We’ve just returned to civilization after 8 days camped out in the mighty Fitz Roy range near El Chaltén in Argentine Patagonia. One of my main goals of this return trip to El Chaltén was to capture a photo that I have been dreaming about since my last trip to Patagonia four years ago. I was prepared to spend a week or more waiting for the perfect opportunity to accomplish this photo, and to repeat the efforts with stubborn determination until I did it. I want to talk a bit more about my experience behind this “dream shot” since it epitomizes everything I love about mountain photography!
El Chaltén Dream
Back in 2007, I spent two weeks in the Fitz Roy range with my 4×5 camera, hiking around to all kinds of obscure viewpoints every morning like a madman. One morning, I hiked up to the still-partially-frozen Laguna de los Tres for sunrise, and scored one of my favorite Patagonian photos. I was stoked. After the sunrise it was still early, with very calm weather, so I decided to go for the summit of nearby Cerro Madsen. I had no info whatsoever about any route up Madsen, or if it was even possible without climbing gear, but I had scoped it out from different perspectives the previous days and thought that I had figured out a route that would go. The route turned out to be a very fun and challenging scramble, with numerous little obstacles and puzzles along the way, even including a pretty long knife-edge section with gaping abysses on both sides. I made it to the summit, took a photo, and got back down just in time before the Patagonian winds started howling again. It felt great to climb this mountain using only my own reconnaissance and instincts – for all I knew I was the first person to ever climb it… Of course that’s not true, but it felt that way to me!
I wondered about how amazing it would be to get up on that summit for a sunrise, but at the time it seemed like quite an accomplishment for me to have gotten there at all – getting up there for sunrise would be a bit much. But the seed was planted in my head. In the run up to our trip to Patagonia this year the idea starting growing again. My memories of the climb had faded a bit, and now it didn’t seem to me like it would be so impossible. It would be my holy grail grand finale photo of our three month trip down the Andes. So I decided to give it a serious effort. I had my challenge. The hike itself is not what concerned me since that was the only part squarely in my control. Given enough time, along with the long period of dawn light in the summer here, the hike would be strenuous but straightforward. What worried me was the unlikeliness of the convergence of good light, decent clouds but not so much to cover the peak of Fitz Roy (as is very often the case), and most importantly not having the usual ferocious winds that could fling me off that knife edge scramble. We were stocked up with enough food for a week at the base camp area, and as I mentioned before, I was prepared to stubbornly repeat my efforts every morning until I hopefully scored the perfect conditions.
Well, very fortunately, on the first morning's attempt this happened:
I scored my “dream shot” on the very first morning! I timed it just right with the 2:00am start. The scramble was just as tricky and fun and challenging as I remembered it, and I arrived at the summit just in time to take some dawn shots and then wait for the real sunrise light. I was troubled by a thick cloud on the eastern horizon that I was sure was going to block the sunrise light; I was sure I would have to repeat the hike again for better light. But the cloud dispersed right before sunrise and when the tip of Fitz Roy started glowing faintly reddish pink with the very first rays of sunlight, I knew I was in for a good show! As the sun rose fully above the horizon, the light got more and more intense, finally descending onto the glaciers below the rock faces at the peak of pinkish-orange intensity. I was shooting the photos as if in a dream and I started to wonder if maybe it was actually one of those awful photography dreams where you always lose your photos once you wake up. But no, it was real and I was photographing perhaps the most amazing sunrise scene I’ve ever witnessed in my life. If my photos from that morning convey even one quarter of the glory of that scene, I will be a happy photographer.
After spending three more days camped below Fitz Roy in poorer weather, we headed over to Lago Torre, below the jagged spire of Cerro Torre. Again, the first morning there I had good luck with gorgeous sunrise light and decently calm reflection conditions. In a stark contrast with my “dream shot” of Fitz Roy that I just described above, getting to Lago Torre at sunrise involves merely a sleepy 5 or 10 minute stroll from the campsite to the lake.
The contrast between these two photo scenarios illustrates why I believe that the experiences behind the photos matter so much. With landscape photos like these, much of the creative spark lies within that experience behind the photo – the process of discovering unique locations and perspectives and photo ideas, and then the physical challenge of accomplishing the task. There are those who will look at the two photos objectively and may prefer one or the other for purely visual reasons, with no concept or care of the story behind them. But for me – and for those who can understand and appreciate the challenges behind the photos – the experience shines through bright and clear.