'To the Ends of the Earth' with Gordon Wiltsie Photographer Gordon Wiltsie has shadowed the world's best mountain climbers and bravest explorers for his new book. Wiltsie talks about how he kept his sanity during some life-risking adventures, documenting daring moves in exotic locales.
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'To the Ends of the Earth' with Gordon Wiltsie

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'To the Ends of the Earth' with Gordon Wiltsie

'To the Ends of the Earth' with Gordon Wiltsie

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This is DAY TO DAY with Photo Op. I'm Madeleine Brand


I'm Alex Chadwick. That's our sometime feature on photography, with bonus Web content you can see now, online, at npr.org.

BRAND: Go to the Programs tab at the top of the page, choose DAY TO DAY. You'll find this photo-op feature there, including pictures that we're going to hear about from photographer Gordon Wiltsie.

CHADWICK: He has taken some of the most daring pictures you can find, often of mountain climbers on vertical rock walls with a thousand feet of nothing to stand on. The climbs last for days. The climbers carry little tents they attach to the rock walls. How could anyone actually rest like that? In his new book, To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer, Gordon Wiltsie explains.

Mr. GORDON WILTSIE (Photographer): Ironically, my concern isn't so much that I'm going to fall off. My biggest concern is that somebody is going to fall on me, like falling rocks or falling ice or something like that, or a bad storm come up. But when you're in those hanging camps that may be a thousand, 2,000 feet off the ground, once you get inside those tents, it's just like being in any tent.

Part of it is confidence in the equipment. And you're not just sitting in that tent. You're tied in to separate anchors from the tent. You sleep in a harness. You never are untied from the rope. Plus, you have a task at hand. You're concentrating on getting up the wall. You're concentrating on hauling bags up the wall. Or in my own particular case, I'm constantly thinking, how am I going to get a good picture of this? How am I going to communicate what is happening? And that's kind of what keeps me from going nuts from fright.

CHADWICK: Alex Lowe, this climber - who'll I'll note was killed in an avalanche in the Himalayas seven years ago, but was an American mountaineering legend - you have a series of photos of him on another climb that you made. This was in Canada, a place called Sail Peak. And I like this series of photos, because from it I get to see what a mountaineering photographer actually does with a climber. Describe what happened on that day.

Mr. WILTSIE: Well, this was on Baffin Island, north of the Arctic Circle, and I had actually been working all - night and day are the same there; it's 24 hour days. And I had gone down to the bottom, and Alex had started up to lead another pitch. And I had just gone to bed and suddenly I heard him screaming from above, Gordon! Gordon! You've got to come out, there's going to be great photos today! And it was raining. And I thought, he's crazy. But Alex's enthusiasm is hard to turn down.

And so I went up the ropes about 1500 feet and sat around for six hours while he led this pitch. And then when he was finished climbing 200 feet, which took him about eight hours, he fixed a rope for me and I climbed up that rope and then pulled the rope up so you couldn't see it. And he went back down and re-climbed the most difficult part of that pitch. And not only did he re-climb it once, he re-climbed a number of times as I photographed how he put the tools in, and looked for different angles and tried to make it as photogenic as possible.

CHADWICK: Well, one bit of craft that I got from this series of pictures and from your description of what you were doing, I hadn't realized mountaineering photographers get a lot of what you call butt shots. And this isn't what you want. You want to see the guy climbing up at you. Then you've got to arrange to get that shot; otherwise it's going to be all butt shots.

Mr. WILTSIE: That's exactly true. If you shoot only from the belay position down below, you're just seeing the guy's rear end. So in order to get better pictures, you have to be up beside the climber. And in order to do that, the climber has to go up once and set a rope, and then I go up the rope and I climb. And he redoes it a second time, and I climb along side and take pictures as he goes up. We probably spent four hours doing that. And in the course of that time, the light changed.

And finally, when the light was coming across the rock just beautifully and casting wonderful textures and such, I started jumping on the rope that I was hanging on. And I jump about 20 feet out into space, fire several pictures with my motor drive and come crashing back into the rock. I jump again and I have to use my feet as shock absorbers, because if I just hit the wall coming back in, I'd be badly hurt.

CHADWICK: You're pushing 20 feet out from the wall at that point and shooting pictures.

Mr. WILTSIE: Yes. It was quite thrilling, actually. But my biggest concern was when I started jumping in an arc and I was landing quite close to Alex, because if I hit him, or grazed him, I'd knock him off, and he was in a position where he could have taken a fall of 100, 150 feet, if something had gone wrong.

CHADWICK: Here's another question I've always wanted to ask: in situations like this, are you shooting on auto? You must be.

Mr. WILTSIE: No, I'm not. I am an old fogey, I guess, and I've always shot manual settings on my camera. I've been doing this for a long, long time and I know exactly what I want that camera to be set at. And I can set it at auto and the camera senses a little bit of bright sky, which is present in a lot of these pictures, and it would underexpose everything, and I would get nothing.

CHADWICK: Have you ever been on a climb or an expedition where you either lost things or had to get rid of them? Because, say, you could only get down with so much gear and you had to jettison some equipment or maybe even some film.

Mr. WILTSIE: I did on one occasion. It was actually quite - one of the more incredible expeditions of my life that is not in the book. I was in the Himalaya with two friends. We were attempting to cross Khandriske(ph) from Ladakh to Kashmir over the great Himalaya Range. And we got caught in an avalanche and went over a thousand-foot cliff. And I broke my back and had a concussion, and we had to rescue ourselves. I did regain consciousness and had crushed vertebrae, but I didn't know it at the time. So I skied out with our one pair of skis. And my friends sawed the other pair in half and shared them.

CHADWICK: You were swept over a thousand-foot cliff in an avalanche. You broke your back and skied out?

Mr. WILTSIE: That's correct. We went about 1500 feet in the avalanche over rocks, and then we had quite an epic two-day journey out. It was the most painful thing I've ever done. And I think I'm happy that I didn't know how badly I was actually injured. And we had to dump most of my belongings, one of my cameras. But I would not let them take my film. I have never, ever jettisoned a single roll of film that I knew about.

CHADWICK: Gordon Wiltsie, his new book To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer. And boy, is he one.

Gordon, thank you.

Mr. WILTSIE: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: And Gordon Wiltsie's pictures - some of them, anyway - are online at our site with links to his site. That's at npr.org.

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