The Back Up Plan: Ski tour through the Delta Mountains

Brad enjoys the last light on the beautiful north face of peak 7680.

Brad enjoys the last light on the beautiful north face of peak 7680.

“No flights today.” she said on the phone. This was our second day of waiting and our allocated time for adventure was slowly vanishing. We either had to give up on the trip or find an alternative. The central Alaska Range was choked with dense clouds and was getting pounded by high winds, there wasn’t much of a chance we would ever get to fly into the Eldridge Glacier, so if we wanted to salvage this trip, we needed to travel in on our own.

I suggested one of my favorite places, the Delta Mountains. I had heard there was plenty snow and the area would  be less crowded now that the infamous Arctic Man was over. Neither Brad or Neil had ever been to the Delta Mountains, so it was decided, ski tour through the Deltas.

The night before leaving Neil spoke with some USGS employees that had just returned from the Gulkana Glacier Research Hut and said there was a perfect trail busted and plenty of fresh snow. They also mentioned that the hut was unoccupied and that we were welcome to stay there a night or two.

Monday we made the long, five-hour drive to the area known as the Hoodoos, near the toe of the Gulkana Glacier. We drove up the plowed road that led to parking and camping area for the Arctic Man event.

Light on the Gabriel Icefall

Light on the lower Gabriel Icefall

Under warm skies we loaded sleds and made quick up work up the river and then onto the glacier. I had been (still am) suffering through a nasty groin-hip problem and after about four hours of dragging sleds up the glacier, my leg was ready to call it quits. Neil was blazing a trail and it took work for Brad and I to catch him. After some discussion we decided to put up camp above the lower Gabriel Icefall. By the end of dinner, the weather had begun to change, a stiff wind picked up and grey clouds drifted in.

The next morning we woke to low, swirling clouds. We knew that the USGS cabin was about two miles ahead of us. It sat precariously perched on the bottom of a rocky ridge. We could occasionally see the ridge, but it would constantly disappear. The smart thing to do in those conditions, would be to hang tight and wait for an improvement in the weather. Purposely heading out onto the glacier, in whiteout conditions, would be an obvious lapse in judgment and yet, before I knew it, that was what we were doing.

Guess you could say we had cabin fever. The siren song of an old, dilapidated structure was too hard to resist, so we pushed into the white void. The conditions gradually got worse. And like and man coming out of a coma I thought to myself, “What the hell are we doing?” I pulled out my compass and tried to get a bearing off the ridge that the cabin was on, but it was too late, it had vanished.

Forced bivy. Brad and Neil enjoying our trench in the glacier.

Forced bivy. Brad and Neil enjoying our trench in the glacier.

Being in a whiteout is a strange feeling, especially for the lead person. You have no reference, no idea if you’re on the edge of a cliff or on flat ground. Your mind begins to play tricks and you start to see things: rocks, bumps, hills, things that aren’t there. But your mind is so desperate to find something it recognizes, that it ultimately creates things.To your partners behind you, you look confused as you wanderer aimlessly. They have you and the rope as a reference, so they will constantly yell, “why are you going that way?” . This can all lead to tension amongst the team.

As soon as tensions began to rise, we got smart and stopped and dug into the glacier to get out of the wind and blowing snow. We decided to sit and see if things improved. If they didn’t in an hour or two, we would set up camp.

Just when we started to get chilled and began to contemplate setting camp, the hut magically appeared. It was less than a quarter mile away, right above us. We quickly packed and made the slog up the steep slopes to the tiny USGS Hut.

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Neil approaches the Gulkana Glacier Research Hut after a long day of ski touring.

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A rare, perfect sun dog and the Gulkana Glacier Research Hut.

The USGS Gulkana Glacier Research Hut is used by both the USGS and the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a emergency shelter for scientist and students. It has room to sleep two, three if someone sleeps on the ground, which Brad graciously volunteered to do.

Within a few hours the skies would clear and we would have four gloriously clear days in the mountains. We did have some high winds on the upper slopes, but it was hot when sheltered from them. We spent two days exploring the endless ridges and icefalls that are scattered throughout the area. The skiing was perfect, six inches of thick powder on top of a stable, deep base.

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The amazing hanging glacier on the north face of peak 7680 dominates the view from the hut.

I took one day off to rest my aching leg while Neil and Brad went bagging peaks. They had a fun time on steeps slopes and chunky, thigh burning powder. I never like to spend too long in one place so we finally said goodbye to our comfy little abode and skied down glacier. We explored the upper Gabriel Icefall and had a an amazing ski down, the hero snow made me feel like I was a good skier. We put up our final camp at the base of the icefall. The final day was a brilliant ski on perfect snow, making turns with ours sleds, something that is rarely successful!

The delicate beauty of ice and shadow, Moore Icefall, Delta Mountains

The delicate beauty of ice and shadow, Moore Icefall, Delta Mountains

Firn crevasses, Moore Icefall, Icefall Peak in the background.

Firn crevasses, Moore Icefall, Icefall Peak in the background.

Strastrugi Formations and peak 8110

Strastrugi Formations and Snow White in the background.

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Neil contemplates his options.

I was bummed not to get to the Eldridge Glacier, one of the only large Alaska Range glaciers I haven’t visited. But is was a successful trip; great skiing and good friends in some of my favorite mountains in Alaska!

High winds stayed with us most of the trip.

High winds stayed with us most of the trip.

Neill skiing below the Gabriel Icefall.

Neil skiing below the Gabriel Icefall.

Sun sets behind Mount Shand.

Sun sets behind Mount Shand.

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New Article in Landscape Photography Magazine

Landscape Photography Magazine has just published  a new article I wrote on photographing glaciers.This was my first time working with Landscape Photography Magazine. They are a high quality online European magazine that is worth checking out.

New article in the latest issue of Landscape Photography Magazine

New article in the latest issue of Landscape Photography Magazine

Here is the Link: http://landscapephotographymagazine.com/2013/a-guide-to-photographing-glaciers/

Nikon D800e Review

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

Is this the best digital camera for mountain photography?

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

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

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

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

Image Quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Durability

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

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

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

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

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

Other Positives

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

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

Auto focus was accurate, even under flat conditions.

Auto focus is accurate, even under flat lighting conditions.

Negatives?

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

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

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

Questions about the camera? Bring them on!

Knik Glacier Shake Down Trip

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

We arrive to clear skies and great views.

We arrive to clear skies and great views.

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

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

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

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

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

Star trails and serac.

Star trails and serac.

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

Ice Tunnel

Ice Tunnel

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

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

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

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