These pictures come from the roll of black & white film I took to Patagonia as an experiment when J. Jay Brooks and I tried to climb a route on the west face of Aguja Saint Exupery, an adventure described in Enduring Patagonia’s chapter “Chasing the Wind.” I consider what J. Jay has accomplished in climbing AFTER the terrible, shoulder-crushing accident he survived in Alaska in 1996 to be nothing short of incredible. I think this might have been J. Jay’s first big trip after the accident (with a titanium shoulder), which Pataclimb.com tells me we did in February, 1999. I’ll take Rolo’s word for it. We seem to have been credited with a “new route” for what we did, but truth be told, I’ve never felt like J. Jay and I came anywhere close to completing that climb. We were a hell of a long way from Saint Exupery’s summit when we got rejected, and there was no sensation of having finished anything: the storm was tearing us apart; I was totally focused on not getting blown into the next world.
Here are the 5 shots from that roll that I printed and have since scanned. Patagonia (the clothing company) used two of them in catalogs, along with accompanying field reports, which I always enjoyed writing. And although I doubt my National Geographic photographer buddy Stephen Alvarez would use any of these shots for anything except toilet paper, the last three in the sequence are my personal favorites in my collection. When I bump ‘em up to large, they do a pretty good job of conveying the sensation of storm, at least to me. In my head, there’s immense chaos in those images, and looking back on my time in Patagonia, my overriding sensations are of fear and terrifying, eye-watering beauty, of impending or overwhelming chaos, and of the wonderful, joyful, competent, and confident arrogance of taking decisive action amidst all of it. Back then, I fucking knew what I was doing. I’m not so sure I do any more.
I’m glad I got to climb in Patagonia without weather forecasts, because I think we used to experience chaos unleashed a whole lot more frequently than climbers do today. In that regard, I got in just in the nick of time.
Although, in retrospect, I suppose that trip with J. Jay was pretty photographically successful, considering that I shot this one through the tent flap on the next day’s roll of film, and three Patagonia catalog pictures from two consecutive rolls of film probably isn’t horrible returns. Although all of it was essentially “combat photography.” I couldn’t go out and intentionally take a world-class picture if my life depended on it — unless I were clinging to some wild mountainside in some remote corner of the world. Then I might have a chance.
(Who else remembers fumbling to change the roll of film in an FM-2 at a hanging belay while simultaneously fighting to rig rappels in a screaming Patagonian blizzard? A non-trivial undertaking, I assure you. Watching Thomi Ulrich do it during our winter trip to Patagonia cured me of photography forever. Ironically, that was one of many things that got me to focus exclusively on writing, thereby condemning me to eight years of suffering on the China’s Wings project. Funny how one thing leads to another… )