The Challenges of Photographing Backcountry Ice Climbers

Ice climbing is what people who enjoy extreme sports consider “too extreme”. Armed with two sharp hooks, climbers heave their way up a wall of solid ice–in this case, the 60-meter-tall yellowed wall of “HMR”, a remote ice sheet in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This video gives an excellent and rare look at what it’s like to photograph the action:

The video is hosted, shot, and edited by Mike Wilkinson, whose career as an adventure and landscape photographer often finds him in his own freezing Michigan backyard.

In an article on Fstoppers, Wilkinson had this to say of the day’s weather conditions:

“A lot of factors were working against me on this day. Temperatures ranged from below zero at night to only about 18°F during the day. 4-5 miles of snowy trails laid between us and our location, with about 1.5 miles of that being unbroken powder up to my hips. A 40lb pack included photo, video, and climbing gear. Lastly, with time to only shoot 2 climbs at the most, I had to hustle on location to get my shots.”

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Mike Wilkinson preparing to shoot the HMR.

The crew cross-country skis and snowshoes through three miles of waist-deep snow to reach HMR. We see Mike take three types of shots: portraits before the climb, long-distance landscapes to expose the scope of the endeavor, and in-action shots.

The latter are the trickiest to nab. Mike has to rappel down the ice sheet beside the climbers, hauling all his gear and aiming not to collide with the climbers themselves. We see his entire process, and the remarkable results he captures:

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The behind-the-scenes view.

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The end product.

Mike shoots with a Canon 5D Mark II, along with a host of lenses, including Canon’s 70-200 f/2.8L IS for zooming and Sigma’s 17-50 f/2.8 IS for closer portrait angles. For a strong variety of shots, you need a strong arsenal of lenses.

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“Part of what makes a great climbing image is revealing the landscape and the exposure that the climb is set in.” – Mike Wilkinson

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