier.

Inside a crevasse, Matanuska Glacier

I will be a guest on Alaska Public Media’s weekly show Outdoor Explorer. We will be discussing a variety of topics related to Alaska’s glaciers and glacier travel. So if you have any questions about glaciers, glacier travel in Alaska or glacier photography, call in or email during the show!

Thursday, June 20th, 2:00-3:00pm on Alaska Public Media

 

 

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!

Photographing in Extreme Cold Weather

I have written on this topic numerous times throughout the years. This time I am sharing a post on the subject from my good friend Florian Schulz. He is a great guy and fantastic photographer, if you ever get a chance to see one of his presentations, don’t hesitate.

http://www.visionsofthewild.com/blog/2013/02/18/photographing-in-cold-weather/