Making of 40 Photographs #12

This is #12 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Patagonia is a region I simply can't stay away from. Stunning scenery and the climate is very similar to my home land of Scotland.

I'm not one for giving up on a shot, yet the northern region of Los Glaciares national park in Argentina had pretty much defeated me on three separate trips to Torre lagoon in order to get a sunrise shot of Cerro Torre - one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb.

In the 1950's, an Italian mountaineer called Maestri claims to have climbed Cerro Torre with his partner Tony Eger. But there is no evidence of their full assent because Eger died on the way down and he had the camera with him. It's pretty much taken in mountaineering circles that a mountaineers word is all that's required.

Then in the early 70's a team of American's made it to the top of Cerro Torre and the found little evidence of Mastri's ascent. Even his descriptions of the mountain didn't tie in with what they found, and there was only evidence of his climb for a 1/3rd of the height of the mountain.

I find this compelling because the mountain is a bit if a mystery to me also. I've had a hell of a time trying to get a decent sunrise picture of it. Situated right on the very edge of the southern Patagonian ice field, the region is notorious for ferocious winds, inclement weather and poor visibility. I've had countless e-mails from fellow travelers who pretty much say the same thing: 'I got there, but couldn't see a thing for days'. This pretty much mirrors my attempts at getting a clear visible morning to shoot this mountain and I've often come home defeated, run down (after weeks of camping out in cold conditions waiting for the light that would never come). It was so cold in fact at one point that the shoe laces of my walking boots had frozen so hard that I could stand them upright. It was like looking at two squiggly straws.

So in 2008 I went back to this region, knowing full well that the weather is very fickle here and if I got anything at all, it would be down to luck more than anything. Things went pretty much as I expected too: I sat in a hostel at the base of Cerro Torre in the small town of El Chalten for four days in the howling wind, rain and zero visibility waiting for the weather to clear. You can forget weather forecasts here. You can often tell an outsider because they ask what the forecast is for the next few days while the locals raise their shoulders and gesture 'who knows - it's anybody's guess'.

I get pretty depressed sitting around for days upon days waiting for decent weather and on my 5th day, I decided to call it quits and head back to El Calafate. It's slightly further south and the weather is often clearer here. But I had another week to spare and decided that if I was here in Argentina, I should make the most of my time and try to go back to the base of Cerro Torre and wait it out.

I'm glad I did. I only had one clear morning in the entire time I was there and this shot was made then. I climbed down the glacial moraine from the camp site at Laguna Torre to the base of the lagoon early one morning and looked for some suitable foreground interest which I found in the shape of the ice berg you see in this shot. The berg was perhaps the size of a small car, situated not too far away from the edge of the lagoon. I placed my camera very low down on the tripod - perhaps only a few inches off the ground. It's a struggle to get down that low to check the composition, and you must always ensure you're not looking in side ways as this can affect your judgement. I remember checking the composition completely upside down because I couldn't get below the camera. This way I was able to check that the horizon was level.

And then I waited for the sun to appear and it was pretty brief. For a few minutes the glaciers on the far left were aglow and the sky brought some cloud interest into the top right of the frame and I shot a few exposures using a 3 stop hard ND grad on the camera. I was shooting a 5D and had noticed from previous trips how terrible the Canon wide angles are - they are pretty soft and require to be shot no less than f5.6 to avoid diffraction too. So this was shot at f5.6 and I also used a full ND to slow the shutter right down so I could get that glaze on the water too.

And then it was gone. I retreated back to the camp site to find everyone else still in their tents and when I asked if anyone had seen the sunrise, I was told that some of them had checked the light and felt it wasn't worth getting up for. This is perhaps rule no.1 of Photography : always go, even if the light doesn't seem good. You don't know how the light is going to change over the course of your visit, and besides, not going means you don't get. When I showed members of the camp site this shot - they were stunned at what they'd missed. Personally, It is perhaps the most satisfying image I've made. I felt that I'd worked at getting this image over the course of three or four years and the waiting was worth it.