“Several diagonal cracks offered firm handholds, but were not large enough for the toes … Near the top I was stuck for a few minutes, the edge being smooth and without holds of any kind. I applied the vacuum grip and pulled myself up and over.”
~Conrad Kain, on his 1916 first ascent of the Great Gendarme and Bugaboo Spire
As I mentioned in my last post, mountaineering photography led to my first commercial work and publications. This photograph, of Frank Wieler approaching the Great Gendarme on the South Ridge of Bugaboo Spire (3,204 m (10,512 ft), is no exception.
Made in 1980, on an unplanned “mass assault” on the peak by Vancouver-area climbers (we all happened to arrive there the same week in August), the photograph ended up on the cover of Mountain Equipment Co-op’s 1983 summer catalogue. Though I was already producing commissioned photos, for the pages of the same catalogue and other clients, it was the first example of my “personal work” to grace a cover and retain a fee.
The image records Frank’s first attempt, in mountaineering boots, at navigating the final and most difficult obstacle blocking more straightforward pitches to the summit. A retreat to don EBs, the technical rock climbing kletterschuhes of the day (see my footwear gallery), led to a successful ascent by Frank and Rob Tomich, as recorded in the full account.
Knowing that Conrad Kain’s first ascent, in 1916, was accomplished wearing boots fitted with steel “tricounis,” this first-hand experience put the rock climb Kain considered his most challenging into perspective for all concerned.
From a photographic viewpoint, the moment was a gift from the heavens, alternately obscured by clouds that swirled around our airy position. It was made with a Konika 35mm rangefinder camera on Kodachrome 64 reversal film. I love the grain-structure, especially in the clouds and the partially obscured summit block.
The original colour separations for the Co-op cover were, incidentally, made by my rope-mate on the descent that day, Mark Bitz, who worked for a graphics company in Vancouver.
As you can see by the sidebar picture, the old cover appears very warm compared to my most recent interpretation of a subsequent scan from the original Kodachrome — the most colourfast of all transparency films — referenced along with contemporary online photographs of the pitch.
Much of the incongruence may be blamed on yellowing of the paper and impermanent dye-based inks than on any fault of the original pre-press work or printing. But, hey, this is a 33-year-old catalogue cover, not a limited-edition print.
All technical and commercial considerations aside, the image represents for me one of the enduring Great Days in the mountains, as it should be.
More of these are included in my Sport & Adventure gallery.