Join me in the Alaska Range!

Join me in the heart of the central Alaska Range. We will spend four days, three nights surrounded by massive peaks and slithering glaciers. We will fly from Talkeetna with K2 Aviation and land on a remote glacier lake, under the shadow of Denali. This is one of the few places on the south side of Denali National Park and the central Alaska Range where you don’t need mountaineering skills to explore.

The confirmed dates are: are July 10-13th, 2014.

Alaska Alpine Adventures will supply all the comforts: tents, sleeping bags while Alpine Appetites will supply gourmet back-country food.

This will be an intensive photographic journey. We will be in remote wilderness far away from any roads or people. We will stay up late and get up early, chasing the light as it illuminates the surrounding peaks, including a unique view of Denali.

Because of my Alaska Range project, This will be my only tour or workshop this year, so if you want to join me on an adventure, this is it.

Feel free to contact me with any questions carl@photographalaska.com

Register directly with Alaska Alpine Adventures

Below are some images from the area we will be exploring:

The shadow of Mount Church is projected into the clouds by the rising sun, central Alaska Range

The shadow of Mount Church is projected into the clouds by the rising sun, central Alaska Range

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

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

Backside Glacier and Mount Huntington

Backside Glacier and Mount Huntington

Mother coming in to rescue her eggs.

Mother coming in to rescue her eggs.

The impressive gorge that prevents access onto the Ruth Glacier, central Alaska Range

The impressive gorge that prevents access onto the Ruth Glacier, central Alaska Range

 

 

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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

Alaska Range Project featured on the Adventure Journal

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge. North side of the eastern Alaska Range

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge. North side of the eastern Alaska Range. 2013 Alaska Range Project trip.

Excited that the Adventure Journal, possibly the best, online outdoor magazine, has featured the Alaska Range Project.

The link is: http://www.adventure-journal.com/2014/01/feature-gallery-the-alaska-range-project/

And if you missed it, the Alaska Range project has been getting all kinds of love from all over the web!

National Geographic Adventure Blog:

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2014/01/02/courting-death-by-cold-water/

Nature Photographers Network

http://www.naturephotographers.net/articles1213/cb1213-1.html

This type of support really gets me excited about this year’s trips and erases my memory of all the troubles from last year! Thanks to all the editors who have picked up this project and have shared it with the world!

 

North side of the Hayes Range: Final Post

The snow line slowly dropped and eventually reached our tent

The snow line slowly dropped and eventually reached our tent

The sound was different, it wasn’t the constant thumping we had been hearing for nearly forty hours. It was a softer sound and I recognized it right away, snow. I peeked out of the tent and felt the wet snow pelt my face, it was starting to stick, cooling the fire-red tundra.

The day before was a test of character. It rained the entire night before and continued to rain throughout the day, without a break. I spent the morning in the cook shelter brewing tea and listening to music. I watched the little battery symbol on my Ipod as it slowly reached its end, finally turning red. I became very selective of each song, knowing any one of them could be the last. Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah would be the last song of the trip, fitting I thought.

Barry came into the shelter, he was rattled,

“I can’t stand the sound of the rain anymore, its driving me crazy.”

“let’s go hiking then” I responded.

“I don’t want to get soaked.” he grumbled. So we had lunch and I then a reluctantly put on all my rain gear and committed myself to being wet. I followed a gentle creek up into the mountains. The bed was a jumble of interesting, colorful rocks. I made some hasty images, trying to keep my gear from getting completely soaked.

The creek I followed.

The creek I followed.

Once I reached the snow line I traversed into the fog, skirting around rotten spires of black rock. I then travelled down a long soggy ridge back to camp. The rain had let up a little and Barry was wandering around outside trying his hardest not to go insane. We had an early dinner and reluctantly returned to the tent for a long restless night.

The snow was a welcomed change, anything was better than rain. We made breakfast and packed up the drenched tent. We travelled back across the plateau in whiteout conditions. I focused on trying to not fall into one of the many soggy holes that were now hidden under the snow. We didn’t see any caribou this time, but I am sure they heard us.

Whiteout!

Whiteout!

We returned to our camp site down in the valley. We called our pilot on our SAT phone and let him know that we were back at the pick up spot. It was now going to be a waiting game, waiting for the weather to improve and then waiting for the sound of the Super Cub. During dinner the wolves began their serenade and I decided I was going to see if I could find them and if I was lucky, get their pictures.

Near the edge of the far bank I came across some new tracks, bear tracks. These were the first signs of bears I had found during the whole trip. As I explored, the fog level sank down to the ground. It was getting dark and difficult to see, with my recently acquired knowledge of our other valley resident, I figured it was prudent that I return to camp.The wolves would stay elusive.

We both slept well and we were excited with the prospect of flying out the next day.

Around 5:30am I heard the wolves again. Like a siren call, I slowly dragged myself out of my warm cocoon.  I didn’t expect to see the wolves but I figured I would see if the fog bank was any higher. I was shocked to see clear skies. I quickly began packing my gear, I needed to have all my stuff packed and at the pick-up site before I ran off to take pictures, just in case the airplane came. The light was getting wild, I cursed as the mountains began to glow a scarlet red. I lugged my poorly packed pack with random pieces of gear dangling off like Medusa’s snakes. I dropped it at the landing strip and then ran to the other side of the valley. I needed to get up on the ridge before the sun came up over the horizon.

As difficult as it was I knew I had to sacrifice the alpenglow on the mountains in order to make it up onto the ridge before the sunrise. My legs burned as I struggled up the steep bank. I was wearing way too many clothes but I knew I would cool down once I got to the top. I had my camera, a lens and my tripod. I had a put few bars in my pocket for breakfast on the run.

I reached the top, sweating profusely. After a quick look around I began the process of trying to find a good composition for the light that was about to arrive. I watched the light hitting the mountains and tried to predict where it would hit along the ridge.

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge.

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge.

This is the game you play in the mountains. You can either find a great composition and wait, hoping the light hits it right or you can wait for the light and then find a subject that goes with it. The late Galen Rowell used to talk a lot about light, how the light choose what he was going to make images of. I try to straddle both styles, get myself into a place I think might work and then if it doesn’t, be ready to abandon my previsualized image and chase the light.

Looking north into the valley where we camped.

Looking north into the valley where we were camped.

And chase the light I did. When the light finally arrived i realized my precomposed image wasn’t going to work.  So I darted up and down the ridge making photographs in all directions, finding subjects that fit the light.

looking north east, the clouds would soon engulf us.

looking north-east, the clouds would soon engulf us.

After over an hour of intense image making, I took a break and ate something. The fog was beginning to form off to the east and soon the sun got absorbed. My concern about the light quickly changed to concern on whether the pilot was gong to make it before the flight window closed.

Fall colors were just beginning to hit their prime.

Fall colors were just beginning to hit their prime.

Last image before the fog rolled in.

Last image before the fog rolled in.

I headed down the steep ridge and met up with Barry at the landing spot. Fog was coming in but there was still a big blue hole above us and all the mountains could still be seen. After a few minutes the plane arrived. Barry went first.

I wanted a little time to myself in mountains, some time to reflect about the trip and maybe get a chance to see those wolves, but they would remain ghosts with only their eerie song embedded in my memory. I thanked them loudly for waking me up that morning, but the only response was my own voice echoing off the mountains.

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”.

Kichatna Mountains and the Cathedral Spires

Cathedral Peaks (triple peak on the left) and Kichatna Spire (on the right)

Cathedral Spires (triple peak is high one on the left) and Kichatna Spire (on the right)

At the southern end of Denali National Park and Preserve is a spectacular collection of granite spires. This fierce group of mountains is rumored to have the densest population of granite towers in North America.

There are a variety of names giving to this cluster of monster peaks: Cathedral Spires, Cathedral Mountains, Kichatna Mountains, Kichanta Spires. On the USGS map they are called the Kichatna Mountains. They were first discovered in 1899 by explorer Joseph Heron who named the three dominate peaks he could see from Rainey Pass as Augustin, Gurney and Lewis. On the Southern end of the Kichatna Mountains is a cluster named the Cathedral Spires, which includes FlatTop Spire and the most sought after mountain in the area, Middle Triple Peak.

Mount Augustin

Mount Augustin, Kichatna Mountains

Dead center of Kichatna Mountains is the mighty Kichatna Spire and to the north are Augustin and the other peaks seen and named by Joseph Heron. Climbers didn’t begin climbing in the area until the 1960’s. One of my favorite climbing stories from that area is Conrad Anker’s account of the second ascent of Middle Triple Peak.

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In April I did a fly over of the Kichatna Mountains with my friend Dan Bailey. It took about an hour to get there from Anchorage in his little Cessna. Neither of us had been there before and we were impressed. It was beautiful day, windless and clear. It was a little hazy but the peaks themselves were nicely lit.

Because of their density, the spires are difficult to photograph from the air. Many are hidden from view. I couldn’t get a clear shot of the Triple Peak. It was a little nerve-racking flying amongst them, especially with both Dan and I having our windows open, cameras sticking out. I would have to frequently remind Dan that there were giant mountains in front and to all sides of us.

The Citidel, Kichatna Mountains

The Citadel, Kichatna Mountains

We realized later that it would have been better if we stayed farther away from the peaks. We should have circled all the way around them. I generally prefer to be on the ground or on a adjacent peak when photographing mountains, but it is nice to get a bird eyes view ever once in awhile and there is a perspective that you can only get from the sir.

The Kichatna Spire

The Kichatna Spire

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The beautiful summit of Kichatna Spire

All the images were taken with my D800e and the Nikon 70-200mm F4 lens.

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!

Kahiltna Trip: Part One

Into The Mountains

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

It was snowing when I woke up and all I could think was “How many days do we sit around Talkeenta, waiting to fly, before we call it quits?” I kept checking the forecast, it looked bad, really bad. Chris and Sy arrived in a car packed to the gills, yet, somehow we managed to squeeze two more sleds, another duffel, pack, skis and myself inside.

We left town in a whiteout, counting how many cars were in the ditch along the way. As we headed north we began to see changes in the weather, a little blue here, a little there and then wham! Blue sky and Denali, clear as could be. Our speed picked up and our conversations became more positive and full of excitement.

We arrived at K2 Aviation around 11:15. “I am going to take some tourist up first and will check out the conditions.” Randy our pilot, told us. “Go into town and eat, come back in a few hours”. We hated the idea, it was clear, we need to go now, is all we could think. We over stuffed ourselves at the Roadhouse and rushed back to hanger, weighed our gear and stacked it next to the plane. We were excited, we were ready.

Randy returned and gave us the green light. We packed the Beaver and loaded up, Sy taking the shotgun seat. Some developing clouds made us nervous but as we left the foot hills and approached the mountains, all fears vanished. We flew over our route, which was important because there is only one way through the Kahiltna icefall, a skinny smooth path. I photographed the route, which was obvious from the air.We flew between the towering walls of Hunter and Foraker and then took a quick right to the South East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

The Kahiltna Glacier is the longest glacier in the entire Alaska Range. From Kahiltna Pass, it slithers 44 miles (71K) down between Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker and their numerous off-springs. The South East Fork is where the Kahiltna International Airport and base-camp is for those attempting the popular routes on Denali and Foraker. From Late April to Mid July, the place is hopping, with constant air traffic and hundreds of climbers and their tents scattered about.

I have always wanted to go to the Kahiltna but was never interested in climbing the western routes on Denali and had no interest in being in the mountains with literally hundreds of others climbers. This is the main reason I decided to go in March, solitude. Our goal was to climb up to Kahiltna pass and ski and photograph the entire length of the Kahiltna, getting picked up at the Pika Glacier.

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The Beaver sank into the deep snow as it slowed to a halt, Randy spun the plane around quickly, pointing it down hill. It was sunny and beautiful, the temp was a balmy -5F. Before we knew it, The beaver was gone, just a roar echoing through the mountains. The north face of Mount Hunter was amazing, huge and so close, its beauty made it hard to focus on getting packed and moving up the hill to establish a camp. I was excited, it was clear, there could be good sunset light, maybe even aurora?

Unloading the Plane

Unloading the Plane

We passed a strange cache site and wondered if someone else was out in the mountains. All the famous solo climbers were gone for the season. We found a great spot with straight shots of Denali, Foraker and the fantastic Mount Hunter. Sy and Chris dug in, allowing me the opportunity to photograph. They would dig a few feet, probe for crevasses and dig some more. Within a few hours we had a fortified camp and hot water was brewing. A stiff breeze was coming down the glacier and the temps were creeping lower.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn't get enough of that mountain!

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn’t get enough of that mountain!

All was quiet except for the thunderous avalanches that would pour down Hunter’s north face. I positioned my camera, mounted on a tripod, right at the area that was most active and waited. Then perfectly, while I was looking through the viewfinder a huge ice avalanche erupted, I got the entire sequence. However, when I went to take another photograph, the camera said “This card cannot be used”, and the Err signal kept repeating. I turned off the camera, same thing. I switched over to my second card slot, back to normal.

avalanche #1

avalanche #1

Avalanche #2

Avalanche #2

avalanche #3

avalanche #3

Avalanche

“That was weird” I thought to myself.

We decided to do a quick ski down the glacier to warm ourselves up a little. On the way down we saw the soloist heading towards his cache, he was moving painfully slow, dragging a sled with huge poles suspended from his shoulders (they were in case he fell into a crevasses.) We waved and continued our ski.

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

Epic Failure

The sun began to dip behind the massive Foraker and the temperatures plummeted. -10f, -15f, -20f. The funny things was, we were all warm, full of excitement and warm from our ski and hot drinks. I started taking photographs of the fading light on Mount Hunter and then, Err, what? I turned off the camera and started again, Err. I took the card out and reloaded it, Err. “What the Hell!” switched batteries, Err. Sometimes the camera would fire and then make a strange noise then Err. No images were being recorded. The camera was fried! I was panicking, couldn’t figure out what was going on. The batteries were warm, fully charged. It was the camera itself, was it just too cold? I took the hand warmers I had, stuck them to the camera, put it in the case and shoved in my sleeping bag, hoping that it just needed to warm up a little.

The light faded fast and Denali began to turn red. I pull the camera out, Err! “F#*@” I paced around camp, trying to figure out what was happening.

“Hey Carl, you still have your sun glasses on.” Sy informed me. I took them off and opened my plastic glasses case, snap, it shattered into pieces.”It must be cold.” I thought to myself.

I had brought a few freezed dried meals that a friend left me last summer after he had climbed Denali. I usually don’t like freezed dried meals but I wasn’t really craving anything and I figured I get one of the out-of-the-way. I sealed it up tight and put it inside my DAS parka. We sat quiet and admired the emerging stars and the glow of the rising moon.

All of a sudden I looked down and I was covered in Kathmandu Curry, the freezed dried meal had leaked. I was really a wreck, everything was going wrong and we had just got there! In a few minutes I was able to just brush off the now frozen food on the outside of my pants, though the inside of my jacket and numerous layers were still wet and smelt like Nepal.

I went into the tent, I had to figure out what was happening with the camera. Okay, I took the cards and the battery out. I let it sit. Put the battery and the cards back in. Checked the photos I had already taken, good, I hadn’t lost anything. Tried to take a photo, Err.

“Okay Carl, step by step, we have been a pro for twenty years, we can figure this out” I assured myself.

” It’s not recording images, why? Maybe its the shutter or the aperture on the lens is stuck?” I took the lens off. Put the camera in full manual and fired a few shots, shutter was working. Looked on the back and reviewed the images, they had recorded, okay. I put my other lens on (I had, at the last moment, decided to rent a second lens, the 70-200mm f4, to shoot details of mountains). Switched the lens (my 24-70) to manual focus. Fired are few frames, it was working.

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

I rushed outside and shot a few, hastily composed night shots, the camera worked. The images had been recorded. The night was mind-blowing. The near full moon lit the mountains up like daylight, we all watched in awe.

“Its 11:30!” Chris said. With those words the spell of the night and mountains broke and we all began to feel the cold. We rushed into our tent and settled in for a cold, restless night.

Next:

Part Two: The Storm

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!