Mountain Profile: Mount Russell

North ridge of Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

North ridge of Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

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

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

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South Ridge and the wicked east face of Mount Russell.

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

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

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

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Coal Country

A band of sanddstone stretches across the valley.

A band of sandstone stretches across the valley.

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

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

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

Alaska? Looks like Utha or Arizona.

Alaska? Looks like Utah or Arizona.

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

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

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

A geologist playground.

A geologist playground.

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

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

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

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

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

A strange landscape.

A strange landscape.

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

sandstone detail.

sandstone detail.

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

usibelli.com

www.groundtruthtrekking.org

northern.org

www.denalicitizens.org

Chasing the Northern Lights in the Alaska Range

Wild Aurora over Denali.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving river ice and the last light on Denali.

Moving river ice and the last light on Denali.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huge aurora band over Denali.

Huge aurora band over Hunter and  Denali.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telephoto Landscapes

Cool ice and Mount Deborah.

Cool ice and Mount Deborah. Taken at 200mm.

People are always surprised when I tell them that I rarely use a wide-angle lens for my photography. I prefer to work with a 70-200 lens, in fact, over 80% of my images are with that lens.

A wide-angle lens generally needs a close foreground subject that anchors the image or directs the viewer to another object in the distance. This is often referred to as a near-far composition. The foreground is the often main subject, while the distant subject establishes the environment or sets the mood. Sometimes the foreground is just a guide, that leads us to a more dominant background subject.

Beautiful mixed light, Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range.

Beautiful mixed light, Hayes Glacier, eastern Alaska Range. Taken at 400mm.

Using a wide-angle lens effectively is much harder than one thinks. Wide-angle photographs often include more of the scene then what we want. Including too much in our photographs is possibly the most common error that leads to disappointment in our work. I was once given the advice: “Once you composed the perfect image, to move in 20% closer.” I continue to encourage my workshop students to do the same.

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

1:00am sunset lights the rain, sky and river. Taken at 70mm.

It takes practice to really isolate “what” we like from a scene. When we realize what is really attracting us to a particular landscape,we can use a telephoto lens to “reach out” and grab the elements in the scene that we had been seduced by.

A telephoto lens compresses a landscape, creating layers of land and light that appear close to each other, even though they could be separated by miles and miles. Light and shadow are major elements in a telephoto landscape, they add depth to a scene that has been smashed into a two-dimensional image. Deep, long shadows and bright, dramatic highlights are the best for telephoto landscapes.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background, Denali National Park and Preserve

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background, Denali National Park and Preserve. Having people in this images gives a sense of scale and really completes the image.

A telephoto landscape can bring out the graphic, abstract qualities of photography, light and the landscape. That is usually a good thing, but sometimes, its more powerful to have a small object in the frame, like a person or a tree, which adds a sense of scale to an image. So next time leave your wide angle at home and try and photograph some landscapes with just a telephoto, you will amazed by the results.

 

Into The Wild West

The Angel, Revelation Mountains. Taken in 2006.

The Angel, Revelation Mountains. Taken in 2006.

I am now in the planning stage for next year’s expeditions. My main focus is the west end of the Alaska Range. Remote, isolated and difficult to access, few have explored its secrets.

The dominate mountains in the west/south-west end of the Alaska Range are the Revelation Mountains. The Revelation Mountains are becoming more popular in the climbing community because of the exploits of my friend Clint Helander. For the past few years, the Revelation Mountains have been his obsession. He has made numerous first ascents in this land of wicked steep peaks, inspiring others to follow in his crampon points. With that said, the Revelations only see an average of three expeditions a year, all of them aimed at climbing new, difficult routes. There is plenty left to discover in the Revelations and I look forward to returning to them.

In between the Revelation Mountains and the mighty Tordrillo Mountains is a land of  unknowns. During the early explorations of the Tordrillo Mountains, the hardy mountaineers would look west from the frozen summits and see a large cluster of jagged peaks, tucked behind the Todrillos and in front of the Revelations, they called them the “Hidden Mountains”, they have continued to stay that way, hidden.

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

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

On the north/northeast ends of the western Alaska Range are two small pockets of peaks, the Terra Cotta Mountains and the Teocalli Mountains. The fame Iditarod Trail runs through these hills. At the far south are the Neacola Mountains, which create the southern anchor of the Alaska Range as its crashes into the Aleutian Mountains.

Only a couple of the mountains have names on the USGS maps. The most obvious one in the Hidden Mountains is Snowcap, which is actually on the wrong peak (that is also a problem in the Revelations Mountains, certain maps have names on the wrong peaks.) The true Snowcap Mountain (ca 8,350′) was visited in 2010 by legendary climber Fred Beckey along with Alaskan Legend Richard Baranow and Zach Shlosar. Beckey did not make the summit but Richard and Zach did.

Less than a handful of climbers have tried to push into the Hidden Mountains from the closet access point, Merrell Pass near Gold Pan peak. Outside of that, there has been little activity in the area, especially by an explorer or photographer. In fact, the only photographs I can come by (outside of the Revelation Mountains) are photographs taken by large, mineral extraction companies, looking for alternatives to the Pebble Mine.

The western Alaska Range is one of the toughest terrains I have travelled through. Access is limited, the glaciers are moraine strewn and busted up, so ski planes have few options. There are no large lakes to land a float plane on. That leaves access to far off strips on the fringes of the area or by expensive helicopter.

There is nothing but bogs and forest beyond the western Alaska Range, all the way to the Bering Sea.

There is nothing but bogs and forest beyond the western Alaska Range, all the way to the Bering Sea.

Needless to say, this will be the most demanding season of expeditions. It is also the last season, so it is extremely important that I reach these areas. This will also be the most expensive season.

If you would like to support the project please consider buying a print, this a great way to get some great mountain art for your house or office and at the same time support the project. Here is the link to my holiday print sale.

If have back-country skills and would be interested in joining an expedition, feel free to contact me (read this post first).

Cheers,

Carl

 

Chasing the Fall Colors in the Alaska Range

Skull and fall colors, north side, Hayes Range.

Skull and fall colors, last year’s trip to the north side of the Hayes Range.

The fall season is short in the Alaska Range. The shoulder between Summer and Winter only last a few weeks at best. I have often had snow cover the fall colors right at their prime.

This is my last chance to capture the brief, fall display for the book (all photographs need to be to the publisher by August of next year). The last two years I have flown in to a remote section of the Alaska Range, with limited success. It is very difficult to predict when and where the colors will be at their prime. Everyone has their theories on why the colors change when they do, but I have yet to find any reasonable way to predict when and where, all one can do is search.

So this year I will be approaching it differently. Generally, the alpine colors on the north side of the Range change first, followed by the south side tundra, then the lower shrubs and trees on the north…etc. I have found the alpine tundra turning red as early as the last week of August and is late as the second week of September!

Rumor has it that the alpine tundra on the north side of the Alaska Range is already beginning to turn. The goal is to drive until we find the colors and hike in, spend a few days and then move on to the next display. I am not a fan of roadside photography, but it may be the only way to find those elusive colors when they are at their best.

Fall colors were just beginning to hit their prime.

The holy grail of Alaska fall colors is when you find the alpine tundra and the lower shrubs and bushes changing at the same time. This was the last day of last year’s trip. The tundra had just turned and the lower shrubs were almost there, I just missed it!

 

Alpine Flora of the Alaska Range

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

Bear Flowers and Stream, Clearwater Mountains

Bear Flowers and Stream, Clearwater Mountains

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

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

Lichen, Clearwater Mountains

Lichen, Clearwater Mountains

Caribou antlers and waterfalls, Clearwater Mountains

Caribou antlers and waterfalls, Clearwater Mountains

Rosewort, Clearwater Mountains

Rosewort, Clearwater Mountains

Pink Plumes, Clearwater Mountains

Pink Plumes, Clearwater Mountains

 

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.

battreall-14

 

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.”

 

 

Bears of Denali

Denali has some really nice backgrounds for wildlife photography.

Denali has some really nice backgrounds for wildlife photography.

Whenever I give a presentation I am always asked “Where are your bear images?”. The reason I don’t have bear images is because I try my best to avoid any contact with bears while I am exploring remote wilderness. To photograph bears safely you usually need a long telephoto lens, which is too heavy for wilderness exploration and you need to be in an area where they are accustomed to people and have an abundant food supply.

Tiny spring cub.

Tiny spring cub.

I wanted to get some more wildlife images for the Alaska Range book and the only reasonable place in the Alaska Range to photograph bears is in Denali National Park and Preserve. I secured a professional photographer’s permit for a week and my wife and I, armed with a rental 500mm f4 lens, went looking for bears, and boy did we find them!

Spring is the best time to photograph bears in Denali. The playful and curious spring cubs  are out frolicking. The leaves are just sprouting, making it easy to spot wildlife and the bears really enjoy the spring shoots, grasses and roots that litter the side of the road.

Grizzly head shot. An impossible shot in the remote wilderness.

Grizzly head shot. An impossible image in the remote wilderness.

Unlike coat shedding wildlife like caribou, moose and Dall sheep, bears don’t look nearly as mangy in the spring.

Now, I have had plenty of bear encounters while exploring. All my interactions with grizzly bears have been civil. It has been the black bears that have caused all the trouble. I have had to chase numerous black bears out of camp and had one curious black bear destroy my tent and everything inside.

Determined! We followed this Grizzly for many miles as it walked head down, determined to get somewhere.

Determined! We followed this Grizzly for many miles as it walked head down, determined to get somewhere.

I practice strict bear safety and keep a clean camp. All the bears I have had issues weren’t after food, they were young bears, eager to meet the strange, two-legged creature and his bizarre items, like that colorful dome thing.

Denali did not disappoint when it came to viewing, if only for a second, a large variety of wild creatures. We were lucky to see a lone wolf, three red fox, countless caribou and Dall sheep, moose, lots of nesting birds and a total of twelve grizzly bears. And for a bonus, “The Mountain”, Denali, showed itself for a single day.

smells good in there! Grizzly cub stops next to our car and wonders what all the good smells are?

Smells good in there! Grizzly cub stops next to our car and wonders what all the interesting smells are?

I know I have been critical of Denali National Park and its restrictions throughout the years, but this was a very positive experience for me and I have new respect for the park. Honestly, If your going to have a wilderness area accessible to all types of people, then Denali sets a standard that is hard to match.

Life is good!

Life is good!