I was born in 1956 in Verdun, France and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Inthe 1970’s, I read an article by Sierra climbing and skiing legend Doug Robinson in which he described skiing the John Muir Trail without carrying a stove or maps. I had taken up climbing, skiing, and wilderness travel in my teens, and this article inspired me to take a winter tour of the same trail. Actually, the inspiration came when I flourished the article in my friend Jim Keating’s face at a party. Jim turned beer influenced cheerleading into the positive action of setting out food caches. In March of 1979, we started out on what would be a month-long test our mettle. The trail affected me in a profound way, leading to my becoming a climber and a photographer.
Our trek took us to vistas of indescribable wilderness beauty. At times the mountains would seem to embrace our presence; then Pacific-driven storms would rage at our youthful audacity. We heard the deafening roar of avalanches, a sound that was both terrifying and exhilarating; at other times a winter stillness would surround us for days on end. I found that the mountains brought out more emotions in me than I ever knew I had. They seemed to grab hold of my very soul, and I had the clear sense that these mountains were where I belonged.
I had chronicled our trip on film but was not satisfied with my visual journal. I made one photo of Jim skiing down Mather Pass that summed up the trip for me. One picture repeated the story of the Muir Trail. I never took another snap shot.
I loved skiing and climbing, but the insights were very personal. I never carried a camera on a climb. Photography, on the other hand, was a compulsion of another sort. There were times in the mountains that I yelled with joy at the top of my lungs and making a photograph added additional volume to my outbursts. Photography became an arduous form of expression.
After the Muir Trail, my life fell into the rhythm of ski patrolling at Bear Valley/ Mount Reba in the winters and guiding climbing and doing maintenance work at Tioga Pass Resort in the summer. I married Nancy Ingersoll, yet another Tioga Pass beauty in 1982.
I interrupted my time in the Sierra in 1983. I went on a serious high altitude side trip to the West Ridge of Mount Everest.
I tried to run a mountaineer’s four-minute mile to the top of the peak without supplemental oxygen but high winds stopped me at 27,500 feet.
The trip convinced me that the Himalaya held no sway with my climbing or photographic ambitions.
I did dig the medieval streets of Kathmandu where, for training purposes only, fellow team members purchased a ball of hash the size of a grapefruit. No names will be mentioned as we’re pillars of the community at this stage in life.
I returned to the “gentle wilderness” where I found my climbing mettle on hard first ascents in Tuolumne Meadows. Vern Clevenger and I teamed up for a decade of the toughest climbs in the Meadows and High Sierra. Nancy was dragged into my testosterone drive to prove myself in the climbing game. We pulled through some unforgettable adventures and Nancy deserves a reward for dealing with the hard ball first ascents we made together in the backcountry.
In 1984 Vern and I sank our teeth into, what at the time was the ultimate game in Yosemite Valley.
We made the one-day ascent of the West Face of El Capitan and the Nose of El Cap in 1984. In 1985 we made the second one-day ascent of the Salathe Wall and the speed record of the climb. This marked the end of my hard climbing and a dramatic change in my life. Nancy and I moved to the eastside of the Sierra where we had bought a lot at Crowley Lake. I set to work building our home, the home we still live in, out of salvage lumber. The move spelled the end of my time as a migrant worker in recreation and my sink or swim jump into the construction pool. I kept my head above water long enough to join the ranks of general contractors in the resort town of Mammoth Lakes. I’m proficient but not particularly passionate working in the trades. It’s a living.
Photography continued through the 80’s and into the 90’s. I never lost the whoop of joy setting up my 4×5 camera and clicking the shutter in front of some unreal scene. Talk about transcendence, revelrie, proof of God. maybe my reaction is just some organic process in my brain, but I’ll take more of the same, please…
In 1995 I had a great time working with Steve Roper on my second book, The High Sierra: Wilderness of Light. Roper’s as foul mouthed as all the rumors. He’s also very bright, compassionate and funny as hell. My first book Sierra Classics was one of the “best of’s” guide books that I wanted to do as a way to get the interviews out that I had done with Sierra climbing legends Dave Brower, Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson and Richard Leonard. A lucky privilege to have met them all.
1995 was also the year that Nancy and I had our daughter Laurel. I was still clinging to the hope, dream, belief that I could make a living as a photographer but Laurel’s birthday kept me literally in the trenches of construction. This ended up being a real blessing as my multiple attempts at turning photographs into money fell flat. I finally had this epiphany: a potential client called to order three prints. He asked for the particular photos at twenty by twenty-four-inch image size and the asked for a multiple print discount. I looked at the receiver and said matter of factly that I did not make my living as a photographer and that I did not need to sell him these prints. As a matter of fact, selling him the prints was more of a pain in the ass than anything else. But, but, he stammered. Look, I’ll sell you the prints as sort of a thanks for the clarity.
With Laurel in tow, I decided to explore the Great Basin. The light in this mountain/desert/desert/mountain region had felt otherworldly since I was the kid sitting in the family station wagon on our ominous drives across “the desert”. Nancy quickly tired of the endless miles and wind whipped camping so I made one hundred thousand miles of excursions with Michael Cohen and my Dad. It was like a backpack trip in the land cruiser. The Basin never disappointed. We always seemed to find more hidden worlds than the map revealed. The trip turned into a book A Vast and Ancient Wilderness: Images of the Great Basin and a few standout pictures of the place.My last book, Yosemite Once Removed: Portraits of the Backcountry was mostly a kick in the pants to explore the Yosemite National Park backcountry. Roper claimed it was more of the same but I came to disagree. The canyons were far less visited than the big mountains to the south. The character of the country was like what I would imagine walking through the Shire would be. There were hidden gardens, sounds of cascades, and surprises on a smaller scale The past fifteen years have bumped along in something of a rhythm. There’s the annual family backpack trip and the trip with my old friend Danny Whitmore where we pry our aging bodies a bit back toward youth with some climbing and mountaineering. My mid life crisis has come in the form of discovering for myself a different place: the Brooks Range of Alaska. I don’t know what prompted me to call my old friend Tom Rambo. Tom and I ski patrolled together and climbed Denali in 1984. He was plowing through a Ph.D. at Davis. Maybe this was the old friendship that I would pay due diligence to. Our first trip was a 2004 float down the Hulahula river with a climb of Mount Michelson. A perfect intro to Alaska. The raft had polar bear bite holes that needed to be repaired, the tundra was a paisley carpet of color, and the light was like none I had ever seen. Muir had it wrong when he deemed the Sierra “the range of light”. It’s the Brooks. The influence of weather coming off the coast, the mountains, clouds, snow and rain from every compass direction, creating a confluence of light.
I’ve been back to the Brooks four times. In 2007 Tom and I flew to the Jago River headwaters.We did the first ascent of the east face of Mount Isto. Until recently Isto was thought to be the highest peak in the Brooks. We brought what ended up being a useless rope and rack of climbing hardware. Summit Mount Isto The disintegrating rock pulled out like drawers. I flipped my stomach looking down to the glacier a vertical mile below us. Oh what fun…once an adrenaline junkie, always…. ”.Then we took a two person SOARs inflatable canoe down one hundred class 4 wild river miles to the Beaufort Sea.This was the first top to bottom descent of the Jago. The end of the trip involved paddling back to Barter Island, our bush flight jump off spot. Wind made breakers pounding the boat and my anxiety.
Tom and I will make one last excursion to the Brooks. The plan is to climb Mount Chamberlin, now acknowledged as the highest peak in the range, cross over from the unsettling named Carnivore creek to the Hulahula river drainage. Then cross to the south side of the Brooks to the Chandalar river, pick up a canoe and paddle to Arctic village. Tom wants to see the taiga forest in arctic autumn splendor. Seems like a long means to an end but it’s the stuff that keeps us turning life’s page.
Plus, you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks
Crowley Lake, 2009