Winds rising on the Sierra crest.

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada

Thank you everyone who rang out of concern on hearing the tragic news of British mountaineers who died on Mulhacen in the Sierra Nevada of Spain last weekend (4th March 2006).

We are OK. Yes we were the only other British mountaineers on the hill over the Saturday night and Sunday of the storm, but we were safely shuttered up in the Refugio Poqueira, thankfully. It was a severe storm without question, and our sympathies go to the families of the victims.

For our part, I was ill from the moment I left the UK and struggled to get to the refuge at all let alone do anything when I got there. I didn’t even have much energy for photography! However, Wayne made a successful ascent of Mulhacen on the Friday, and we were blessed to have the wonderful funny friendship and loving care of our friends Jeni and Dave for a few days convalescence in Tijola.

Galen Rowell killed in plane crash

I am prompted to write by the very sad news that world-renowned photographer and mountaineer Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara were among four killed in a plane crash near his home town of Bishop, California on 11 August 2002. It is all the more poignant that he should lose his life in this way having achieved so much in mountaineering where many others have perished. Galen Rowell was the biggest influence on my photography, and his work has been an inspiration to me. Back in 1986 I had been making photographs in the UK mountains for some years, and I knew that I was producing some reasonable work that pleased me. I was entirely self-taught, and I loved the wilderness. Central to my self-teaching were books of images; I was consumed by the expedition photography of Chris Bonington and Doug Scott, and the passion for experience of John Beatty, George Brybycin, and Freeman Patterson. These photographers were concerned with conveying the atmosphere of the wilderness, the sense of place and the situation of nature. At the same time, I struggled with the arid, overly-technical, photography-for-its-own-sake approach of ‘How to…’ text books and many ‘experts’. When Galen Rowell’s seminal book Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape landed in my lap, I knew I had found the expression of everything I was trying to reconcile about my own approach. The photographs were a revelation; I had never before seen images of the wilderness that captured its essence in such a sensitive and beautiful way. They revealed colour, atmosphere, form and spontaneity. They revealed Galen Rowell’s great passion for nature and its fragility. And above all they revealed a ‘dynamic landscape’ where light is the thing. For me, even Ansel Adams’ images, whilst technically beyond comparison, lack this feeling of excitement and involvement, of being at one with the land. It is often said that real learning is recognition of something you know. ‘Mountain Light’ influenced my approach in a huge way, and also confirmed it. I also admired Galen Rowell’s insistence on travelling light, and his use of 35mm equipment. Still today I come across publishers who insist on medium to large format for reasons of technical quality, and in so doing happily accept images that are emotionally mundane. Galen Rowell not only demonstrated that superlative technical quality is possible from 35mm, but also that content speaks the loudest. Ian Evans (www.mountain-images.co.uk) said to me immediately on hearing the news that:

… in a world where mediocrity rules, one receives little encouragement in the pursuit of perfection – and perfectionists are often treated as eccentric… people like ourselves, who admired [Galen’s] work, should strive ever harder to ensure that the standards he set will continue to be maintained. We can never be his equal, but we can ensure that his influence lives on.

I will certainly aim to do so, and to share my work through TTL. Although I am unfamiliar with her work, we should not forget that Barbara Cushman Rowell was a photographer too, and partner in the Mountain Light Gallery. Her contribution will undoubtedly be missed also. There are many highly-talented nature photographers whom I admire, but Galen Rowell was, for me, the finest outdoor photographer yet. I will always be thankful that he was able to share his vision and philosophy with us, leaving a lasting legacy of images and writing and environmental work. He will be sadly missed, and the world is a poorer place for his loss.