I just processed some more panoramas from an epic morning in front of the mighty Fitz Roy in Argentine Patagonia back in December 2011. This was one of the most memorable photo experiences of my life; read about it in my trip report post here. Click on each one to view larger!
Happy new year!!! Here’s a couple shots from the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate in Argentine Patagonia. This is one of about seven or eight glaciers on the Argentina side that flow out from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field into large turquoise lakes.
The Perito Moreno glacier is unique because as it flows out from the mountains into Lago Argentino, it smashes directly into a peninsula of land. So, from this peninsula you get this incredible front-and-center view of the snout of the glacier, and you can watch chunks and columns of the glacier crashing into the lake. It’s a huge tourist destination, for good reason!
We’re now in Ushuaia, on Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. Tomorrow we head out on a six day trek on Isla Navarino – our final adventure of our three month trip!
We’ve just returned to civilization after 8 days camped out in the mighty Fitz Roy range near El Chaltén in Argentine Patagonia. One of my main goals of this return trip to El Chaltén was to capture a photo that I have been dreaming about since my last trip to Patagonia four years ago. I was prepared to spend a week or more waiting for the perfect opportunity to accomplish this photo, and to repeat the efforts with stubborn determination until I did it. I want to talk a bit more about my experience behind this “dream shot” since it epitomizes everything I love about mountain photography!
Back in 2007, I spent two weeks in the Fitz Roy range with my 4×5 camera, hiking around to all kinds of obscure viewpoints every morning like a madman. One morning, I hiked up to the still-partially-frozen Laguna de los Tres for sunrise, and scored one of my favorite Patagonian photos. I was stoked. After the sunrise it was still early, with very calm weather, so I decided to go for the summit of nearby Cerro Madsen. I had no info whatsoever about any route up Madsen, or if it was even possible without climbing gear, but I had scoped it out from different perspectives the previous days and thought that I had figured out a route that would go. The route turned out to be a very fun and challenging scramble, with numerous little obstacles and puzzles along the way, even including a pretty long knife-edge section with gaping abysses on both sides. I made it to the summit, took a photo, and got back down just in time before the Patagonian winds started howling again. It felt great to climb this mountain using only my own reconnaissance and instincts – for all I knew I was the first person to ever climb it… Of course that’s not true, but it felt that way to me!
I wondered about how amazing it would be to get up on that summit for a sunrise, but at the time it seemed like quite an accomplishment for me to have gotten there at all – getting up there for sunrise would be a bit much. But the seed was planted in my head. In the run up to our trip to Patagonia this year the idea starting growing again. My memories of the climb had faded a bit, and now it didn’t seem to me like it would be so impossible. It would be my holy grail grand finale photo of our three month trip down the Andes. So I decided to give it a serious effort. I had my challenge. The hike itself is not what concerned me since that was the only part squarely in my control. Given enough time, along with the long period of dawn light in the summer here, the hike would be strenuous but straightforward. What worried me was the unlikeliness of the convergence of good light, decent clouds but not so much to cover the peak of Fitz Roy (as is very often the case), and most importantly not having the usual ferocious winds that could fling me off that knife edge scramble. We were stocked up with enough food for a week at the base camp area, and as I mentioned before, I was prepared to stubbornly repeat my efforts every morning until I hopefully scored the perfect conditions.
Well, very fortunately, I scored my “dream shot” on the very first morning! I timed it just right with the 2:00am start. The scramble was just as tricky and fun and challenging as I remembered it, and I arrived at the summit just in time to take some dawn shots and then wait for the real sunrise light. I was troubled by a thick cloud on the eastern horizon that I was sure was going to block the sunrise light; I was sure I would have to repeat the hike again for better light. But the cloud dispersed right before sunrise and when the tip of Fitz Roy started glowing faintly reddish pink with the very first rays of sunlight, I knew I was in for a good show! As the sun rose fully above the horizon, the light got more and more intense, finally descending onto the glaciers below the rock faces at the peak of pinkish-orange intensity. I was shooting the photos as if in a dream and I started to wonder if maybe it was actually one of those awful photography dreams where you always lose your photos once you wake up. But no, it was real and I was photographing perhaps the most amazing sunrise scene I’ve ever witnessed in my life. If my photos from that morning convey even one quarter of the glory of that scene, I will be a happy photographer.
After spending three more days camped below Fitz Roy in poorer weather, we headed over to Lago Torre, below the jagged spire of Cerro Torre. Again, the first morning there I had good luck with gorgeous sunrise light and decently calm reflection conditions. In a stark contrast with my “dream shot” of Fitz Roy that I just described, getting to Lago Torre at sunrise involves merely a sleepy 5 or 10 minute stroll from the campsite to the lake.
The contrast between these two photo scenarios illustrates why I believe that the experiences behind the photos matter so much. With landscape photos like these, much of the creative spark lies within that experience behind the photo – the process of discovering unique locations and perspectives and photo ideas, and then the physical challenge of accomplishing the task. There are those who will look at the two photos objectively and may prefer one or the other for purely visual reasons, with no concept or care of the story behind them. But for me – and for those who can understand and appreciate the challenges behind the photos – the experience shines through bright and clear.
Last week we spent 10 days hiking the popular “W” Circuit in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. These spectacular mountains rise abruptly 3000 vertical meters (almost 10,000 feet) above a series of huge turquoise lakes. Although the finest views of the range are actually seen from further away across the lakes (like this), the W Circuit offers the opportunities to experience the three main valleys and highlights within the range: the Glaciar Grey, the Valle Frances, and Las Torres lake. Although most people hike this route in about 5 days or so, we took 10 days so that we could spend extra time in each valley along the way.
We started the trek by taking a ferry across Lago Grey to Refugio Grey, and hiking to Campamento Los Guardas, a campsite set in a beautiful lenga forest, with a spectacular mirador (lookout point) directly above the snout of Glaciar Grey, a huge glacier that flows out from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest extrapolar extent of ice in the world.
We then hiked around the massive Cerro Paine Grande up to Valle Frances, the second destination of the trek. This is one of the most unique mountain cirques in the world – a broad basin ringed by sheer needle peaks. It’s the kind of place that no photo can do justice to; you just have to be there to tilt your head back and spin around to see all those teeth surrounding you. Awesome!
During the trek you must camp in the large designated campgrounds, usually situated in the beautiful but gloomy lenga forests which provide good shelter from the strong winds that whip around most of the time. Most of these campsites are thoroughly used and abused by the thousands of trekkers that pass through, and the forests around the camps are littered with toilet paper and associated organic matter. It’s a shame that the whopping $30 USD park entrance fee that each of the thousands upon thousands of visitors must pay is apparently not quite enough to maintain a couple decent outhouses.
Photographing these huge peaks requires a bit of luck with the ever-changing weather and light conditions; unfortunately luck was not on my side for the entire first week of the trek, despite my most relentless efforts. Finally, during our stay in the third and final valley I got some sweet moonlight photos of the Torres spires reflecting in the lake during an unusually calm spell.
Tomorrow we take the bus to El Chaltén, where we’ll spend a week or so in the Fitz Roy range, the other famous Patagonian mountain range. I’ve always liked that place a lot, and am excited to return one more time!
UPDATE: December 31, 2011: Apparently we were lucky to do this trek when we did it… unfortunately this last week a careless camper (surprise, surprise – an Israeli, of course) tried to start a campfire (which is forbidden) and ended up starting a wildfire that has burned tens of thousands of acres on the front side of the range. All the trekkers have been evacuated, and hundreds of firefighters are fighting the blaze, which is not yet under control. Tragic… http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/317068
As I explained in the comments in the last post, we drastically changed our travel plans and caught a flight yesterday from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, far south in Patagonia. Though we’re skipping the entire Carretera Austral region, I don’t think we had the time to do that area justice anyways, and now we have a whole month to enjoy the spectacular mountains in southern Patagonia without rushing around.
Puerto Natales is the gateway to the famous Torres del Paine, one of the most unique and spectacular mountains ranges on the planet. This is my third time here, but Claudia’s first. Tomorrow we’re headed out for at least a full week, possibly more, trekking around the range, and there are many locations there that I haven’t visited previously which I’m looking forward to seeing (and photographing).
In other news, we just got word that Claudia’s fiancé US visa application, which we submitted in July, HAS BEEN APPROVED!!!! WOOHOO!!! She doesn’t actually have the visa yet – first the approved application will be processed through the Dept of State and sent to the embassy in Germany (which takes about a month – perfect timing with our trip), and then Claudia has to go there and schedule an interview before she finally gets the visa. But, this approval is the main first step – the tallest hurdle in the whole process. The rest is just a matter of follow-through. We are stoked, and relieved!
Here’s one more Patagonia photo from the vault. I’ve been on a roll lately digging these ones up. These last three photos I’ve posted are digital shots from the Ricoh GX100 camera. When I returned home from my month in Patagonia in 2007, I mostly forgot about all these since I was concentrated on editing and scanning my 4×5 film collection from the trip. So it has been fun to browse through these and find some forgotten gems.
This photo here is the famous Cerro Torre reflected in the glacier-fed Lago Torre. I took this shortly after an earlier, wideangle shot of the same scene with the 4×5 camera. That morning was one of the luckiest photo shoots I’ve ever had – to have this lake so calm in this notoriously windy place is extremely rare!
To add to my stoke after the shoot, this was only the second morning of a week-long outing. I was prepared to wait numerous days camping near this lake to hopefully score some good light conditions, so having it happen so soon freed me to continue on my trek to other valleys and adventures.
This photo shows one of the best summit views I’ve ever experienced, from atop Cerro Madsen, with a front-and-center view of Monte Fitz Roy, near El Chaltén, Argentina. This photo requires a bit of contemplation to begin to comprehend the enormous scale here. Consider that I took this photo standing on a 1800m (~6,000ft.) summit, with glaciers flowing around and below me. Monte Fitz Roy is 3400m (~11,200ft.) tall. This means that I’m looking directly up at a rock monolith towering a vertical mile above me, when I’m already standing on a lofty summit!
I feel like whenever I talk about Patagonian mountains I always end up babbling numbers of vertical feet. I think that’s because these kinds of mountains do not fit inside our minds; our brains simply cannot grasp the enormity, even when we’re standing there seeing it with our own eyes. The only way to make sense of it is to assign numbers and compare with mountains we’re used to. For instance, for those of you familiar with Colorado, consider that if you were standing at Maroon Lake near Aspen, looking up at the famous Maroon Bells, it would be roughly equivalent of just the rock face here on Fitz Roy. That begins to explain the enormity of the Patagonian landscape.
Here’s another Patagonia photo that I just dug up from the vault. I don’t think alpenglow gets much better than on Monte Fitz Roy in Argentine Patagonia! The peak towers ~8,000 vertical feet from where I was standing at the time. I took this with my trusty old Ricoh GX100, which was my digital supplement to my 4×5 camera on this trip, in November 2007. I still use the camera for snowboarding shots.
I noticed that I have quite a few sleeper Patagonia photos in my archives, so I’ll probably post a few more in the upcoming days.
Every so often, when searching for stock imagery requests or just passing time, I go through my old photo archives and find a photo that I passed over before. Instead of just leaving those old photos to “collect dust” on the hard drive, I’ll post some of them here on my blog, in a new category called “From the Vault“. The photos I’ll post will be ones taken in the same month as I post them (but different years).
This shot here is from Laguna de los Tres, one of the beautiful high lakes in Parque Nacional los Glaciares in Argentina. Above the lake towers El Chaltén (aka Monte Fitz Roy) and its lower neighbor Cerro Poincenot. I took this photo with my 4×5 camera in November 2008 during a one month photo trip in Patagonia. I used a polarizer to bring out the turquoise color of the lake under the midday sunlight.
This was my last shot from a very productive morning. I had woken up early and hiked up to this lake in the darkness and dawn light, arriving just in time to capture my favorite photo of the trip, of the sunrise alpenglow on Fitz Roy. From the lake I then climbed up the knife ridge of Cerro Madsen, to its summit which provided an in-your-face view of the peaks and glaciers of the Fitz Roy massif. This was one of the most fun and awe-inspiring summit scrambles I’ve done to date, all the more so since I was only going on my own surveillance of the route and was unsure if it would even be doable in the first place. Anyhow, by the time I returned back down to the lake in the late morning, the first groups of hikers were just starting to arrive.