Photographer Galen Rowell Seeks Peak Experiences

updated 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's a summer morning in Alaska and Galen Rowell is scaling a sheer patch of ice near the summit of Mount Dickey. The snow breaks underneath his feet and Rowell tumbles pell-mell into a gaping crevasse before his 35-foot-long nylon safety line yanks him to a halt. Still dangling, he whips a Nikon from his parka and, telling the rescuers to wait a minute, takes a few parting shots before allowing himself to be pulled to safety. For Rowell, 46, one of the world's premier wilderness photographers, it's just another day on the job. "Photography," he explains, "is an action sport."

A cross between Sir Edmund Hilary and Ansel Adams, Rowell has become a cult figure to climbers and photographers alike. He has made more than 100 first ascents in the Sierras, 17 treks to the Himalayas and well over 1,000 climbs all told. Mountain Light (Sierra Club Books, $35), his seventh book in 12 years, is a compendium of photographs culled from these trips—a crescent moon, below eye level, resting on a Pakistani mountain peak; a glowing dawn in which red-lit Canadian Rockies seem ready to explode—that combines graceful anecdote with meticulous technical photographic advice. Many of Rowell's pictures are museum pieces, and his fame has spread to the famous. Rowell guided Robert Redford on a monthlong trek through the mountain regions of Nepal in 1982. Rowell's pursuit of the perfect image is not without its hairy moments. Last year an assignment for National Geographic Bookstook him to Mount Fitz Roy, a Patagonian peak known for icy cliffs and bad weather. Darkness forced his team to spend the night just a few hundred feet from the top. They had no sleeping bags, the temperature hovered near zero and their impromptu camp consisted of a three-foot-wide ledge they had carved into the ice. "We walked in place to keep from freezing," recalls Rowell. "And one guy did imitations of Tina Turner to keep things light.'' After scraping off the quarter-inch layer of ice inside their parkas, Rowell and company made it to the top before dawn. "The photography was beautiful," he says.

As a child in Berkeley, Calif. Rowell spent weekends camping in the Sierras with his mother, a music teacher, and his father, a speech professor. As a teenager, he took 70-mile hikes in stride and became interested in technical climbing. "It was something that gave me direct feedback on who I was and what I could do," he says. "Wild places can tell you more about yourself than people can." About the same time he began dabbling in photography. "I approached it the same way I approached climbing," he says, "something I was trying to understand and do my best at. I took pictures to communicate about the outdoors."

After a halfhearted and unfinished stint at the University of California, Berkeley, Rowell opened a car-repair shop to support himself and continued to climb on weekends. He did some free-lance magazine pieces, but friends warned him that he could never make a living as a nature photographer. Rowell himself thought it was "unrealistic to expect to have a career that would be directly related to something I enjoyed so much." But in 1972, tiring of practicality, he sold his shop, banked the profits and gave himself a year to succeed as a photographer. A National Geographic assignment six months later wound up on the magazine's cover, and Rowell hasn't looked back, or down, since.

Surprisingly, the man who was dubbed by the Wall Street Journal "master of what might be called high picturesque" has never broken a single bone climbing. He has, however, come close to sailing off Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet North America's highest peak; been interrogated by suspicious Chinese border guards; covered the world's highest war, in Baltistan, at the personal behest of Pakistan's President Zia; and chased a Tibetan rainbow. In 1981, weary at the end of a monthlong trek, Rowell spotted a rainbow several miles from the Potala Palace, ex-residence of the Dalai Lama. Reflexively bearing in mind that, as he writes in Mountain Light, "the primary arc of a rainbow always forms at a radius of 42 degrees around the antisolar point, directly away from the sun" he dumped all his gear, save one camera, behind a bush and chased the rainbow sideways until it appeared to end on the roof of the palace. The picture, a proverbial pot of gold, has appeared on posters, book covers and national magazines and is Rowell's best-selling image. "You work with the elements and you put them where you want them," he says of his technique. "In a way I'm part of the picture, not just someone standing there clicking the shutter."

When he's not on the trail, Rowell lives in Berkeley with his second wife, Barbara Cushman. He jogs an hour a day to keep in shape and, to avoid getting stuck in the confining niche of mountain photography, sometimes takes on commercial assignments. Possible future explorations include Antarctica and the endangered South American rain forests. "All the adventures have not been done," says Rowell, "you just have to be a little imaginative."

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