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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Finding Nirvana In The Mountains

Your best images come when you see the photograph as a whole

Why climb the mountain, and why take such chances and flirt with the ultimate price—death? All climbers and adventurers know the reason they take big risks in the mountains, and it’s not just "because it’s there." And it’s certainly not because they want to challenge the grim reaper.

I think the answer to why we climb mountains and take adventurous risks is universal. It’s based on a simple, yet common passion—the individual pursuit of achieving dreams and aspirations.

There’s no better stage for such a challenge than the mountains. The rewards are both in the joy of pursuing and in accomplishing the goal. The risk is only proportional to the greatness of the individual’s aspirations. Alaskan and Himalayan climber Glenn Dunmire said it so well when I asked him if he thought climbers have a death wish: "The act of climbing is, in truth, the inverse of the death wish. It is an act of embracing life to the fullest. It’s a world where you don’t have to play by anyone else’s rules but your own."

Because Todd was such an advocate of living life to the fullest, he couldn’t have chosen any path except the one he was on. He says as much in his book, Beyond the Summit:

"Rock climbing, by any external definition, has no obvious practical value and might be considered foolish by some when risk is compared to gain. But what I value in climbing is that it asks for my best response on many fronts at once: physical strength, endurance and flexibility; mental acuity in forethought, analysis and problem solving; courage and tenacity of the spirit. I cannot gain an inch without applying these attributes, and I gain the most where the challenge is greatest."

I met Todd in college when I was just starting out in photography, and we traveled and climbed together. When it really counted, early in my photography career, he supported what I was trying to do and was an advocate of the path I had chosen to forge with my photography. He believed that when attempting the impossible, it’s important to surround yourself with positive influences and a strong team.

Todd even took this message on the road, giving corporate motivational talks using mountain climbing as a model for targeting goals, team building and decision making for business success. His enthusiasm and willingness to take on the most audacious challenges was a spirit that touched every climber and nonclimber Todd met.

Todd and I were a great team; time and again he offered himself as the perfect photo subject for the rare and remarkable image. One of my favorite earlier climbing photos of Todd was taken in 1990 in a climbing area near Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The cliff that he climbed was a relatively short 70 feet high.

When I composed the photo of Todd climbing the face, I included in the photo the skeleton of a massive, dead pine tree that was standing near the cliff. To my eye, the grace and power of the tree complemented the climber.

As I got to thinking about the famous quote by Mallory, I wondered if he had more to say about his aspirations in climbing Everest. What I found is that he spoke eloquently about the subject on numerous occasions and that he did have more to say. I’ll finish with some words from George Leigh Mallory spoken in 1922 before he departed for the Himalayas.

"So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for."

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