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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Whatever It Takes


Adventure photographer James Kay’s career is defined by his tenacity and drive to bypass the ordinary and take the extra steps to get something extraordinary

Labels: How-To


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Lake Of The Hanging Glacier, British Columbia
As part of my usual pre-trip-planning process, I often scour topographical maps, looking for good photographic vantage points. As I perused the maps surrounding this high-mountain lake, I noticed a glacier-draped summit beside it that looked like an ideal spot to set up a tripod. Getting there involved a 16-hour drive to the town of Invermere followed by a 1.5-hour drive along a dusty gravel road deep into the Purcell Mountains. The road ended at a nondescript pullout with a small battered sign announcing the trailhead. This was the plan: Backpack 2,300 vertical feet along a steep trail to the lake, set up a base camp for two or three nights, climb the peak, get the shot and hoof it back down.

Three strenuous hours later, after pitching camp at the edge of the lake, the real work would begin. Getting to the top of that peak I saw on the map would require bushwhacking through a tangle of trees while scrambling over, around and under large boulders at the base of the mountain. Above the trees, we’d need ice axes and crampons to ascend the glacier to the summit. Setting out at first light the next morning, we shouldered our packs and began the climb. Several hours later, high above the lake, I located a spot on an exposed ridge that provided the vantage point I was after. It was glorious. Back at camp the next morning, we awoke to thick smoky skies from a huge forest fire to the west. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. After everything it took to get this shot, if we had arrived just one day later, I would have missed it.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24-105mm lens,
Gitzo 1228 carbon-fiber tripod, Acratech Ultimate ballhead


I can still recall the soft pillows of clouds drifting across the face of the Teton Range as I drove north to meet a client at Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park many years ago. As I approached Oxbow Bend, that iconic spot along the Snake River, I realized something wonderful was about to happen. I pulled over, jumped out of my car and quickly set up my tripod at the edge of the water just as the setting sun was beginning to illuminate the undersides of the clouds. Within five minutes, I had captured one of the most breathtaking sunsets I had ever seen. Two minutes later, I was back in my car, heading to my meeting at the lodge.

"Wow, that was so easy," I remember thinking as I zipped up my camera pack. "I didn’t even break a sweat." In my experience, simply stumbling across great images doesn’t happen very often. The more normal situation finds me hauling gear up mountains before sunrise or bushwhacking through desert canyons with sweat dripping into my eyes as I curse the weather conditions for not cooperating with my well-laid plans.

This latter scenario just so happens to be the subject of this article—the good, the bad and the ugly of what’s sometimes required to return home with a truly unique and dramatic image. While the amount of physical effort isn’t always proportional to the photographic result, it often seems that a certain quota of dues needs to be paid before I’m “allowed” to capture a worthy image. I often recall Thomas Edison’s quote: “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

The way I look at it, getting off the beaten path is fundamental to my photography, so the effort required simply comes with the territory. When I do occasionally stumble across a great shot with little effort, as I did at Oxbow Bend, I feel like I’m cheating, as though I’ve somehow escaped the necessary self-flagellation rituals required by some strict monastic order of photographers. But, hey, suffering can be fun! Just ask my friends who occasionally accompany me, but don’t necessarily believe what they tell you. Rest assured, at least, I enjoy it.

Escalante Slot Canyon, Utah

When two friends and I decided to descend this canyon on the east side of the Escalante River, we knew it was going to be an ordeal. Nobody we knew in the canyoneering community had been down it, and other canyons in the vicinity that we had already explored were some of the most challenging we had ever encountered. Simply getting to its headwaters required finding a route through the protective rim of Wingate Sandstone, which fortifies the high mesa from which it drains. Due to the arduous nature of descending these narrow, water-filled slot canyons, a large backpack is out of the question. All camera, climbing and camping gear needs to be kept to a bare minimum. In place of a sleeping bag, I used a thin foil-coated reflective blanket. My tent was replaced with a bivouac sac. The stove remained home along with my tripod. My camera pack, which I stuffed into an abrasion-resistant SealLine Black Canyon dry bag, contained only one 35mm body and one 24mm lens. My backpack was lined with another dry bag to protect the rest of my gear.

We spent two difficult days negotiating canyons so narrow we had to remove our packs and turn sideways to squeeze through. We lived in our wet suits to protect our bodies from abrasion and to keep warm in the icy pools. At night, our wet suits doubled as sleeping pads. Without a tripod and no image-stabilizing lens, I handheld this shot at 1⁄8 sec., with my elbows resting on my knees.

Nikon N90S, Nikkor 24mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia

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