I don’t wear ski goggles. They annoy me. Instead, whenever I go into the mountains I wear my beat up, $15 pair of glacier glasses. Even in raging snowstorms in the backcountry, I wear this trusty pair.
Yet, each time I take a picture, I normally take off my glasses to see the world in its true colors. Then, when I get home, I process those images to reflect the bright whites and blues that I see in wilderness.
Even though this may be what the camera sees, this isn’t the world that I see.
Last week, the dry winter in the Sierra finally relented. For a week, storm after storm dropped feet of snow, building up a nice base and bringing one of 2012’s few powder days. Naturally, I dropped everything and headed straight for the hills as soon as the skies cleared, camera in hand. I spent a few days near Tahoe–one at Alpine Meadows, the other in the Mt. Rose backcountry. While I was in line at Alpine I thought, “hmm, wouldn’t it be cool to capture the experience of milking the powder in a dry year though my eyes, those covered by a beat up pair of yellow mountaineering glasses?”
The following images are just that: my friends and companions riding as much fresh snow in and out-of-bounds around Tahoe in one of the driest years in memory, but through yellow-tinged eyes that I wear everyday in the mountains.
The mountain didn’t remain virgin for long…
An unknown boarder leaves his mark on the mountain on his first run.
Richard Mack drops in off a ridge eager to find his own fresh turns. From here out, we charged:
As we worked through the day, the fresh powder became ever harder to find and the heat of the sun thickened it into powdery crust.
We refused to quit…
The following day we headed out into the backcountry in hopes of finding great snow high and in the trees near Mt. Rose. My buddy, Paul, came along for his first day out in the BC in a few years. Having sold his ski setup, he joined Richard for the snowshoe slog.
Late afternoon light looked as pretty as ever streaming through the trees on our ascent.
And after a few hours of skinning and postholing in snowshoes, the crew finally reached a high ridge on Incline Lake Peak.
That’s right, boys. You made it. Soak it up.
And now the reward: a descent into the trees with the high desert behind you.
Paul grabs his first turns of the season.
And Richard cleans up.
As we drive back home, the late evening light paints the sky above Lake Tahoe and the surrounding basin.
This year has been rough for winter sports in the Sierra. As I write this, most areas have received between 20%-40% of their typical snowfall. The drought has crippled the winter economy in areas like Mammoth and Tahoe, and it’s definitely made shooting backcountry skiing and snowboarding more challenging.
Despite the challenge, there still have been a few good days out there. This past week I spent a few days with a friend around Donner Pass near Truckee, and I was able to get in some good turns through the trees and some fun shots of him boarding in the backcountry. Getting up in the mountains was such a great change of pace. Recently, I’ve felt like all I shoot is the Bay Area and surfing. I’m not complaining, but I’ve been itching to breathe some cold air, hear the rhythm of my skis and breath as I hike up the snow and see the world transformed under a blanket of white. This week, although the storms were small, I did get my wish.
Last week swells came in and set off Mavericks, prompting the opening of the season. Thanks to an invite from Ken Collins “Skindog”, I was able to score a spot on a boat with other photographers to shoot the massive waves. Hats off to Skindog for the incredible opportunity to witness such beauty and power, and capture the moments to tell the story.
Today I went out to Mavericks to shoot the big wave surfers for the first time. I learned a few things: I need a larger lens, boat and to arrive early in the morning for the best light. All the same, I still had some fun shots:
This past month I haven’t been to the mountains once. The snow has not come and it still looks like it might be weeks away. More time around the Bay has turned my eye towards the beauty of my city. Here are some of my favorite images from the past month.
The past few weeks have been hectic. The holidays are fast approaching, I’m moving to a new apartment in San Francisco and I’m getting more and more work shooting. Nearly 8 months after deciding to devote myself to my photography and the outdoors, I’m beginning to make a living with my skills without setting foot in an office. Each day there are new mountains to climb–both literal and figurative– but looking back over the past few months, real progress is being made.
This past week after sitting at my desk editing scores of photos and organizing my boxes for the move, I got out away from the computer and headed out to Crissy Field to shoot some kiteboarders and get some fresh air. My surfing partner, Paul, is a kiter and with the big Santa Ana’s that blew last week, he was interested to see how things looked on the Bay.
We didn’t make it out til sunset and we arrived to quickly fading light. I took a few shots attempting to freeze the fast moving athletes in their surroundings, but my ISO was so high, 6400, that noise and soft edges made the shots distracting and unappealing.
After a few more mediocre shots and remembering that I had forgotten my tripod to shoot landscapes, frustrated, I nearly put the camera away. Then I thought more about my subjects, what they were doing and what made the scene special and fun to watch: the high winds and fast moving athletes. To bring this feeling out of my images, I didn’t need a fast shutter speed; I needed a slow one, a steady hand and some luck.
I changed gears and began shooting:
Eventually, I lost all usable light and the grain from the high ISO came back into the equation. I shot a few more frames, then packed up and called it a day, stoked for a fun afternoon of shooting and glad that I had taken pause to reflect on the scene and switch up my technique to better communicate what drew my eye to the scene.
Wilderness moves us. Our emotion towards the grandeur, drama and purity of wild places lurks in the background of our consciousness, embedded in our genes as a species. Wilderness calms and inspires us, bringing us back to the sacred and pure elements from which we once emerged. When we return to wilderness today, it liberates and purifies–the most elemental resource for our being, we are never independent from its influence.
Yet beautiful and pure wilderness around the world is ever more scarce. These scenes from California and Patagonia are still wild and protected–just barely. Even wilderness with legal protection faces the challenges of becoming fouled by growing pressure for resource exploitation. And those places still far off from drills, pollution and tourists experience the limitless destruction of global climate change. Nothing stands alone and pristine. The expansive grandeur, purity and freedom of our elemental wilderness is… limited.
Last week I headed back to the Sierra for some alpine climbing for the first time in a few months. The cost of gas and a lack of partners with my work schedule has kept me away for a bit. Rather than getting high off the ground, I’ve focused on surfing and shooting along the coast. Getting back to my “home field” felt amazing, even though my partner and I did not get up our desired objective, the East Ridge on Mt. Humphreys, nor did the light cooperate as much as I had hoped.
When we arrived to the Sierra, massive thunderstorms littered the horizon and we quickly noted that an attempt on an almost 14,000ft ridge didn’t seem likely. Rather than heading right for the trailhead, Ryan and I stopped into Bishop to see if we could come up with an alternative mountain that wouldn’t leave us so exposed to the weather. After pouring over maps and speaking with a guy that worked at the store, we turned our sites a bit lower and found a beautiful granite ridge on a lower mountain, Hurd Peak. We now had a new plan: wake up early, climb Hurd and if the weather turned sour, we would bail off of the peak and quickly be back in the relative safety of the meadows and forest below.
When Ryan and I arrived at our new trailhead, clouds and weather still hung over the horizon, but it appeared that the night would be dry. We cooked dinner, I shot a few mediocre photos–the light never really came–and we went to sleep underneath a rising moon and distant lightning in the western sky.
Morning dawned clear and promising, but we knew that the forecast still called for more afternoon storms. We hastily made coffee, packed our bags for the climb and set off up towards Bishop Pass and the Treasure Lakes Basin.
The approach to Hurd Peak was easy and fast. A trail led to beautiful lakes in the Treasure Lakes Basin and ever larger peaks in the background. At the highest lake, the trail ended and our route stood before us: a sloping granite rise that sharpened and steepened as it rose towards the high peaks looming on the Sierra Crest to the West.
The climbing was fun, easy and exposed. At a few points, we negotiated some exposed traverses and downclimbs, but nothing ever required us to rope up. As we climbed, the clouds built and Ryan and I checked in with each other to make sure we were comfortable with the impending risk of thunderstorms.
As we continued making progress along the ridge, the clouds above us thickened and lowered. We reached a high point and found a notch below where we could bail if needed. When we reached the notch, Ryan and I discussed our options. The clouds continued to build overhead so we agreed that we had had a great morning to that point, and decided to bail off the mountain shy of the summit.
During out descent out, Davis and I discussed what to do with our remaining time on the Eastside. With such unstable weather in the forecast, the best option seemed to descend down to the desert for some bouldering and photography in the Buttermilks.
The bouldering in the Buttermilks is always spectacular and hard and the photography can be equally as rewarding. I was hoping that now out of the storms, I could get some nice shots of the Sierra with clouds and weather overhead. If lucky, maybe the clouds would ignite in a brilliant red, orange or pink glow above the peaks.
It never really came either. With the exception of this favorite of mine, the light never cooperated over the Sierra Crest to the West. The shot above came when focusing in on the mountains and waiting patiently for the light. I noticed to the South some faint glowing in the cloud bottoms out of the corner of my eye. I turned around and saw the clouds over the Owens Valley aflame. I quickly repositioned my camera and tripod, pulled out my filters and shot for the two or three minutes that the light stuck around.
For the rest of the morning, the light never materialized. It got close, began to glow, then seemed to give up.
Despite the light not quite coming and the weather being subpar for an alpine climb on Mt. Humphreys, just being back in the Sierra is great. My trips to the mountains rarely play out just as I envision them ahead of time; and that’s the point. Life in the City is too planned out and I don’t want to bring that to the mountains. I like to have goals and general direction in the mountains, but the unexpected and having to create opportunities from it makes time in the wild so enriching. Even though the light didn’t come together perfectly for photography, the practice shooting these landscapes and inserting foreground elements like sage continues to help me hone my skills and develop my eye so that when the light does come together, I’ll be ready for it.
Tomorrow, I’m headed back out for three days. Time to put those skills to work… and hope for that perfect light once more.