I often advise photographers to shoot away on foreign travels because film costs are minor compared to the rest of their budget. However, this is not always the case. My photography far exceeded the cost of a recent expedition to the world's highest peak in the tropical latitudes. In the first week after I returned home, sales for a calendar more than covered all my film and processing costs, but it's the other side of the ledger that's more surprising.
When we added up the cost of our successful expedition on the back of an envelope, we had spent just $34.00 per person to climb 22,206-foot Huascaran in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Expeditions to Himalayan peaks often cost more than $10,000 per person.
Our fantastically low expenditures were due to a number of unusual circumstances. My partners, Renzo Uccelli of Lima and Sevi Bohorquez of Spain, were already in Peru. My travel costs had been covered as the leader of two prior photo treks. No permit fees are required. The high peaks are reasonably close to roads in a country where food and services are inexpensive.
Even though purchasing and processing the fifteen rolls of film that I shot on the mountain cost six times as much as the climb itself, my photography remained in near-perfect balance with my pursuit of personal adventure. By taking only one camera with a 24mm lens plus a telephoto zoom on the upper mountain, I could freely move around without appreciably slowing down the progress of the climb. A tiny tripod enabled me to take calendar-sharp f16 images at dawn and dusk, as well as self-portraits on the summit.
Through prior networking, I'd arranged to team up with Renzo and Sevi in the mountain city of Huaraz at the end of my treks. We needed to ascend Huascaran as efficiently as possible because I had only one spare week. We weren't trying to save money; we just got a lot for our $34.00. Instead of relying on public transport, we hired a private van to take us about fifty miles into the mountains. From the roadhead, two burros carried our 80-pound packs up to the beginning of the steep climbing at 13,000 feet. We also paid a local to share some of our load to the base of the glacier at 15,500 feet and watch a cache of extra food and camera gear while we were on the upper mountain.
As we climbed higher, we met several descending teams who had failed to reach the summit. A snow bridge had collapsed over a major crevasse, exposing vertical ice cliffs. We then joined an Italian, an Austrian and a German to pool our ice hardware and climb past the obstacle. Our group opted to climb the slightly lower north summit, which has a more impressive view of the surrounding high peaks. On the last morning of the climb, low clouds were moving in from the east. Being well acclimatized from two months in the Andes, I unroped and reached the summit barely in time to photograph the magic of some of the most famous peaks in the Andes disappearing in the mist. The others arrived in a white-out.
I've learned to operate my Nikon N90s quite well with gloves on in cold situations by dividing my snow and ice photography into two separate categories. If I am photographing climbers or open landscapes in full lighting, I simplify shooting by using auto-focus and auto-exposure modes with a plus .7 exposure compensation to hold the snow reasonably white. For scenic photographs in the warm light of sunrise and sunset, however, I do not compensate exposure. I want to capture the rich, warm tonality of the sunlight on the snow, which is no different than warm light reflecting off sand or granite. I begin shooting right on my camera's meter reading and bracket on each side wherever possible. For close-ups of my climbing companions, I take a reading off the back of my hand held against the sky and set it a manual exposure.
Temperatures dropped near zero when I got up at three in the morning at 20,000 feet for the final assault. From my polar experiences, I knew that the key to cold weather photography is keeping two things operating at all times: fingers and batteries. My solution to the finger problem was dropping a pair of Grabber chemical hand-warmer pads that last eight hours between my inner and outer sets of gloves. When I had to take my hands out of the outer gloves to change film or set small controls on a breezy pass before sunrise, I was able to quickly thrust them back into a pair of very warm mitts. My battery problems were solved by using Energizer lithium AAs in my N90s. Nikon recently dropped their earlier recommendation not to use these slightly higher voltage units in their electronic cameras after encountering no problems during several years of informal trials. Energizer lithium AAs cost much more, but weigh 40 percent less, work below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and last at least three times as long in low temperatures.
Could I have improved my coverage? Certainly. On assignment for a major magazine or ad agency, I would have brought along more equipment and paid assistants to help carry it. I could have brought back more saleable images of controlled situations, but at the high price of loss of spontaneity and active participation in the natural unfolding of a personal adventure. The batteries that keep my cameras working might as well die in the darkness of my camera bag if my personal batteries are not constantly recharged by the direct encounters with the natural world that first gave me the burning desire to interpret that experience in photographs.