Interview on the Photography Roundtable

David Johnston runs a great photography podcast called the Photography Roundtable where he discusses photography related topics with a variety of different photographers. David recently interviewed me via Skype and we discussed various topics including my background in photography, favorite places to shoot, processing techniques, gear and printing preferences, and more. Check it out here!

Avalanches and Heuristic Traps

night skiing, fullmoon, Stevens Pass, Washington, Cascades

Stevens Pass on a fullmoon night.

The New York Times has published an engrossing article, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, by John Branch documenting last year’s tragic avalanche accident at Stevens Pass in Washington state.

The article hits home for me, not just because I’m an avid backcountry splitboarder concerned about avalanches, but also because I spent the entire 2001-02 winter season working/bumming at Stevens Pass and have ridden the Tunnel Creek terrain many times. This article delves into the story in a much deeper fashion than the usual avalanche accident reports, providing background of the circumstances, the conditions, and most importantly of the people involved. The website also provides thorough multimedia integration to tell the whole story as clearly as possible. It was a truly tragic day, and the article is well worth a read for anyone who ventures into the winter backcountry.

One aspect of backcountry travel that the article hits on is the concept of group dynamics and how that can affect backcountry safety. A while back I read a very interesting and surprising report about this: Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents, by Ian McCammon. “Heuristic traps” basically means poor decision making due to unconscious social reasons. The study is based on statistics compiled by the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) from 622 avalanche accidents over 30 years. Here are the key points from the study to consider every time you head out into the backcountry snow:

• The safest group sizes tend to be 2-5 people, with 4 being the safest. Groups of 6-10 are just as hazardous as 1.

• For all levels of training, everyone tends to be slightly safer in unfamiliar terrain. Groups with advanced avy knowledge stand out as being the clearly the safest in unfamiliar terrain, and actually the least safe in familiar terrain!

• The mere presence of people outside the victims’ group correlated with a significant increase in exposure to avalanche hazard. Again, especially so with advanced-trained groups.

The group involved in the Tunnel Creek accident hit all three checkboxes: a large group of experienced skiers in familiar terrain with presence of outsiders (the place is a very short hike from the ski resort). The power of these heuristic traps is evidenced in the NYT article by some of of those involved who said that they had doubts and misgivings at the top, but didn’t say anything (because of the social influences of being in a big group).

“Traditional avalanche education places a heavy emphasis on terrain, snowpack and weather factors. While there’s no doubt that this knowledge can lead to better decisions, it is disturbing that the victims in this study that were most influenced by heuristic traps were those with the most avalanche training.” ~ McCammon

Tragedies like the Tunnel Creek accident underscore the importance of keeping a conscious attention to not only the snowpack behavior, but our group and personal behavior as well in order to maintain objective and rational decision making in potentially dangerous circumstances.

My Backpacking Gear

Mountain goats, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, tent

Mountains goats check out our campsite in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado.

Backpacking into the mountains is a great joy of mine. It feels adventurous and liberating to venture into the wilderness with everything you need to survive (and even stay comfortable) on your back. By backpacking you have the means to “live” – albeit briefly – in paradisiacal locations that boggle the mind and soothe the soul. But, first you need to have all the proper gear to do it.

As Terence McKenna observed, humans are probably better categorized as crustaceans, since we basically live our lives moving from one shell to another, whether it’s a house, car, office, or a tent. Which is to say, we can’t just wander off naked into the woods and expect to be one with nature! Fortunately for the modern adventurous crustacean we have an almost endless array of high tech, lightweight clothes, sleeping bags, shelters, and tools to keep us alive and happy while walking in the wilderness.

Recently I’ve received a bunch of emails asking me about my backpacking gear. I realize that it can be a bit daunting for someone who is interested – but not experienced – in backpacking to figure out what equipment they need to bring into the mountains for an overnight or multi-day camping trip. You need to travel light, but you also need all the stuff to keep you warm and dry. In this post, I’m going to list and explain all the gear that I use on backpacking treks. I will also include some helpful tips along the way.

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Originality in the Grand Landscape

Photography Life, a popular Colorado-based photography website, just published a guest blog post by yours truly, titled “Originality in the Grand Landscape”. In the article I attempt to explain how creativity with grand scenic photography goes beyond just framing and taking the photos; it involves the entire process including researching unique locations, coming up with original ideas to shoot, and the adventures to get to the right place at the right time. To date this is my most comprehensive attempt to illustrate my own photographic strategies, motivations, and tips, and I hope that it will provide inspiration for aspiring landscape photographers.

Read the article here: http://photographylife.com/guest-post-by-jack-brauer-on-landscape-photography

Interview with Dave Showalter

Dave Showalter is an accomplished nature, wildlife, and conservation photographer. His dedication and relentless efforts shine through on his must-read blog Western Wild, which is full of inspiring photos and informative text. I recently asked Dave a few questions about his photography and his conservation efforts.

Aerial view of gas development on Riley Ridge, southern Wyoming Range
Aerial view of gas development on Riley Ridge, southern Wyoming Range – Imagine this scene with 136 wells, storage, roads… Photo by Dave Showalter.

You’ve worked on a wide range of conservation fronts, most recently involving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Can you explain in a nutshell what this project is about? How and why did you become involved with this particular conservation effort?

I was contacted by Barbara Cozzens, NW Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition about their campaign to protect wild areas along the Absaroka-Beartooth Front. Barb understands the value of advocacy-driven photography and we agreed to develop a project with the support of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). It’s called a “Tripods In The Mud” (TIM) where the three legs of the tripod signify the partnership of the conservation group, the photographer, and ILCP. The Absaroka Front TIM is a big step for any conservation group, and GYC deserves a lot of credit for thinking outside the box and partnering with ILCP. It speaks to their commitment to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). We planned three photo expeditions in August, September, and November and I covered an enormous amount of territory in Cody Country.

The A-B Front forms the eastern boundary of Yellowstone, is often called “Yellowstone’s Wild Side” and includes a bewildering amount of truly wild country, the Shoshone, Clark’s Fork and Greybull Rivers, and important migratory and winter habitat for a lot of Yellowstone wildlife. The recreation and sportsmen opportunities, and associated revenue are enormous. It’s easily the wildest and most important landscape in the West, and it’s all threatened by oil and gas drilling, fracking. Our job is to illustrate why this land is so important to the GYE, steer energy development to more appropriate “brown field” areas, and get the A-B Front protected by convincing land managers and local politicians that it’s the right thing to do long-term. The timing is critical too, with both the Shoshone National Forest and the BLM drafting their 20-year land management plans right now.

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Interview with Grant Dixon

Grant Dixon

Grant Dixon is a photographer from Tasmania who has trekked, climbed, skied, and photographed many of the great mountain ranges of the world. His online photo gallery is extensive, and relentlessly impressive. I asked Grant if he would answer some of my questions via email, and below are his answers. Enjoy, and be sure to put aside several hours at least for browsing his galleries!

You have experienced and photographed many of Earth’s great mountain ranges. Do you have any particular favorites, and if so, why?

Probably the Andes; not only is it the longest mountain range on Earth but its north-south orientation means it has a great diversity of geology and climate zones, and hence mountain form and environments. The Patagonian Andes are probably my favourite area – I could return there repeatedly.

The rather smaller Karakoram Range, often lumped with the Himalaya is another favourite. The mountains there are so steep & raw, and its been the scene of several memorable adventures, including a longitudinal ski traverse in 2004.

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All Photography Dreams are Nightmares

Photography Dream or Nightmare

Every so often, I have vivid dreams about photographing an amazing landscape bathed in fantastic light. The dreams are often very thorough, including the events preceding the shoot, scouting the location, the actual photography with the camera itself, and the sometimes the stoke of successfully capturing the moment. In the more frustrating dreams, I’m confused and fumble with my gear, or I’ve forgotten some crucial equipment, or I’m too late for the light, rushing around trying to find my spot and missing the moment. Those are actually the forgiving dreams. The worst are the successful shoots, because I always wake up extremely disappointed that it was a dream and all my photos have vanished.

Interview with Norio Matsumoto

Norio Matsumoto photography

Norio Matsumoto is the most dedicated mountain photographer I know of. Every winter, he camps alone for months on end in a snow cave on Alaskan glaciers, and during the summers he camps on islands on the Alaskan coast, photographing whales. The result of his focussed efforts is one of the most spectacular mountain photo collections I’ve ever seen. Norio’s work has been a big inspiration for me for years, and I finally emailed him recently to ask him a few questions.

It sounds like you return every winter/summer to the same glacier/island. Is this correct? How many years have you been doing this?

There are a couple of glaciers that I go for winter camping, and in summer, there are many different places that I camp. I have been doing this for about ten years.

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Interview with Marian Matta

Marian Matta

Marian Matta is a master of panoramic mountain photography.  As you can see in his online gallery, he has a great ability to capture dramatic vistas from perspectives high up in the mountains.  His photos are simply stunning.  We have been in sporadic email contact for several years, and recently I asked if he would participate in an email interview, to learn more about his photography.  Below are Marian’s answers to my questions.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am 48 yrs old and live in Ostrava, Czech republic. Photography is still just a hobby, so I have to attend my normal full-time job. I work for an IT company as a tradesman and sell GPS navigations, PC’s, notebooks and accessories. But photography has been with me my whole life. I’ve all the time been so close to it. Even as a student in the 70’s. At that time, I was longing for photography with a mountain theme but I had no possibilities to buy a camera and shoot it. So I started around 2005 when the digital camera boom started here. I was really inspired with pictures from Patagonia and Dolomites. And so it began… I’ve started step by step to shoot panoramic pictures and I’d like to improve my skills and knowledge in this.

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Impromptu Rescue on Red Mountain Pass

Ouray Mountain Rescue Team

At 6:00am this morning, I met up with 12 friends in Ouray to head out for a day of cat-skiing in the mountains near Purgatory. Packed in four vehicles, we headed up Red Mountain Pass in the darkness and dumping snow. Several miles up the pass from Ouray, my friends in the lead truck noticed a set of tire tracks disappearing off the road into oblivion. Anybody who has ever driven the pass knows how scary steep and treacherous this road is – in places carved through sheer cliff mountainsides. A closer look down into the canyon revealed the dim glow of headlights in the bottom about 400 feet below.

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