Before I left for Nepal I was feeling anxious about the trip and how tough it might be. I’d heard quite a few horror stories from people of either not making it or feeling horrible and struggling at the high altitudes. It seems it’s not how fit you are or how much you might have trained, but whether your body genetics will or won’t allow you to climb to those heights.
I had a real mixture of emotions and although some were about the trek itself, I stressed a little about the book and my ability to capture images worthy to show off on my return. I also had 70+ supporters who had pledged money to the project and I was too proud to come back and say, ‘I didn’t quite get there.’ It wasn’t an option for me but I kind of knew it might be out of my hands.
Upon arriving in Kathmandu, my friend and travelling companion, Norm, and I based ourselves in the busy centre and set off shooting the locals. You realise quickly that you stand out and aiming the camera at people was way too obvious and didn’t allow for natural photos. The trick is to find a corner, base yourself there, hide in the shadows and quietly shoot away as life goes by. Norm and I loved doing this and had a ball finding amazing corners to observe and shoot.
After landing at Lukla (the most dangerous airport in the world) and heading off into the mountains, Norm and I realised this wasn’t going to be the type of photographic opportunity we had imagined. We had thought there might be times to stop, set up a shot, wait for the light or subjects to be perfect before shooting. Instead, it was shoot and run, photograph as you walked, no time to stop as it’s go, go, go. The sherpas would allow you a little time to stop now and then but the group as a whole really needed to stick together and keep moving.
Photographing the local village people was tough as well. If any caught you aiming a camera at them they would approach you angrily, asking for money or just stop what they were doing and hide. I ended up taking photos sneakily by presetting the camera, aiming generally at them with the camera down beside me, and shooting a few frames hoping they wouldn’t hear it clicking. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. It really was the only way because even if you asked them permission they would yell NO.
The weather was also a factor. We assumed after reaching camp most days mid afternoon, we could go off and explore the area and do sunset pics, etc. Not the case. At the time we were there in March/April, the mornings are always crystal clear but by 1pm the cloud and mist sets in and it’s a whiteout by early afternoon. After trekking for nine hours a day we were mostly too tired to go off and explore more anyway. As you can imagine everything is either up or down in Nepal and, with weary legs, climbing a hill for maybe a nice photo was not going to happen.
Photographing along the way was also a challenge as compensating the camera’s exposure for the changing conditions and scenery – like snow and dark deep valleys – meant a constant manual compensation variation in exposure for each photo. It’s not easy trying to expose for bright snow at the top of the photo and dark shadow valleys at the bottom, so it was a case of guess the amount of compensation and have faith in your judgment. What also made it tough was I was wearing polarizing sunglasses due to the bright sky, which meant the screen went black and I couldn’t see what I had just photographed or the change in my settings quickly.
Another problem was I only had limited camera batteries on me and chances to recharge them was unlikely or expensive, meaning constant previewing of photos on the camera would be out of the question. I had three camera batteries that lived on my body for the entire trek day and night, either in my pockets in my under-layers of clothing or down my pants. You really have to keep them warm all the time or the cold will drain them in minutes and then you are stuck.
All of these obstacles really made it a ‘shoot on the fly’ type of assignment and added to the pressure. I was always walking and thinking I need this type of shot or I need that, and constantly looking for something different. As the trek went longer and longer, knowing I needed more but hadn’t got it yet was always playing on my mind.
The cover for the book was a tricky one. I was always looking for that HERO photo as the standout cover pic and although I had shot a few I thought might work it wasn’t until halfway back from Base Camp that I thought of setting something up at Dingbouche one crystal clear morning. I asked Norm to model for me and I lay in the dirt and snapped away. The cover to me describes all that my trek involved: the trekker on a path, dirty boots and dust flying up, the snow capped mountains, the Nepalese Stupa and prayer flags nearby. I loved it as soon as I shot it.
Once I got back I found I had over 3000 photos and I had to whittle them down to around 300. This was tough, as I liked so many of them and it’s hard when you have an emotional attachment to an image. I also drew ten or so illustrations along the way and wrote some silly poems to describe what I was feeling while drawing, which I expect will add to the experience of flicking through the book.
I hope that mixing all these together and presenting it in a classical, bright and large format book gives the reader a real sense of the beauty and the adventure that is Nepal and the Mt Everest Base Camp Trek.