This was probably the most difficult photo I have ever taken, not just because it took three years of planning and one prior failed expedition to get to this spot, but also because it was -15°F and my fingers were too cold to move. It was about 6:00am, just after dawn, near the summit of Mustagh Ata, a fabled peak in the Chinese Pamirs. It’s name translates as “Father of Ice Mountains” in the Tajik language. According to legend, Mohammed was carried to heaven on the backs of silver camels that ascended the mountain’s stairway-slope. Others believe that a city named “Janaidar” (Xanadu?) sits perched atop the peak, a city of eternal life and happiness.
It’s cold at night. And at 24,000 feet above sea level.
We left our high camp at about midnight and planned to reach the summit at just about dawn, using a full moon to guide us. Headlamps were frozen but that didn’t matter; we could see our own shadows. Eerily, it was so bright that the usual stars were washed out.
In planning, I knew we could expect very cold weather on top of the mountain and was also worried about condensation because I’d be carrying the camera inside my parka to keep it and the battery warm. So I found the Nikon L35AWAF “Action Touch” weather-proof camera with mechanical shutter. It had a 35mm f/2.8 lens and was built like a brick. I think I took 20 photos with the camera, all from the upper reaches of the mountain. I left my bevy of Pentax cameras behind at base camp – LX, MX, and 645 – though one of the other photographers on the trip, Keiichi Ozaki, captured the following photo on his Pentax MX:
When everything freezes
Approaching the summit at dawn, suddenly the rays of the sun shot into our faces from the East, casting a long shadow of the peak itself out across a sea of clouds extending across the Soviet border into Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan. The clouds were “down below us” at about the 20,000 ft level. That’s roughly the altitude of Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak. As I turned to look down our tracks I saw Keiichi pausing at exactly the border between the mountain and the sea of clouds. As I struggled to get the camera out from its position against my chest inside the parka, it was then I discovered that my fingers were essentially useless. I kept the gloves on and pressed the shutter release, hearing nothing. However because it was a manual wind camera, I was able to confirm that a photo had indeed been taken, so I dropped it back inside my parka, turned around, and trudged on to the summit a few hundred feet further on. This became one of my favorite photos ever.
Post script: this photo was taken from base camp the day we arrived as a storm cleared. It was the first sight I had of the mountain. My friend Anthony Willoughby quipped, “The mountain was like a stray dog. As I reached out, I wasn’t sure if it would lick my hand or bite it off.”
More photos from this expedition can be found in my Smugmug gallery “Father of Ice Mountains“.