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Behind The Scenes: Keeping Up With The Climbers
Posted on April 30, 2009

Everest Dispatch #38
April 30, 2009

By Jake Norton, Expedition Photographer

It sounds pretty romantic, and lots of people envy my job. And, I must admit, I’m pretty happy with what I do for a living, and count my blessings every day. But working as an expedition photographer is not always a piece of cake. This goes for me shooting stills, as well as Gerry Moffatt, Kent Harvey, and John Griber shooting our video footage. While I cannot speak exactly for them, I can give an idea of what my days on the hill are like.

Being a photographer on an expedition does not really put you into a special category. There are no chairlifts or trams waiting for us; we must climb the mountain just like anyone else, acclimating, moving up and down, and capturing images along the way.

Along with the standard equipment all of us—Ed, Peter, Melissa, Dave, Seth—carry on the hill, I also have my photo equipment. I’ve always been a Nikon shooter, and this is my sixth Everest expedition using Nikon gear. So in my pack is a Nikon D300 camera, chosen for its superior image quality complemented by reasonable size and weight. In addition to the D300 body, I have a handful of lenses: a Nikon 18-200mm, Nikon 50mm, Sigma 10-20mm, and a Nikon 80-200. This selection gives me a fantastic range while keeping the weight reasonable. I also bring along my Nikon SB-800 flash unit and an SC-28 remote cord for filling in faces and dark areas in this contrasty environment. Oh, and of course, extra batteries, cleaning supplies, a variety of filters, and a tripod.

My personal M.O. on all expeditions has always been to disrupt the flow of climbing as little as possible while shooting. Certainly there are times when the environment and risk enable me to set up shots and choreograph the scene. But, more often than not, my style is to catch what I can by moving ahead of the climbers and capturing them in real time, in real situations. (You can imagine trying to ask climbers in the Khumbu Icefall to stop for a few minutes under tons of tilting seracs while I compose a shot—not even nice to contemplate!) This style, while my preference, creates some challenges, as I am in a constant game of leapfrog, setting up a shot, shooting, repacking my gear, and shuffling ahead as fast as possible to get ahead of the climbers and find the next spot for a good image. Not easy, but it is an added challenge I strangely relish.

The other challenge with expedition photography is the need to be constantly thinking, looking around at the terrain with a creative angle, trying to find a new perspective on the environment at hand. While this terrain is so spectacular that pointing and shooting often works, the nut for me to crack is how to find a new perspective, how to tell a different story in a single frame and show what perhaps has not been shown before. This requires constant attention to the task at hand, for moments missed may never come again. But, again, this is a cerebral game which adds depth and enjoyment to the climbing at hand.

When looking at the end of the day, I must admit I long a bit for the days of film. Way back then, in the late 1990s, we’d shoot film during the day, pack it away after sunset, and the day was done- but, no longer. Digital, despite its great benefits, has caused quite a bit more work for us photographers. When the day is done, I now take my compact flash cards into our production tent, fire up my solid-state Asus laptop, download my images onto a hard drive, make a backup copy on another drive, and then edit the day’s work. Select images are spotted for dust and blemishes, captioned, resized, saved to a thumb drive, and handed over to our field producer, Cherie Silvera, for transfer via satellite phone with the day’s text and video dispatch.

It all makes for a long day, to say the least, but, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I love the honor of capturing the amazing people on our team and the stunning environment, and the chance to share those images and moments with a greater audience. It was, many years ago, images by Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Barry Bishop, and other greats of mountain photography that first inspired me to tread in the mountain realm. Their images shared with me a place I could scarcely imagine, bringing a new world to my doorstep in Topsfield, Massachusetts. It was through their lenses that a passion was discovered and ignited within me, and my one hope as I photograph our team and our climb is that I may share that same sense of wonder and enjoyment that hit me long ago.

Enjoy the images, and climb on, wherever your trail may lead.

Author: - Thursday, April 30th, 2009

  1. travisbosworth

    Your photographs and video footage are awe inspiring to say the least. I have set various photos from first ascent as the desktop background on the computer on our sales floor. Whenever I get the opportunity to tell customers about First Ascent and the climb, I show them your photos. 98% of the time I hear a gasp of amazement from the customer and a comment about how beautiful it is!
    Thanks for giving us the means to see this all as it happens. Very exciting! Here’s to seeing more inspirational photography. Stay safe and Good luck.

  2. stevedebrun

    This was a great post that answers many of the questions that people have been posting about your behind-the-scenes process – thanks for taking the time to demystify how you are pulling this off.

    I hope you are making some offsite backups in addition to the double external hard drive backups that you are doing at Basecamp.

    I didn’t realize that the photographers and videographers actually leapfrog the climbers as they gather footage on the mountain. Hardcore!

  3. ScottJ888

    Please tell us (those who wake each day to find a new post) that a full DVD of the footage will be made availalbe when the climbing season is over. This is great stuff. Not since the NatGeo film in 1996 (a year for everyone to remember)has some much great footage been available to the public. I just wish I could push it over to my iPod. Keep filming and posting, we will keep watching and wishing we were there… Be safe and climb on…


  4. T-Dawg

    Keep up with great photos! My coworkers and customers are totally blown away by the images you and the rest of the camera team have captured. You guys totally bring us there with you on the ascent of the world’s highest mountain.

  5. doverpro

    I second what ScottJ888 requests. A final DVD of all the clips and then some! This would be the next best thing to being with you. Thanks again. Nothing going on here except the Swine Flu!

  6. JanetColorado

    The images and footage are amazing. I love waking up each morning to see the next adventure. I am glad you mentioned the music that you put behind the footage. It allows the whole thing to come together and just for a moment it brings us to a place away from here. Tell Melissa I met her dad in one of our stores he is a proud papa!!! Thanks again.

  7. erstad17

    As a Nikon shooter myself I’m proud to see the Nikon name at Everest. Is there a specific reason why you wouldn’t go full frame? Do you carry a backup to the D300?

  8. bgallagher

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and expertise with the rest of the world, it is very inspirational and truely a gift from God. It takes a very special person to take the risks and endure the hardships you have or may experience in the future. It will be the first time in my life, that I will see what it looks like from the top of the world, what an amazing experience. Please stay safe and never put yourself or anyone else at undue risk, we all want to see the movie credits when your done :)
    May God bless you and keep you safe and give you sure footing and a clear mind as you accend and decend the greatest adventure in your life.

    Your friend

  9. coloradocounsel

    Jake – nice entry – fantastic footage and shots! Be safe – looking forward to seeing you when you get back.

  10. soccermaggie

    Hi Jake I like learning how you photograph Mount Everest. It was funny how you can’t tell the team to wait while you take the picture. I hope you summit safely and hope we can see you when you get back. From Maggie Stewart, your greatest fan and Jake-wanna-be. bye

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