Montana-based photographer Gordon Wiltsie is one of the world‚’s foremost expedition photographers, having recorded the exploits of many great explorers, including Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker, Will Steger, Jon Krakauer, David Breashears and Norman Vaugh
By Mark Edward Harris
Outdoor Photographer: You’ve had some amazing adventures with so many legends, including Norman Vaughan.
Wiltsie: Norman Vaughan was the last remaining member of Richard Byrd’s 1928 expedition to the South Pole. I guided him up a 10,000-foot mountain in Antarctica when he was almost 90 because it was named after him. In 1929, he was a strapping Harvard graduate who teamed with renowned Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd. They traveled more than 1,700 miles through complete wilderness and set up America’s first base on the continent. Ever since, it had been Vaughan’s dream to climb "his" mountain.
The best part of the trip for me was watching Vaughan’s growing elation—and exhaustion—as we got closer and closer to the top. We reached the summit near midnight and tried to light 89 sparklers as birthday candles atop his "cake." We couldn’t get a single one lit.
Outdoor Photographer: You had another amazing adventure in Antarctica climbing an incredible formation—the Razor.
Wiltsie: That was a formation I had to conquer. Even though I lived near Yosemite National Park, I was never successful at climbing huge, overhanging granite walls I went on to become an alpine mountain guide, leading ordinary people up glaciers and peaks in the Sierra. I even guided two 23,000-foot peaks in the Himalaya. Then, during an aerial reconnaissance in 1995, I spotted one of the most dramatic rock spires I had ever seen. It cast a shadow that looked like a knife blade. It was appropriately named the Razor. All I needed were the world’s best big-wall climbers to ascend the beast and create some awesome photography.
Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8
Nikkor 12-24mm f/4
Our team consisted of people considered to be the greatest in their fields: the late Alex Lowe—then considered to be the world’s greatest mountaineer; Conrad Anker, who earlier discovered George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest; writer Jon Krakauer; author and filmmaker Rick Ridgeway; Emmy Award-winning videographer Michael Graber; and, of course, myself. Every one of us considered it to be the best expedition of our lives.
Outdoor Photographer: Even though you had started out early in life as an adventure photographer, could you have imagined yourself sharing the ropes with such a unique group of people?
Wiltsie: At the beginning of my photographic career, my dream was to cover exotic peoples and vanishing cultures. At that point in time, however, individual adventure travel was just beginning to become a reality and gain traction with a wider audience. Looking back now, I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve almost been killed in the wilderness.
I recently had an assignment that proved to be far more adventurous and dangerous than I ever predicted. It was a National Geographic story about a semiannual migration in Mongolia. For starters, Mongolians may be the best horse riders in the world, and I was very inexperienced. It was tough, but by the end, I could gallop in the middle of a herd, camera in one hand, reins in the other, and fire off frames at 1/4000 second. I also felt integrated into a culture that has changed little over the past 800 years, since the time when Genghis Khan conquered most of the known world.