A Lucky Day
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, May 1999

In my book, Mountain Light, I describe how those "lucky" people who make great scientific discoveries, great amounts of money, or great photographs don't just happen to be in the right place at the right time. They're there before the time is right with a headful of intimate knowledge of their field.

Though luck is defined as "the seemingly chance happening of events which affect one," Louis Pasteur said something far more relevant to creative outdoor photography: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

Most photographers are in denial about the role of luck, afraid to let the public speculate that their best work is based on it. The word is conspicuously absent from the indexes of manuals and the agendas of workshops, yet without it, photography would lose much of its joy and all of its spontaneity. Denial of luck is usually a misguided effort to have one's art taken seriously, like the planned creative acts of painters and sculptors, who can't simply glance over their shoulders while a work is nearing completion, see something new, and produce a totally different work in 1/125th of a second.

I've never minded having my photographs appear as if I just happened to be in the right place by chance. People relate to them as if they would have seen the same thing had they been there, but such is rarely the case. To see a "seemingly chance happening of events" and compose it with the visual harmony that makes for something more than a record shot requires anticipating luck before it happens.

Last year, I reached the top of Gokyo Ri, a Himalayan peaklet just under 18,000 feet, only to find thirty other trekkers occupying natural box seats among the rocks to watch the full moon rise over Mount Everest. All of them had cameras. None of them were very lucky.

A thick blanket of cloud rose from the valley floor to obscure Mount Everest just as I crested the summit ridge on my third scramble to the top in two days. The mist had risen the same way the previous evening to obscure all the high peaks in the fine last light. This time, however, high winds from the south held the cloud bank blocking the view of Everest at bay just in front of the summit. To the sides and overhead, the clouds thinned into wisps that vanished into an indigo sky. From behind, low-angled beams of sunlight shined directly into the mist.

Having studied the physics of outdoor optical effects for years, the possibility of finding multiple effects happening simultaneously in a grand natural setting had long been on my mind. I sensed that conditions were ripe, but I had no way of knowing I was about to witness the most spectacular light show of 27 trips to the Himalaya. As I ran around, photographing more haloes, glories, coronas, and god beams than I had ever seen in a single hour, the trekkers' awareness was focused on the impending moonrise and whether to descend because Everest was in cloud.

The only other person chasing the light was my trekking partner, Ervin Skalamera, an enthusiastic amateur photographer from Italy who shared my enthusiasm for searching out natural optical phenomena. As I stood atop a pinnacle jutting out from the ridge to photograph the spectre of the Brocken in blowing mist, Ervin yelled for me to come see vivid colors in god beams coming through prayer flags. We had found spectacular phenomena at the same moment in opposite directions. My spectre was a shadowy figure within a colored glory around the anti-solar point, while his unearthly beams of light were coming from the sun itself. Bands of color in the beams were caused by the intersection of the corona, a colored arc that only forms in certain-sized droplets of mist.

I positioned myself beneath the upward-slanting beams and centered the white aureole marking the heart of the corona so that its rich reds, greens, and yellows appeared in the rays seemingly emanating from the flags themselves. Then I ran back to my pinnacle just in time to photograph the spectre in rapidly thinning mist with a motor drive. I shot bursts at 3.5 frames per second during momentary clearings, but only one frame caught the full spectre in thick mist with Mount Everest poking through thinner mist above.

The spectre of the Brocken is named after a peak in the Hartz Mountains of Germany, from where it was frequently seen and considered to be a religious apparition in the Middle Ages. I understood why as I watched my shadow pulsate in three dimensions, changing apparent size in the blowing veil. Passive aircraft spectres are frequently seen around the shadow of a craft flying high over a cloud bank, but seeing your personal spectre from a mountain is as different as standing at 29,000 feet on Everest and flying at that altitude in a jet.

Though I've never been to Everest's summit, I did spend two months on its flanks as climbing leader of an expedition attempting a new route without oxygen, without Sherpas, and without a single image in fine light worthy of an exhibit print. I found out the hard way that the perspective from very high mountains is not conducive to dramatic images of lower peaks profiled against unusual light shows in the sky.

Gokyo Ri is in a more distant valley than Kala Pattar, the classic viewpoint above Everest Base Camp, where most single-mountain Everest portraits have been taken. I much prefer the fuller Gokyo panorama, where after many of the trekkers had left, the clouds suddenly lowered to reveal the moonrise over alpenglow on three of the five highest peaks in the world„Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu. Moments after sunset, the remaining trekkers left. Minutes later, the blue earth shadow rose into pink twilight behind the great peaks. Though we knew we'd be descending in the dark, there was nowhere else on Earth that we wanted to be.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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