The Revelation Mountains

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The mighty Mount Hesperus, taken from the East. Revelation Mountains, Alaska

There isn’t a cluster of mountains in the Alaska Range that holds as much mystery and intrigue as the Revelation Mountains. When I look up the statistics for this site, the most popular search term is”Revelation Mountains”. And yet with so much interest, there is very little information about this mighty anchor of granite spires at the far western corner of the Alaska Range.

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Unnamed rock glacier, Revelation Mountains

My first visit to the Revelation Mountains was in June of 2006. Six of us did a long backpack along the western edge, over rolling tundra and below towering monoliths. It was one of the best backpacking trips I have done in Alaska, rivaling the mighty Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range.

In 2006, beta about the range was completely vacant. The only written information I could find was in old American Alpine Journals. The most prominent entry was the legendary 1967 Harvard Mountaineering Club expedition. The six members, which included David Roberts and Alaskan Art Davidson, spent 52 days struggling up peaks and enduring mind boggling bad weather. Many of the named peaks like: The Angel, South Buttress and Golgotha, that appear on USGS maps, can be attributed to that expedition.

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Looking west towards the Lime Hills, Revelation Mountains

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West side of Babel Tower (unclimbed) and The South Buttress (one ascent, west side unclimbed). Revelation Mountains

I learned early on that the Babel Tower, which is south of, the South Buttress, had obviously used its power of “confusion of tongues” and totally scrambled the mind’s of the map designers. The names on the maps are all mixed up. The 1:63 maps are correct but the 1:250 maps are completely off.

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The unclimbed west face of the Angel. Yes that perfect coulior has not been climbed or skied. It was, however, descended in the dark by Clint and partner after the peak’s second ascent.

In 2008, the young Alaskan alpinist, Clint Helander, made his first expedition into the Revelations, making a bold first ascent. He has climbed in the range every year since. Clint has become the guru of Revelations climbing and the Revelation Mountains recent surged in popularity can be directly linked to his many, wild exploits. If you have questions about climbing in the Revelations, he is the man.

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The beginning of the Swift River, Revelation Mountains

The area’s remoteness has contributed to its mystery. Access to the range is difficult and expensive. The range is also unfriendly to visitors. The terrain in very rough, glaciers are broken and littered with debris, rivers are milky, swift and cold, the alders are relentless and plentiful. For non-climbers, the only pleasurable terrain, is along the perimeter of the range, especially the west side. The backpacking there is superb, on easy tundra, with lots of wild critters. We enjoyed sharing the landscapes with bears, caribou and countless ground squirrels.

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Lichen and Ground Squirrel skull, Revelation Mountains

The Sled Pass area has some limited options, it is a beautiful spot, but you quickly get “cliffed” out or must endure endless, character building bush-whacks. Pack-rafts have been used to escape the endless bushes. The far north side looks promising, but access is unknown, and so are the mountains there. If you are looking to truly disappear in Alaska’s mountains, the north end of the Revelations is the place, you just have to get there. The heart of the Revelation Mountains is a place for experienced mountaineers, many of which, have been completely crushed by the mountains there.

 

Summer access is either by float-plane (if your going to backpack along the west side), Super Cub on tundra tires or the almighty helicopter (TAT has one now!). If your climbing, you want to go in winter or early spring, when there is plenty of ice plastered to the crappy rock. Ski landings are possible on the majority of the glaciers, until mid-May or so.

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Nameless river that feeds into the Post River, Revelation Mountains

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

If the thought of travelling in one of Alaska’s most remote and pristine mountain regions intrigues and terrifies you, you could consider going on a guided trip with Alaska Alpine Adventures, the only backpacking guide service with real experience in the Revelations Mountains.

 

 

 

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Life Happens

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” -John Lennon

Sorry about the lack of posts. Its been quite the wild ride the last week or so. Still trying to finish articles on my trips to the Nuzotin Mountains and Denali. I have also been working on my first ebook, which has been a challenging experience! Two of my guided trips have been cancelled and I had two partners back out of some very important and expensive trips, forcing me to scramble and come up with new destinations and partners. On top of all that, we had a near tragic family event.

It is time like these I value all my years exploring remote wilderness. The mountains have taught me to be flexible, to embrace the unknown and to not put much faith in our chosen plans or routes. On the surface, our urban life seems consistent and reliable, but that is just an illusion that leads to disappointment and regret.

I continue to try to live in the moment, take life as it comes, find pleasure in uncertainty.

I will heading back into  Delta Mountains, one of my favorites sections of the Alaska Range. It will be could to spend time with an old friend.

I will heading back into Delta Mountains, one of my favorites sections of the Alaska Range. It will be good to spend time with an old “friend.”

 

 

Pre-Trip Blues

I am reposting this entry that I wrote before leaving on my Kahiltna trip last year. I have many of the same concerns this time. Interestingly, many of those concerns became reality. We had extreme cold and wicked weather, and yet, I still managed to create some nice images. So I head back into the Alaska Range knowing I have what it takes to survive and create in the cold, that is part of my success as a photographer! See you in a few weeks!

Back from the Eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under unnamed mountains, Deborah-Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range.

Caribou under unnamed mountains, Deborah-Hayes Mountains (The tall dome is peak 10,515) Eastern Alaska Range.

In 2006, my good friend Opie and I tried to ski across the north side of the Deborah-Hayes range. We failed miserably, but it was a memorable trip. The snow conditions were character building, a hard inch thick crust over two feet of sugar. And on our return, the Delta River had opened, so we had to cross knee-deep ice water in our ski boots.

During that trip I kept thinking how awesome it would be to come to the area in the fall. It had the potential of being one of the most spectacular areas in the whole Alaska Range.

So this fall I went for it and the area was amazing, insane scenery and abundant wildlife. The colors were a little behind and the weather…well sucked, but I still managed to get some good images.

I have some submissions and prints orders to fill and then I will get a full trip report up on the blog ASAP.

Thanks for following along!

Carl

 

The Bag That Saved The Day.

When the going gets tough or when things go wrong, you discover what gear is truly well made and designed and what gear isn’t. On my latest trip (read my last post Neacola Nightmare) most of my gear was put to the test. One piece of gear that truly saved the day was my Sea to Summit Dry Sack.

I had my camera gear, sleeping bag and dry layers in two of those bags and everything was dry. Everything else I owned was soaked to the core, even items in thin, Ultra-Sil style, water-resistant sacks with taped seams.

Unfortunately, most outdoor gear isn’t meant for expedition use, especially multiple expeditions a year. The Sea to Summit Dry Sack however, is well built and does exactly what it claims to do, keep your stuff dry!

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

 

 

Back from the Kahiltna

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

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

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

Keep in touch!

Pre-Trip Blues

In a few days I will be heading into the Kahiltna Glacier in hopes of getting images of Denali and the surrounding peaks and glaciers. The days before a big trip are always exciting. As a wilderness photographer, they can also be a little depressing. We have had two weeks of clear weather, however, clouds are expected to roll in on Saturday, the day we fly. Another concern is the cold, highs have been barely squeaking over zero near Denali and the lows are way below -20F.

My partners are full of excitement and can’t wait to get out there. Though they would prefer clear days, clouds are okay too. And the cold isn’t as a big concern for them either, just crawl into a warm sleeping bag and read a good book.  I can’t stop thinking about the cost of the flight, the time away from family and what if its cloudy and stormy the entire trip? In the back of my mind I keep thinking “Is this a waste of time and money?” And what if I do have nice weather, can I bring up the courage to crawl out of my bag, in the dark, to catch the morning light when its -40F or colder?

Second to wildlife photography, remote wilderness and mountain photography can be the most frustrating of the outdoor photography genres. So why do it? It’s hard to explain. But when that perfect light comes and the mountains and glaciers glow, I forget about the cold and the wind, about money and first world concerns and live in the moment. It may only last a few moments but its effects last a lot longer.

See you in a few weeks!

Nikon D800e Review

UPDATE 4/20/2013 I have had some serious issues with this camera since I did this review, please have a look at my other post, especially the Kahiltna Trip Day. It appears that certain cards can crash the camera, the culprit for me was a Lexar Pro 64gb 800x.

Is this the best digital camera for mountain photography?

I have now owned the Nikon d800e for about five  months and I feel comfortable reviewing its abilities. I will only be discussing it as a possible wilderness-mountain photography camera and won’t be doing a general review of its features or broad appeal.

I have written before on what I look for in a digital camera, it is a short list and I will go through my requirements and discuss whether or not the D800e fits my needs.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

Image Quality

The term image quality can be subjective. What  I am looking for are sharp RAW files, excellent dynamic range, low long-exposure noise and good high ISO noise.

The RAW files that come out of the D800e are the sharpest I have seen from a non-medium format digital camera. Yes, you need to either have fast shutter speeds or you need to use a tripod, mirror lock up and a remote release to get maximum sharpness (and of course, excellent glass). The web is loaded with complaints about people’s inability to get sharp images, well I hate to break to them but it isn’t the camera’s fault. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy and impatient. I would love to have heard the laughter if someone ten years ago wrote on a forum saying “I can’t get sharp images from my medium format film camera when hand holding it for landscape images”. The higher the resolution the more you need to slow down and think, pay attention and practice the solid fundamentals of photography.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

Can a camera have too much dynamic range? Sometimes I think the D800e does. I find myself crushing blacks and boosting highlights just to get some contrast in my images. That is not a bad thing, it’s great, in fact, it even helps lighten up my bag, I can leave all those graduated nd filters at home. Did I just say that? Yep, I no longer carry my trusty graduated nd filters!

Are we talking HDR looking images, no and thank goodness! I really dislike the HDR look. In fact, I enjoy the graphic nature of photography and I WANT deep blacks without detail and pure paper whites.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure and looks clean.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure, iso 200 at 2.8. The image is clean and almost noise free.

I like long exposures and shadow noise from long exposures have always bugged me about digital photography. Guess what? The D800e has almost zero long exposure induced noise. Now let me clarify something, it is winter in Alaska and cold. The main reason noise appears during long exposures is because the sensor gets hot, well,  taking images when its 0f and colder keeps that sensor from getting hot.  So we will see this summer whether the temperature is what is helping the camera’s stellar performance.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

I don’t shoot at extreme ISO’s very often. My main concern is performance between 400-800, which I use when I am hand holding the camera or trying to stop motion. At 400 the camera is great. At 800 I see some obvious loss in detail but noise is easily fixed in post. Above that the camera is good but not great. I found the loss of detail at 3200 almost unusable though noise cleaned up well.

Durability

I hate buying new cameras and I really want a camera that will last. I purchased this camera for a four year book project. I will be on at least 15 long expeditions in Alaska, so it needs to be reliable. On the surface the camera is more than tough enough, not too cheap and not over built. Seals seem tight and so far the lens fits tight and secure, which is very important for wilderness photography, that connection is a major weak spot.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e's batteries than expected.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e’s batteries than expected.

Battery life is what plagues digital cameras, especially in the cold. I have a very elaborate system when it comes to keeping batteries warm and working. For the last few months I have ignored my system so I could gauge the D800’s battery ability. One test was an overnight trip where I left the battery in the camera the whole time. I also reviewed every exposure, pixel peeped, used Live View to check focus (a major battery killer) and finally made a bunch of long exposures, some as long as 60 minutes. The verdict? Excellent! I took about 180 photos, between temperatures of 20f to -10f and the battery still had one bar left. Am I going to abandon my battery saving techniques,? No, but I will probably bring fewer batteries on trips.

The true durability test will be in a few weeks when we spend ten days on the Kahiltna Glacier in the heart of the Central Alaska range.

Other Positives

Auto focus on my model has been accurate with the lenses I own. No left sided focus issues that plagued early models. I tested focus tracking on the two hardest subjects on earth, moving kids and dogs, and was pretty impressed when teamed up with my Nikon 24-70.

Keeping things simple is key to me. I was able to simplify the D800e to my style and can work quickly. None of the features I use, need to be dug up from inside of menus and folders. The viewfinder is easy to see through with glasses.

Auto focus was accurate, even under flat conditions.

Auto focus is accurate, even under flat lighting conditions.

Negatives?

Not much to say here except that the camera doesn’t need the majority of the features that are included. Photographers really want (or need) less. Nikon please, follow Fuji and Leica’s lead and make us a super simple DSLR with the image quality of the D800e, like a digital F3 High Eyepoint!

The D800e could be considered heavy and bulky for a digital DSLR, especially when compared to all the mirror less cameras popping up.  But compared to any of the film cameras from my past, its light enough and even rivals the quality of my medium format film cameras (no it doesn’t challenge my 4×5 or 8×10 images but its sure a lot lighter and smaller).

Is this review too good to be true? Hey the camera delivers, to me at least. Don’t worry, I am no fan boy of anything, if I thought something was bad, I would be the first to tell you!

Questions about the camera? Bring them on!

Knik Glacier Shake Down Trip

Three weeks till our Kahitna Glacier trip so we decided to ski to the Knik Glacier and work out some kinks in our gear and system. It had been a while since I had slept out in the winter and I definitely needed this trip, I was rusty.

We arrive to clear skies and great views.

We arrive to clear skies and great views.

We broke trail for ten miles to the glacier, mostly in a whiteout. Lots of big open water on the river near the lake. But we arrived to clearing skies and fantastic views. We quickly unloaded our gear and began exploring. I wanted to squeeze through the gorge but to our surprise, the glacier had surged and was up against the cliff, blocking our passage.

The Knik is on the move! Its forward movement was breaking the lake ice, forcing one section up onto the other, like Earth’s colliding plates. We couldn’t cross this line because there was open water at the break. The entire face of the glacier was blocked by what we called the “surge line”.

The surging glacier was busting the lake ice, forcing it onto itself.

The surging glacier was busting the lake ice, forcing it onto itself.

We set up camp below some really cool seracs. It was going to be a clear night and I wanted to have an interesting foreground in case the aurora showed. The sunset light was flat and color-less. We spent the night stomping our feet and drinking hot chocolate (forgot to bring my small foam pad for standing on) waiting for a hint of the aurora, no show. I shot some night shots, testing the D800’s high ISO and long exposure noise abilities.

Star trails and serac.

Star trails and serac.

Woke up early and tramped around the ice looking for a nice composition for the morning light, but it was also a bust. We decided to explore a section of the lake that had some smaller bergs. The light was really flat and dull but we discovered all kinds of fantastic caves and tunnels. One of the main challenges of wilderness photography is making do with the light and conditions you have at the moment, often there is no coming back to a place, its often now or never.

Ice Tunnel

Ice Tunnel

I have been exploring glaciers for over ten years and I never get tired of the things I discover.

I have been exploring glaciers for over ten years and I never get tired of the things I discover.

With sore shoulders, our ski back was long and tedious. Some people had tried to ride their fat bike in our fresh ski tracks, completely destroying them so we had to break trail most of the way back. Without a snow machine trail, riding fat bikes out to the glacier can be really tough.

Generally everything worked out with a few exceptions, mainly rookie moves, caused by the fact we hadn’t been winter camping in a while. I feel I have enough experience to finally write a solid review of the Nikon D800e and its worthiness as a wilderness-mountain photography camera and that will be my next post so keep in touch!