Mountaineering is my ticket to experiencing the earth,"
adventuring's greatest photographer once said. And what
memorable use Galen Rowell made of that ticket, for himself and
for anyone who has ever looked upon the stunning color images he
brought back from the world's most cruel and demanding
landscapes. Annapurna. Patagonia. Karakoram. You don't look at
Rowell's photographs as much as you fall into the rich feel and
detail of them, into wondering what it took for him to be there
for the right light, the perfect moment.
Rowell called photography "an action sport," and his expedition
resume bears that out. Before he died, at age 61, in a plane
crash that also took the lives of his wife, Barbara, and two
others near Bishop, Calif., on Aug. 11, he had climbed Everest,
K2 and several other Himalayan peaks. He was the owner of 100
first ascents on some of Yosemite's most difficult faces. He
trekked across China, Africa, Siberia and India, expeditions that
produced some of the thousands of photos that appeared in
magazines (including SI) and the 18 books he wrote or cowrote.
His love of mountains began around age 10, when his speech
professor father, Edward, and cellist mother, Margaret, took him
from their home in Berkeley, Calif., to hike and camp in the High
Sierra. At 16 he began making roped climbs and taking photos of
his rock adventures to illustrate to friends the sport he was so
passionate about. In 1972 he left his job as the owner of a small
auto parts and service shop to risk a career as an adventure
photographer, and a year later, with $50 remaining in his bank
account, he got his break: an assignment to photograph Yosemite
for National Geographic, the first of many he would go on for
I'd seen Rowell's Yosemite photos before the two of us met for
the first time, in the mid-1980s. He had long since become
famous, though for all his athletic and artistic accomplishment,
there was no strut to him. He was friendly, energetic and full
of ideas for outdoor stories, which he shared generously. It was
high noon, early summer, at Yosemite as he and Barbara (who
shared most of his adventures with him) and I talked in the
parking lot of Camp 4. I suggested that a day like this--without
mist or snow or clouds or the long sensual light of spring and
fall--was maybe the mountain gods' way of giving him a day off.
He smiled the smile that put deep parentheses in his tanned and
rugged face and said, "You never know what might ride in on the
weather and make you scramble to be in the right place."
"What people don't realize," says accomplished climber Hans
Florine, who hiked Northern California's Evolution Basin with
Rowell four years ago, "is what an exceptional mountaineer he
was. He would have been famous for that if he'd never taken a
picture. One of the things I remember from that hike we took is
what shape he was in. I was 22 years his junior, and he had to
keep waiting for me to catch up."
What he was after, Rowell wrote in The Art of Adventure, was "a
portrait of the earth as a living, breathing thing that will
never look the same again." And his photos put the proof to that
ambition, no matter what your favorites are: El Capitan in a
clearing winter storm, color and light across the mountain
palette in an achingly lonely tableau; two Kirghiz horsemen the
size of beetles in the foreground of a monumental sand dune at
13,000 feet in the Pamir Mountains of western China; climbers Ron
Kauk and Skip Guerin stretched like spiders high on a sheer rock
face in Joshua Tree National Monument in California. And, his
most famous photograph, a rainbow he literally chased until he
caught it falling on the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's former
home, in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama was an inspiration for Rowell to become more
politically active than he had been in his early career.
Beginning in the early '80s he took photographs for a book called
My Tibet, a collection of essays by the Buddhist holy man, and he
later wrote and lectured about the environmental abuses of the
Chinese in Tibet.
Rowell took his last adventure this past May: a two-month trek
across an uninhabited plateau in northern Tibet in search of the
calving grounds of an endangered antelopelike animal called the
chiru, which has been brutally poached for fur to make expensive
scarves. Rick Ridgeway, another seasoned mountaineer and
photographer, was Rowell's tentmate throughout the long, hard
expedition, during which they spent a month in places so remote
that they were without chance of resupply or rescue.
"It was a hard trip," says Ridgeway. "But Galen's unmitigated
enthusiasm never wore down. At the end of a long day he was the
one who said, 'We could go another hour, what do you think?' He
was up at first light, there at sunset, and sometimes up in the
middle of the night for a moon shot. The kind of images he got
don't come easy. It took a lot of hard work and focused
determination over a long time. We've lost a great pair of
COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/CORBIS MULTIDIMENSIONAL Rowell (in Yosemite in 1991) was once described as "a cross between Sir Edmund Hillary and Ansel Adams."
COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT POTALA PALACE, LHASA, TIBET, 1986
COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT PAMIR RANGE, CHINA, 1980
COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/CORBIS GOOD NATURE Rowell would eventually become involved in environmental causes.
COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT) MOUNT WHITNEY, CALIF., 1973
COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT MOUNT WILLIAMSON, HIGH SIERRA, CALIF., 1983
COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT MACHU PICCHU, PERU, 1995