Dispatch—Day 35: April 30, 2009
Keeping Up With the Climbers
Photo: Melissa Arnot climbs a fixed line
By Jake Norton
Video still by Gerry Moffat

Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'

It sounds pretty romantic, and lots of people envy my job. And, I must admit, I'm pretty happy with what I do for a living, and count my blessings every day. But working as an expedition photographer is not always a piece of cake. This goes for me shooting stills, as well as Gerry Moffat, Kent Harvey, and John Griber shooting our video footage. While I cannot speak exactly for them, I can give an idea of what my days on the hill are like.

Being a photographer on an expedition does not really put you into a special category. There are no chairlifts or trams waiting for us; we must climb the mountain just like anyone else, acclimating, moving up and down, and capturing images along the way.

Along with the standard equipment all of us—Ed, Peter, Melissa, Dave, Seth—carry on the hill, I also have my photo equipment. I've always been a Nikon shooter, and this is my sixth Everest expedition using Nikon gear. So in my pack is a Nikon D300 camera, chosen for its superior image quality complemented by reasonable size and weight. In addition to the D300 body, I have a handful of lenses: a Nikon 18-200mm, Nikon 50mm, Sigma 10-20mm, and a Nikon 80-200. This selection gives me a fantastic range while keeping the weight reasonable. I also bring along my Nikon SB-800 flash unit and an SC-28 remote cord for filling in faces and dark areas in this contrasty environment. Oh, and of course, extra batteries, cleaning supplies, a variety of filters, and a tripod.

My personal MO on all expeditions has always been to disrupt the flow of climbing as little as possible while shooting. Certainly there are times when the environment and risk enable me to set up shots and choreograph the scene. But, more often than not, my style is to catch what I can by moving ahead of the climbers and capturing them in real time, in real situations. (You can imagine trying to ask climbers in the Khumbu Icefall to stop for a few minutes under tons of tilting seracs while I compose a shot—not even nice to contemplate!) This style, while my preference, creates some challenges, as I am in a constant game of leapfrog, setting up a shot, shooting, repacking my gear, and shuffling ahead as fast as possible to get ahead of the climbers and find the next spot for a good image. Not easy, but it is an added challenge I strangely relish.

The other challenge with expedition photography is the need to be constantly thinking, looking around at the terrain with a creative angle, trying to find a new perspective on the environment at hand. While this terrain is so spectacular that pointing and shooting often works, the nut for me to crack is how to find a new perspective, how to tell a different story in a single frame and show what perhaps has not been shown before. This requires constant attention to the task at hand, for moments missed may never come again. But, again, this is a cerebral game that adds depth and enjoyment to the climbing at hand.

When looking at the end of the day, I must admit I long a bit for the days of film. Way back then, in the late 1990s, we'd shoot film during the day, pack it away after sunset, and the day was done—but, no longer. Digital, despite its great benefits, has caused quite a bit more work for us photographers. When the day is done, I now take my compact flash cards into our production tent, fire up my solid-state Asus laptop, download my images onto a hard drive, make a backup copy on another drive, and then edit the day’s work. Select images are spotted for dust and blemishes, captioned, resized, saved to a thumb drive, and handed over to our field producer, Cherie Silvera, for transfer via satellite phone with the day's text and video dispatch.

It all makes for a long day, to say the least, but I wouldn't change a thing about it. I love the honor of capturing the amazing people on our team and the stunning environment, and the chance to share those images and moments with a greater audience. It was, many years ago, images by Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Barry Bishop, and other greats of mountain photography that first inspired me to tread in the mountain realm. Their images shared with me a place I could scarcely imagine, bringing a new world to my doorstep in Topsfield, Massachusetts. It was through their lenses that a passion was discovered and ignited within me, and my one hope as I photograph our team and our climb is that I may share that same sense of wonder and enjoyment that hit me long ago.

Enjoy the images, and climb on, wherever your trail may lead.

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