Through the lens of David Stark Wilson and words of Steve Roper, ‘Above All’ brings forth California’s highest peaks into luminous detail
By Bruce Willey
John Muir may have been guilty of flowery, purple prose when he attempted to put the Sierra Nevada into the medium of words. From atop a San Francisco hill, Spanish explorers saw but a “snowy mountain range” that flippantly reminded them of their Sierra back home. But Muir, with his indefatigable ardor for the Sierra, nailed it front and center when he called it the “Range of Light.”
No wonder, then, so many photographers and writers since have mothed to the Sierra light, turning its peaks, meadows, and forested flanks into their definitive muse. Muir of course, but so too Ansel Adams, Clarence King, Galen Rowell, Doug Robinson, Vern Clevenger, Daniel Duane, Claude Fiddler, David Arnold … the list goes on. By mid-afternoon the notable names, some heavier than others, rattle down the couloirs like talus and scree.
“Above All: Mount Whitney and California’s Highest Peaks” (Heyday Books, 144 pages, $35) by Steve Roper (words) and David Stark Wilson (photographs) joins the Range of Light canon with an unassuming yet keenly visionary take on some of California’s best-known peaks—15, including Shasta and White Mountain—that jut more than 14,000 feet into the sky.
Not merely a coffee table book (though it does go well with morning coffee, especially for a homesick mountaineer), “Above All” captures these mountains from omnivorous angles and heights that are at once familiar and surprisingly singular. The dusk or dawn light of Wilson’s photographs seem combustible with possibility. All point to hard-won summits and lonesome alpine bivouacs with but a cranky old German camera for companionship. And all portray the ravishing elements of rock, ridgeline, snow, and the odd drifting glacier from the perspective of human eyes left wide open rather than framed by the confines of a light-tight box.
Roper, on the other hand, channels the spirits of the high peak’s best-known historical figures with his own enlivened campfire ballads. Climbing mountains is hard work, but writing about climbing mountains is even harder. It’s easy to slip on an icy patch of sentimentality or skid off slick slabs of dramatic indecency. Roper manages to avoid these pitfalls with the same caution that has kept him alive since he began climbing these peaks when he was a boy. He is now 68.
“The Sierra is my home range, the place where I learned about thunderstorms, blisters, companionship, trust,” Roper told me in an interview. “I think one always has a soft spot for a place where you learned such things, especially when you were a kid.”
Besides penning numerous books and guidebooks about the High Sierra and Yosemite, Roper shaped the direction of mountaineering letters while he was at the helm of Ascent, the Sierra Club’s annual mountaineering journal. Few have attained the first-hand knowledge of California’s peaks and Yosemite’s walls more so than Roper; few possess his patience for impeccable research on those who came before him. It shows in readable text.
“I’ve never been a fan of suffering,” Roper continued. “I don’t like bitter cold, I’m a bit scared of avalanches, I’m not a fan of rotten rock. In short, I’m a fair-weather mountaineer, looking more for pleasure than pain. And what better place to capture such a feeling than in the High Sierra, the gentle wilderness. Naturally, I’ve had my share of desperate adventures in this ‘gentle’ region, but these have been short-lived and really not all that desperate. I’ve had good and bad times climbing in many countries, but always I relish the moment when I put on a pack in the Sierra and head upward.”
Roper has known Wilson for years. Both live in the Bay Area. And like Roper, Wilson began his first forays into the California alpine landscape at an early age. A building designer and photographer, Wilson has early and sometimes not very fond memories of family trips to Mt. Shasta. While most families would be content to camp below timberline, Wilson’s dad possessed a penchant for campsites high on the flanks of the slumbering volcano. Wilson was only 10 at the time and his sister may still hold the record for being the youngest to summit Shasta at age six.
Galen Rowell, who was a family friend, began mentoring the young Wilson in the mountaineering arts when he was 16. Twenty-years older than the upstart, Rowell and Wilson did numerous stout lines on six of California’s fourteeners, including the Direct East Face (5.10 A2) on Tyndall and Left Wing Extremist (5.11) on Whitney.
“I realized only later that we had picked off some of the really good remaining lines on these peaks,” Wilson says. “Another thing that attracted me to these fourteeners was wanting to go back there and become more aware of what I was doing when I was younger.” Last summer, he and his nineteen year-old son Chase did Lurking Fear on El Capitan.
But Wilson’s photographs nearly beg for more of a backstory. Any mountaineer worth his sweaty salt will recognize the light. It is the light that happens on either side of the day, when the headlamp is first turned off or on. Yet for most of us moving through the alpine landscape we’re either on approach at this time or below timberline in the safety of forest—the blinding Sierra light lingering still in our rods and cones—not bedding down amongst summit blocks.
“That Noblex (camera) of his is noble beast but the startling framing isn’t the whole deal either,” says Doug Robinson, longtime Sierra mountaineer and author. “Nor the genius of early and late light without the sun contrasting it up. No, a lot of it comes from the imaginative perches he selected.”
At first, Wilson was joined by his climbing partners on these “imaginative perches.” But as the years passed, they drifted away from the ascetic project and Wilson, in the tradition of Muir and Clyde before him, went forth in the wilderness alone. “It was a little bit of a lonely effort as it unfolded,” Wilson admits.
The Noblex 150 that Wilson used for the majority of color photographs in the book has a lens that actually moves while exposing a slit of light onto the film. And this being an East German-era camera, Wilson says it breaks down a lot. The camera uses medium format film and exposes a negative that is two inches tall by about five inches wide. This represents about 140 degrees, about the same as the human eye looking straight ahead with full peripheral vision. “So you really have the view as if you were standing there,” Wilson adds.
Bathed as they are in the soft, billowy light, these panoramas seem to hold their breath, exhaling only when it is clear they are anchored to the immense granite batholith underneath.
This vision, though, didn’t come easy.
Beginning in 2003, Wilson photographed for three years trying to figure out how he was going to find an artistic thread that would tie all the images together. In the dark, wind blowing strong enough to make the camera shake, Wilson waited for the first rays of light to slide over Nevada and illuminate Mt. Whitney’s east face in alpenglow. But when he got back to the lowlands, these images failed to stimulate. Instead it was the photographs taken before the sun had a chance to be dramatic, images that have what he calls a “soft-box quality” to them.
“That became my mission,” Wilson says. “To photograph these high peaks in that soft light. Those kinds of light, those kind of times are the most emotionally evocative in the mountains.”
To view more of David Stark Wilson’s work: www.davidstarkwilson.com
Scribe and photographer Bruce Willey, a regular contributor, winters in Atlanta but leaves his climber’s heart at his summer hideout in Big Pine, in the evening shadow of the Range of Light. You can witness more of his work at www.brucewilley.com.