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Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Comfort In The Backcountry


Get a roof over your head and inspiring locations for photos by exploring the possibilities of remote lodges


While it may be a simple endeavor to spend a week photographing in the high country during the gravy days of summer based out of a tent, winter conditions make it much more difficult. Most huts and lodges in the Canadian Rockies are now open in winter and can be accessed via helicopter if you wish to avoid skis or snowshoes. I don't need to mention the obvious advantages of having a warm room at night to dry out camera gear and heat up your fingers before you venture outside for another round of photography.

If you're looking for something along the lines of a storm-battered shelter in a spectacular alpine setting, it's tough to beat the hut system in Mount Cook and Westland national parks in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. While the calendar may indicate summer, be prepared for raging blizzards at the Tasman Saddle or Grand Plateau huts any month of the year.

The first thing I noticed when I visited the Tasman Saddle hut many years ago was the system of steel cables bolted into the surrounding bedrock that hold the hut in place during typical "blows." This is one of the few huts in the world where you need to rope up when you visit the latrine. There are few places on Earth with such easy access to huge glaciated mountains, and these huts provide the only reasonable shelter. Surviving in a tent could be just that.
Essential Gear
Digital gives us a chance to do something we could never do with film: back up and protect our images while still in the field. Of course, even though cabins and lodges make the backcountry more comfortable, we still don't want to carry too much. Two main choices emerge for backup—small, portable hard drives, such as those from Kanguru, and portable CD burners, like RoadStor from MicroSolutions.

Both have built-in card readers to download images from memory cards and both will work with battery power. The lightweight, compact hard drives store many gigabytes of data quite easily. However, they're more sensitive to being roughly handled. The durable burners let you create multiple CDs for reliable backup, but the CDs are limited to approximately 700 MB of data each.

Digital gives us a chance to do something we could never do with film: back up and protect our images while still in the field. Of course, even though cabins and lodges make the backcountry more comfortable, we still don't want to carry too much. Two main choices emerge for backup—small, portable hard drives, such as those from Kanguru, and portable CD burners, like RoadStor from MicroSolutions. Both have built-in card readers to download images from memory cards and both will work with battery power. The lightweight, compact hard drives store many gigabytes of data quite easily. However, they're more sensitive to being roughly handled. The durable burners let you create multiple CDs for reliable backup, but the CDs are limited to approximately 700 MB of data each.

I once spent seven days hunkered down in the Grand Plateau hut during early summer while successive storm fronts hammered the mountains around us. I had planned to photograph a climb of Mount Cook up the famed Linda Face, but the chest-deep snow and constant storms thwarted our efforts. While we managed to get out of the hut for brief sessions of photography between fronts, we never had a chance to climb Cook. If we had been in a tent, our rescue team would have needed sonar to locate us. Ten days after I returned home, the entire northeast corner of the mountain fell off in what geologists called a one-in-10,000-year geologic event. The Linda Face was gone. We would have been the last party to climb it.

The huts in Mount Cook and Westland parks provide bunks with mattresses, cooking equipment and utensils. Your body is your only heat source. You'll need to bring a sleeping bag and food. You can get there in fixed-wing ski planes followed by a short traverse on skis or snowshoes. Unless you're familiar with glacier travel techniques, I'd highly recommend contacting Alpine Guides in the park. They can book the huts, arrange your flights and provide fully guided trips up the high peaks and across the heavily crevassed terrain.

If given a choice, I usually prefer to spend my backcountry nights in a tent or out in the open under the stars. I've discovered, however, that it's not so bad, every once in a while, to have a roof over my head and a warm, dry place to lay out my camera gear at the end of the day. While I wouldn't like to see shelters festooning every ridgeline in every mountain range, the occasional hut or lodge often can bring welcome relief. Judging by their increasing popularity over the last couple decades, many people would agree.



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