Sunday, January 9, 2011

Moutain Light, by Galen Rowell

Galen Rowell's Mountain Light is a collection of photographs with extended captions, as well as a collection of essays on his travels and photography. The photos feature mountains of the American West, from the California Sierras to the Alaskan ranges, as well as the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and Tibet. Rowell is both a gifted climber and photographer, and he has made several trips to Everest. The book contains one stunning photograph of Mount Everest, and he talks a bit about two of his trips to the mountain. Additionally, there are several photographs of places closely associated with trips to the mountain, including Lhasa, Tingri, and the Nangpa La.

The photograph of Mount Everest is from an angle that I don't get to see very often. The image was taken during Rowell's 1985 leadership of an expedition to the West Ridge from the Tibet side of Everest. Well above the Lho La, he takes the photograph of the upper North Face and pinnacle. There are three climbers, small as dots, crossing the upper snow buttresses of the West Ridge, and clouds are quickly enveloping the mountain. The rocky terrain of the upper mountain is very clear, and the Yellow Band stands out well. The sky is nearly black, and the overall feel is one of foreboding.

In the caption, Rowell talks mostly about his taking the photograph, but he does bring up a little bit of history. He talks about how Odell saw the two black dots move up the mountain as Mallory and Irvine climbed the Northeast Ridge, and he thought that it was an image he'd like to recreate. He also mentions that his expedition, like Mallory and Irvine, would be attempting the summit without oxygen. I'd like to correct that bit on Mallory and Irvine, but I'm not going to hold it against him, since I'm sure he has enough to think about keeping up with professional level climbing and photography.

Earlier in the book, Rowell mentions that he trekked to Everest Base Camp in 1981 as the first American trekking group allowed into Tibet. On a side trip after the tour is over, he goes to Tingri to try to capture some iconic images of Tibet. He takes an especially nice photograph looking towards the Nangpa La with a horseman in the foreground. Also, I'm not sure which trip he was on, but he takes an amazing image of the Potala with a rainbow descending seemingly into the palace.

I read only the Everest and Tibet section in this book, not so much because they played a small role in the book, but because I'm in a hurry to get through several books before I move. Both Everest and Tibet play a vital role in his earlier work, Mountains of the Middle Kingdom, and there are many splendid images of Tibet (as well as a few of Everest) in a work in which he collaborates with the Dalai Lama, My Tibet. Rowell is among the rare photographers who is able to take a portrait, rather than a landscape, of a mountain, and he has a talent for bringing life and personality to what would otherwise be just rock and ice.

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