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

 

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Reality in the Nutzotin Mountains

Our objective rises above the lateral moraine, Peak 8505, or Hidden Peak, because it was almost always hidden from view.

Our objective,  Peak 8514, or Hidden Peak, rises above the huge lateral moraine. We named it Hidden Peak because it was almost always hidden from view.

“I think we might try and climb something” I said to Sy, my long time partner of Alaskan adventures.

“Really? What mountain, where?” he responded with a mixture of skepticism and intrigue.

“Well, I need to photograph in the remote Nutzotin Mountains, but I am willing to take a few days off and focus on climbing a peak. None of them have names, don’t even know if they have ever been climbed?” I replied.

That was all that needed to be said to seal the deal; remote, no names, unclimbed.
The Nutzotin Mountains are the far eastern anchor of the Alaska Range. Tucked in behind the mighty Wrangell Mountains, and lingering on the Canadian border, the Nutzotin Mountains are rarely visited by climbers, or anyone for that matter. The majority of visitors visit the historical mining town of Chisana. Gold was discovered there in 1913 and the rush lasted until the early 1920s. There are a few old buildings standing and about 20 hardy residents.

After a seven and a half hour drive from Anchorage, we arrived in McCarthy. It was mid-May, and the town was still waking up from its winter slumber. Buildings were partially boarded up and only a handful of people mingled around, the majority at the bar. Our cell phones didn’t work so we couldn’t contact the pilot, Gary of McCarthy Air. We went to his shop and office, but it was locked up and stuffed to the ceiling with unopened boxes. We went to the bar and was quickly hustled to the side of the building by a uncharacteristically Alaskan, well groomed, young man.

“Hey guys, could you hang out over here for a few minutes, we a filming a shot of the front of the building” he pleaded. When asked about “what” they were working on, we learned that McCarthy had falling victim to the new Alaskan disease, the reality show.
Since October, a film crew had been filming, interviewing and generally probing the full time residents of McCarthy. The crew bolstered with great pride about the project, but all Sy and I could think was that it was going to be another highly manipulated, over dramatized show that had a very little to do with what Alaska was really about, what it meant to go on a true Alaskan adventure, what real wilderness was.

Most Alaskans have grown tired of seeing our beloved state get turned into a Hollywood fantasy. Reality shows and fictional movies, that are so absurd, so mind-blowingly stupid that the whole world thinks that Alaska is full of uncultured idiots with quick tempers and that going into the Alaskan wilderness is a sure ticket to death, a suicidal mission into such extreme wilderness that only the most macho of people would dare go.

This interaction made us desperate to get out of Dodge. Ironically, only the Los Angeles film crew’s cell phones worked, so I borrowed one and gave Gary a call. He had an interview with the film crew at 2:00pm and would meet us afterwards, around 3:00pm, in front of his office.

Our pilot, Jim of McCarthy Air.

Our pilot, Gary Green of McCarthy Air.

Sy and I loitered in sunshine, looking at brochures on flight seeing and glacier hiking. When Gary showed up he was flaunting a clean, red and black plaid flannel shirt and a cowboy hat. Sy wondered if it was for show or if that was how he really dressed. After some chit chat about all our shared acquaintances, he got down to business. He didn’t have a key to his own office but did have a credit card swipe for his IPhone.
“How much was I going to charge you again?” he asked.

“$500 a piece” I said.

“Right” he replied, unaware at the killer deal he was giving us. The other pilots I called wanted $850 a piece to fly to the same spot, needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when he quoted me $500 round trip.

We loaded into his tiny truck and bumped along the dusty road to the “McCarthy International Airport”. Gary filled the plane while we shuttled gear and packed the plane, loading the “sharps” : ice axes, climbing gear, poles and all other accessories in first, followed by packs.

“Okay, where are we going again?” Gary asked.

“Ugh…Baultoff Creek” I said with apprehension.

“Yeah, right, get in.” Gary gestured and we squeezed into his tin can, a silver, polished 180. He skipped the usual flight jargon, either assuming we had spent enough time in bush planes to be unnecessary or he wasn’t quite in the tourist groove yet. Gary’s casual demeanor was both refreshing and a little disconcerting. Within seconds we were buzzing into the Wrangell Mountains. I have experienced at least fifty bush flights in the mountains of Alaska, but this was my first time through the Wrangell Mountains and I was blown away. Imagine desert and ice together. We swerved in-between huge, crumbling plateaus of red rock with glaciers dripping from their flat tops. It was a vision of the Earth’s past, when the ice of the poles pushed much closer to the equator, a few hundred million years ago. Off to the south we could see the massive white world of the Bagley Ice field and its countless ice clad summits, some of the tallest in North America.

We shot out of the Wrangell’s over some rolling hills. It was a shock to go from those massive peaks to what appeared to be a flat landscape. I felt like it was criminal to leave those mighty Wrangell Mountains, and for what? A small collection of insignificant humps? But the deeper we plunged into the Nutzotin Mountains, the quicker I forgot about the Wrangells and grew excited by our chosen mountains.

We raced into Baultoff Creek in a rage. The plane rattled and roared. I saw the strip ahead of us and figured we would do a pass over, there was no way we were going to land at the speed we were going, I was wrong. We touched down on the over grown landing spot like a jumbo jet, skidding with flaps down. Before I could get my bearings the plane was being whipped around 180 degrees, sputtering to a stop.

After unloading Gary asked “So, when am I picking you guys up?”

“ugh…Sunday Morning” I said with a concerned tone.

“Right” Gary nodded with a smile.

“We will be here by Saturday afternoon, so if you want to pick us up that night, you know, if the weather looks bad for Sunday, that would be fine.” Sy said. Sy had to be back to work on Monday and was a little worried by Gary’s nonchalant reply our of chosen pick up date.
I had been feeling lately like my wilderness journeys had been getting watered down. The last six or seven trips I have had a SAT phone. When we first started using them they were ONLY for emergencies and at five bucks a minute, there was no way you’re were going to make late nights calls to your girlfriends.

But now you can rent one for a $100 a week with twenty free minutes. They are no bigger than a large Smartphone. They had become a mandatory piece of gear. The problem was that we were using them for non emergencies, like calling family on a daily basis, getting frequent weather reports, calling the pilot early for pick-up, just because we wanted to go home. In a fit of rebellion, Sy and I decided to forgo the SAT phone. We could only rely on the pilot’s word that he would come on the date we chose.

Gary raced out of the mountains as quickly as he came and a calming silence over took us. We stood motionless, enjoying the cool wind, the sound of the creek and the splendid landscape.

We lumbered under our heavy packs up Baultoff Creek. The rotten overflow ice was still solid and made for easy travel up the river bed. The same could not be said for the lingering snow, which had absolutely zero strength. One wrong step and you were up to your knees in watery slush. The patches became more frequent so we choose to climb over hills and loose rock than suffer through the foot numbing smoothie.

Sy using the rotten river ice for quick travel up the creek.

Sy using the rotten river ice for quick travel up the creek.

Another piece of technology I had come rely too heavily on was Google Earth. I have come to rely on its high-resolution images to choose photography locations and routes through remote wilderness. However, much of Alaska has poor image quality and the Nutzotin were one of those areas. This meant we had to rely on our 60-year-old topo maps and our years of back-country experience. This just added to the value of our journey and simply made every decision more rewarding.

Tired and hungry we made camp around 10pm. We watched pink light dance on the rounded peaks as we relaxed on the tundra. We were entertained by the cliff-side antics of Dall Sheep. With warm food in our bellies, we came to the conclusion that few things are better than a spring evening in the Alaskan wilderness.

Post dinner map reading and sheep watching.

Post dinner map reading and sheep watching.

The next morning we slogged up to our chosen base camp, at the base of the massive terminal moraine of the Baultoff Glacier. It was getting harder and harder to avoid the patches of soft snow, so we took are chances on the unstable, lichen spotted boulders of the moraine. We were often seduced by the smooth ease of the snow, quickly cursing our poor decision as we struggled to extract ourselves from the frozen mush.

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Beautiful lake in the middle of the moraine.

After we established camp, we went bounding across the moraine, free of our heavy burdens. We hunted for views of the surrounding peaks. I had picked a handful of peaks that, from looking at the map, could have potential for fun climbing. None of them had names nor any recorded ascents. The fact that we had to make our own route decisions, no guidebooks to refer too, no beta from others, was so liberating, so exciting that our stomachs ached with anticipation and anxiety. High up on the moraine a large peak came into full view and instantly we knew that we would try to climb it.

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Were shared the area with a wiry red fox.

I realized that I hadn’t heard a plane or seen a jet since we were dropped off (and we wouldn’t our entire trip), a rarity in Alaska, or anywhere in the world for that matter. We watched a skinny, calico fox hunt ground squirrels as we told stories and shared our growing fondness for the Nutzotin Mountains.

Spring was trying hard to arrive.

Spring was trying hard to arrive.

As the evening approached, the wind began to pick-up. Low clouds stretched over the summits, a sign of approaching weather. A few hours later and we were in a full on storm. We dove into the tent and watched it bend with each punishing gust, which easily reached 45 miles an hour. Snow came whirling down from above and worked its way into every weak spot. The heavy snow began to build up under the tent’s fly, coating it’s mesh body.

After a restless night we woke to partial clearing. With hazy minds, we dragged ourselves out into a new scene, winter. Luckily, by mid day the sun was blazing again and the new snow melted quickly. During the storm, I had gotten up in the middle of the night to take a leak and walked out onto the old snow, it was firm and held my weight. That confirmed what I had suspected, the only chance we had on climbing any mountain was to leave at 3:00am and try to get back down before the snow got too soft, which was around 8:00am.

Sy making breakfast after the storm

Sy making breakfast after the storm

After a day of lounging and exploring, Sy went to bed early. I wanted to crawl into my bag too, but I am photographer, driven by a subconscious force, an uncontrollable need to follow the light until it has faded into darkness. I stumbled into the tent around midnight. It’s always hard to sleep before an alpine start, I was anxious about what we would discover higher up. We couldn’t see the mountain, it was hidden from our camp, nor could we see the summit from our mountain view spot, we had no idea what to expect.

Gentle evening light

Gentle evening light

Under a bright, glowing night sky we walked up the old river ice towards the toe of the glacier. It’s crusty surface made for easy travel through the jumbled moraine. With hesitation we crossed large swatches of snow and were pleasantly surprised by their firmness, we knew that once we got out of the moraine, it was all snow. We had brought snow shoes, a last-minute decision that we were happy we made. We decided not to wear them until it was totally necessary, knowing how much more slowly we would travel once they were on. We needed to move as quick as possible in order to summit and get down before the snow softened up and would no longer support us.

About an hour up I decided to take a photograph of Sy coming up through the moraine and then realized I had left my camera at the tent. Over twenty years as a working professional photographer and I had forgotten my camera! If I went down to get the camera we would lose valuable time, possibly killing our summit attempt. But Sy and I knew I had to go back. We decided he would keep going up the glacier and I would try to catch up.
I dropped my pack and sprinted down the river, happy that it was still frozen enough to support myself running in boots. I reached the tent and bolted back. I did the round trip in 45 minutes.

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The spot where I realized I had forgotten my camera. By the time I returned, the sun was coming up.

I reached my pack and scanned the mountain looking for Sy and was surprised to see him so low on the mountain. I followed his tracks as they grew deeper into the snow. One inch, two inches…at about five inches, he switched to snowshoes, so I did the same.
I caught up to him as he lounged in the snow, eating a snack. The sun began to crest the distant mountains and he was enjoying its warmth. The sunlight on the snow would hasten the snow softening process, our time was running out, it was time to push ourselves. I took over the burden of leading through the soft snow. The stellar views were becoming a distraction, a sea of endless peaks. We reached the large plateau below the main summit pinnacle, quicker than we expected. We had two ascent options. One was a huge 40 degree face, about 800 feet high. There was some obvious slide activity on the face and after the all the new snow and wind, we decided it was too sketchy.

Our other option was the south ridge. It was a very aesthetic, narrow ridge with delicate cornices and a few steep bugles. It look great. We decided to stay unroped and switched to crampons. I let Sy have the honor of leading the way up the beautiful precipice. We shuffled around a few rocky sections, crampons desperately gripping the loose rock. The views just kept getting more and more outstanding. Our excitement grew as the ridge became less steep and the sky above grew larger and larger with each step. I felt like surging to the top, adrenaline at its maximum, but we both knew we needed to be wary of the Alaska Range’s infamous, hidden summit crevasses.

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Sy reaching the top on the south ridge.

Without incident we arrived on the skinny summit. We both smiled, it was a 360 degree view, clear as could be. The mighty Wrangell Mountains demanded our attention, rising up like frozen sentinels, guarding the sea. It was flawless, a perfect summit. Everything went as planned. It was pure bliss and yet, I wasn’t completely at peace.

I couldn’t help thinking that it was all too easy. Was this really an adventure? What would others think? Dull and boring I figured. No speed records or extreme routes accomplished, no epics, no fighting, no animals out to eat us, there was no drama, no story for Hollywood. I realized that no matter how much I had tried to avoid all the crap about Alaska and modern “adventure”, it still had sunk into my own subconscious. I sat down and took a deep breath and looked at Sy, who was enjoying the moment, feet dangling off the steep north face.

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Sy on the summit of Hidden Peak, peak 8514, Nutzotin Mountains.

I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want or need any of the drama our society told me was required for a modern adventure. For Sy and I, this journey was everything we needed from the mountains. Alaska had given us the gift of true wilderness. We felt isolated and remote, but not alone. It was a classic good time, with a good friend, in a truly wild place, it was the reality of real Alaskans.

If you want to know what happen during the rest of our journey read this post Grizzly Gorge.

Wild Weather in the Alaska Range

Denali, the Alaska Range's most famous mountain.

Wild light and weather on Denali.

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

June blizzard

June blizzard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

Two New Interviews

Babel Tower, Revelation Mountains, South-West Alaska Range

Babel Tower, Revelation Mountains, Southern Alaska Range

Two new interviews are up online.

Mother Nature Network interview

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

Alive Photo video interview

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

Enjoy and let me know what you think.

Grizzly Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In search of foreground!

If I searched, I was able to find some beautiful rocks that helped add some color to the the winter world of blue and white.

I was able to find some beautiful rocks that helped add some color to the alpine world of blue and white.

I know it seems preposterous to complain about endless blue skies and as an explorer, I am not. However, as a photographer, perfect blue skies combined with a world of white creates a monochromatic world that after a few days,  begins to look the same,  Another photographic difficulty I had on my last trip was that we were so tight in the mountains that we never got low angle light, which can reveal the beautiful texture of snow, which is shaped by the wind into wonderful patterns and waves called Strastugi, great foreground subjects.

Glacial erratic and Mount Deborah.

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Same rock, different light, different mood.

Yes, this all seems petty, but it can be frustrating when your desperate to create, creative images. So I explored every rock, looking for a splash of color. I looked in crevasses, and was luckily able to find some unique ice next to one of the medial moraines.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Cool ice and Mount Deborah.

Ice and Mount Deborah.

The ice was too cool and became the main subject.  Accumulation and moraine layers, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

The ice was too cool and became the main subject. Accumulation and moraine layers, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

About to fall.

About to fall.

 

 

 

High Peaks of the Gillam Glacier

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

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

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

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

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of Mount Deborah.

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

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

beautiful light on the homely Mount Giddings

Pretty light on the homely Mount Giddings

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

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

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

 

Bluebird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadows and Crevasses.

Shadows and Crevasses.

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

Get ready for a celebration of the bluebird day!

 

Heading to the Gillam Glacier

Expedition Season Begins

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. Its taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. It’s taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

I am prepping for my first Alaska Range expedition of the year. My friend Opie and I will be flying into the Gillam Glacier on Saturday. I tried to reach the Gillam Glacier in September but got weathered out (read my trip report here).

Our main focus will be to photograph Mount Deborah and Mount Hess. I would also like to photograph Mount Giddings, Balchen and Geist, which is a beautiful peak that I have never seen a photo of from the ground. I will also photograph many of the unnamed 9000+ foot peaks and glaciers in the area.

We are having an amazing stretch of good weather that I hope will hold, but it looks like a minor storm might move in while we are up in the mountains, cross your fingers. If the weather goes bad we are prepared to do some glacier cave/moulin exploration, something that both Opie and I are very fond of and experienced in. Together we have explored some spectacular glacier caves and caverns throughout the years.

The biggest concern is the wind. This will be my third trip into the Hayes Range during Spring and the wind can really hammer you. We plan to climb and camp on some small peaks to get the right perspective but that makes us very exposed to the elements. Rumor is that the lower section of the glacier is blown free of snow, as are the ridges. This can make for some exciting glacier travel!

Because of the long days of spring and summer in Alaska, I don’t have many opportunities to do night photography in the Alaska Range. However, since it still gets dark out I decided to rent from my friends, Lensrentals.com, a 24mm 1.4 lens to use for some night photography and if we are lucky, some aurora images.

My photo kit for this trip is:

Nikon d800E

Nikon 70-200 F4 (my primary mountain photography lens)

Nikon 24mm 1.4 lens

77mm Polarizer and 10 stop ND Filter

Cable release

6 batteries.

My Gitzo tripod with my old Linhoff ball head.

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Talk to you soon!