Pakistan’s Karakoram is one of the great mountain ranges on earth, and as a climber it’s a place I’ve held in my imagination for over half of my life. I went there for Mammut, a Swiss outdoor apparel and equipment maker, last year to document a climbing expedition on Trango Tower (20,623 feet) with elite climbers David Lama and Peter Ortner. Along the way we pushed the limits of high altitude filmmaking by being the first to use a remote controlled helicopter with camera at elevations over 22,000 ft. The end result has changed the way people will film in the most remote high altitude mountain regions and push the craft of visual storytelling. Most importantly we had a fantastic adventure in a truly wild place and managed to stand on the summit of Trango Tower.
Two out of the past three seasons I went to Patagonia with renowned alpine climber David Lama as he attempted to free climb Cerro Torre on assignment for Red Bull. Throughout the course of our Cerro Torre project, David and I shared stories, ideas and dreamed up our next big adventure. While waiting out bad weather and sipping Argentine red wine, the idea to collaborate on a project in Pakistan was born.
I love to tell stories with my work. When David explained the details of the expedition and that he and his climbing partner, Peter Ortner, wanted to free climb Eternal Flame on Trango Tower (a three thousand foot rock spire deep in the Karakoram Mountains) I couldn’t pass up the chance to document both the challenges and triumphs of the journey in a place I had always dreamed of visiting. The project was funded by Mammut as part of their 150 Year Anniversary, "Biggest Peak Project".
This trip would be the highest altitude climbing expedition that the three of us had ever attempted. As an experienced climber myself, it felt reassuring to be going with great athletes and friends. Peter and David would be testing themselves at the same time I would be testing myself. It would be a great
opportunity to construct a very powerful narrative while utilizing all of my skills as an athlete, an
adventurer, a climber, a director, a photojournalist, and a travel fanatic.
Going deep into Pakistan our expedition required a small footprint and lean production model. The plan was for me to climb with David and Peter and shoot video and stills, while my assistant stationed near base camp monitored a second camera angle. The emphasis for shooting was roughly 80% video and 20% stills.
I brought along Andrew Peacock as my camera assistant. Not only is Andrew a great assistant, he is a fellow Aurora Photos contributor, emergency room doctor, excellent athlete, and long time friend. He was charged with managing the media assets, carrying heavy loads and capturing secondary stills and video.
We also enlisted RC helicopter pilot: 21 year-old Remo Masina. He captained a RC helicopter with mounted camera from Dedicam, a Swiss-based company. We brought two RC helicopters with us into Pakistan in our luggage and shipped another one as a backup, but we never saw the shipped RC helicopter again because it got confiscated somewhere along the way. Considering the political tensions of flying a remote controlled RC helicopter or drone in Pakistan, the high crash / failure rate of RC helicopters and the technical challenge of flying a camera at such high elevations, I was initially very skeptical about attempting to use the machines on the expedition. However, our luck in getting the two machines into the country and the Swiss precision of Remo's mind was the perfect combination for filming with the RC helicopter at over 22,000 feet.
The primary challenge and objectives for the trip was to simultaneously create motion content for a global television show and The European Outdoor Film Tour (EOFT) and I also needed to capture hero still images that Mammut could use for all channels of their marketing and advertising. This directive kept me focused on capturing different narrative elements throughout the climb. The EOFT hand-picks a selection of the world's most outstanding adventure sports films and its program captures the eyes of audiences in 9 countries across Europe, with 100 + event stops along the way.
I needed to capture content to create an 8-10 minute short film for the EOFT and I also needed to
capture footage for a 15-minute segment for a mainstream television audience that was distributed
globally. As a video-focused shoot, I needed to go beyond looking for just stunning visuals. I had to capture sound and motion at high altitude while battling the elements in an extremely remote location. The RC helicopter was an essential tool in capturing and providing sophisticated establishing visuals.
My strategy was to initially capture the essence of any one scene with video and switch to still photography if the situation lent itself to a still moment. I used a Nikon D600 due to its ability to shoot both Full HD video and high resolution still images in the smallest FX form factor DSLR on the market today. In environments like the Karakoram, every ounce of weight counts. I also selected functional light weight lenses, the Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4 G ED VR and the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 G ED VR. This allowed me to focus more time and energy on being creative and use less of my energy on managing equipment.
The Trango Tower expedition was a success from start to finish. I produced high end content for a
globally distributed television show, a short film, titled “A New Perspective” was toured with 8 other inspiring projects in the 2012 E.O.F.T. and I captured still images for print and electronic advertising.
Additionally our friend Rebecca Santana, a reporter for the Associated Press based in Islamabad, Pakistan recognized the uniqueness of using RC helicopters or “drones” in a positive way in the Karakoram rather than for military purposes. Rebecca saw the value in the story and wrote an acclaimed piece that got picked up by some of the top news outlets around the globe. Her article received global media attention and shed light on not only our project, but also on the majestic beauty of a region that has been sullied by years of intermittent fighting.
A selection of the news organizations around the globe that covered the expedition.
My experience in Pakistan proved that both video enabled DSLR cameras and RC helicopters have changed mountain shooting forever. Without a doubt the trip was a great success; on a personal level it was a life changing experience for the three of us and we made fantastic content allowing us to share our adventure and the magic of the Karakoram with others!
This trip certainly would not have been possible without the critical support from the following people:
David Lama, Peter Ortner, Christian Gisi at Mammut, Andrew Peacock, all of the crew at Shipton Treks & Expeditions Pakistan, Rebecca Santana, Max Becherer, Florian Klinger at Red Bull, Todd Offenbacher, Hayden Kennedy, Blaine Deutsch, Julia Arcamone, Josh Dick and Christian Fernandez. I would additionally like to thank Nikon for allowing us to bring ligthweight prototype gear, Canyon Florey at Lite Pro Gear, Pat Grosswendt and Alan Ipakchian at Litepanels, Bryan Cole at ClifBar, Ryan Avery at Schneider Optics and the team at Nik Software.
An extra special thanks to my wife Marina for being so supportive and encouraging.