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.
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.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been dividing my time between working in the City and climbing and shooting in Yosemite Valley. I seem to have found the perfect setup. I work at the Monks Kettle in San Francisco for three days, then have 4 days off a week, typically during the weekdays. With my time, I’ve ended up throwing myself all into my climbing and photography, rehearsing old climbs and learning new rigging techniques so that I can fix a line and rappel into a climb and shoot, without having to worry about the climber’s safety or belay. Not only am I now getting better angles, but the added focus on rigging systems has made me a more confident climber.
The excitement of learning new techniques and building my skills is addictive. I couldn’t be more satisfied to wake up every morning and hone my craft with the focus given to a career. And that’s the goal: making adventure photography my career.
Here are some shots from around the Valley over the past three weeks.
Coming home after traveling for nearly three months has not been nearly as difficult as expected. I love Northern California. As my plane came into final approach at SFO, I felt excited and anxious to be back on the ground in my adopted home. Even before I left Buenos Aires, I began thinking about how I would return to the Bay and take advantage of my newly discovered free time, f-unemployment.
I put the “f” in front of the dreaded word not to curse it, but to kill its edge. Sure it’s dreadful to chip away at my savings and think about how terrible the economy is and how long I might be searching. I might get a new job in a week. I might get a new job in a year. If I really want to freak myself out, I just think about that. Realistically I need to be ready for both possibilities. But on the other side of the coin, I now have time to do what I love: photography, skiing, climbing, gardening, reading and relaxing. Best of all, I have time to reflect on the trip I just completed rather than forget it in the day to day grind of a speedy return to the office. Years ago I remember someone telling me around a Yosemite campfire that in life you either have time or money, but rarely both. True. I might not have steady income now, but I do have time to do the things I love.
So after flying in on Wednesday, grabbing a Mission quesadilla and unpacking boxes of clothes and items into my Berkeley apartment, I decided that I would spend the following week in the Eastern Sierra backcountry skiing. The weather looked good and I had always dreamed of going back there with no real schedule or commitments. Even better yet, my girlfriend reminded me that she would be on a business trip to LA for the majority of the week. So on Sunday afternoon, I kissed her goodbye, loaded my car and began the six hour trek to my friend’s home in Mammoth.
The week has been just as I had hoped. I have reconnected with friends, skied mountains that had been in my gaze for years, focused on shooting skiers and even had time to reflect upon my trip to Patagonia. No, I don’t have a job yet, but that’s fine with me. Having time for myself to readjust and focus my energies on what I love most is far more valuable than a paycheck. And who knows, it might just eventually lead to getting paid for it.
Rather than leaving El Chalten feeling sad, I parted from my favorite part of the journey invigorated and inspired to return next year. But my inspiration was not confined only to climbing. Jen and I flew out of El Calafate and landed in the only other city (besides San Francisco) that truly feels home.
I spent a month of 2003 and 2004-2005 living in Buenos Aires and studying Latin American history and economics. While I can’t really remember the details of the papers and countless photocopied textbooks that I read, Buenos Aires forever shaped me as an adult. I rented my first apartment, lived alone, worked in an office, fell out of love, learned how to live in a major city and, well, became an adult in a city nicknamed, “the city of fury.”
So last week Jen and I flew into Buenos Aires and I came home. We rented an apartment in Palermo with a huge terrace and a grill that had not yet been used. (I corrected the overly pristine nature of the grill.) Over the course of a week, I met with old friends and family, threw an Argentine rooftop BBQ, “asado”, and generally picked up my old ritmo porteno: wake up late, drink mate for hours, stroll about the streets, drop in a cafe for coffee, pastries and conversation, walk some more, eat dinner at 11pm, go out to dance and return home at 5 or 6am. I never thought I would be able to pick up where I had left off so quickly, but Buenos Aires breathed its familiar energy back into me.
Coming back to my South American hometown is impossible to describe without using the word tango. Tango is about ups and downs, a melancholy lament to the glory of the past, a skeptical look towards the future and a decadent enjoyment of the present. It could not be born in any other place but Buenos Aires. My emotions followed that same tango. I revisited feelings, people and places that made me feel warm and overflowing with love. Yet I regained my cold, defensive perspective that I’ve only known in Buenos Aires. I clutched my bag tight on the bus and Subte as I felt the eyes of pick-pocketers and watched my shadows on every street. I questioned everyone’s motives with cold skepticism and saw the world again through a purely socio-economic lens. Yet I still love it.
Returning to Buenos Aires and closing my trip in my old home was perfect. Now back in San Francisco and unpacking the life I left, I feel full or energy and optimism for what comes next… which is a giant unknown.
And I’m cool with that.
Here are some photos from my journey through the past in la ciudad de la furia, Buenos Aires.
Weathered out. That´s how my climb up the Supercanalata on Fitz Roy went. Last week Pep, Marta, Willy and I hiked up to Piedra Negra and made our base camp before setting out to climb Fitz. When we arrived, the last storm had left a blanket of snow on the ground and cold temps. Glaciers that just a week prior were spewing meltwater, were now cold and quiet. From camp, we would need to ascend another 2000 plus meters into bitter cold for the summit. We were prepared for cold, but not a full-on winter ascent. The cold reality set in our first afternoon in camp. The summer climbing season is over here. We would need to scratch the mission. The following morning, Pep and I climbed up to a pass leading to the base of the route, took some pictures, then came back to town.
I returned to El Chaltén a bit disappointed for not even getting on the route, but motivated and inspired to push my climbing this season so that I can come back next year and give the route another try.
With my extra free time before Jen arrived in Patagonia, I set out on a solo backpack in and around Fitz and Cerro Torre searching out some great shots of the mountains at sunrise and sunset.
Wednesday, Jen finally arrived and we´ve been out exploring the Perito Moreno Glacier and backpacking around the peaks and through the lenga forests near El Chaltén. Together we set out on a two night backpack, but returned to town after one night just in time to avoid getting drenched and chilled in yet another storm.
Today is the first day of autumn and my last day in El Chaltén. Tomorrow we move on to Buenos Aires. The low ridges around town are now white with their first significant snowfall. It´s cold, windy and rainy in town and from time to time it sleets. The internet cafés, hostels and restaurants in town are quiet. Summer´s over. The time has come to head north and start my return to California.
Well, here goes. After days of rain/snow and high winds, Pep, Marta, Willy and I are going to head up tomorrow to check out the Supercanaleta on the west face of Fitz Roy. Never in my life did I imagine to be going for Fitz before even making an attempt at the Nose on El Cap. But here I am, as ready as I’ll ever be to put all of my successes, failures and the lessons learned from both together to give this the best shot possible.
The route we are going for involves about 1000-1200 meters of climbing a couloir (ice as snow gully) until we reach it’s head and begin climbing on rock, snow and ice for another 1000 meters. Unfortunately, we will need to pass by a fallen climber that is still in the route and who was great friends with Pep. I don’t know how I’ll react to this if/when we arrive to this point.
Beyond here, the climbing is 5.6-5.9 with one or two sections of 5.10a and it is long. We will bivy for the night around pitches 12 or 18. The route is actually quite moderate, but alpine and you never know what kind of weather the southern Patagonian icecap and south sea will throw at you. From the summit, we will rappel a dozen or so times to Paso Superior and then walk back to town for a giant asado and later next week, a long-awaited reunion with my girlfriend, Jen, who I haven’t seen in months.
Here’s to going for it. At the least, I learn about alpine mountaineering, myself and set new goals for the future. At the most, I attain the above, plus a summit and other learn new lessons that I cannot yet conceive.
I finally got out of Chalten the past few days. Some great friends from the road and I teamed up for a backpack around the base of Fitz Roy then out of the northern park boundary along the river Piedras Blancas. We spent two nights at a campsite on an estancia at Piedra Fraile (40 pesos per night, but amazing homemade alfajores). From the camp we climbed up the north slopes of Cerro Electrico to a highpoint along its east ridge. From the ridge we took in fantastic views of Fitz, the Southern Icecap and the surrounding region. Weatherwise we could not have been luckier. I’ve never seen such great weather in El Chaltén: clear skies, warm temps and only a bit of wind.
Parque Nacional de los Glaciares is the crown jewel of the Argentine park system. Solitude on the popular park trails is not easy to find, especially the route from town to Laguna de los Tres. The ethic for camping is of group campsites in the backcountry where a pit toilet is provided and everyone crowds together much like at Camp 4 in Yosemite. But just as in Yosemite, if you wander off trail or up a valley or to some random lake or glacier, you can experience some of the most spectacular scenery on earth in complete solitude.
As I wandered around the past few days, I started to feel more and more at home here, much as I do in Yosemite. And just as I frequent the Sierra almost weekly, I have made returning to this area to climb and explore an annual priority. This will not be my last time staring up at Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. There are hundreds of amazing peaks to be climbed and experienced in this corner of Patagonia–enough to occupy a lifetime. When I return back to the States, I need to find/create a job that sends me here or affords me the time to make an annual pilgrimage to this sacred spot.
Here are some shots from the trip:
I am back in Puerto Varas after an excellent few days up on the mountain. Wednesday I set out alone with the goal of summiting and sure enough, I succeeded, and then some. I don´t know where to start describing the past few days. It feels like I have lived a year in the past week.
The stress of my decision to leave the group and not climb Aconcagua is gone and I finally feel free and eager to get to know more of Patagonia and Chile. Before leaving for Osorno, I shaved my beard. I thought it might be easier to hitch hike if I looked younger, cleaner and more respectable. Along with my beard, so too disappeared my stress. And I don´t know if it was the clean face or my massive pack, but I was able to hitch a ride to the volcano in only 13 minutes!
My days on the mountain were beautiful and full of hikes and picture taking. (Keeping my image sensor clean is impossible!) The weather was clear and warm. I did not pay for camping at the refugio–I camped illegally high on the mountain–and I was able to meet a partner/guide, José. I met José on my first day while he was coming off the mountain with a client. I told him my story and he offered to guide me up on Friday, but I declined. In case I did want to climb with a guide, José told me that his brother would be ice climbing the next day and that if I did change my mind, I should meet him and let him know.
On Thursday, I woke up and decided to walk to the start of the route on the glacier. If the route looked as easy as I thought, I´d climb it solo. When I arrived at the snow, I looked up and saw a glacier, crevasses and seracs, then a few steep pitches near the summit. Then I heard the voice of my good friend, Dan, in my head, “Good decisions, Steve! Good decisions!”
I decided not to climb alone and began descending back to camp looking for José´s brother on the glacier. Sure enough, halfway down the trail, I found José´s brother, Matias, a client and a small dog packing up gear after their ice climbing outing. We chatted and walked back to my camp together, making plans to climb the next day with José.
At dawn on Friday, José and I met at the top of a chairlift and began ascending towards the glacier. The conversation flowed easily and before we knew it, we were at the glacier. The climb was absolutely brilliant. It started with a traverse of the glacier over and around the crevasses, then finished with a few hundred meters of exposed, 45-55 degree snow. We reached the summit at around noon, had some lunch, then descended. As we came down, the weather quickly turned and the moment we left the glacier, clouds enveloped us. We arrived on safe ground at THE perfect moment.
During the climb, José and I became fast friends and he offered to let me stay at his house and business, Huella Andina Expeditions, for the night. I accepted and after the climb, we drove to town with Matias, José´s brother and business partner, Osorno´s park/climbing ranger, Iván and a girl. (I did end up registering and making friends with Iván. 🙂 He is very much a warm, caring “grandfather” of the mountain.) José and I enjoyed beer with friends and family at home on Friday night. I spent all day Saturday with José and Matias´family eating, drinking coffee, watching the rain fall and talking endlessly. Saturday night, José, his wife Sandra and I came back to Puerto Varas for dinner and drinks.
Condensing the past few days on the mountain and with José and family is difficult. I don´t have enough words to express my gratitude to José, his family and friends for welcoming me so warmly. The experience was so rich that I have almost forgotten about the mountain. We´ll be in touch and I am sure that I will see José and/or Matias in California in the years to come. There´s tons of great climbing in the Sierra!
José and I share the same passions of climbing, conservation and doing everything we can to make these passions our careers. José went for it and started his own guiding company, Huella Andina. (I highly recommend Huella Andina!) Sharing these passions and connections across cultures is immensely powerful and my experience has made me reflect.
This is why I´m here. This is why I quit a great job to travel. I left Aconcagua and some of my best friends behind because of the cost of the trip, but also because I came to Patagonia to learn, discover and listen. Conocer, the verb in Spanish for “get to know” is a powerful word and the only one that I can think of that fits the reason I´ve come. When people ask why I am here, my answer is “para conocer”. A covetted high mountain top doesn´t matter to me. Preserving this beautiful part of the world is what matters most. But before getting to work at Conservación Patagónica I need to get to know Patagonia and the threats it faces.
Climate change is melting the glaciers here, but there are other issues. José told me about hydroelectric projects further south that threaten to flood pristine valleys forever. It already happened on the Bio Bio River and power companies have the Baker and Futalafú rivers on their list of proposed projects. Salmon farming in the virgin fjiords further south is fouling water, upsetting ecosystems and ruining fishing for communities all along the coast. This remote part of the world that so many people dream of is experiencing the same environmental issues that we feel in the States. We are living beyond our means and no place on earth is immune to the effects of our insatiable hunger to consume.
With this in mind it´s time to continue moving South. Tonight I go by ferry to Chaitén, a small town recently destroyed by a volcano in 2008. Doug Tompkins and Conservación Patagónica have a park near Chaitén, Parque Pumalín. I´m going to explore and conocer the park for a few days, then continue south until I reach Conservación Patagónica where I´ll begin my work volunteering to help create a new park, Patagonia National Park.
I´m sad to leave my new friends behind here in Puerto Varas, but I can´t wait to see what lies ahead.
Mañana I’m going to leave Puerto Varas and try to climb Volcan Osorno. I have no partners and no guide, but there is a refugio at the base of the glacier where guided groups meet up every morning and attempt the summit. The weather is supposed to be perfect too, so this seems like a perfect time to go for it.
The plan is to get a bus to the far end of the lake to the town of Ensenada. From here, I’ll try to hitch hike to the old ski area at the end of the road that leads up the peak. There is a trail here that continues on to the Refugio Telski. If I can get here by nightfall, then I can set up a bivy, cook up a meal and hopefully meet some independent climbers with a rope with whom I can climb. I have everything that I need, but a rope and partner.
If I can’t get a partner and the Chilean park officials- they are known for stopping people-don’t let me through, I might try to get on a guided team or just walk around the mountain as high as I can go and get some pictures and have a nice outing in a new place.
After talking with folks at gear shops here in town, this peak seems like a money maker for local businesses. Everyone wants to sell a few hundred dollar package to me. When I tell them my experience and what gear I have, they begin to soften and say that there is a possibility of getting on a team and paying far less. Once a guy even gave me some names of people to search out at the refugio. Hmm. It seems like I should be able to find some kind of team?
No matter what happens, just by leaving town and setting off alone I have an adventure and three amazing days doing something new. At worst I’ll have to pay to get on a rope team or putz around down low taking pictures. Not bad either way.
By Saturday night, I should be back in town and ready for the next step: taking a ferry to Chaiten to visit Conservacion Patagonica’s earlier project: Parque Pumalin.