K.I.S.S. in the Mountains

Function over fashion. Getting organized before an expeditions will pay dividends in the mountains.

Function over fashion. Getting organized before expeditions will pay dividends in the mountains.

I try to follow the acronym K.I.S.S when preparing for an expedition and when out in the field. I try to keep everything simple and organized. When it’s cold and ugly out, it pays to “Have all your ducks lined up.” as my Dad would say.

My gear is often laughed at by fellow photographers, it’s well-worn and covered in bright-colored tape. But I believe in function over fashion. Much of my photography happens during the dim light before sunrise and after sunset. I have lost many a cable release and lens cap during these dark hours. And though neither is a trip killer, it can be frustrating and just adds an unnecessary complication to an expedition.

It also pays to keep track of batteries and memory cards, especially in the cold when I am frequently rotating them around like musical chairs.  Batteries always fail right when the light is really good, cards also fail or magically fill up right when things start to get exciting!

These are my accessories for my upcoming trip into the Gillam Glacier, Eastern Alaska Range.

 

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My Training for Wilderness and Mountain Photography

My main partner in crime, Sy, enjoying a unnamed summit in the Chugach mountains.

My main partner in crime, Sy, enjoying a unnamed summit in the Chugach mountains.

A while back I wrote an essay on the importance of physical fitness for wilderness and mountain photographers. I was recently asked how I train for expeditions? So I figured I give a brief run down on how I train and how my “training” has changed throughout my twenty plus years as an outdoor photographer.

First off, I am not a PT, PHD, FT or anything for that matter, never even attended college, so please talk to a specialist before you go off and get crazy with training! I am not a professional athlete either, mid-pack at best.

I have always been a runner and a mountain biker. And when I was in my twenties, running a few days a week, biking here and there and hiking was all I needed to do to stay in shape and feel good when on photography expeditions. But now I am pushing forty one and random exercise without focus doesn’t really cut it anymore.

First off, quality physical fitness is a combination of three elements: Endurance, Strength and Flexibility. Endurance is the most important and the easiest to build and maintain; simply participate in long, steady cardio vascular exercise. Running, hiking, fast walking, XC skiing, biking and swimming are all great cardio workouts that will pay dividends in the mountains.

I run three days a week: One long, slow run, one hilly run and one short, quicker pace run. I also XC Ski and/or bike for one-three hours,  two or three days a week. One day, usually on Sundays, I spend all day in the mountains, climbing a peak or doing a long ski/hiking tour. That long day in the mountains is crucial training for my photography expeditions. It is important to mimic the conditions your training for. Swimmers train by swimming, Cyclists by cycling…(though ALL professional athletes cross train). So whenever possible, get out and hike, with a good sized pack. If your next photography expedition is off trail, do plenty of off trail hiking. Trail running is probably the best alternative to hiking if you’re not lucky enough to live near the mountains.

The older I get the more I find that just training for my expeditions isn’t enough. It’s really easy to get lazy when exercising with only a few wilderness trips in the back of your mind. The way to combat that is to find an endurance sporting event to train for. You don’t need to do back to back Ironman or anything insane like that, but signing up for a running race or a ski or bike race can really add focus to your training. The goal isn’t to win, it’s just a way to get you motivated, focused and to have fun. I usually do one or two “races” a year. I mix them up.  Some years I focus on cycling, some years running and sometimes skiing. I am currently on a running kick, training for a marathon.

Rest is also important, I don’t have scheduled rest days, I rest when my body needs it, usually once a week or sometimes more.

As we get older our physical strength and our flexibility reduces. This is how we get hurt while in the mountains, or even while doing random things like playing with our kids or doing housework.  As our muscle mass decreases,  so does our strength. It’s important to maintain strength around those crucial joints, like knees, to prevent injury in the field.  I hate the gym as much as the next guy but strength training will also help your cardio fitness, you will feel the benefits of strength training when humping those big loads of camera gear up the mountains. Find a reliable and qualified Fitness Trainer or Coach and tell them what you like to do and have them design you a nice strength training routine that matches your activities.

As we age our muscles and tendons become stiff and less bendy, making them very susceptible to tearing and straining. It’s important to stay on top of your flexibility. It’s not necessary to travel to Indian and train with a Master Yogi (though if you have the time..) but taking a regular Yoga class or developing a regular stretching routine will really go a long way to injury prevention.

One last tip: Train like the pros! I find great inspiration from world class athletes. A follow the advice of the world’s premier endurance runners, cyclist, mountaineers and xc skiers. And even though I will never be a competitive athlete, using the techniques and skills from seasoned pros that I respect make me a better athlete even at my mediocre level.

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.

Packing for my next trip: Neacola Traverse

In 2007, my friend Dan Oberlatz and his longtime client Mark Stevens made a 55 mile traverse of the Neacola Mountains in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Since that trip he has told me its one of the best trips in the Neacolas. So next week I will be tagging along on that same traverse with a Alaska Alpine Adventures guide and his two clients. I won’t be guiding the trip, just tagging along, but will help out if need be.

The Neacola Mountains are the southern anchor of the Alaska Range, jumbled together with the northern end of the volcanic Aleutian Range. My first Alaska fly-in backpacking trip was to the Neacolas in 2002, Turquoise and Twin Lakes area. I also did a trip in the northern end of the Neacolas in 2007, Shamrock Glacier area.

Shamrock Lake, from my 2007 trip to the Northern Neacola Mountains

Shamrock Lake, from my 2007 trip to the northern Neacola Mountains

This trip is consider one of the hardest trips that Alaska Alpine Adventures offers. It’s all off trail with 30+ miles of glacier travel, 4 high passes, lots of scree and moraine, deep river crossings and even some good old fashion bush-whacking, sounds awesome! This trip will take us across the longest glacier in the range along with the highest peak, Mount Neacola.

Because I am a guest and not a paid guide or paying client, I need to be able to handle anything and be self-sufficient. When it’s not your trip, you need to be conscious of the other members, their desires and skills. The last thing you want to be is a burden, you want to contribute to the team. Weight is a major concern on this trip. Food for 11 days will be heavy, and the rugged terrain will be awkward with a heavy pack, so my camera gear needs to be minimal.

I have really enjoyed using the 70-200 f4 with my D800e but I just can’t justify the extra weight of a second lens. Everything needs to fit in my Naneu C7 bag. So I will bring the following:

D800e with L-plate, Nikon 24-70mm lens, 10-stop B+W ND filter, B+W polarizer, 2- 32gb media cards, remote release, 4 batteries and my trusty old Gitzo Mountaineer tripod with its Linhoff head.

Like my other trips, I have partnered with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation and will be looking for ice worms along with collecting water samples from various sources.

This should be a great, tough trip and I am looking forward to the challenge. See you in a few weeks.

Pre-Trip Blues

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

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

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

See you in a few weeks!

Shake Down Trip

I will be heading out this weekend with one of my upcoming expedition partners to get our ducks lined up (as my dad would say) and put any new gear through the ringer. This will be the first multi-day journey for my new camera gear, the gear I will be using for the next four years:

I believe in simplicity and keep my gear to a minimum, here is a list of what is going:

1. Nikon D800E. I have had this camera for a few months and it is by far the best digital camera I have ever owned, period. It has way too many buttons and menus, like most digital cameras, but its image quality is superb. I will be writing a full review of the camera after the trip.

2. Nikon 24-70 f2.8. The D800E needs the best glass possible and the 24-70 fits the bill. I rarely take more than one lens on any trip and this is usually the one. I will also be reviewing this lens and it’s performance with the D800E.

3. My 12-year-old Gitzo mountaineer tripod. I can’t even remember which one it is. It has a Linhof head on it.

4. Cable remote, 2 batteries, polarizer filter and a 10 stop ND filter. The filters are both B+W brand.

5. Two media cards,one 32gb Cf and 32gb Sd, installed in the camera. That’s more memory than I will ever need. I am pretty conservative when it comes to image making. Those two cards give me about 800 RAW images. That is enough to last weeks for me. On one trip to the Himalayas I took less than 200 photographs (4×5) in two months.

Lots of posts coming up so stay in touch!

Importance of Physical Fitness in Wilderness Photography

Staying in great shape helps your photography and improves your adventures.

Biking through an ice cave, Knik Glacier, Alaska. Staying in great shape helps your photography and improves your adventures.

This is another one of those topics that the outdoor photography community seems to ignore. But when it comes to true wilderness photography, being in top physical condition is essential.

I like to ski, run, bike and lift weights but I am not an elite athlete, not even close. I am not fast, super strong or talented in any sport. However,  I have found that the better condition I am in, the more successful images I create when on expeditions. What? Yes, that is right, the better condition, the more successful images.

Below is a brief list of reasons why being in great shape helps your wilderness photography:

1. Less fatigue. Carrying heavy packs through rugged, off trail terrain can be really demanding work. But rarely are the great images taken during the hiking hours. Late in the evening, early in the morning, that’s when the magic happens. But if your too wasted after hiking 8-10 hours, setting up your tent and cooking dinner, then you’re missing the reasons you brought your high-end camera gear. After establishing camp I often spend another couple of hours scouting locations for evening shots and morning shots. It’s common for me to hike another couple of miles after setting up camp.

2. less injuries. It’s really easy to get hurt when carrying a heavy pack over uneven ground. Knees, ankles and your back are easy targets if they are weak and inflexible. Nobody I know likes the gym, but a basic weight lifting session, two or three times a week, can really help prevent injury and make you stronger in the mountains. You don’t need to become a yogi master, but some flexibility is also important.

3. Quality of the adventure. Suffering can be the name of the game when exploring remote areas. But how great of shape you are in directly determines the fun factor and the impression of the adventure. If you’re tired and hurt during the trip, you won’t have much fun and you won’t take many inspiring images.

4. long and happen life. I want to keep exploring and photographing wilderness for as long as possible. Beside having a long and prosperous career, being in great condition helps me enjoy life now. Whether its hiking with my son, biking with my friends or skiing with my wife, a high quality of life is what we all strive for.

Be warned though. The better shape you’re in, the less tolerance you will have for sitting in front of a computer, writing blogs and editing photographs! I am going skiing!

So It Begins!

Welcome to the Alaska Range Project blog.

Mount Silvertip, Delta Mountains, eastern Alaska Range.

Mount Silvertip, Delta Mountains, eastern Alaska Range.

It feels great to finally get this blog rolling even though our first big photography expedition isn’t until March. Along with expedition reports and new photographs, I will be writing about the challenges of mountain and wilderness photography, outdoor skills and gear and a variety of other related topics.

If you have any questions or suggestions don’t hesitate to contact me.

Carl Battreall