Do you have a desire to give back?
Last summer I bumped into Nikki McGee, founder of EMG, Elevated Mountain Guides, while shooting an event in Salt Lake City. I quickly learned that she and a few others were headed to Peru in November to teach a wilderness medicine course at a school in Huaraz. I told her I would love to help.
Don’t get me wrong, photographing action and adventure is a blast, but recently I’ve been looking for ways to get involved with organizations that give back to the outdoor community and working with EMG fit that bill. And beside, our passions go beyond the outdoor activities we participate in. Right?… Or maybe it’s just my restlessness that has me constantly on the move.
So a few emails and phone calls later I was on a plane to Lima and then a bus to Huaraz. This project was a departure from the norm. Instead of focusing on an objective like a summit, climb, trail, etc., and creating shiny picture-perfect images, I had the opportunity to slow down and absorb things as they came. Fear and self doubt were ever present as I opened up to others and developed relationships, but as you probably already know, this world is filled with amazing people. So by the end of our short time there I’d gotten to know the vibrant outdoor community of Huaraz, made several new friends, and realized how lucky we all are to live in this stunning world we call home. The chifa, ceviche, lomo saltado, mountains, lakes, taxis, car horns, rooster calls, and markets left a lasting impression. And it was beautiful. So much so that I’m headed back with my entire family this June.
Elevated Mountain Guides (https://www.elevatedmountainguides.org) , EMG, is a nonprofit helping underserved communities access the outdoors.
It began as gathering and delivering used climbing gear to the technical institute in Huaraz and has now blossomed into teaching wilderness medicine in South America and developing youth after-school-outdoor programs in the United States.
My task was to come back with both still and motion pictures. The still images will be used for websites, printed brochures, social media, and to spread their message. The motion clips are used as the back drop to a voice-over taken from a few interviews conducted over the last four months.
Click the video below to watch this six minute piece, which is part profile, part event documentation, and 100% gorilla-style, going fast and light.
*Indoor climbing footage courtesy of Nicole Passeri.
Over the winters I’ve gone to Cody, Wyoming for the ice climbing in the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Each of these trips consisted of arriving to Cody well after dark, driving up the canyon before sunrise, whacking ice all day, returning to town late, eating one pot meals off a single burner stove in a motel room, sleeping, then repeating the process until I was too tired to continue. The trips always ended with a bleary-eyed drive home to Salt Lake City without ever exploring the town and its surroundings. This February I fell into an opportunity to fix all that.
Travel Wyoming had put together a Wild West Wyoming Winter Tour through the northwest corner of the state. Two days in and around Cody and one day in Thermopolis. Through luck, persistence, and perhaps a lack of oversight from Travel Wyoming, I managed to get an invite and before they could rescind or catch their error I was on the road rolling north through the sage plains of central Wyoming.
Below the eastern slopes of the Absaroka Mountains near the banks of the Shoshone River is the town of Cody. The main drag through town, Sheridan Avenue, runs east/west and is lined with western themed hotels, cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops, all tipping their hats to the area’s frontier past.
The tour began by meeting the rest of the crew of Brandon Eckroth, Courtney Steeves, Jenna Spesard, and Tia Troy at the Yellowstone Regional Airport then heading down Sheridan Ave to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. At first glance you could easily write the center off as a tourist trap, but that would be wrong. Within its walls are five museums. And when I say five, I mean that each of them could easily be stand-alone destinations in any metropolitan area. The Cody Firearms Museum houses the largest collection of American-made firearms in the world. The Whitney Museum of Western Art is a fascinating look at the western United States through the eyes of numerous artists and mediums. The Plains Indian Museum is a comprehensive look into the evolving lives of the Plains Indians. The Buffalo Bill Museum is focused on the life of guide, scout, frontiersman, actor, showman, and founder of Cody who became an American icon. The Draper Natural History Museum is an in-depth journey that takes you deep into greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Our entire group agreed that there are so many things to see and study at the Center of the West that one visit is definitely not enough. Luckily, a pass to the center is actually good for two days. I will definitely go back.
After having my mind blown at the Center of the West we drove down the avenue to the Cody Firearm Experience. The owner Paul Brock, a former curator for the Cody Firearms Museum, had the brilliant idea of combining the history of firearms in America with a gun range, giving visitors a one-of-a-kind interactive experience. A prominent display of replica firearms at the entrance shows the history and evolution of the guns in the West. Visitors have their choice of which firearms to use, ranging from way back up to the latest makes and models. Under Paul’s supervision we were allowed to squeeze off a few rounds. Our group settled on a Colt Walker Conversion revolver (cowboy gun) and a Winchester Colt 45 Rifle. Paul offered up a Gatling gun to test out, but none of us had the nerve.
Day two began in the dark with a predawn drive up the North Fork Highway, not too different from my previous visits to Cody. But for this early start we were rewarded with a technicolor light show above the Shoshone River. After a quick photo snapping session, we met Terry Dolan from Gary Fales Outfitting in the tiny town of Wapiti then headed west to where they stopped plowing U.S. Highway 14. Terry would be guiding us on a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone. We suited up as he ran us through the operations of the sleds and the do’s and do nots of a winter tour in the park. Stay on the road, single file, obey the speed limit, and pull over as far as possible when we stop.
Under cloudy skies we hummed into the park via the east entrance. Up to Sylvan Pass we wound our way along the snow-covered road and witnessed the scenery open up into swaths of evergreens, steep canyons, and stark ghost forests – loud reminders of wildfires from the recent past. Descending to Yellowstone Lake the horizon opened to an undefinable expanse layered with subtle hues of winter. Along the way Terry pointed out land marks and wildlife. Snowy bison, a lethargic coyote, trumpeter swans, and birds of prey. We stopped to eat lunch at the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut while Ranger Miller give us an update on the winter happening in Yellowstone. After lunch we made our way to the jaw dropping views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I’ve never really considered taking a snowmobile tour of the park before this trip but having experienced the undeniable beauty of Yellowstone in winter, without the crowds, the pressure, and expectations, I have to say that it’s something I won’t forget. If you have the opportunity I highly recommend it.
The temperature plummeted going into the third day of our trip making it the perfect time to head to Hot Springs County. A short 85-mile drive through snowy pronghorn country landed us in the energy and tourism town of Thermopolis. Surrounded by mountains and sitting just north of the dramatic Wind River Canyon, Themop, as the locals call it, is home to one of the world’s largest natural hot springs and dinosaurs. That’s right, dinosaur remains were discovered in the area in the 1990’s and soon after the Wyoming Dinosaur Center was created. This paleontological gem is filled with life-size replicas, prehistoric skeletons, and numerous dioramas, a visit to the center is an awesome look back to a land before time and makes for a perfect pre-hot springs outing.
Water from the Big Horn Spring flows over beautiful mineral colored terraces into the river at the north end of Thermopolis. This spring, which has been used by native Americans for millennia, was sold to the government from the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes through a treaty in 1896 with the condition they remain free to the public. Hot Springs State Park with it trails, swinging bridge, flower gardens, boat launches, bison herd, parks, picnic areas, and free public bathhouse is the result.
Full disclosure; I’ve been to Thermopolis several times during summer climbing and camping trips to Ten Sleep Canyon. At only sixty miles away the free bathhouse offered a great rest day recovery activity with the added bonus of a free shower! But, soaking in the public bathhouse’s outdoor pool in the middle of winter, with a water temperature near 104 degrees and an air temperature in the teens, was more refreshing than can be described. Doing it alone on Super Bowl Sunday, when everyone had gone home to watch the game, was more priceless than the admission.
After having a good long soak, I opted for a quiet walk in the park while the rest of the crew headed into the Wind River Canyon. Watching the steam rise over Smoking Water Park is as amazing as the ice formations that cling to the mineral terraces. Making my way across the swinging bridge, over the Big Horn River I was given a fabulous vantage point of the entire park.
The final morning of our trip was spent with Barb and Merlin Heinze at their place in Thermopolis. The visit was an incredible look inside the handcrafted fur and leather clothing trade. Merlin’s Hideout is a tannery, sewing studio, and custom clothing retail shop with a reputation for buffalo fur coats. Quick trivia: Merlin made eight buffalo coats for Kurt Russell’s character in the Quentin Tarantino movie “The Hateful Eight”. Stopping in and being shown around opened my eyes to a world I knew very little about and hearing Merlin’s story of making a pair of beaver gaiters for himself that quickly led to making a whole line of fur products for others was incredible. We concluded the visit with trying on a few of their jackets, being blown away by their warmth and comfort, and then promptly being turned down when asked if they would be willing to trade one for my nappy jacket.
And just like that the trip was ending. Back in Cody after loading up the car and waving good bye I asked myself “why”. Why come to the northwest corner of Wyoming in the dead of winter? By default I’d be coming back for the ice climbing, but would I return for the history of the Wild West, Yellowstone, paleontology, or the hot springs? Or might I come again to meet and be inspired by folks living their very own American dream? While these thoughts ran through my head I recalled a quiet moment from the first day of the trip.
Before meeting the rest of the crew, I’d walked east along Sheridan Avenue leaving the shops and restaurants behind. At the top of a short hill I looked west over town to the Absaroka Mountains then turned my gaze north to Heart Mountain. Soaking up the scene I was startled by a prairie falcon sitting on a fence post not 20 feet from where I stood. At first the bird gazed at me with one eye then rotated its head and looked at me with the other. It repeated this a few times shaking its head before taking flight.
I’ll definitely be coming back to Cody and Thermopolis for the climbing and so much more. And next time it’ll be for a lot longer.
Since November I’ve shot more than 30,000 frames of skiing and snowboarding. Of the countless days only three were paid and the rest were done on speculation. This season a dozen images made in previous years were published in magazines and online, half a dozen were used in advertising campaigns, and the rest remain on a hard drive or two… After all the early mornings, late evenings, travel, sleeping on floors, ingesting cheap food, and bad coffee you’re probably wondering – Why shoot skiing and snowboarding?
The simple answer is the snow sports industry, brands, and corresponding magazines need new imagery each and every season depicting the latest gear, destinations, and characters. Why do they need new imagery each season depicting the latest? To help drive their sales, push profits up, pay employees, contribute to the economy, etc. The more interesting question is the What For? or what’s the reason I keep doing this?
I’ve focused on shooting snow for the past decade. The first time money was involved came six years ago when I was given the opportunity to work with a brand and their ambassadors (the athletes totally saved me). Since then it’s been a roller coaster ride. Rising high by landing magazine covers, taking on editorial assignments, traveling with a production company, and being hired to create the next season’s print campaign for other brands. Then dropping low by going a full year without a single ski image published, no assignments given, and not one inquiry from a commercial client. In spite of this and operating at a loss each season I can’t seem to help myself from going out there to create more.
Twelve years ago when I chose to cart a camera along my goal was NOT to replicate the polished and predictable images we had been inundated with. I set out to capture a more aspirational side of traveling through snow covered mountains, to come home with something you could see yourself participating in, and ultimately, share an experience that relates and resonates a quiet stillness with us all.
Have I done that?.. Not exactly. That’s why I keep at it year after year.
Today ten things went wrong and everything else went right. It was a fantastic day!
This was the journal entry for my fourth day at the Meadow Lodge – a backcountry hut located in the Esplanade Range of British Columbia. 14 of us were half way through our self-guided week and I was thinking about the nuances of winter backcountry travel. Snow is amazing in the fact that by its natural tendency it wants to stay put. And at the same time, it’s filled with unlimited variables, many which can lead to instabilities and movement.
I believe the same can be said about business. How many things went wrong today at work? What went right? Navigating the business side of things is terrifying to me when I try to keep all the variables in view at once. With so many things that could go wrong it’s hard to venture out. But when you break it down and focus on the fundamentals it becomes a bit more manageable. For me it comes down to risk versus reward. What is the investment? What are the chances of return and at what level? What happens if there is no return? And can I cover the loss?
That day in the Esplanades I created a Wasatch-style skin track (f%&$@#!* steep) for no reason, pushed a line too far for comfort, didn’t bring enough food, forgot to reapply sunscreen, etc. The rights of the day; our group studied maps for safer passages, observed the terrain for recent activity, kept tabs on the weather, dug pits in the snow, communicated non-stop, drank plenty of water, we listened to each other, laughed often, had meaningful conversations, bonded, and skied powder all day long. Like I said, it was a fantastic day.
In my experience learning from what didn’t work or went wrong allows for growth, but staying focused on the positives and what went right is the key to forward momentum.
This winter season has been a productive one filled with personal growth. We had ice climbing, skiing, writing, exploring, and I met a ton of new people filled with incredible energy. If you have ten minutes to burn follow this link to highlights from the last six months. As the season transitions I’m looking forward to creating new climbing, lifestyle, portrait, and running imagery as well as heading to Denali to document a ski expedition. So far it looks to be another busy season, but there’s room for more. Get a hold if me if you have any projects we could team up for.
This profile appeared in the the November 2016 Family issue of Backcountry Magazine
The two days before the April 2015 storm had been perfect—sunny skies, stable snow and endless Tordrillo spines. On the third day, the wind began to blow and the skies grew overcast. Spouses Zach and Cindi Grant, along with longtime friend Kelly Gray, went to work, digging a cave and building walls around camp, later taking turns shoveling and listening to avalanches when the snow began to fall.
On the sixth day, an aircraft was dispatched to retrieve them, but there was a problem—the soft landing and takeoff conditions required a lighter plane, a Super Cub, with room for only one passenger. And in this case, there was only time for one trip during the break in the weather. At first Kelly insisted Cindi go, but when the bush plane lurched upward into the clouds, Kelly was aboard, leaving Cindi committedly standing beside Zach on the Triumvirate Glacier, hoping the weather would hold.
“They’ve been like that ever since the beginning,” says Sheila Roller, Cindi’s mom. In 2001, when Zach and Cindi, met as high-school freshman in the Salt Lake suburbs, Sheila was concerned with how inseparable they were. Over time her concern has faded as she’s realized just how aligned they are. And what started as a friendship became an affair that revolved around snowboarding.
The duo began exploring the Brighton and Snowboard sidecountry in high school, but their interest in riding backcountry lines became ignited while attending Salt Lake Community College.
One of Zach’s first bigger Wasatch descents was the Northwest Super Couloir on Box Elder Peak, a 2,700-foot, 50-degree line that he brought Cindi to the same season for one of her first tours. “I felt like I had been snowboarding with blinders on,” Cindi recalls. “With a splitboard my peripheral vision opened to all the possibilities.”
Over the next few years the couple took avalanche classes, gained experience and ticked off lines in the Wasatch and across the Intermountain West almost always together. Then in 2011, after a 10-year courtship, they tied the knot below the peaks of the northern Wasatch and began dreaming and living bigger, driving from Utah to Alaska the following March to ride around Haines, Valdez and Anchorage. “That trip put the Wasatch in perspective,” Zach shares. “We realized that there’s so much out there and that we needed to travel and explore more.”
Back to the Wasatch the couple settled into careers – Cindi as a programs director of a guide service and Zach signed on to a trails and grooming crew at a local resort – that maximized their time on snow. In summer 2012, they purchased a backcountry cabin that was in bad shape and had no running water but was located in a basin surrounded by backcountry terrain. With the help of friends and family, they rebuilt. “Someone once told me that if your marriage can survive a remodel, then you have a solid relationship,” Cindi says. “It was definitely a test,” admits Zach, “that took us back to the fundamentals where we had to focus on communication and working as a team.” Four years later their simple shed-frame home, nestled off unimproved roads, has running water, is filled with natural light and beckons visitors to rethink their city lives.
“Louie, you should try and make it look like you’re actually doing the activity. If it’s camping make it look like you’re actually camping, if you’re running make it look like you’re really running…” Five years ago I received this advice from a friend who had been working in the outdoor industry for nearly 30 years. I believe he was talking about authenticity and not suggesting my work was too staged, unbelievable, and ultimately, shallow… err, at least I hope he wasn’t.
Fast forward to July 2016. The Scarpa North America team had hatched a plan to create new backpacking imagery for their 2017 season. Being big proponents of authenticity the plan was basic – go backpacking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming and make photos of people using their products in the field.
Fully loaded for a night out under the stars five of us set out for the 9-mile hike. We wandered through scenic meadows and vibrant forests before being deposited into Stough Creeks Basin – a lake-filled canyon hovering near tree line with the summits of Atlantic Peak and Roaring Fork Mountain towering along the continental divide above. Stough’s was a fantastic mountain setting that we called home for a day and a half and also the perfect place to, “make it look like we were actually backpacking…”