The Andes : Trekking For Condor
(Photo album at bottom of page)
Conventional wisdom teaches us that the more you have to carry up a mountain, the less fun you are going to have. I too have been a long time supporter of this thinking. I've always tried hard to strike a balance between being well equipped and travelling light, but this trip was always going to be a very hard one to pack for.
The Andean Condor is the largest flying bird in the world, and I have always regarded them with a somewhat romantic fascination. The temptation to name this travel log entry something OTT like: 'Operation Condor' was nearly overwhelming, so thanks for bearing with me. Thankfully, the bird is still a fairly wide-ranging animal, despite catastrophic trends in recent years. They, just like their vulture cousins, are poisoned in great numbers by farmers who misconceive them as a threat (despite being scavanger-class feeders). They also ingest lead ammunition and collide with power lines – contributing to their decline. The birds are known for flying over the lowland steppe, sometimes landing in the grey-brown brush, and pictures of them in this context are numerous. In fact, they have featured in mankind's pictorial history for thousands of years, with appearances in South American Art as far back as 2,500 B.C.E.
My challenge would be to capture images of the condor as I saw it in my mind's eye, in its most iconic context; namely soaring through the needle peaks of the snow covered Andes, high above. While the prospect of carrying long lenses up a few mountains was off-putting, I kept to the assertion that the satisfaction at altitude would trump any misgivings about the laden assents.
As our planned trekking route through TdPNP an Eastern spur of the Chilean Andes covered some 70km lateral distance (and God knows how much vertical), the need to pack light was clearly pressing. Every gram counted a great deal. As well as this, there was the problem of finding a practical solution for carrying my gear without causing injury, or risk overbalancing on the more perilous windswept trails along the way. I had already read a great deal about the ergonomic benefits of efficient weight distribution in one's trek pack, but there were very few guides covering how to lug heavy wildlife camera equipment available online. Most of the guides (understandably) were aimed at purist landscape photographers and their needs. While I do envy their position of being able to take only one lens and one camera body in their bag, it did make me realise exactly how disproportionately weighted my pack might have to be to ensure I had everything I needed to cover the range of photography I enjoy.
Thankfully, for some five years now I have predominantly been using a smaller system of camera. MFT cameras are truly engineered for the digital age and are not based around any archaic, analogue framework in the way the other system formats are. This means that they are incredibly compact, have longer reach and for the most part, are lighter. This is especially true of the glass. As the sensor is smaller than a 35mm camera, the area of light needed to cover it is much less. This results in a much smaller form factor for the lens roster, especially in the 'long' department. Still, having five extra kilos of gear didn't seem much at planning stage; but this is while it was all still resting in the cupboard.
From a packing point of view I had to make a serious shift from my norm. Instead of stocking a camera-oriented bag, we had to pack proper seventy litre hiking bergens with thermal sleeping bag/mat, tent, clothing, food, water, lamps as well as my cameras. As the plan was to spend five full days in the mountains, the need for proper equipment was high. After a lot of research, measuring and testing I settled on buying a traditional pack (not a photo hybrid) and inserting my own inlay to house the cameras. I needed a removable pack, self contained with my cameras in for ease of access and day-hikes when I would leave my larger pack at the camp. Also, the need to carry all my cameras, lenses and batteries in my carry-on luggage through international airports was a priority, especially with a soft-sided hold bag.
Particular camera equipment list below.
Despite reading how insane it is, I was totally unprepared for the Patagonian weather. It is wildly unpredictable and can change every few minutes. Even though a lot of my cameras and lens combos would be splash and dust-proof, I also knew what it was like to be soaked for days on end, and how miserable that can be. Aside from the ripstop rain poncho, goretex lined boots, hiking waterproofs and thick groundsheet for the tent, I made sure every bag had a rain cover.
A lot of waterproof solutions can be noisy and shiny - as a result they are not something I normally go in for, as this can disturb animal behaviour. This trip, I was sure that I would not see much wildlife close up anyway, and the high winds and heavy clouds would make noise and shine pretty inconsequential in the context of the enormous mountains. In any case, I had seen pictures of some of the hiking route going through the clouds, so it was not just traditional rain I had to cater for either.
The notorious Patagonian winds were also a big concern in the preparation, but sadly very hard to test solutions for from a London flat (Dyson engineering aside). I learnt pretty quickly however - on day one in fact, that it is important to not let your very large rain cover for your 70l bag become semi detached on the 'safety' cord, and billow free, act like a spinnaker, and pull both you and your backpack over loose rocks on mountain trails. This was a lesson that I continued to learn over the first day, and one I have fully taken onboard now, much to my advantage.
Thankfully, my much much better half (and team leader) suggested that I complete some training before we left. Due to recent business projects and everyday laziness, my fitness levels have suffered, and so everyone I spoke to suggested some pretty intensive training. Thankfully altitude was not going to be too much of a problem, it was more to prepare for the 8-10 hours of hiking each day and carrying full kit up, down and over uneven surfaces. Standard stuff for a fitness junkie. Unfortunately, I am not one of these people. While I am used to strenuous walks and long days in the field, the expected terrain demanded a good deal more respect. Twice a week PT sessions with some runs in between made for a pretty intense prep routine. It did however, make a mountain of difference, and I can honestly say that I wouldn't have been successful without it.
I'm a big fan of proper fieldcraft, so I try and do a pretty comprehensive scouting routine before any destination project work. This helps me not only maximise my productivity, but also ensures that I feel more prepared – something I find really helps with my shooting confidence and resulting creativity.
Other than figuring I was to trade a horizontal landscape for a near vertical one, there was a lot more I needed to know. What season would it be, how long are the days? At that latitude how long are the Golden Hours? Which direction would we be hiking, where would that put the sun throughout the day? Which times of day would make that best for using a polariser? What cycle is the moon in? Would it prohibit astro photography after dark? How many batteries would I need to complete 5 days intensive use with the possibility of no charging? Likewise for storage and SD space. I always make crib sheet of these things before I leave on a project, and it turned out to be proiceless - especially with no internet or phone signal of any kind.
Olympus E-M1 mkii
Olympus E-PM2 – Infrared Converted
Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO
Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6
Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO
Pan Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3
2 x Transcend R285-180 mb/s SDHC II 32GB
4 x SanDisk Extreme- 90mb/s SDHC
These two images represent the hardest two captures of my life. Despite my experience with animals, finding the beasts in such terrain proved incredibly difficult, but trying to create decent, stable images, in relentlessly ludicrous wind, flying sand & sleet, all the while physically exhausted was almost too much. It was the quiet occasions, with a break in the cloud, a fleeting rainbow or a shaft of bathing sunlight that made the trip a true marvel. Enough light to capture images of these birds up in between the cloudy peaks was all I was truly hoping for, and we were very lucky to get it. These will always be very special pictures in my collection, and well worth all the weeks of effort it took to get them. If you have been foolish enough to read this far, let me know what you think of them.