The Ladakh Marathon

Distance runners take note: one of the more scenic and fascinating marathons in the world today is held at the northern tip of India, the Ladakh Marathon. This last September 14 was the third annual celebration of distance running in the Himalayan rainshadow, terrain reminiscent of the Eastern Sierra on steroids. Rimo Expeditions, the event organizer, asked me to be the official photographer this year, so I got an up-close look at the action and the changing faces in this magnificent territory.

The event actually includes four simultaneous races: a half marathon, a 7k fun run, the showcase marathon, and a super challenging ultra: in over 40 miles the the Khardung La Challenge tours up and over a 17,582-foot high pass. We decided to make the marathon the photographic priority, so from before the 6:30am start I spent several hours riding along the 26-mile course on the back of a motorcycle. I also covered the extensive post-race festivities.

High elevation gives this marathon a fitness fascination. The start is at the race’s high point of 11,800 feet (where the air pressure is about 35% less than at sea level), and from there the course heads down, down to the “lowlands” and a breathtaking (in every way) tour through the villages and grand spaces along the Indus River at around 10,500 feet. The course then ramps back up to finish at the city of Leh at 11,150’. This is not extreme elevation, but it’s plenty high so that visiting contestants need to arrive at least a few days ahead of the race to get used to it. Four or five days should give most everyone enough acclimatization to prevent mountain sickness and allow a reasonable performance. Many visiting runners got by with just three days, but their performance must have suffered. Even better performance and more ease would come from doing a trek through the mountains for a week or two at 12-15,000 feet, as after that the marathon elevations feel pretty tame.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Ladakh was an inland kingdom until a few generations ago, and the main town of Leh until recently was a trade, palace, and religious center “in the middle of nowhere,” where caravans of camels and ponies came from far away to barter wares. After 1947 independence the new nation of India barely knew of its trans-Himalayan territories, and even today many or most Indians won’t recognize the word “Ladakh.” The Ladakhi people are of a mixed Tibetan, Persian, and Kashmiri heritage. A majority are Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, almost half are Muslim, and a small percentage are Christian. Today Leh has a thriving tourism business with daily flights and dozens of guest houses and curio shops, making it reminiscent of Kathmandu 20 years ago. Most of the visitors are European “adventure-backpacker” tourists and Indians looking to experience the farthest reaches of their nation.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

This year the four races attracted about 3000 runners, most of them Ladakhi. This evinces an interesting change compared to when I first started going to Ladakh back in the 1980s, when I was fresh out of college. At that time the overwhelming majority of Ladakhis were subsistence villagers. To hard-working families then, any idea of sports and seeking out extra exercise seemed like crazy foolishness. In fact I remember seeing a play where they poked fun at a Ladakhi character who tried to act cool and modern by wearing a sweat suit and faux-jogging around town. Today tourism, government and military work have allowed many Ladakhis to accumulate enough wealth to buy cars and winter homes in warmer parts of India. In Leh very few people still grow their own barley and wheat, though they might have vegetable and flower gardens. And the new generation of Ladakhis runs in the Marathon—especially students, young adults and soldiers, women as much as men—they are excited about it. The Ladakh Marathon has quickly become an avenue for Ladakhis to build new strengths and identities as people who are advancing into the modern world on their own terms, and staying true to their values and important traditions. Look around the globe and you see that it’s quite rare for cultures anywhere to go from village subsistence to modernity without gross disruption of some sort, but Ladakhis are doing it, and their Marathon is a case in point. Any foreign runner will be welcome, and part of any the experience will be seeing an indigenous people working out a positive future. The post-race party featured both a Ladakhi pop band and a traditional dancing troupe, and it was impressive how seamless was the mix between generations.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

This year as before all the races were won by Ladakhis, who of course are genetically adapted to high altitude. Most of them train very little. The ones I interviewed typically said they trained for “about 10 days” to “about a month.” The winning times this year were 3:16 by Shaukat Ali for the men, and 4:10 by Sonam Chuskit among the women. There were a decent number of Indians who came up from the lowlands, as well as a few European runners. The fastest Indian lowlander ran the marathon in 4:11, and a Danish woman came in at 5:02, but I think in both cases they had a minimum of acclimatization time. It seems to me that a 3-hour foreign marathoner who acclimatizes with a couple of weeks or more at altitude could give the Ladakhis some stiff competition. But who knows?

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Challenging the Ladakhis in the Khardung La race might be another story. The winner there was Shabbir Hussain, who came in at 6:35, barely a minute ahead of Rigzen Norbu. Tsetan Dolker was the fastest woman there, at 8 hours flat. Along all the courses there are numerous refueling/aid stations.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

Rimo director Tsewang Motup is highly optimistic about Ladakhis’ future as runners. India does not have a great long distance running tradition, but there are other marathons around the country, and the top Ladakhis are starting to compete in Mumbai and other locations. Tenacity and a likely genetic altitude advantage tell Motup that Ladakhi runners should start aiming to represent India in a future Olympics, perhaps as early as 2020. We’ll see, we’re shopping for some inspired coaching to visit and get a training program going.

For more information check with me, and know that starting next summer I might be organizing a trek timed to cap off a great mountain holiday with the Ladakh Marathon.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Partnerships, and Not

I finally got to see the film The Summit, thanks to my friend Darcy Ellis! The movie did an impressive job of realistically re-creating unfilmed parts of the 2008 tragedies on K2 with re-enactments from the Alps, including generating computerized settings that look surprisingly like K2. With minor exceptions the story was accurately and vividly portrayed. However, why did the filmmaker throw in Walter Bonatti interviews and footage from 1954? Jumping back and forth to an over-argued controversy was distracting. I was also disappointed not to see more from the Korean team perspective.

I’m seen in a couple of anonymous cameo appearances. One is when several of us are carrying Wilco von Rooijen to his rescue helicopter. The other is near the very end when I am talking with Pemba Gyalje; he’s telling me how Marco had at first aggressively repulsed Pemba’s efforts to help him, basically fighting Pemba off from saving his life. As I heard Pemba’s tale I recognized that Marco was in a medical condition we call “combative.” Irrational aggression happens when our brain is suffering or especially physically pressured, as with high altitude cerebral edema. I respond (unknowingly on camera) by saying that Marco at that point was “a head case.” Everyone since has been pulling for Marco to tell what exactly happened with Gerard McDonnell (especially Gerard’s family of course). Marco really tried, he loved Gerard. What someone caught on film was Pemba telling me that Marco was in pretty bad shape up there, lucky enough to get down much less put together all the details of who did what and when and why. I was really moved to see Gerard’s family and girlfriend tell their perspectives; it’s gotta hurt bad.

My experience at nearly 8000 meters those same days on nearby Broad Peak was enough to tell me it’s really tough that high. Even if “the climbing is easy” we all operate up there on a tenuous thread that needs to be carefully planned for. You have to have your extreme on. Ounces feel like kilograms, steps seem like miles, and all things need to go right. And you need partners, all of us at some point anyway. I realize now that I can share some additional lessons from that season.

On Broad Peak summit day I ended up being the strongest member of our team, the only one with a chance for the top. As probably 30 of us on Broad Peak settled in for a short night at over 23,000 feet a wicked wind came up. Everyone for hours feared their tents were about to be ripped away, nobody slept. On K2 that night a Serbian climber named Hoselito was indeed sheared off his perch, and as he dangled from an anchor Pemba answered his cries and saved him. No one would consider going for the top in that wind. Then suddenly at about 2:30am it stopped. It was like being transported; in one minute it went from scary tempest to a starry, calm night, the usual 25 below or so. Everyone on Broad Peak booted up and raced off, despite the later-than-planned start and no sleep. My partner Dave Watson took off I believe without drinking or eating anything. I decided that on one of the half-dozen toughest endurance days of my life I needed at least a basic ration of unwarm tea and a cup of grape-nuts in milk. I was one of the last to leave camp, but I ended up somehow passing people.

I caught up to and teamed with Oh Eun-sun, one of two Korean women then aiming to be the first woman to climb all 8000m peaks. Others who were real pros at 8000 meters, including Daniel Nardi and Veikka Gustafsson, were ahead in a real league of their own, with things going well for them but still in for a very long day. As a beautiful day dawned I kept telling myself I wouldn’t push to my limits, at 50 years old I was “just” a photographer, I needed to catch up to Dave and get shots of him skiing down, and I knew we both needed to save something for our real show, K2 the following week. Oh and I traded off breaking trail for each other in breakable crust 8 or 10 inches deep. I enjoyed her company. I noticed how she carried nothing but a small camcorder clipped to her harness; no water, no food, no extra anything, no pack at all. I had a liter thermos and about 8 ounces of some kind of snack, plus spare mittens. Behind us were a team of several Spaniards. Then the crust hardened a bit, and Oh, who probably weighs 100 pounds or less, stopped breaking through. She started walking on the crust like it was a sidewalk and cruised on ahead, while I kept punching through with every gasping step. The Spaniards slowly caught up to me in my lead toil, but they said they didn’t feel strong enough to take over breaking trail. They took a rest and I kept going.

I made it up to the bergschrund as I saw Oh climb up a convenient snow ramp leading over it and onto the easy final slope to the col. To my right was a guy coming up, he carried skis. I realized it was Dave. In the dark two separate routes had developed, and somehow I had gotten ahead of him. He came over and said he felt awful, he had puked a couple of times, he’d rested for awhile at the very high camp that the Iranian team had put up, and he was turning around. Dave has climbed Everest twice, and throughout the trip he had been the strongest among us. When he says he’s going down, it’s because he has to.

I thought about what I should do for about one minute. I was there especially to get pictures of Dave skiing, something very few people have done on an 8000er. I really wanted to get to the col at least to see the undoubtedly amazing other side of the Karakoram. But Dave was not looking too good. The Spaniards arrived and a couple of them were surprised and perhaps a little disappointed that I was also turning around, even though I was still moving relatively strong. There’s a long way to go on Broad Peak’s summit ridge. My instinct was to stick with my partner, and that’s what I did.

I poured Dave some tea from my thermos. He stepped into his skis, I got out my camera. He started skiing and I started marching down, sort of keeping up. He would do a few turns in the crappy crust and variable powder and then stop and gasp. A couple of times he stopped and dry-puked. He’s an amazing skier. I got some good shots, with K2 behind, Nanga Parbat way off to the southwest. Within an hour we’d descended about 1500 feet and he started feeling a lot better. He even pulled off a series of jump turns in the crust. He got down to our tents 15 minutes ahead of me, and I was glad marginally thicker air was already doing him better.

About that time I fell knee-deep into a crevasse. I could feel the space beneath my dangling feet, and I grasped over to clutch at something solid. This was dangerous. I was right on the route everyone had walked on, and there were supposedly no crevasses up there, but in that drought year I found one. I felt extra imperiled because I knew that even though there were some 30-odd internationally experienced climbers in the vicinity on that summit day, none had any rope. The nearest length of cord was thousands of feet below; if I or anyone else had fallen in deeper there could have been no rescue. That’s how hard you work up there, nobody wants to carry a single ounce. It took five minutes but I swam out, the crust supported me.

Dave and I packed up Camp 3 with a good 40 pounds each. He skied down and got to Camp 2 a good hour ahead of me. The next day we loaded up everything from Camp 2 as well. With Chuck Boyd having gone down some days before not feeling well, and extreme skier extraordinaire Dan McCann having already flown home after surviving a horrendous fall, Dave and I had to carry absurd loads, at least 90 pounds each. Negotiating over clifflets and icy slopes even fixed with rope was tough while tottering under that kind of burden. At one point on glazed-over rock Dave slipped and hung from his ascender. He called for help, and it was all we could both do to get him back up and unweighted from the rope so he could continue down. About 8 of us waited overnight at Camp 1, as per Veikka’s radio recommendations, because the afternoon rockfall was horrendous. The next dawn we made it down through the trashy limestone and melt cascades and rockfall and tattered ropes that made up Broad Peak’s pitiful lower slopes in that season after an almost snowless winter and spring. When we got to the bottom Dave turned on the radio and heard the awful news unfolding on K2.

With each 8000 meter peak season all sorts of tragic and heroic stories come through the wires. My one-season experience with how people operate up there prompts a question: What if I had decided to keep going up on Broad Peak? Several people have asked me why I didn’t. Perhaps that’s the norm. I don’t think Dave would have thought the worse of me, and had our situations been reversed, he probably would have kept going up. He was at that younger stage of life. In retrospect we can see that he had played the odds ok, he was quite capable to get himself down. Well, regardless of the odds I wouldn’t have felt good about leaving him in an uncertain condition. Second, I wouldn’t have gotten the photos, my primary role and avenue to success on the trip. Third is my main point here, to speak to how climbers—and people in general—do and don’t work together. If I’d continued up I wouldn’t have felt good in an extreme situation with no partner, and in proximity to a dozen or more acquaintances any of whom I might have to count on, or who might have to count on me. That struck me as pretty strung out. Basically I hadn’t prepared to solo Broad Peak, and I’ve never liked the idea of tossing my lots to work around people in extreme situations whose trust I have no basis to share.

Follow through with the possibility though: if I did continue up, and everything had gone well to the top, then there would be the matter of getting down and getting all our gear down. I had no radio, Dave carried our shared unit so we could talk to basecamp. We would have had no way to coordinate reuniting for descent, no way to know how the other was doing, no way to figure out how to divvie the loads, no way to help each other on the long descent. At the very least, the potential for acrimony would have been high, with me stumbling beyond exhaustion and utterly spent from the summit, Dave hopefully ok but having to guess what to leave for me and whether to wait and for how long, each of us on our own but still counting on each other.

And that describes well a dysfunction with how so much of modern life goes on now, notably on 8000 meter peaks but in most every sphere. People go into endeavors grand and small aspiring to be individuals and practically wanting little to do with each other, all the while being fairly or utterly dependent on everyone else in that sphere. We want freedom and we want support and we push the envelope in both directions at the same time. I was surprised to read in the great Ed Viesturs’s autobiography that even he steered his plans toward a thankful use of fixed ropes that other parties had strung up. A crack French team preparing to do the west face of K2 alpine style that 2008 season came over to acclimatize with all of us on Broad Peak, and they naturally made liberal use of the fixed ropes that we’d strung. Reinhold Messner is always described as a lone superman, but on many peaks and especially on K2 he had partners and jugged fixed ropes like everyone else. It’s just super hard to both acclimatize and climb without sharing the logistical challenge, much less the emotional challenge. Honest sharing is fine, I’ll leave it to others and other times to declare standards of 8000 meter ascent legitimacy. But when there’s stress and fungible muddiness in partnering and everyone maneuvering for private commercial glory it creates shaky partnerships and unreliable dependencies—this is what sets the stage for hard and bitter times, and sometimes disaster. Press reports and sponsorships and our culture all slant that way. Whole expedition tales are summarized in grossly simple lists of summiters and when and how many more to go. That publicity structure effectively focuses the endeavors, and climbers force themselves into half-trusted alliances they might hope to leave any step of the way.

To compare though, like any American I couldn’t find fulfillment within the Russian or Korean expedition model, where a big team of comrades operates under a commander issuing assignments and coordinates.

Natural partnerships can remain simple even in extreme situations, and we all know how they work when we climb in our local mountains. The four Norwegians on K2 had it going seamlessly, as did Veikka and his two partners. Certainly they were commercially motivated and supported teams. But first and foremost they were partners, they knew and trusted each other and stuck with each other from start to finish.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0pPhTLvzu4

Dave Watson skiing on Broad Pk. ca. 24,500 feet, K2 behind. Karakoram, PakistanDave Watson skiing Broad Peak

Deeper Seeing; Post-color Black and White

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Storm Clouds Gathering over White Mountains

 

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Spring Storm and Virga, Owens Valley and White Mountains

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Eastern Sierra Near Big Pine

Photography for most of us has for some time been mostly about colors, myself included. Ever since I studied under and then worked with Galen Rowell I’ve learned how to find color in the mountains; from alpenglows to floral and geologic combinations, to the jackets that people wear to complement the land…. Nothing wrong with that, Georgia O’Keefe called herself a colorist. We’ve all enjoyed the amazing developments in color technologies, to the point now that we expect every local newspaper and brochure to feed us in color. But this year I’ve started to work selected images in black and white, and it’s opening my eyes anew.

Our first reaction to the idea of black and white photography is that it’s classic, a style from the past. I don’t mind that message, but quickly I’ve relearned how looking at color files and the colored world around me for the black and white structures within is a path to deeper seeing. When you look in black and white you see light and shadow in a purer form. And when you load a digital image onto your computer and take it to monochrome and it works in tones, you understand that color can be a distraction. By taking color away we see the image’s core design more clearly; the shape, form, light, shadows, and the texture of the subject come right up front. Good black and white is like a hidden story disclosed, a visual tale hidden within the color world we so easily take for granted now. When I work in monochrome I feel more like a craftsman, bringing out that hidden tale. Today we are surrounded by color imagery, and even when we see a great color photograph now we turn to seek the next almost as soon as we admire the first; in this context black and white photography can come forward as something special; it’s post-color art that draws our eye to look deeper and longer.

The better digital cameras also enable a new era of great black and white. I now use a Nikon D800e with my old Zeiss-Contax lenses. This system gathers as much resolution as a 4×5 film camera, and captures detail through a wider range of values than even black and white film. I turn selected RAW images to monochrome in my first stage of processing, using Iridient Developer software. The latitude for “burning and dodging” light and dark is pretty impressive.

Wide latitude or not, an image still is only as good as the moment of shutterclick. Composition and light on the subject will always define what you can and (and for me, what I want) to portray. From there, in digital monochrome you have wonderful latitude in lightening and darkening different parts of the image to strengthen the story. In color, to avoid unharsh hues and get pleasant colors you generally need to shoot at times of lower light, often morning or evening, when colors are not burned with contrast. But when you’re working with relative values, you might be able to shoot in the middle of a bright day, depending on the subject and your vision for light and shadow. The image here of Yosemite falls I took at about 2:30 in the afternoon, when the high sun cast across the falls and cliff in a way that brings out the breathtaking feel of the valley under the heat of a pleasant spring day in California’s backcountry. In color this image looks kind of baked; the hues are contrasty and they detract.

Feel free to comment and if you like any one or two of these images in particular let me know.

Spring Storm and Virga over Owens Valley, White Mountains

 

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Eureka Sand Dunes

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Budding Cottonwood, White Mountains

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Owens Valley near Independence

 

 

 

Can We Find Common Sense in Los Angeles ?

This week I wrote an essay for the Inyo Register, about how common sense tells us that Los Angeles should integrate solar energy into its city landscape rather than panel over swaths of the Owens Valley. (Here’s the link: http://inyoregister.com/node/5704). The Department of Water and Power isn’t saying if they’ve even considered that common sense solution. So just what is the logic for installing panels 200 miles distant from a famously sunny metropolis?

From the point of view of LA’s Dept. of Water and Power, the ratepayers of Los Angeles should benefit from the Department’s purchase of the Owens Valley land 100 years ago. They already own the Owens Valley land, and the Department’s mandate is to provide power to their ratepayers using their capital in the most financially efficient way they can. If they were to “go shopping” for solar panel space in Los Angeles, they’d have to enter into discussions and negotiations with landowners, be they private homeowners or mall and parking lot owners, maybe CalTrans…. This is understandably a complicated idea, and it’s possible that the utility would be pressed to pay for the right to erect solar collectors. From DWP’s perspective, why should they bother negotiating for installation space when they did their shopping 100 years ago?

The problem gets to the root of how we operate as a civilization. For ratepayers, electricity comes from switches, water from faucets, and as long as you pay your bills it all works great. In the same way, land in our system comes from acquisition. It’s acquired capital. DWP has an impressive portfolio, and they’re operating like a private capital group developing their investments. All well and good, except that they’re not a business working within a market, they’re a monopoly public utility with powers tied to public mandates and elected officials.

The second and even grander conflict is that, just as water comes from the earth and sky not faucets and electricity comes from natural energy sources not switches, land originates not as capital but as a fact of creation. We can mandate all the private property assertions we want, but not even DWP can create land, and when big swaths of land that people love and that plants and animals live on is proposed to be paneled over we all have a stake we can feel. Our freedom-loving brains and our ownership laws say that landowners have the right to develop their deeded land as they see fit. Yet our hearts know, for instance, that all Californians have a stake in how big swaths of the Eastern Sierra are managed. From neighborhood CC&R’s to the Mono Lake public trust decision (and of course so much more), we have passed laws that bring public interest to bear on private capital rights. When there’s lots of money, land, and water at play, we can expect big arguments. The people of Los Angeles and their city council need to hear the arguments here.

In this case, it seems clear that DWP is trying to get around even discussing the broader public values in their holdings on the Owens Valley floor. From their perspective as a capital-enhancing utility, ratepayers are simply bill-payers and land is simply capital. But in their role as a public agency accountable to elected officials there’s inherent complexity. There’s voters. I bet if you put the question before the Los Angeles voters, should they carpet-panel the Owens Valley or should they approach landowners—especially owners of big, baking parking lots—and offer to cover even parts of their lots with super-green and cool-looking solar panels that shade their cars, people would vote for the latter. Would it cost more? We don’t know because the Department hasn’t disclosed if they’ve even asked the question. But the fact that they’ve offered to pay our disturbingly pliable Inyo County to not sue over this case makes it clear they’d like to play the game like a private capital group, keeping their supposedly public decision-making cards to themselves.

Here’s my suggestion: that the LA City Council come up with legislation to generate and enhance the civic will to integrate solar panels into the city’s amply sunny landscape. Sure there’d be negotiations. But should a mall owner be compensated for allowing solar panels to go up over their property, or should the city be compensated for providing shade and a genuinely green and civic image enhancement? This could be an even trade. Trader Joe’s for instance ought to jump at the opportunity to enhance their creds and the comfort of their customers. Compare whatever compensation costs against the transmission loss, power line costs, and compensation bribes inherent in the Owens Valley installation and let’s see. The State’s mandate to include more renewable energy is an opportunity to make the original Sunbelt city a place that over-sunned cities all over the world will look up to. We need leadership to create a city where people and institutions actually talk to each other to accomplish mutual goals, including giving due respect to their hinterland properties.

Mind-Body Connections

I’ve recently finished reading Healing Back Pain, The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno. A couple of friends told me how within six weeks after reading this book their back pain went away. That was the cure, they read the book. Say what? Yes, the position of this book is that a lot of pain, especially back pain, arises not from any misalignment, or disc issues, or overwork, or strain or any physical source, but rather it stems from pain in the mind. Dr. Sarno tells in medically correct prose how time after time he has successfully treated patients by helping them explore that they are suffering from hard times: harsh emotions sent from their mind course down through their central nervous system, restricting blood flow and causing pain. And as the patient discovers how their mind has been shielding them from emotional injury by distracting them into feeling physical pain, the distraction no longer works. The pain goes away, and the circumstances that created the emotional pain are seen for what they are. That’s how it worked for my friends Christy and Lissy.

Without delving into the details of what Sarno calls “Tension Myositis Syndrome,” a lot of us wellness practitioners talk about how different emotions “inhabit the body.” Anger, fear, hurt, shame, anxiety, guilt, sadness…they all take away the freedom in our motion, the clarity of our thinking, the alignment of our posture, and they put the hurt onto the medial glutes, the hips, the lumbar, the trapezius, and the heart…. This is actually not a new idea, in fact it’s rediscovering what the ancients knew and really what our bodies know very well, that we are a mind-body system. For a few centuries though we’ve been operating (literally and metaphorically) by a strangely controlling and very fallible assumption, that the body is a chemical-physical machine that will do what we tell it to, that corrections come from surgeries, physical therapies and chemical manipulations, and that we are at our highest capacity when our minds operate independently and computer-like, by disembodied logic.

The classic statement for the inspiration of the body-as-machine tradition was Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” Defining us by logic alone; what was he thinking? Did the man really exist only as thought? Why didn’t he declare, I feel therefore I am? Just as easily he could have said, I fear therefore I am, or better yet, I love therefore I am. And why did we follow him down the road of disembodied logic and pretty much go about dismissing as noise all the messages of life that don’t subscribe to said logic? And of course the whole idea crumbles to the level of a joke on all of us when we learn that Descartes’ inspiration for his declaration was a dream from an angel—not a particularly logic-based source. Logic is a powerful tool, and even as we continue to use and need it every day we are steadily unwinding the imposed belief that body and mind are separate with the body subordinate, like driver and car. A declaration that the mind can command everything is essentially a wrong assumption and at its most extreme it is a declaration of war on the body. Today we are ramming into the limitations of Descartes’ assertions, and accepting that heart and body awareness play into the steerage of our lives.

Maybe the most powerful way to understand how mind and spirit inhabit the body is the chakra system, developed by yogis in India. The best treatise I’ve seen on the seven wheel-centers of life-energy that stack up along the spine is Eastern Body, Western Mind by Anodea Judith. Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Rapp, professor at Deep Springs College and formerly at Stanford for turning me on to this book. From the tailbone-area chakra where we contain confidence or fear for our very existence, through our emotional-sexual groin, to the belly chakra that centers our intentions for presence in society, up through the central heart chakra where love generates, on through our creative and intuitive centers and up to the spiritual foramen that finds links to the cosmos, the chakra system is at the very least a map for personal growth. More powerfully, it is a system of awareness that pays dividends as we delve into it over years of practice. One aspect explained well in Judith’s book is how the chakras operate with both rising and sinking energy. Upward is liberation, downward is manifestation, and we are healthy when energy from both directions flows through. Without downward rootedness in the things and processes of everyday life, spiritual sensations are doomed to float aimlessly. Without a spiritual awareness and upward seeking, the things and processes of everyday life are just that, bound to stray and mould in their own dark corners.

In 2001 I was in an airplane crash that crushed at least 3 of my lumbar vertebrae. I was damaged, kind of fundamentally. Today the bones and joints have been physically healed for over a decade, and I rarely feel pain. But for many years and even still I have movement restrictions in that core area of my body. Scar tissue? Not really. Damaged muscles and ligaments? Not any more. I don’t think doctors have a working physical explanation of what limits someone with an “old” injury like this, and I find it most helpful to accept simply that fear inhabits that center of my body. Of course it’s afraid, I suffered a horrendous trauma. My lumbar area wants to protect itself, and my mind wants to reinforce that protection.

But movement is reassuring, and vital. T’ai-chi and yoga and walking and running and rock climbing all are good for me partly by enhancing blood flow, but I suspect that the more important point is that movement reassures those muscles, bones, and joints and probably the part of the mind that manages them that we, body and mind, are all free to move now without fear of getting hurt again. It takes time. There’s been a mental-spiritual recovery that roughly correlates with my physical recovery. I emerged out of stunned terror to awareness and appreciation that I was going to live, and I’ve progressed through rediscovering that I have renewed motivations and a role in life, I’ve sired a son, and onward through the manifestations and aspirations of a roughly healthy individual, all the time working to expand mobility and develop fortitude along my injured spine.

In T’ai-chi practice we integrate movement through the spine, in fact we put the spine in charge. As my teacher Mr. Pang says, we practice because our minds need rest and our bodies need exercise. We do T’ai-chi’s “choreography” with the mind simply paying attention to movement through all the joints, from the center of the body down through the hips and knees, upward through the chest and shoulders, feeling the feet accept the shifting of our weight and our hands at the end of our arms aware but soft as air, just following direction from the very defined center. We pay attention to opening tense areas and activating dead areas, giving less and less quarter to pain or fear holding on with tension. With practice we feel each movement evolve into the next and the next with unrestrained accuracy and fluidness—effective, centered, and relaxed certainty. And, we pay special attention to balancing the paradox of movement: we punch by pressing into the ground through our spine and legs, we push right by opening left. Every movement is facilitated by applying the counterforce. When we are done practicing, the mind comes back in to a slightly new and refreshed body, and thoughts come naturally more positive.

I’ve poked around with a variety of wellness practices, and I’ve found T’ai-chi to be especially effective and straightforward in calling the mind to quiet down and inhabit our whole body. In fact, we can think of it as moving so that the body inhabits the mind, with toe-to-head effectiveness. Without strain you just find the most effective and powerful movements. As Mr. Pang said long before Nike, we just do it.

Stay tuned for a T’ai-chi for Climbers workshop at Body Wisdom studio in Bishop.

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Some Experiences Near The Ultimate Summit

When I heard about the coming release of a feature documentary on the terrible 2008 season on K2, The Summit, I was swept back to those awful days because I was there. The documentary was produced by a non-climbing Irish filmmaker named Nick Ryan, and according to the publicity and trailer it documents how in under 48 hours people put out the hardest, most committing work of their lives, how it carried them up to the pinnacle of their lives, and how 11 of them died. The film uses some actual footage from 2008, probably including some of the Dutch team’s footage which I retrieved off the mountain. In trailers and excerpts I’ve noticed myself being shown helping to carry Wilco van Rooijen to a rescue helicopter, and later interviewing Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. Like the media storm around the Everest 1996 season, this film grabs (to obviously lesser fanfare) the attention of the general public with mountaineering as catastrophe. I comment at many levels because my partners Chuck Boyd, Dave Watson and I came to know most of the climbers, because we assisted them in as many little ways as we could, because I have done a lot of mountaineering and mountaineering writing and thinking, and because I gathered notes, audio, photos, and recorded interviews, realizing I was an experienced witness in a unique position who might bring the story to the world.

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Filmmaker Ryan tells us that before this project he had no connection to mountaineering, but the August 2008 newsfeed drew him into it. The hook he says was reading a statistic that 1/4 as many climbers die on K2 as make its summit. Who would go into an endeavor where the level of sport is obviously super high and the odds of success vs dying are worse than in warfare? The trailers and publicity promise that the movie portrays that grim statistic in action. In interviews Ryan speaks with respect for all the climbers that season, but he says he leaves it to audiences to decide for themselves what the mountaineers and their game are about. Responses I’ve seen posted include phrases such as “adrenaline-seekers know no limits,” “they don’t have loved ones?” and “no brains.” It seems that the general public is fed wildly contradictory views of mountaineers: tremendous if enigmatic heroes or thrill-seeking nuts they can lump with the lemming myth.

It’s important to say that the “one-in-four, worse than war” statistic does not account for the majority of K2 climbers, who attempt and turn back more or less safely. Nevertheless, to us climbers K2’s death toll does not make the peak appealing, it makes us feel squeamish and ill. Certainly climbers often have dark sides, but climbing is too slow to be an adrenaline sport, and risk is not its seminal draw. Risk is something we assess, manage, work around, and yes, to some degree gamble with. As I look at the history of climbing K2 and I recall the attitudes I saw among climbers there that season, if there was anything unusual it was an edging into the notion that climbing K2 could be made fairly safe and more accessible than in the past. Many of the climbers there had summited Everest, and deploying Everest-developed support tactics had a lot to do with the optimism that K2 was ready to follow Everest into the notion that you don’t have to be a super alpinist, just a good one with an appropriate amount of logistical support. Notably this means coordination among teams to string fixed rope almost the whole way to the top, and Nepali Sherpa partners and employees to help lead that effort. And, to make it all possible and socially prominent there was Everest-scale underwriting from mainstream sponsors.

Chuck, Dave, and I (and at first, Dan McCann) went there with a plan to “warm up” and acclimatize on nearby Broad Peak, and then go to try K2. Notably, Dave and Dan are super-skiers, and they were set to ski the peaks, with me getting photos. During the July bad weather we’d often jaunt from our Broad Peak base up to K2 base, and we got to know most of the people. There was a fascinating international mix. When the good weather came and Dave and I made our sortie up to 25,000 feet on Broad Peak and descended, he turned on the handheld and I’ll never forget him relaying to me, “Really bad news on K2.” So asap we went up to K2 to help out. Even though I might never meet any of those K2 climbers again, I think all of us who were there feel a permanent camaraderie in having shared such an intense time. In a subsequent post I will offer some more general points in response to the movie, but first here are some highlight memories of the people I met, who I assume are most of the main characters in the documentary.

Gerard McDonnell struck me as a guy you’d want on your team not only because he knew what he was doing, but because he was fun-loving, level-headed, generous and thoughtful. He was simply operating on a higher plane of joy. Marco Confortola called him “Jesus” with only a hint of irony simply because he believed that Gerard was that remarkable. Gerard had a wry cynicism that fit with his living in Alaska and working as an oil engineer, a posting where he could take advantage of the type of mountaineering he loved. Everyone knew him as the most popular and friendly guy in basecamp, and he became the first Irishman to summit K2.

After reaching the summit near sunset, Gerard, Marco and Wilco bivouacked together. During the morning descent they came across three Koreans barely alive and hanging on fixed rope. Gerard and Marco struggled to revive and free the poor guys even as their own condition continued to deteriorate. They were forced to give up and carry on down. What Gerard did then has become a primary uncertainty in the saga. Marco told us that after he and “Jesus” rested Gerard went back up without explaining why. He figured that either Gerard wanted to give it another shot to save the Koreans, or he was delusional in his own condition and just wandered the wrong way. Marco said that then the ice cliff calved and he glimpsed what he believed was Gerard’s body being swept away. I’ve since read that Wilco has evidence that Gerard was successful in getting the Koreans going, but then the ice cliff took them all away.

Pemba Gyalje Sherpa proved himself to be one of the most heroic climbers of all time, but seeing him on camera I fear that the whole ordeal weighs heavily on him. I first met him upon our arrival at basecamp, when he came to borrow some pitons and other gear. At that time he seemed simply level headed with a familiar Sherpa joviality. At the midnight start time on summit day he realized that Korean-employed climbers were not up to their agreed tasks, so he helped lead the charge, stringing up fixed rope as well as aiming for the summit himself. At that altitude this is an almost absurd demand that he took in stride. Pemba did reach the summit, and he told me he waited an hour and a half for his partners Wilco and Cas van de Gevel to arrive too. They three started down together, but in the dark only Pemba and Cas negotiated back to Camp IV.

In the morning Pemba went back up to look for Wilco and came across Marco, who was sleeping and/or semi-comatose in the sun. Pemba roused him and put an oxygen apparatus on him, even though Marco became belligerent and delirious. Then the ice cliff calved, and Marco later said that Pemba sheltered him “like a baby” from the periphery of the falling blocks. Then Pemba got him on his feet and got him to Camp 4. “He saved my life,” Marco said.

Then Pemba started down the SSE Ridge route his team had come up, and made it down to Camp III. At that point no one knew the whereabouts of Wilco, and everyone had given up on him. But that night Pemba learned on the radio that Wilco had called his wife from somewhere above and was roaming to get down. Pemba went out and searched and called and heard Wilco’s phone ring but could not find him. Around dawn he went out again and again heard the ring of Wilco’s satellite phone, found him a few hundred yards above camp, and helped him and Cas down.

I later learned that on the way up Pemba had already saved a Serbian climber named Hoselito, at Camp III, when super-high winds in the middle of the night blew up “José’s” tent like a balloon and with him in it it hung by the anchor. Pemba got out of his own tent and rescued him.

As I see Pemba in publicity interviews for The Summit, I see he still has a love for mountains and a need to work as a climbing guide, but he no longer works on 8000 meter peaks. I also see a fatigued wisdom that probably runs deeper than what most of us can imagine. I think he bears a lot of weight on his shoulders from this whole tragedy and its strange notoriety. His restrained, modest and halting English probably makes it hard for most Americans to connect to him as a hero, and I think celebrity is to him something like a Martian language and a gross distraction. I hope when he’s back home and off camera he can still find his original lightheartedness.

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I met Chirring Dorje Sherpa as he came down from the peak. He also helped lead the pre-dawn charge. A few of us stood rapt as he told how he came down from the summit in the dark and collected “Little Pasang.” Poor Pasang had lost his ice axe, and, staring into his headlamp beam toward the most notorious passage on the mountain, he told Chirring that he was thinking to just jump and get it over with. Chirring said “No way,” and he pieced together some runners and rope to connect their two harnesses. Chirring steadily led the way across the traverse and down the Bottleneck with Pasang holding on to his gear loops, punching his one axe into the ice and snow to anchor both of them with each tenuous step.

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Wilco van Rooijen was one of two big man leaders on the mountain, he organized the team that included his trusted friends Gerard, Cas, Pemba, and a couple of others. I barely got to talk with Wilco, but so many trappings in basecamp pointed to the work of a powerful and gregarious man certain of his strengths and thoroughly in charge of his life’s obsession. During the long July storms he kept his psyche up by working with a small model of the house he was going to build with the money he expected to earn from being the first Dutchman to summit K2. The camp was sprayed with the word Norit, a Dutch water purification company that supplied much of his expedition’s €400,000 budget.

Twenty four hours after Wilco summited no one knew of his whereabouts and everyone understood that he was another one lost, for no one would survive a second night out in the open high on K2. But survive he did and the next day I was at camp with Chris Klinke and my binoculars spotting Wilco’s impossible little orange suit as it inched down in the vicinity of Cas and Pemba. Wilco had gotten lost in a puffy-cloud whiteout, alternately sat down and descended during the night and hung on in a miracle of tenacity.

His frostbite was severe, and after he made it down lots of us worked to improvise a litter and clear rocks for a helicopter landing. He seemed quite revived by the one night in basecamp with Dr. Eric Meyer’s care as well as his sense of triumph and deliverance. As we carried him to the chopper I believe he had his house model with him and he filmed the action with a camcorder from the litter.

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After all the teams but ours were gone and the storm track returned Dave Watson and I went up to Wilco’s Camp II at 21,500 feet to retrieve gear and especially the camcorder with Wilco’s summit footage. Back in Bishop I shipped it UPS to him in Amsterdam, and when he finally reimbursed me a year later he included a pic of his feet half amputated, and a note saying he’d just run a 10k race in 45 minutes on the stumps.

Visiting the Norwegian team was a taste of what I imagine a trip to Oslo would be like, a wonderful experience with generous, friendly, organized and superbly competent people. When visiting their camp I did Photoshop management on their photos so they could send the shots home. Anchoring the foursome was the all-time expedition super-couple, Ceclie Skog and Rolf Bae. Among the gaggle of guys in basecamp it seemed like fantasy to see a blond beauty who was as capable of summiting as almost anyone there. To my further amazement I found that Cecilie is utterly approachable, and we became friends. We exchanged books, hers a coffee-table feature on her successful ski journeys to both poles and to Everest, all with Rolf. Later I would learn that she’d already done all of the 7 summits, and skied across Greenland too. As I thumbed through the colorful pages I understood that it was all seamless; her highest dreams were her everyday reality as well as the dreams projected and embraced all over Europe—an angelic sweetheart who with confidence and competence can play at the extremes of the earth.

Rolf was her worthy consort, and she his. He showed up in basecamp a week or so late, because, get this itinerary: he had in June completed the second ascent of the stupendous Norwegian buttress on Great Trango, flown home for a couple of weeks to fulfill some guiding requirements, then flew back to Pakistan to meet his wife and teammates to climb K2. In the middle of that season that no American climber could imagine he was thoroughly energized and animated; the biggest big wall, the baddest high peak, the ultimate wife, and daily he would laugh out loud with his buddy Gerard and any of us…he was on top of the whole mountain world and having a great time.

Lars Nessa looked like the weakling in their party, kind of scrawny and quiet, but certainly friendly too. I chuckled when I learned that actually he was the first among them to reach the summit, that he was one of the most efficient climbers up there.

Øystein Stangeland fit my image of a Norwegian: friendly, unassuming and solid, and I thanked him most every day of the expedition for handing me a couple of ropes from their bounty of moose sausage.

I happened to be standing with Mike Farris near the edge of camp when Cecilie, Lars, and Øystein showed up on their return. I went over and gave Cecilie the most memorable hug of my life, for we’d all heard that Rolf had been taken. I couldn’t comprehend the weight of her pain, but I asked if she’d like me at least to carry her pack the rest of the way into camp.

“No thanks, this is Rolf’s pack. We traded up there below the summit and I want to keep it on for awhile. It’s all I have left of him.” I hugged her again, pitifully little that I could do to soften her entry into a new world bereft of the love of her life.

She told me how on the way up the Serb Dren Mandic had fallen, crashing into her and bruising her hip and tumbling to his death, how the slow Koreans might have been wise to turn around, how Rolf slowed down and was the most circumspect of their team as they three times reassessed the wisdom of going on, but with the weather so flawless and the summit so near and she and Lars feeling strong…it was still adding to up, as long as they made it back to the traverse and the fixed ropes before dark. After the crux passages she said she gave Rolf her oxygen bottle but still he just didn’t feel that great, so he waited while she and Lars tagged the top. As planned, just before dark they made it down to the ropes and Rolf took over the lead as they maneuvered through the last, short pitches before the easy slope to camp. All seemed to have come together just right…until there was a big ripping noise and a yank on the rope ahead of her, and Rolf’s headlamp was gone. The serac had calved and swept him away. Her shouts to him and then her wails of despair echoed into the cosmos at 27,000 feet, so cripplingly far from home.

“I wanted to jump off to join him,” she said, “but Lars kept me going.”

She also said, “I hate this mountain,” and of course I couldn’t blame her. At night the cries from her tent made the glacier shiver.

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Two years later Cecilie and American Ryan Waters skied unsupported across Antarctica. Normally I don’t see the point of rating climbers and such, but that trip convinced me that Cecilie Skog is the most accomplished woman adventurer of all time.

Frederik Strang hit me with tales and accent and gestures and intensity like a strapping Swedish blizzard. He told me how he and Eric Meyer saw how slow everyone was moving, appraised the dangerous looking ice cliff above, and together they decided together to turn around, it just looked like bad. Then he told how Mandich tumbled down and somehow stopped on a ledge, wobbled to his feet and waved, then collapsed. Word came that he had died, and the Serbian leader asked for help to bring his body back to Camp IV. Frederik said he took charge of that operation, four guys arranged with lowering lines. Frederik said he told everyone that if you stumble you let go and stop yourself with your axe. They began to sled the body down, and after a bit Frederik suggested they stop and switch places to give the load to different muscles. One of the helpers was a Pakistani porter named Jehan, a younger guy who had been let go from a Singaporean team because he was deemed unreliable. A French climber had then hired him to go high, but others also reported that he was prone to strange behavior.

Well Frederik got pretty animated as he told me how Jehan got clumsy and fell, and apparently made no attempt to use his axe, or maybe he’d lost it. Jehan held onto the rope, the rope threatened to tangle around Frederik’s ankles, and now Jehan became added weight to the lowering, and suddenly Frederik could feel the whole operation starting to lose control, they could all go down with the corpse. He started screaming at poor Jehan to get up and use his axe, but Jehan didn’t get it, he only grabbed more desperately. Frederik went drastic, he started whacking Jehan with his axe, screaming at him to let go and get up. Let go Jehan did, but get up he did not, and he slid away, and away, and tumbled off K2. Hearing this is when I really started blessing my stars that I had not been up there.

Marco Confortola was the last climber to come down. His partner Roberto Manni had turned back with a bad headache up high, and I met up with Roberto in basecamp gesticulating and shouting and everything, trying to get Sherpas, a helicopter, anything to help get Marco down. I did some bits of “go-fer” work with Roberto, and it was like I imagined a trip to Italy would be like. Arms waiving, Latin syllables flying like flocks of crazy bats, Roberto was on the sat phone to the head of the Club Alpino Italiano who was purportedly able to get high Pakistani generals and even Prime Minister Musharraf on the phone to send a helicopter up to 24,000 feet to pluck Marco off to safety. The weather had turned bad, and no chopper would be going high. Marco was frostbitten and worn past a frazzle, but he was coming down in pretty good hands, with George Dijmarescu and his Sherpa relatives Mingma and Rinjin having climbed up with oxygen bottles to escort him down over three days. I was in Roberto’s basecamp tent when he was on the radio to Marco directly, Marco was resting just above Camp II. As he listened Roberto sliced me a whack of the best cheese I’ve ever tasted. Then some noise came over the radio and it went quiet and Roberto shouted and shouted into it. Marco then came back on the line and said that he’d just been hit by stonefall. “Por amor de Diós, tiene duro, tiene duro! (For the love of God, have strength!)With a dozen others I met Marco at the base of the Abruzzi, and a couple of us guided his unsteady, frostbitten gait back through the icefall and down the glacier to camp.

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Kim Jae Soo I only met in the gloom after the dust was settled, when I sat in on Frederik’s interview of him. “Mr. Kim” was the Korean leader, and a very experienced Himalayan leader and a somber man indeed. To my surprise he said he’d led an expedition up Shipton Spire, a peak that Chuck and I helped name and almost made the first ascent of. His K2 team was the bearer of ample sponsorships from Busan, Korea’s second largest city. Busan was on a drive to compete with Seoul and launch into a bigger future, so Mr. Kim’s expedition collected the city’s motto and had a big banner proclaiming the “Flying Jump” expedition. The Korean climbers were there to carry a torch apparently at all costs for their ultra-competitive society, and this became a point of concern around camp. Mike Farris of the American team told me that when the teams met to coordinate plans he asked Mr. Kim when their return date was. Mr. Kim’s reply was, “We have sponsors who have given a lot of money to this expedition, and we will succeed.”

In his interview with Mr. Kim, Frederik bluntly asked: “How much were you willing to pay on this climb?”

Mr. Kim replied, “People die all the time on a big mountain expedition.”

Frederik then had him tell the whole story of the tragedy in Korean, and Mr. Kim told it for over half an hour. I wonder if filmmaker Ryan or any of the authors who have written books about this season have contacted Frederik to see that footage, because it likely has some important pieces of the story from the Korean perspective.

Mr. Kim had a tough job, and a heavy heart; three Korean partners dead, plus Sherpas “Big Pasang” and Jumik. The latter had accompanied him on peaks in Nepal many times before, and word had come from Nepal that on K2 summit day Jumik’s wife had just given birth to their first child.

Mi Sun-Go made it to the summit with Mr. Kim, and I got to talk to her for awhile too. She said, “This is a very sad mountain now.” She didn’t have much else to say about K2, she was happier to talk about rock climbing, and how before she started climbing Himalayan peaks she had been a star rock climber, pulling up 5.13 on a regular basis. Then just a couple of years previous she switched gears and took on a mission to be the first woman to climb all the 8000 meter peaks. There seemed to be a bit of a race going on with another Korean woman, Oh Eun-Sun, who I swapped breaking trail with on Broad Peak, but I got the impression that both of them are friends. “Mi-Sun” told me she was planning to pull off her remaining half a dozen 8000m peaks in just three more years. She seemed like a really nice and quietly motivated person, and I wished her luck.

http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/ae/movie-reviews/movie-review-the-summit-goes-to-tragic-depths-708049/

http://www.sundanceselects.com/films/the-summit

http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-10-10/news/42894827_1_two-climbers-the-summit-mountain

http://seattlebackpackersmagazine.com/interview-nick-ryan-the-summit-movie/

http://www.examiner.com/review/movie-review-the-summit-a-breath-taking-documentary-and-a-literal-cliffhanger

Vision Play with Land and Sky

Photography is mindful vision play.

Soon after I started photographing landscapes I noticed—especially in the Eastern Sierra–how often I was distracted upward by scenes in the sky; sunsets, crepuscular rays, wave clouds, mare’s tails… hmm, what if I start treating the sky as the primary subject? What if I invert my perception and my priorities and look not for a landscape, but a skyscape. That playful idea started an ever unfolding process of noticing how we perceive, operate in, and value our world, and I haven’t seen the same since. I’ve come to see how land and sky are interdependent partners that create our world. Sky is the dynamic, active element, and land is the stable, receptive element. A landscape or skyscape picture is like a yin-yang diagram; the relative proportions and prominence of land and sky tell you what the photographer had in mind, and their interaction is a portrait of balance as perceived by the artist. We of course have a long tradition of focusing almost entirely on land and landscapes, so to start giving the sky its rightful place I’ve started working a lot with skyscapes, for instance putting out an annual Sierra Skyscape calendar. Here’s some images from the 2014 calendar.

Spring Storm over Crowley Lake Aurora SeltersJunesummer014 Summer thunderstorm clearing, E. Sierra

The practice of shifting my vision between land and sky has encouraged me to ask how differently we relate to them. How is it we see the world as land first, and sky only when it becomes ultra spectacular? At one point I tried standing on my head, asking if inverting the pull of gravity on my body might shift my instincts. The sky is of course the source of weather, and for that we’re always trying to predict the future. The sky is also synonymous with the heavens, our long assumed ultimate destination. Conversely, the earth of course is about geology, not to mention archaeology, sciences that are always trying to decipher the past. The earth is also the resting place of our ancestors, and the venue for the stories of history. Future and past, active and stable, sky and land…these things together create each place and present moment.

As I’ve played with how we prioritize land over sky, it has suddenly made sense why we are plagued by air pollution and climate change. We take the sky for granted at every level, starting from our basic perception of the world, to our priorities in engaging the earth, to international resource management. Would that we could create national parks of the sky, and skyscape photography could contribute to our awareness of those sky places, same as was done for Yosemite, Sequoia,…

By the way, the strange “sunset” with stars is actually an image of the aurora from the Eastern Sierra.