Brian Gindling  glides past ice formations in Tears.

Deepest cave in America cave goes deeper.

This past July, a group of core American cavers spent 10 days exploring and mapping remote alpine caves in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. 

With a surveyed depth of 1,659 ft, “Tears of the Turtle” is the deepest cave in the continental U.S. It is the first 500 meter deep limestone cave in the U.S.A., and on this expedition was pushed further than ever before.

“Tears”, as it’s known to cavers, became the deepest cave in 2014.   At this time, the survey team surpassed the depth of previous record holder, New Mexico’s Lechuguilla cave, by a few feet.  On that expedition, the team was halted at a passage of bottomless mud they named the “Slough of Despond”.  Expedition leader Jason Ballensky recalled, “It’s the kind of mud you worry about getting stuck in and not getting out,” and getting stuck in cold, sloppy mud at the bottom of “Tears” is not a place a person would ever want to be.  It’s the total opposite of climbing El Capitan, where one can simply retreat back to the bottom if something goes wrong. 

“Tears of the Turtle” isn’t the glamorous cave pictured in one’s mind. There are no giant passages filled with beautiful formations; just an endless narrow crack descending into the abyss.  Exploring this cave is Difficult with a capital D.  Arguably the most remote spot in America, the hardest part isn’t the 22 mile wilderness approach; it’s not the sheer difficulty of descending the 49 ropes through tight, sharp, icy 37 degree fahrenheit passages of sludge.  It’s mostly the task of hauling a cold and mud covered self back up the 500 meters to the surface with barely functioning ascenders jammed with goop.  A rescue from the bottom is unthinkable.

On this expedition, there was an advanced camp deep in a borehole passage above the previously unsurpassed mud pit. The camp provided the extra margin of safety and time needed to explore deeper.  Two teams of three cavers each spent three days underground, and used the middle day for an attempt to explore deeper.  Several other cavers hauled gear to and from the camp in support of the mission. 

Since the 2014 trip, plans emerged to surpass the “Slough of Despond” and an extra 1000 feet of rope was brought for what lay below.  One plan involved bringing “mud shoes”, a sort of snow shoe device made for glacial mud flats.  These quickly proved useless.  The first descending team spent most of their efforts aid climbing the wall of the passage to surpass the mud.   Beyond that obstacle, the team found more tight passages that continued mostly horizontally.  Hardly the dream borehole passage everyone had hoped.  Altogether, the teams combined surveyed 600 feet of new passage that descended only 30 feet.

Tears continues downward and we are already making plans to go back.” — Jason Ballensky

Gallery of images here.

 

Bosawas: Following a river through the rainforest of Nicaragua.

I awake in a panic and spring upright in my sleeping bag.  The contents of my stomach are desperately trying to escape.  I frantically unzip the tent door and my head exits the door just as vomit sprays onto my shoes outside.  The retched sounds are almost drowned out by the orchestra of the rainforest.  This has been a reoccurring episode on this starry night, each time Claire’s comforting hand strokes my back until I fall asleep again.  The growing pile of puke smells strangely similar to last nights dinner of moldy tamales, a gift from the settlers on the adjacent shore.  I may never eat tamales again.   

It’s the first night of what some would say to be a poorly planned river trip.  Yesterday my partner Claire and I launched our pack rafts on the Rio Bocay in Ayapal, Nicaragua.  Like the phone lines and electricity, the road ends there.  We are headed along the BOSAWAS reserve to the Rio Coco and eventually

the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua.  We have packed enough food to survive for a couple of weeks.  There are no roads out.

In a sense; the river begins where the road ends.  At the downstream edge of this bustling market town is a de facto harbor filled with hand dug canoes.  Pigs squeal as they are weighed and tossed into a truck, while children happily splash in the water.  Families have traveled several days by river from their rainforest homes to sell their crops, or unlucky native animals, and purchase luxuries from the outside world. 

The sun was setting when the bus dropped us at the far side of this frontier town; so we decided to stay the night and depart in the morning.  At the gateway to the river there is a ramshackle checkpoint staffed with some bored looking soldiers.  We try to be inconspicuous, which is impossible, and walk past. We didn’t exactly look into the need for permits and prefer to avoid the authorities altogether.  The officials didn’t seem to notice as much as the local kids while we inflated our vibrant boats.  Some little girls take our Alpacka boats for a cruise and we meet a mother, Helda, who has travelled, by canoe, four days upstream with her small children and brother.  That night we share the river bank with them.  We ate dinner at a shanty restaurant with “World Food Program” bags of rice in the corner.  Helda prepared a dinner of boiled plantains, cooked over a fire at the rivers edge, there was a dessert of raw sugar.  The smallest child, maybe 2 years old, begs for and receives a second handful.  He delightfully licks his hands clean of every last sweet morsel.  As the family prepares for bed by wrapping themselves in blankets and black plastic sheets we set up our space age tent with LED lights.  They have been camping on the river bank for a few days; in the morning they will pack their canoe and head home.  Their village at the Amaka river, a tributary to the Bocay is only a two day return journey down stream.

I spend the second day trying to sleep the nausea away while wondering if we should retreat upstream and go on a relaxed beach vacation on the pacific coast.  In the eddy next to our camp some young native, Mayangna, guys are putting the final touches on a new canoe.  Their presence creates a stark contrast to the foreign settlers living across the river.  Claire spends the day visiting the Spanish speaking homestead; Which consist of a couple of dirt floored shacks surrounded by stalks of corn and children.

When we started on this journey we thought we would be mostly alone in an uninhabited jungle.  We were very wrong!  We are rarely out of site of people.  Our down river progress is announced from neighbor to neighbor by children, running on the banks, with a distinct primal howl.  It appears to mean “Look at the river”, and is sent back and forth.  As we approach each home children and adults alike scurry down to the river to observe the spectacle that is us.  At night we often awake to flashlights passing our camp.  Are they hunting? Are they the notorious drug traffickers of the region?  Many people tell us its dangerous to sleep along the river.  They insist that we sleep in their homes or camp in close proximity.  Are they paranoid from their wartime experiences?  Are there leftover landmines on the beach?

One day we float into a deep pool lined with a handful of men and boys all fishing with their landlines.  There is a large gravel bar on the opposite side of their farm.  They seem disinterested and grant our request to camp on the beach.  Like most days around sunset, the locals come over to stare at us. Sometimes they speak, but they mostly just look at us and our foreign gear.  While I was attempting to pole one such man’s canoe he snagged Claire’s passport which was out drying.  I saw it in his pocket and snagged it back.  I told him “You are not my friend.”

This particular man came with his curious children.  Who stood at his side and watched.  He asked us if we knew his friends Juan and Maria in Los Angeles.  We don’t.  He offers us a tour of his farm in the morning and heads home with one of my camera batteries to charge on his small solar system.

It turns out Danny Jr. is a bit of a renaissance man on the Rio Bocay.  He is a non native settler here; an entrepreneur that got a good deal on some land.  He operates a cheeseery ????????complete with a hand made cheese press in his dirt floored home.  Every morning he travels the river collecting milk from local cattle farmers and makes about 60 pounds of fresh cheese per day.  He talks of some caves in the limestone cliffs a few kilometers behind his farm.  I wonder if he has ever heard of aging cheese in a cave. 

His wife gives Claire a lesson in making tortillas.  It’s quite simple to make this staple food.  Boil the corn, Grind the corn, Press the Corn, Cook the Corn.  These are probably the heartiest tortillas ever made.  Guaranteed to scrape your colon clean.  Danny Jr. laughs when he learns we have been eating Bimbo Brand tortillas on the trip.  While watching his nephew play a game of beat the pig.  He mentions the hog eating crocodile that lives in the pool between us and our camp.  As we paddle back I’m visualizing   dark shadows with teeth, in the waters depths.

A man poles a canoe down the river Bocay in Nicaragua on a foggy morning with a Ceiba tree in the background.

A man poles a canoe down the river Bocay in Nicaragua on a foggy morning with a Ceiba tree in the background.

DSCF5797 Bosawas shirt.

Taking a break on the Rio Bocay in Nicaragua.

Taking a break on the Rio Bocay in Nicaragua.

 

Taking a break on the Rio Bocay in Nicaragua.

 

Getting Married in the Colorado high country.

It’s beginning to look allot like Christmas in Crested Butte!  I often wonder why more couples don’t get married in Colorado in the Winter.  The wedding photography would be so special in the snow globe of the Rocky Mountains.  Granted it is also beautiful in the spring, summer and fall.  There are so many great outdoor venues for the daring and some quaint spots indoors too.  Basically the Colorado mountains are perfect unless its mud season.  Then I will see you in the Utah desert or the beach somewhere.

20140812-DSC_8998-Edit-2DSC_2130

How to repair a bent aperture arm on a Nikon camera.

I learned a new way to break a camera the other day, but more importantly I learned how to repair it in the field.  There I was several days from internet access let alone a Nikon Service Center; Who BTW are more often than not a pain in the ass to deal with.

Apparently some Nikkor lenses don’t have a tab to stop them from rotating past the postion (White dot on the camera aligned with white dot on the lens) where it should be removed from the camera body.  This causes the lens to be stuck on the camera in a weird position if you keep twisting even further in the direction to remove the lens the lens will bend the aperture lever.  This is exactly what I did with my 14-24 2.8 on a D600.  This causes an error on the screen since the aperture arm in the camera dosen’t activate the aperture lever on the lens to close the aperture blades in the lens when you take a picture. Since the lens aperture wont stop down; you will be over exposing the image unless you manually expose for the largest aperture of the lens.

So there I was totally baffled with a lens stuck on the camera.  It felt like the lens or the camera mount was broken.  I could feel crepitus inside when rotating it, but every thing looked fine except for the lens was in a strange position on the camera with the top of the lens facing the bottom of the camera.  After much confusion and cursing the lens came off and I could see the aperture arm was bent.  Well I figured I was SOL and I would spend allot of money to get it repaired, but since it was already broken I figured I might as well try to straiten it.  So I grabbed my trusty Leatherman and went to work.  I just eyeballed it and bent it back to what looked like a proper alignment.  It worked and the camera was back in operation in a mater of minutes:)  After the trip I contacted a camera repair shop.  They told me that that is what they sometimes do to repair a bent lever.  So my camera was repaired cheap and easy with a Leatherman.

 

 

Which current photographers are inspiring me?

Well there are the classics that I very much appreciate. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Arnold Newman to name only two. They both left large bodies of important work. Then there is the recently discovered Vivian Maier. She lived in their era and left behind thousands of undeveloped “classic” images, but who is making great photographs now?

After Tim Hetherington died I watched his “Diary” more than a couple times. Since then I have been shooting allot more video on my iphone. Tim’s work along with legendary war photographer James Nachtwey. Sometimes makes me want to catch the next flight to a war zone to cover the conflict that never happened while I was in the military. These guys were and are very dedicated to their work. Photography that has made a difference.

I once had a portfolio review by a very well established photographer. One of his comments was that when the composition got hard I would tilt the camera. In other words I should keep the horizon level and look harder rather than take an easy way out. I took it with a grain of salt, but still question myself when I tilt the camera today. I remember the first time a saw a Ragnar Axlsson image. I don’t know where I saw it, but it was an image of an old man rowing a small boat. It is still burnt into my mind. The eyes of the man in a such a surreal setting. A testament to the power of the still image. From his latest project : “Last Days of the Arctic” You will notice a few images where the horizon is way off axis. If the composition works he doesn’t care if the horizon is so off it looks like the world is ending. This has added a little validity to my own tilting horizons. In this long term project Rax documents the people and their life styles of the vanishing arctic.

Renato D’Agostin seeks a different or fresh perspective of over shot subjects. For his project “The Beautiful Cliché “ He achieved just that of Venice. A very over photographed place. He says photographers had given up on finding a new vision there. Any idiot can go to a location and get the classic shots that have been taken thousands of times before. You arrive check out a couple post card stands, buy a map and check your watch to see if you have time for coffee before sunset. How creative is making the same thing that someone else has done? Like Chase Jarvis said; “Don’t try to be better; try to be different. Different is better.” That being said; I can see a little influence of each of these guys in some of my own current work.

Although sometimes as photographers we compete; we are really a giant collective that feeds the organism that is photography. Pretty pictures are important to me, but I would like to be creative and to help make the world a better place. That really makes me wonder what Sebastião Salgado is up to.

The ultimate river trip photo kit.

Are you going on a white water adventure river trip and want to take a camera? What camera should you take and how can you protect it from the water while rafting?

I was a river guide for a few years. Running rivers became an addiction. I still try to work a few trips a summer on the Middle Fork of the Salmon river in Idaho. In my opinion it is the best 6 day trip in the U.S.A.

I prefer pelican cases to protect and transport my cameras on the river. They are solid, affordable and while I don’t believe there is such a thing as waterproof they are very water resistent. They are not bulletproof and require maintenance and common sense. Pelican recommends that you replace the “o” ring every year. The pressure it exerts against the lid is what creates the seal and keeps the contents dry. Like an old sleeping bag it becomes compressed over time and needs to be replaced. Of course sand, hair or a camera strap hanging out of the case will allow water to enter. Some people like the Watershed bags with the padded liners for their camera gear. I use Watershed bags for my clothing and non crushable items on the river. They really are the only DRY bag, as opposed to the semi wet bags with the traditional roll down top. I used to throw a tripod, wrapped in soft goods, in my dry bag. It usually settles towards the outside of the bag risking damage to the tripod and abrasion of the bag from the hard tripod rubbing it. That problem was solved when I got a Gitzo Traveller (5 section) tripod. It is sturdy and supper lightweight, not to mention almost pocket sized.

The kit ready to grab and scout a rapid or go on a hike.

The Gitzo will fit in a Pelican 1450 case along all the Fuji X series gear and a bad ass SureFire headlamp.

Lately I have been enjoying the Fuji X series cameras. They are small, light and offer superb image quality. I started with an X100 and lately have been using the X-Pro 1 and it’s three prime Fujinon lenses (18,35 and 60mm). Im not sure what will get left behind to make room for the Samyang X Mount compatible 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens. I’m excited to see some third party manufactures making gear for the X mount and can’t wait to try out this lens. I am wondering what else is in store for the X series. X-Pro 2?

Here are some images from my time on the Middle Fork of the Salmon this season working with my friends at Idaho River Adventures.

Hating on winter from Astillero.

It seems I picked a good winter to miss early season skiing in Colorado. While friends at home are dreaming of snow, but biking into the new year. I currently find myself floating around Nicaragua shooting for NGOs. I’m a big fan of one way ticket, no literary, travel and this trip is that.

It seems the more I travel the faster I head to the places other travelers avoid. Like Astillero. There isn’t anything to do there except extreme chillin and you can’t have a meal without gallo pinto. OK it’s not exactly party central and you have to wait for high tide to clean the garbage off the beach, but it’s a real deal working town.

I planned on meeting a contact after one night in a sleepy fishing village. That was five days ago. Before I pushed my cash reserve down to the last $5 and decided it was time to either get a job lobster diving or catch the bus, for two hours, to the nearest ATM. There is something special about being the only gringo in town. After the 1st 24 hours of wondering around sticking a giant camera in peoples faces. The locals have heard about you and wave you over to photograph the new baby or things they find interesting themselves.

My first night I had beers with a lobster diver. Who promptly invited me to go out on the boat. Two days later I was wondering if he would even remember the plan. Well I went on the boat and would have gone diving if it wasn’t for the ear infection. When I was leaving town the boat captain asked if I needed money for the bus.

BTW: OSHA doesn’t exist in Nicaragua and lobster diving here isn’t for pansies.

I think I might have just found a long term project. Now I have to call the contact and apologize.

Stay loose and go with the flow.

The Townies of Crested Butte.

This project started one morning; when as I walked up to my trusty 1970‘s Schwinn bicycle.  I noticed the way the handlebars of two adjacent vintage bikes seemed to be holding each other in a loving embrace.  I wasn’t in a rush so I spent a few minutes observing as the light changed.  I came back later in the afternoon to shoot the same handlebars again.

In the town of Crested Butte old beater bicycles are the norm.  It’s like they all migrated here to avoid a genocide.  Many bear scares from previous lives in far away places.  Now they live the life of a refugee.  Most are rusty and worn.  Many are unridable and are tossed to the side like victims of a death march.  Others are cannibalized so that others might live.  This town is a crowded refugee camp of vintage bicycles.  The more I looked the more I saw.  As I got closer and visually explored the craftsman ship of times gone by, the more entranced I became.  “Townies” is the culmination of many hours roaming the streets of Crested Butte capturing the art of these old bikes.  Prints and a book are available in the gallery above.

Long Exposures with the Fuji X100.

I have been pushing the limits of the Fuji X100 a bit lately. I find the sensor to be far superior to the similar pixel count sensor of the Nikon D300 which is a bit dated compared to the X100.  The X100 does especially well for long exposure images such as star trails or moonlight scenes that require 30 minutes or longer.

 

How do you shoot night time exposures?  1. You are going to want a sturdy tripod or some way to hold the camera in the desired position for long periods.  2. You need some way to keep the shutter open for the same time.  In the case of the X100 you need a classic screw in cable release.  Im using the one that I have used with my Nikon FM2 for years.  I really like the blend of retro style and killer digital technology.  Once you have a scene framed a little guess work and experimentation is required for a correct exposure.  I can never seem to take notes for myself; so good luck. Framing can actually be very difficult in the dark since you have probably just been looking at a screen and ruined your night vision.  A bright flashlight is great for illuminating the scene so you can see it to visually frame and focus or you can focus with the distance marks. I really want a X-Pro 1.

How about a photo shoot over lunch?

 

 

 

So you want to star in or make some pictures that don’t suck?  Meet me at high noon for the show down.  Ya?

Photography is just time and light, real simple.  More time allows more light and the inverse right?  Well yes, but then there is the quality of the light.   The quality along with composition is what really matters for your images.  The quality of natural light isn’t the same throughout a season or a day.  Composition like quality is totally subjective;  you know how someone will love your worst image and someone will hate your best.  High noon could be the perfect time to shoot a shootout scene in a hot desert.  That being said most people prefer to look at the warm color temperature of early morning or late evening when the sun is lower in the sky and the light has to travel through more atmosphere.

The magic or golden hour as its commonly know is the hour after sunrise and prior to sunset.  This is when you should be shooting especially if you want images that align with current fad of super warm, washed out, backlight, lens flare with the sun in the frame.

So high noon is only going to happen if I want to make some crappy images as reference for future shots or its winter and i’m really far north, think iceland, or maybe in a studio or shade.