“Have fun! Take lots of pictures!”
“Yeah, sure.” And I was out the door.
I’m lucky in that I have a lot of adventures. Freedom of spirit is a lifestyle choice I made subconciously some years ago, and one I continue to reaffirm every so often, when my restless nature tempts me to defy conventional wisdom and hit the road, or as is more often the case, the trail. I work for a bit, save for a bit, stress for a bit, and then escape to the wilderness in seek of respite from it all.
A few weeks ago, I had agreed to partake in a trip planned by an outdoor adventure company co-owned by two photographer friends of mine. Brooklyn Outfitters was leading its first ever guided winter hike up Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in the northeast and home of the World’s Worst Weather, a title it earned in 1938 when 231 mph winds gusted over the summit.
I packed my bags, debating which camera to bring. Did I want to be able to capture the highest quality images of the trip, or did I want to just make it up the Grand Lady and back down in one piece? From the summit of Mount Washington, the view is strikingly beautiful as one overlooks the entire Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The hike up travels 4,250 vertical feet over rocky terrain left by glaciers with natural gardens of alpine plants and stunted trees, all of which would be coated in thick layers of rime ice and windswept snow.
There was, of course, no guarentee we would even make it to the summit. Mount Washington has claimed over a hundred human lives, and conditions on the mountain can and do change rapidly. Even a good day can turn into a nightmare on the mountain. Smart hikers who don’t die know when to turn around. The adventure I was about to go on was not for the faint of heart. Undoubtably, it would be one worth remembering.
I finally opted to leave my 5D Mark II and wide angle lens in the car, and decided to carry my much lighter Panasonic GF-1 instead.
The first two miles to Mount Washington are relatively easy, on a broad path through the trees. After this the trail splits, and winter hikers going up the mountain turn onto Lion’s Head, heading up one of the steepest trails to the summit. As we scrambled towards treeline, the views began to open up into something incredible. The cold began to sink in faster. The wind picked up. We had to cover every part of our bodies to prevent frostbite. Head to toe, nothing was exposed, not even the skin on our faces.
The snow glistened and gleamed in the sunshine. Clear days on Mount Washington are not common, but they are beautiful when they do happen and visibility was incredible. Shrouds of white snow picked up by a steady wind streamed over the surrounding ridges like waves rippling over rocks in a stream. The blue blue sky greeted the white snow in perfect harmony where the mountainside hit the horizon. Miniature sculptures of slanted icicles, blown horizontal by the wind, rose from the landscape in crystalline beauty.
It was all mine and just what I needed.
Climbing Mount Washington in the winter is something I’ve dreamed of doing since my first visit to New Hampshire in February 2009. Then, I had snowshoed up a path just east of Pinkham Notch, the Appalachian Mountain Club Visitor’s Center that serves as the hub for folks ascending Washington. It was my first real winter hiking experience, and a bird and nature enthusiast old enough to be my father acted as my guide. The weather was fairly mild and we stayed well below treeline, but the hike was much tougher for me than my seasoned leader. It was then that I learned that people hiked up Mount Washington in winter (was that even possible?) using ice axes and crampons and other mountaineering necessities. It sounded brutal. It sounded awesome. Then and there I made up my mind to try it one day.
Then there was the rest of my life. The blur of grad school. The ever growing pile of work to be done, bills to be paid, and my shapeless future. I’m one of those people that needs a healthy dose of nature, otherwise I freak. I was in the midst of one of my “I don’t feel too good about anything” spells, and freaking was in progress.
Therefore, I decided on therapy in the form of a terrible mountain in the harshest of conditions. She challenged me. On the steep parts, my legs grew tired with extertion, but not with the weight of the world. My throat begged for water. I feared removing my balaclava to drink so I stayed thirsty, but only for water, not for joy. My progress was slow – I have short legs and going uphill is never as efficient for me as it is for some – but steady, and I knew I had it in me. I climbed and kept climbing.
I was determined to make it to the summit. Summitting was more important than pictures to me. I’d take some on the way down if I felt like it.
But I didn’t really feel like it.
My GF-1 was in the brain of my pack and easy to get to. I had on Smartwool liner gloves that would spare my fingers from numbness for a few frames, even in the bitter cold, and I wasn’t even that cold. I had prepared well, and the intense physical effort was keeping me comfortably warm. I was rather enjoying myself.
The primary reason I take photos is because I like to share my experiences and the beauty of nature with others. I like to capture those special moments and special places that I come across on my adventures – be they big ones or small ones – and show them to other people that couldn’t be there with me at the time. Photography is how I connect my life to the lives of others; it is an integral part of my identity.
This I didn’t feel like sharing.
My journey up Mount Washington was in some way private. It was intensely personal. It was me against my self-destructive psyche, against the part of me that was hungry and tired, against my imperfect and out of shape body and my uncertain future. Mount Washington and Old Man Winter were challenging me, not my friends at home or strangers browsing my website. Mother Nature was daring me to fail, not others.
There wasn’t any place else in the world I would rather have been than in those moments as they happened on the mountain. I decided all I wanted from those moments was to experience them, to be fully present. I wanted to live in each moment as completely as possible. I find it easy to get wrapped up in taking photos sometimes. Sometimes photography is a distraction.
Memories are sometimes the most beautiful thing we have. Photographs can capture memories, true, but they can taint them too, because photographs don’t adequately capture a complete experience. Events are experienced through multiple senses simulataneously; they are not two dimensional. Also, our memories aren’t perfect reflections of reality. They have emotions attached to them, and everything we see, hear, smell, and experience is colored by the flavor of our hearts and souls.
In reality, photographs are sorry excuses for memories of experiences. The photographs I would have taken on Mount Washington would only have captured a fraction of what I saw, a small detail of the whole experience, and not with the richness that it deserved.
For example, no photograph can capture the way your nose feels when the hairs inside your nostrils freeze. If you like the cold, like me, it makes you feel alive. Frozen nostril hairs are the sign of impending adventure; I’ve never had frozen nostril hairs and not had a good time.
I don’t remember everything about the trip. I’d like to say that if I close my eyes, I can go back to the mountain but I can’t. The experience came and went, and in my memory some of the details are fuzzy and some are clear as day. A few visuals stick out in my head, like the look of the observatory encapsuled in rime ice, or the alpine garden bent over with the weight of snow and pressure of surviving in one of the harshest environments on earth.
I can hear the squeaky crunch of an ice axe and crampons on frozen snow. That sound is the most distinctive thing I remember of the whole trip, and as I was climbing, as I was using my axe, I was very conscious of the sound, how new it was to me, how I couldn’t quite describe it in words. That stays with me.
The rest, I forget. The memories come and go, washing over me like waves of snow blowing over the mountains.
There are photos from the trip. Brooklyn Outfitters takes photos on every trip, and the guides are often pretty good photographers, as was the case on this adventure. Thanks to them, for the first time in a long time I have photos with me in them doing something cool.
Do I regret not taking my own photos? No. I’ll go back. I’ll climb the beast again. I’ll take photos when it strikes me to do so. But I refuse to be married to my camera and divorced from the world I live in and the entirety of the experiences around me.
How many times do wonderful things happen to us and we think, darn, I wish I had my camera? As photographers, we want to capture the things that happen around us. But it’s important to remember than even the best photographs cannot capture what happens to us.
And what happens to us shapes who we are.
And who we are is more important than the images we take.
When I came home from my Mount Washington adventure, I didn’t have a single photo to share with a soul. My friends, roommates, and fellow photographers were shocked, after all, photography has often been the reason I get out to see and experience all that I have. Yet, I know I made the right choice because my spirit is restored, and I feel whole again.
Next time, I’ll take pictures.