Wild Weather in the Alaska Range

Denali, the Alaska Range's most famous mountain.

Wild light and weather on Denali.

“The worst weather of any mountain range outside of Antarctica.” That is often the description of the Alaska Range’s notorious weather. In a single day you could have sun, rain and snow. It is always windy and the weather changes instantly, first you’re wearing a t-shirt, before you know it, you’re in a fleece with a shell. There is an old Alaskan adage “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” That pretty much sums up life in the Alaska Range.

June blizzard

June blizzard

But it’s not always terrible. When it is nice, it is really nice. A sunny, summer day in the Alaska Range seems endless and is worth two nice days anywhere else. The constantly changing weather and light can make for some truly dynamic images, if your willing to be patient and are prepared.

1:00am sunset lights the rain, sky and river.

1:00am sunset illuminates the rain, sky and river.

The Alaska Range continues to live up to its reputation. This summer has been a roller coaster ride of unpredictability. Hot, sunny days, followed by wicked, quick-moving storms that dump rain and snow, followed again by more warm weather. This has led to flooding throughout the Range, making travel difficult, especially the river crossings. Easy streams have turned into scary torrents.

Rain and sun, your typical summer forecast in the Alaska Range.

Rain and sun, your typical summer forecast in the Alaska Range.

The weather has been the most difficult challenge of the Alaska Range project, but it has also given many opportunities for wonderful, unique images.

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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.”

 

 

Into the Sacrificial Lands

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Polychrome Pass area.

When most non-climbing individuals think of Denali National Park, they imagine a 90 mile dirt road on the north end of the park. Denali National Park and Preserve has over six-million acres of land and yet over 95% of the visitors to the park visit that one, 90-mile dirt road, in the seat of an old school bus.

I have always considered that section of the park, the sacrificial lands, a place that absorbs the hordes of tourist so the rest of Denali National Park and much of Alaska, could be left alone, open to those with a true sense of adventure and a love for real wild places.

I have made seven trips into Denali National Park and Preserve, all have been in remote sections of the park, I have never been to Wonder Lake or Kantishna. I have been to the park’s entrance a few times on family trips and when I work as a guide. The farthest I have been up the dirt road is Polychrome, I have rarely gone their with the intention of creating serious images. Only once have I even attempted to create meaningful work (one of them is above and below).

The idea of buses and crowds, permits and rules, has never appealed to me, so I have avoided the park road as much as possible, until now.

Why Do People Go There?

That is what I wonder sometimes, but I do know why, it is beautiful and outside of a few “Wildlife Hotspots” across the state, it’s the best place to see a wide variety of Alaska’s wild creatures.

And that is why I am going. That 90 mile stretch of road and the land around it is part of the Alaska Range, a undeniably, wonderful part. Sure, it lacks much of the wilderness feel that the majority of the Alaska Range has. But it gives me an opportunity to focus on the wildlife and macro world of the Alaska Range.

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Dall sheep, Polychrome Pass area. Taken during the annual road lottery, the only time I have tried to focus on serious image making along the park road.

When I am in remote places I can’t bring dedicated wildlife gear, or macro equipment. I have a few good wildlife shots for the book but in order to create world-class wildlife images you need to focus on the animals, you need to look, hunt, stalk and be patient!

I will also spend time in the macro world of the Alaska Range. I want this book to be a real portrait of the Alaska Range and it is important that I tell the whole story, from tundra to summit, forest to glacier.

Of course, If a landscape image offers itself, I will gladly accept.

What I am bringing this time (the Kitchen Sink!). Being car based makes it easy to bring all the gear, which is a total contrast to my minimal approach to wilderness photography!

Nikon 500mm f4 lens

Nikon 70-200 f4 lens

Nikon 100mm macro lens

Nikon 18-35mm lens

Nikon D800e

Nikon D7100

Two tripods, one with a gimball head for the 500mm.

Filter, reflectors, flashes, its all coming!

 

 

 

Two New Interviews

Babel Tower, Revelation Mountains, South-West Alaska Range

Babel Tower, Revelation Mountains, Southern Alaska Range

Two new interviews are up online.

Mother Nature Network interview

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/blogs/one-photographers-mission-to-document-the-remote-mysterious-alaska-range

Alive Photo video interview

http://www.alive.photography/blog/

Enjoy and let me know what you think.

Grizzly Gorge

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The Grizzly Gorge was hidden in these multicolored mountains and begged for exploration

I just returned from a fantastic trip into the Nutzotin Mountains. The Nutzotin Mountains are the last mountains of the eastern Alaska Range, tucked in behind the mighty Wrangell Mountains, right on the Canadian border.

Our ambitions were high: explore as much terrain as possible, get good images for the Alaska Range project and attempt a first ascent of an unclimbed peak. And despite difficult snow conditions and bipolar weather, we were successful.

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Sometimes it took a leap of faith to explore the mysterious canyon

I don’t consider myself a mountaineer. I lack the technical skills to climb anything of note. I do, however, consider myself an explorer, in the classical sense. I like to wander, look up valleys and sometimes, climb peaks.

We did make a successful ascent of Hidden Peak (peak 8514) and it was a great, moderate snow/glacier climb. It was a highlight of the trip, however, I also found simply exploring random canyons and valleys to be just as rewarding, one such canyon was what we called Grizzly Gorge.

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We named the little canyon Grizzly Gorge for a reason. We watched this grizzly wander the exit of the gorge and the hills above it. We had weight restrictions for this trip so I only brought my camera and a single lens, no tele on this trip. This is the perfect distance to be from a grizzly when exploring remote back-country.

I had spotted this narrow slice in the multicolored mountains on our approach to the peak and really wanted to explore it. So on our way back down to our pick up point when spent the night at the entrance to the gorge.

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So many intriguing rocks and patterns, I spent hours photographing and in awe.

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On the map this little canyon barely even registers and would not be anything of note. But it held many beautiful secrets and surprises. And that is why I explore, to find the hidden gems in wilderness, the nameless, the ignored. There was no reason to go in that little canyon and probably no one ever had, but it was no less spectacular than the top of a unclimbed peak.

The Famous and the Nameless

Clouds and shadows,  Peak 9073 and the Gillam Glacier

I went to the Gillam Glacier to photograph Mount Deborah and fell in love with the lesser known peaks like Geist, Balchen, Hess and this nameless beauty Peak 9073.

During our 2012 traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier, it wasn't the famous peaks that I found the most interesting, it was lesser known peaks, like Thunder Mountain

During our 2013 traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier, it wasn’t the famous peaks that I found the most interesting, it was lesser known peaks, like Thunder Mountain

I have never been an icon chaser, never been interested in mountains only because of their notoriety or their size. I have always been attracted to the nameless, the remote and the ignored peaks and glaciers of Alaska. As a photographer I care about light, form and texture, not fame and names.

West, south-west face of the Peak 12,360, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

West, south-west face of the Peak 12,360, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Of course, with the Alaska Range project, it is important to tell a complete story which includes both the famous mountains and the places few have ever seen. This summer will be full of both.

The Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

The rarely visited Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

I am exciting by my next trip into the Nutzotin Mountains at the far eastern end of the Alaska Range. My partner and I will be exploring the last glaciated peaks of the eastern Alaska Range and will also attempt to climb one or two of them.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska range.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska Range.

There is a good chance that few, if any, of the peaks in the area have been climbed. Only one of the glacier’s has a name, which appropriately is, Carl Glacier!

Caribou under unnamed mountains, north side of the eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under unnamed mountains, north side of the eastern Alaska Range

One of harder peaks to photograph in the Alaska Range is the grand daddy, Denali. I find Denali pretty unattractive, a big, massive mound of rock and ice. For the 14 years I lived in Alaska, I have never taken a photo of it. I have never had an interest in climbing it. Obviously, Denali needs to be in the book, so the challenge will be to get a few images that are unique from the millions of images of Denali that flood the internet, books and calenders, it will be tough and I am looking forward to the challenge.

First image I have taken of Denali for the Alaska Project. One of this year's goals is to try and get some unique image of the beast.

This is the first image I have taken of Denali for the Alaska Range Project. One of this year’s goals is to try and get some unique images of the beast.

See you in a few weeks.

High Peaks of the Gillam Glacier

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

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

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

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

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of Mount Deborah.

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

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

beautiful light on the homely Mount Giddings

Pretty light on the homely Mount Giddings

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

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

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

 

Bluebird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadows and Crevasses.

Shadows and Crevasses.

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

Get ready for a celebration of the bluebird day!

 

Aerial Photography in the Alaska Range

The yellow sea, Neacola Mountains.

The yellow sea, Neacola Mountains.

The Alaska Dispatch, Alaska’s leading online newspaper has an article on the Alaska Range Project with an emphasis on the aerial photography aspect.

Check it out at:

http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/20140228/anchorage-photographer-takes-air-capture-alaska-range

Working With The Light You’ve Got: Rain

Part two of my little series on working with what you got.

Fall leaves and bear tracks, Chugach State Park, Alaska. The perfect subject for a rainy day.

Fall leaves and bear tracks, Chugach State Park, Alaska. The perfect subject for a rainy day.

To be a successful mountain – wilderness photographer, you need to learn to work in most situations, this is especially true if your on a paid assignment. The editors don’t really care how bad the weather was, they just want images.

In Alaska, your pretty lucky to get trough an entire trip without getting rained on at least once. Usually, your lucky if you get a day or two of nice weather, during a week of rain. When I look back at last summer’s trips, rainy days were the norm, over sixty percent of the days in the field it rained.

The first thing to do is get outside! Don’t sit around in your tent feeling sorry for yourself, there will be plenty of time for that at night! You spent all that money on those fancy Gore-Tex items, so put them to use.

At the Headwaters of the South Fork of Eagle river near the Flute Glacier. Another rainy Chugach scene.

At the Headwaters of the South Fork of Eagle river near the Flute Glacier. Another rainy Chugach scene.

You will quickly realize that hiking in the rain can be very pleasant. If it’s really windy or raining hard, head for the forest. Wet foliage is beautiful and the dampness can really accentuate the colors. Again, its time to focus on the details. Intimate macros and mid distance forest studies are best on  cloudy, rainy day.

This is about the only time I use a polarizer, it helps remove the glare and reflection off wet items. This is also a good time to call to duty that len’s shade you keep dragging around but never use.

beautiful, wet forest

Beautiful, wet forest. Chugach State Park, Alaska

I sometimes bring along the secret tool of backcountry guides in Alaska, an umbrella. Yep, sounds silly at first but an umbrella is a great way to boost your wet, soggy clients morale. Umbrellas are also great for keeping rain off your gear when photographing. They can also help prevent camera shake from wind and on sunny days they can create shade for close-ups and block glare from the sun! Pretty useful.

In the woods or when photographing plants, I try to use a fast shutter speed to stop any motion caused by the rain hitting the subjects. When photographing water or clouds, I will sometimes use a slow shutter speed, to emphasize movement.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range.

Mixed light reflection, unnamed tarn, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Mixed light reflection, unnamed tarn, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Dark, gloomy days can also make for interesting landscapes. In Alaska, you frequently get “sucker holes” that let light in for a fleeting moment. The mixed light created by these holes in the clouds, are my favorite and if there is any chance of light coming through I am happy hang out in the rain.

Photographing on rainy days isn’t that hard, its more of a state of mind. When I look back at many of my favorite images over the years, many are the ones taken on  rainy days.

Sunset from Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park, Alaska. After nearly forty days of rain in  the Chugach, this sunset was a welcome surprise.

Sunset from Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park, Alaska. After nearly forty days of rain in the Chugach, this sunset was a welcome surprise.