How To: Get an amazing photo from the flanks of Mt. Everest

Image: Chhiring Sherpa provides the lighting for a photograph of Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck. Photo by Grayson Schaffer, used with permission of Outside.

Hint: It involves a lot of sherpas.

Grayson Schaffer, an editor for Outside magazine, is currently embedded at Base Camp on Mt. Everest, covering several teams attempting to climb the mountain's West Ridge—which Outside describes as "a route nearly as many climbers have died on as have summitted." He's sending back stories and photos from the tallest mountain in the world. But that presents a problem. The kind of photography that's used in a glossy magazine is not the kind of photography that is easy to produce with a team of one in a bare-bones climbing camp.

In a recent post, Schaffer explains the tools he's using to get his shots and shows us how he's wrangled random sherpas, climbers, and camp staff into assisting him. It's a neat bit of media behind-the-scenes.

The key piece of gear that makes it all possible is the new Pro-B3 1200w/s AirS battery pack. It's the lithium-powered update to the older 7B power pack, and it delivers consistent flashes even in subzero temperatures at 17,500 feet. We've got two of these with a set of spare battery inserts but have yet to run down in a day's shooting. To charge these beasts, we've been using a basic GoalZero solar setup, which, thanks to the Pro-B3's built-in trickle-charging capability, can top off a charge in a sunny afternoon.

Read Schaffer's post on taking photos on Mt. Everest

Follow Schaffer's daily reporting on the West Ridge ascent

Image: A yak inspects Grayson Schaffer's camera gear boxes. Photo by Grayson Schaffer. Used with permission of Outside.

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  1. The thing that unsettles/fascinates me about documentaries on Everest is that it’s usually portrayed as the triumph of man over nature, the climber being followed making this huge triumph over adversity as he summits the tallest place on the planet.

    Never mind the Sherpas that just hauled up a friggin IMAX camera, battery packs, and enough film and lighting equipment to make that summit shot really resonate.

    1. That photo is of the everest base camp, not the summit. I do not believe sherpas climb to the summit.

      Edit: oh it looks like quite a few do.

      1. Sherpas absolutely do haul stuff to the summit on behalf of clients. Including the clients’ asses on numerous occasions.

        I also contend that photographs suitable for inclusion in “Outside” can be taken with available light, small (but high quality) cameras, lenses and bit of talent and creativity. Why these guys need all that other stuff is beyond me. They’re in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Photograph that, not each other.

      2. I do not believe sherpas climb to the summit.

        The first person to reach the summit was a Sherpa.

        1.  Actually, not true. (Insofar as a fact known only to two people on earth, both now dead, can ever be verified.)

          Tenzing was the most experienced climber on the summit team, having participated in 6 previous attempts on the mountain. However, in his biography, “Tiger of the Snows,” he acknowledged that Hillary was first. Hillary confirmed the assertion following Tenzing’s death in 1986.

          Given the political issues at play in the first ascent of Everest, there was tremendous pressure for both men to declare that they were the “first” person on the summit. The Indian and Nepalese wanted to claim it was Tenzing, the UK were for Hillary (quelle surprise). Instead, both men decided to keep mum about the issue for a few decades.

          The famous photo of the lone climber on the summit is of Tenzing and was taken by Hillary. Hillary claimed it was because he was unsure that Tenzing knew how to operate a camera. Tenzing claimed that he offered, but was rebuffed. Whatever, they were both probably so fried at that point that it is impressive that they remembered to take pictures at all.

          At the end of the day though, who was “first” of a two-man team is not reflective of the effort or work that each man put into the ascent. For example, one could have led the majority of the day’s climb, breaking trail and making countless, minute route-finding decisions, only to cede the lead for the last hundred yards because of exhaustion.

          Note: the proceeding paragraph does not apply if you’re Hermann Buhl.

  2. Looking at the first shot above, I thought the ‘amazing photo’ meant a guy about to hit a climber in the head with a colossal ice cube on a stick.  Seriously, look at it again and you can’t un-see that.

  3. I’m skeptical of photographers who require fancy flashes to take amazing photos.  Don’t get me wrong, you can do some neat tricks, but if you’re going to spend all that time setting up lights, you might as well spend your patience on capturing amazing natural light.

    The altitude means thinner air, less dust & other junk between you and the sun… the sky can be a deep, dark blue, pretty naturally beautiful.

    1. This.  Bring a bounce for fill and a scrim to cut down the bright overhead light and you’ll be better off when the batteries on either of these devices stop working.

      Stop adding light to the scene, redirect the light you have.

      1. If you want to bring down the value of the sunlit background that is miles away the only way to do that is to add light.  Or put up a 500 square mile scrim.

    2. “you might as well spend your patience on capturing amazing natural light.”

      I’ve heard that the weather on Everest is so stable that you can wait for days, nay, weeks, without fear of death-dealing shifts in local climate conditions.  Of course, these people invented this stuff for NO REASON. You know best.

    3. “you might as well spend your patience on capturing amazing natural light.”

      I’ve heard that the weather on Everest is so stable that you can wait for days, nay, weeks, without fear of death-dealing shifts in local climate conditions.  Of course, these people invented this stuff for NO REASON. You know best.

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