Most sports photographers are observers, not participants. While the job can be strenuous (jogging up and down sidelines with heavy equipment) it is normally safely removed from the action. Back-country sports though, require photographers to be full participants. In alpine climbing, the field of play is a high mountain wall far from cheering crowds or comfortable grandstands. A climber photographer must master both action photography, and climbing, in order to arrive on location; then have enough time and energy left to take pictures.
Mountain climbing is potentially dangerous; but the risks can be minimized with proper instruction, training, and equipment. An introductory course from a qualified guide, or club, is mandatory. Years of practice on climbs of gradually escalating difficulty are necessary before venturing onto long, difficult routes in remote situations.
A sound body and mind form the first line of defense. Exhausted climbers are more likely to make mistakes in technique or judgment, and rarely have the energy for quality photography. A rigorous year round training regimen of aerobics (especially important for high altitude work) and specific strength training ("contact" or finger strength is of prime concern for rock climbers) is necessary to ensure performance when it counts.
Good equipment, and thorough knowledge of its use, forms the second line of defense. Technical gear such as ropes, pitons, carabieners, ice axes, and crampons (all used to securely attach yourself to the mountain) must be of the highest quality. Before every climb equipment should be checked for signs of wear, and replaced if damaged or old. If you're worried about the rope holding 2,000 feet up a rock wall, you're unlikely to climb well, or feel comfortable enough to concentrate on photography.
Food, clothing, and shelter must also be appropriate for the climb. High energy snacks, and lots of liquids are necessary to maintain performance on long days. Lightweight tents and sleeping bags ensure a good night's rest and security in storms. Modern, high-tech clothing has revolutionized cold weather climbing. Layers of polypropylene underwear, synthetic pile "fur," breathable, yet waterproof gortex shell garments, and warm lightweight plastic boots, or sticky soled rock shoes, enable alpinists to function comfortably in the world's most hostile conditions.
The best equipment and training in the world are useless if improperly applied. There is no substitute for experience, knowledge, and judgment. Before setting off on a climb, the route of ascent and descent should be thoroughly mapped out and planned. Weather, snow conditions, and patterns of avalanche or rock fall must be watched closely and considered. If conditions are too dangerous it is better to retreat and return again another day.
When setting off on a major ascent, a light pack equals speed, which is of the essence; so 35 mm equipment is mandatory. On truly desperate routes, where climbing must take precedence, I carry a Yashica T4 (flash great for predawn starts), but prefer an SLR whenever possible. I use an Olympus OM4 for it's light weight, durability, and ease of handling. I especially like the spot meter which allows me to average a number of readings. The camera is carried in a small padded nylon case on a belt which allows it to be held on the hip when carrying a pack, or slung around in the small of my back when leading a difficult pitch. On climbs where I have to wear a pack I strap the camera to the waist band of the pack.
In anything less than arctic conditions (below 0° F), no special lubrication or adaptations are needed, other than lots of fresh batteries. The mirror or shutter may freeze, but warming inside a jacket will release it. To avoid condensation (especially high humidity inside your jacket), I don't try to keep the camera warmer than the air.
Aperture-priority metering is fast and simple; but manual control is a necessity for the often contrasty situations encountered in the mountains, and a spot meter is very nice. When shooting with my point-and-shoot I often meter off the sky, then recompose.
I use Olympus 21, 28, and 50 mm lenses. Small Tokina SZX 28-70, and 70-210 lenses round out my selection. On technical climbs, I'll often carry only the 21mm. Its great depth of field and angle of view give a dramatic perspective when looking down a steep rock wall toward the distant flatlands. This lens is also small, and light.
I have a camera bag which holds all the gear, but on a climb each lens needs its own case, and is protected with a UV filter. Attaching a lens cap with a small cord is a must. You can buy several brands, but I just drill a small hole in the center of the cap, knot the cord through and tape it flat; then tie the other end around the lens.
I often use a polarizer, but over polarization can lead to unrealistically black skies at high altitudes. This effect can sometimes be very dramatic, but must be carefully controlled especially with wide-angle lenses where a wide expanse of sky can be disconcertingly uneven.
A small nylon stuff sack holds a number of extra batteries (wrapped in plastic and duct tape to protect them from moisture), lens cleaning paper and fluid, cable release for long night exposures, and of course, lots of film sans boxes.
In the past, I used Kodachrome 64 almost exclusively, but have switched to Fuji Provia 100 for general shooting, and Velvia 50 for tripod mounted scenics. I use a medium-weight Velbon tripod for roadside work, and carry a light Slik to high camps. On the climb itself, I rely on rocks padded with a sweater, or my pack, to prop the camera for low-light situations and self-portraits.
Complete trust in, and familiarity with, your equipment is essential. The test comes when a dramatic shot presents itself in midpitch, thousands of feet up a high-angle sheet of glistening ice. A swift kick embeds the one-inch steel crampon spikes attached to your boots. The ice axe is planted firmly, freeing your hands. You unzip the padded case on your hip, pull out the camera, loop the strap around your neck, meter, compose, focus, shoot, stow the camera, regrip your axe, and continue up, all in a quick flowing sequence. On difficult alpine routes (high altitude rock and ice) speed is safety. The climber/photographer must climb fast enough to have time for photography, then take the pictures quickly so as not to dangerously slow the climbing.
Cooperative partners are helpful, as they'll sometimes be asked to hold difficult poses in precarious situations.
As previously stated, manual exposure is often useful for the high contrast situations encountered high in the stark realm of ice, rock, and sky. In tricky situations, I often take my reading from a blue sky. The palm of your hand, or any neutral object with the same light on it as your subject can also be used. Snow and ice, or thin clouds and mist present special cases that fool your light meter into underexposure. When the viewfinder is filled with snow, 1.5 stops overexposure (from the meter reading) will normally compensate nicely. One stop over yields slightly underexposed shots which I prefer for mountain scenics. Meter off your subject's face for portraits on snow, and stay in close because the background will be very bright (fill flash on a point-and-shoot works wonders here).
Mountain light is normally strong enough to allow fast shutter speeds (1/125-l/500), which are useful when leaning out from a rock wall, or wearing gloves. Most of the time, I want great depth of field, so I use f/8-f/16, but a wide lens aperture can put selective focus on the climber and dramatically isolate him.
Caution should be used when winding film in the dry, cold conditions often encountered. Wind and rewind slowly and smoothly to avoid static electricity or cracking of cold film. Carefully prepare film changes for maximum efficiency and security. High on a mountain, fumbled objects are lost forever. I shield the open camera with my body from the sun, wind, rain, or snow.
Most climbers take pictures to document their ascents. The challenge comes in trying to portray an entire climb, from a predawn start to an evening descent in a storm. The summit hero shot is easy, but after 16 hours of continuous strain, it takes real dedication to use a small part of your waning energy for photography, especially when you need to move quickly over difficult terrain in less than perfect conditions. It's all worth it, though, when you get home from a trip and find the mailers piled up. There is a tense excitement, almost equal to that of making the climb itself, as the first box is opened and you reexperience the thrill of those fleeting moments of high drama captured forever on film.