BEHIND THE SHOT: 2001 Backcountry Catalog
Bold, authentic and inspirational images have been a cornerstone of Black Diamond culture since day one. The pictures that fill our catalogs, website, ads and posters aren't just a portal for visual storytelling, they are the essence of what Black Diamond is all about. In this ongoing series, we'll take a look at some of Black Diamond's most powerful and inspiring images, both old and new, and get the stories behind the shots from the photographers and athletes who made them happen.
This month we dig back in the archives to our 2001 Backcountry catalog, which featured a classic shot taken by skier and former Black Diamond employee Andrew McLean during an expedition to the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Not only is Andrew a pioneering ski mountaineer both here in the Wasatch and the world over, but he developed some of Black Diamond's most innovative products during his 13 year stint as a product designer, including the HotWire carabiner and the Whippet ski pole. Read on for Andrew's story behind the shot.
That shot brings back many happy and chilly memories. It was from a trip to Antarctica where we were at the Patriot Hills camp over New Years, but I'm not sure if it was 2000 or 2001.
The premise of the trip was to shoot a film for WBGH Boston on a Vinson Massif traverse. I think this idea was originated by Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker, and at first it was going to be a very lengthy, technical North/South traverse. Although Alex died in 1999, the idea of the trip lived on and was put together by Conrad, who invited me along as a Field Guide, along with Dave Hahn.
The trip was a first ascent of the Vinson Massif from the east side via the Dater and Branscomb glaciers. The climb wasn't overly technical and the real difficulty was just in getting to the basecamp, which involved one of the sketchiest glacier landings I'd ever experienced. The day before we had coordinated with the pilot as to where we wanted to land, and when the time came he put it down exactly on the knoll we were talking about, even though it had huge sun cups and sustrugi all over it. The second plane landed about 200 yards away on smooth snow, and 20 minutes later, when our pilot finally started speaking again, we asked him why he landed on the knoll instead of the flat field. "I thought that's where you wanted to be." Given that we had a 20+ mile route ahead of us, a few hundred feet hardly mattered, but I'm glad he stuck the landing and the plane wasn't wrecked.
The main crux of the trip turned out to be the logistics involved with filming. There were eight people on the climb, including Dan Stone (Glaciologist), Conrad Anker (Climber), Jon Krakauer (Historian), John Armstrong (lead camera), Liesl Clark (Producer), Rob Raker (Sound), Dave Hahn and myself. The plan was to dig huge snowpits all along the route to study the snow depths and layers, but as we got higher, the snow was so dense that it was impossible, so they changed tactics with the film and made it more history based rather than science. The end product was called "Trapped in Ice."
Our daily routine was for the film crew to spend a day shooting video while Dave and I shuttled loads up to a new camp, then skied back down. That way we would spend two nights at each camp before moving, and when we did move, we had already hauled a bunch of the gear and got the new camp semi set up before everyone arrived. This photo was taken on one of the days when we were moving up the Dater Glacier. Dave and I had gotten off to an early start to get the new camp set up while the camera crew was shooting some video and following along behind. At one point Dave and I stopped on top of a knoll, and I shot this photo looking back at the second group following along behind us.
One of the wild things about Antarctica is that because of the lack of trees or familiar landmarks, the sense of scale is very hard to judge. It's common to underestimate a peak by thousands of feet. This photo illustrates that idea of huge terrain and tiny people.
While skiing on the Antarctic Peninsula has become much more popular since 2001, skiing around on the interior is still fairly rare due to the expense of getting there. The difference between the peninsula and the interior is like the difference between Los Angeles and Bozeman, Montana. On any given day in the winter, they are on the same continent, but are completely different worlds as far as temperature, weather, wildlife (or lack of it) and remoteness. As far as skiing goes, the peninsula gets more snow and is relatively warmer, which means that it sticks to the slopes a bit better. Between this, the relative ease of boat access and the compact mountainous terrain, the peninsula is much more skiable in a turn-for-turn kind of way. The interior has bigger peaks, but the approaches are huge, the snow is generally windblasted and the weather is much more extreme as far as cold goes. I think it was clear, sunny and minus-40 when we topped out on Vinson.
We used skis for almost all of this route, but didn't take them to the summit as we had so much gear and it was more of a climbing/filming trip than a ski trip. That said, this line would have been very skiable from the summit, as are quite a few lines on Vinson. If you took that exact line and moved it to the Wasatch, it would be trivial, but the real challenge is in being overly cautious as something like a ripped ACL could be life threatening for the entire team.