Smothered by clouds, we had no view. But when I look at the sequences of our team on the summit, hear the rejoicing yells of happy climbers, see the smiles on their faces, I realize that even a great view wouldn’t enhance their excitement.
Capturing the extraordinary moments of life’s grandest experiences- that’s the real appeal of video in the outdoor world.
It was two in the morning on the 14,000-foot north face of Mt. McKinley. The midnight sun illuminated the Kantishna Mountains in the north, bathing the Alaskan tundra in pink and orange hues. Thousands of small ponds shone like pools of mercury in the arctic twilight.
My companions plodded upward, fighting a strenuous battle with gravity, 60-pound packs, and three feet of snow. For the third time, I remarked on the spectacular panorama we were witnessing.
The three of us stood in silence, mouths agape, as much from heavy breathing as in awe of the beauty around us. I snapped a few photos, hoping for the best possible settings to capture the dramatic color on my Kodachrome 64.
Yet I felt it was so inadequate.
As much as I wanted the summit, I also wanted to communicate the experience of the outdoor world to others. But, for me at least, pretty words and color slides just couldn’t convey the raw, nerve-tingling excitement of exposure to nature at its most formidable.
The Alaskan expedition was one of many I’ve accompanied in the past 12 years.
From the towers of Patagonia to the high-altitude giants of the Himalaya, I’ve pushed myself up steep rock and ice in quest of a singular goal: the summit.
With video came new dimensions. The colors were there, but so was motion, sound, action-in short, realism.
Most serious outdoor enthusiasts- whether rafters, backpackers, cross- country skiers, or hunters-are equally serious about their photography. And many are growing increasingly intense about their videomaking.
As a measure of my enthusiasm, I packed my camcorder as high as 25,000 feet on Mt Everest.
But as much as video created new dimensions of outdoor communication, it also created new challenges unknown to still photography.
It’s been quite an adventure-educational, very, involving much trial and more error-learning to use a camcorder in the treacherous conditions of the highest mountains on earth.
Most people use camcorders in the cozy comfort of their living rooms, not hanging from a rope in a blizzard at 24,000 feet. But if you shoot outdoors very often, what I learned at high altitude and in extreme conditions may prove useful.
For example, what rock do I plug my battery charger into? Electrical outlets are in short supply 100 miles into the Himalayan mountains. Taking a dozen or so batteries would not only be expensive, it would limit the amount of shooting.
And how well, if at all, does a camcorder function at 20 degrees below zero? Is it affected by the wind? What if the camcorder gets wet? How much abuse will it take? Can I operate the camcorder with gloves on? (A friend lost his fingers trying to get just one photo of a beautiful alpenglow sunrise on Mt. Everest. Frostbite happens quickly at high altitude.)
Then there are subjective problems to cope with. Will I be too wasted from the effort and lack of oxygen to get important footage? At high altitudes, will I be able to function well enough to get some footage, or will my brain cells short circuit as easily as a drowned camcorder?
Start Me Up
So how do you find electricity in the mountains, 120 miles from the nearest village? We couldn’t afford a gasoline-powered generator, but there’s something that is in plentiful, strong supply up there: the sun.
At 15,000 feet above sea level, you receive roughly twice as much solar radiation as fiatlanders. The thin atmosphere means less air for the sun’s rays to travel through. The result twice as much usable solar power.
Even though most nickel cadmium camcorder batteries function at 6 volts, they do, I find, charge on higher voltages. This makes solar panels feasible, as most have an output of 12 volts. A nickel cadmium battery, I’m told, is something like a sponge: It will absorb a variety of differing watts and volts-ideal for the often uneven conditions of solar panel charging.
Other, sans-sun, options: a lightweight, gasoline-powered electrical generator with 6-volt adapter, cost $4000 to $5000; a dozen or so nickel cadmium batteries, cost about $600 to $1200; or four or five 6-volt lithium batteries, around $200 to $300.
Lithium batteries have the advantage of working up to four times longer than nickel cadmium batteries, but they’re not rechargeable and are very expensive.
At 32 degrees Fahrenheit, nickel cadmium camcorder batteries have only about 80 percent of their capacity at room temperature. Consequently, a 60-minute battery will last only 48 minutes at freezing. Also, charging a battery in subfreezing temperatures has one major drawback: It reduces the number of times it can be recharged before it must be replaced.
Ideally, videocassettes, too, shouldn’t be exposed to temperature extremes. The cassette shell may distort in the heat, making it impossible to load into the camcorder.
As for the tape itself, heat will stretch it and cause tracking problems. Prolonged exposure in temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit causes the tape’s oxide coating to separate from its binder.
Tape that’s too cold can be so brittle it actually breaks during the threading cycle.
Moving a videocassette too rapidly from a cold environment to a warmer one can generate moisture that will adhere to the tape’s surface and cause it to foul up inside the cassette’s threading mechanism.
Extreme conditions can present problems for your camcorder-none are entirely cold-or waterproof.
Camcorders have moving parts lubricated with grease that will thicken as the temperature drops. This means the battery must put out extra energy in the cold, thereby reducing its life. Automatic focus greatly aggravates this problem; focus manually, save power.
All models have sensors that will protectively shut the system down if moisture is detected within the camera, not unlikely during heavy snowstorms. Also, extreme cold below 20 degrees F will prevent proper camera functioning.
In both these instances, I found the best remedy was putting the camcorder in my down sleeping bag with me, where it could dry out and wanm up. In addition, I found it was a good idea to get the batteries warm in my coat or next to my body for effective electrical functioning.
Be careful, however, whenever reheating a cold camera in a sleeping bag, warm room, or your car: The condensation that forms on the camera can be harmful. The moisture, if it leaks into the camera, will wreak havoc on the sensitive electronics and tape inside. If you wrap the camcorder in a plastic bag condensation will accumulate on the wrapping, not in or on the camera.
To be safe, if your camera isn’t protected or “weatherproof,” keep water at bay.
I’ve found that even the lightest cases can be a real problem on extended backpacking trips where weight and space are serious considerations.
It’s possible to safely pack your camcorder in your backpack. Try wrapping the camera in a coat, pile jacket, sleeping bag, or any item of clothing offering bulky protection. I packed my camcorder this way on Everest, in the Karakorum, the Himalayas, and on other extended hikes in the mountains.
The camcorder suffered no ill effects, and the elimination of the extra bulk and weight was well worth the small risk. Even while climbing high rock walls, I used clothes to pack and protect the camcorder.
What about tripods? Are they an absolute necessity? On my first extended expedition with a video camera into the Karakorum I naively didn’t think a tripod was important-or at least I thought I could do without one. It turned out to be a mistake. I really should have had a good lightweight tripod with me.
But I managed other ways of keeping the camera steady. Rocks were in plentiful supply, as they are anyplace in the outdoors. I also used good, level boulders, tree stumps, backpacks, ski poles, ice axes, even a friend’s shoulder.
If you use rocks or boulders, look for large flat buggers at least two feet high. Carefully lay the camcorder on the rock and find your subject in the viewfinder’s vertical position. You’ll probably have to experiment a bit with various sections of the boulder’s surface, trying to find the best angle.
You can keep the camcorder from getting scratched by simply laying any item of clothing on your selected “tripod” rock.
Mountains and Molehills
I was invited back to Mt. Everest for another expedition this spring. After careful consideration, I declined. They wanted someone who could get to the 29,029-foot summit with a camcorder in hand.
Creaking along in my late 30s, I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Instead, I passed the video torch on to a younger and stronger climbing friend.
But I’m not washed up quite yet. I may never stand on top of Everest with a camcorder, but there are other climbs, other mountains, and numerous outdoor activities just as compelling as the high Himalaya.
Outdoor sports all have their own particular experience to communicate, to capture, to convey. Get out there and find your own Everest, and tape it.
Gary Speer is a mountaineering freelance photojournalist and videomaker residing in the Northwest.