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Introduction

2014 has been a very important year for me: Since I made up my mind to go beyond the plains, I have explored the Southern Alps of New Zealand two more times after I completed my Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Guides’ Mountain Experience Course (MEC, see link). In July 2014, Mark – my guide and friend, and I climbed Mount Cook Range. During that trip, I was able to make couple of nice pictures. The following pictures are probably the very first serious landscape photographs made from this place, because most of current pictures of Southern Alps were taken as snapshots by climbers.

Beyond the Plains: Touching the Sky

Beyond the Plains: Touching the Sky


The Above photo was made on 8 July 2014, around 3.30am after moon set. From a location of 1600 meters high, we witnessed the most stunning Milky Way I have ever seen. The lights down the mountain came from Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, while the curve line in the valley was the river from Muller Glacier Lake on the very right side outside this image.

Over Tasman Valley

Over Tasman Valley


Planning

Soon after I completed our Mount Cook Range trip with Mark, I started to plan a new mountain trip in November 2014. As an experienced mountaineer, Mark suggested that we climbed Darren Mountain near Milford Sound. From the high mountain ridge of Darren Mountain, we would get stunning high views over Milford Sound and surrounding mountain scenes. Since then, for three months, I had trained myself hard in order to enhance my physical fitness as well as climbing techniques.

Indoor Rock Climb Training

Indoor Rock Climb Training

Yun and I arrived in Te Anau on 1 November. According to our plan, we would first undertake a 2-day backpack trip to Lake Mckenzie before our Darren Mountain climb. However, after we arrived in Te Anau, it was heavily raining. By ignoring such bad weather, we still went on our backpack trip to Lake McKenzie (12KM from the Divide on the Routeburn Track) under the worst weather condition: heavy rains, strong wind and floods. It was an unforgettable backpack experience, though I was not able to take any pictures at Lake McKenzie.

Scenery along the Routeburn Track

Scenery along the Routeburn Track

After we got back to Te Anau, the weather had not been improved, and we were told that a major snow storm was being just across the most parts of the Southern Alps. One day later, I got a message from Mark to inform me that there was too much snow in Darren Mountain area which implied a high risk of avalanche. So we both agreed that we had to change our original plan. Mark suggested that the Ball Ridge in Mount Cook region would be a good alternative because from there we could gain a very unique glacier view and the avalanche risk was not that high according to avalanche broadcast.


Climbing the Ball Ridge

Ball Ridge is a mountain ridge on the other end of Mount Cook Range, its base is located near the terminal of glacier Tasman Lake. We quickly rescheduled our climb plan to Ball Ridge: On the first day, we would hike to the Ball Hut from the trail head of Tasman River, stayed in the hut for overnight. Then the second day we would climb to Ball Ridge with 700 meters vertical height, and camped along the ridge for two nights. Our climb path is showed as in the following topomap.

Topomap of Ball Ridge

Topomap of Ball Ridge

Ball Hut is a standard hut in the Aoraki/Mt Cook Area with three bunks, toilet, radio and water supply. We arrived in the hut around 4pm on 5 November 2014, luckily, no one was there. I found that although the space was small, the hut was quite cosy and convenient. The weather looked good after sunset, and we were hoping to start our climb in the next early morning. But unexpectedly, it turned out that it had an overnight snow fall in the area and the next day morning it was still snowing.

Ball Hut

Ball Hut

By 11am in the morning of 6 November 2014, when the snowfall became a bit light, we decided to start our climb. This was a harder climb compared to my previous two alps experiences in January and July respectively. The climb started with a steep but relatively clear track first, then after about 200 meter vertical height, it got very steep and most of the parts were covered by deep snow, and I had to use my ice ax to secure myself for each move. Finally, after six hours hard climb, we reached the top of Ball Ridge around 5pm. For the very first time, I got so close to such a stunning glacier landscape.

Climbing Ball Ridge

Climbing Ball Ridge



53 Hours

Mark found a flat spot for our campsite. We had to pitch our tent on the snow as the ground surface was covered by 50cm thick snow. We were surrounded by glaciers and mountain peaks. The Carolina Face of Mount Cook summit was just a hundred meters away from us, separated by a huge glacier gulley. This location was quite different from the one that we were climbed in July 2014, where we could see Aoraki/Mount Cook Village from 1000 meters above. Here, we were completely isolated from civilizations.

Mount Cook Summit - Caroline Face

Mount Cook Summit – Caroline Face

Although surrounded by ice and snow, surprisingly, we did feel extreme cold during the night, because there was no much wind. During our stay on the Ball Ridge, the weather was nice and we were able to explore the place thoroughly and made some interesting pictures. Again, as n our July trip, I believe that some of our pictures probably were the very first serious landscape images made from this location.

Ball Ridge: A Moment of Grace

Ball Ridge: A Moment of Grace

Moonlight over Alpine Glaciers

Moonlight over Alpine Glaciers

Mark devoted a lot of his time to shoot around Cook Mount summit. He told me that as a mountaineer, this place had some special meaning to him. One morning, when the first sunlight hit the summit, Mark run towards his position for taking pictures, and I captured his action.

The Photographer

The Photographer

7 November 2014 was a sunny day. After finishing our morning shooting, Mark suggested to climb a 1936 m summit near Caroline Hut. At beginning I was not so sure if I could make it because the snow was quite deep on the hills. Mark checked the condition, and ensured me it was safe. It was a delightful climb, we made to the summit in the mid day, and got back to our campsite at 2pm. Altogether we spent 5 hours for this climb.

On the Summit

On the Summit

It was early summer in south hemisphere. But no summer on the southern alps of New Zealand. The scenery of Ball Ridge was amazed me in every minute. Now I understand why people want to climb mountains. From this experience, for me, mountains have been beyond my photography subjects, more fundamentally, they give me complete freedoms, though they also impose various risks.

Mark and I got back to Ball Hut.

Mark and I got back to Ball Hut.

At 9:30am of 8 November, we started to descend. Physically, climbing down was not as hard as climbing up. But it had definitely more potentials to fall. I had to pay extra attention for almost each step down until we finally reached the flat base. We got back to Ball Hut around 2pm, and had a late lunch there. Then we continued hiking out. By the time we came back to Unwin Hut at 5pm, Yun had been already anxiously waiting for us for the whole day, as she thought we would come back in the morning.

As Time Passes By...

As Time Passes By…



Final Remarks

Climbing Ball Ridge was a milestone for my mountaineering experience. On the one hand, this trip greatly increased my confidence in the Southern Alps. During this trip, Mark has given me so much encouragement. He is not only an excellent mountaineer and photographer, but also a trustful guide, partner and friend. Each time with him, I have learned so many things. Now I think I have built good knowledge and foundation for climbing mountains. On the other hand, my mountain experience also made me understand potential risks in high mountains. To continue my journey, I should clearly know my limits – both physically and mentally. By the end, mountain landscape photography is such a wonderful field for that I can only follow my passion whenever my capacity allows.

More images made from this trip can be viewed from here.

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Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand and Australia combined, reaching 3,754 metres. Probably it is also the most famous landmark of New Zealand, a place for so many photographers and artists to produce great works.

I went to Mount Cook in 2011 and made one of my best images there. Personally I will never be tied of going to this wonderful place and taking photographs. Mount Cook was identified as one major focus and also the second location in our this journey. Our plan was to stay three nights in Mount Cook, so that we would have sufficient opportunities to explore the area and take both sunrise and sunset photographs.

We left Queenstown in the morning of 28 August 2012, and would expect to arrive Mount Cook around lunch time. Nevertheless, this day turned to be the longest day for our entire trip. We made a careless mistake and drove all the way down to West Coast. By the time we found out, we had to drove another six hours to get back to Mount Cook. Fortunately, things were not too bad, in fact with some extra time, we enjoyed the wonderful scenery along the road so much. We arrived in Mount Cook after 6pm, and directly headed to Tasman River for night photography.

Crystal Giants

This photo was taken on the first night we spent in Mount Cook, it showed a special night in Tasman River, Mount Cook: these icebergs floated on the river surface while the moonlight shedding on them illuminated such beautiful color.

Hooker Lake

To make photographs in Mount Cook, it is hardly not to go to Hooker Lake, which probably is the closest ground location to view the peak of Mount Cook without doing a serious mountain climbing, though hiking three hours for this trip may not be an easy task for everyone. The lake looks not very big, but its one side ends with giant glaciers directly connecting to Mount Cook. On a clear and calm day, the reflection of Mount Cook in the lake provides an interesting highlight of this scenery.

We three photographers went to Hooker Lake on 29 August 2012. The sunset light was pretty flat with a cloudless sky. We were a bit disappointment for such a result after spending more than five hours on this trip. The next day, without knowing what the weather would be in late afternoon, I and another photographer decided to try our luck one more time. On 30 August 2012, after lunch time we hiked 90 minutes to arrive in Hooker Lake again, and patiently waited for our last chance. Finally, we witnessed that the peak of Mount Cook was lighten by the setting sun while beautiful clouds were moving across the sky. This photo recorded what we got on that day.

New Zealand has been my dream land for many years. Since I had my first photography experience in New Zealand in 2011 (see my blog “Making the Image “Moonlight”), I have planned to return to New Zealand at least once a year to fulfill my photography dreams. In August 2012, after a long time preparation, I finally returned to this beautiful land with several other photographers.


Our first stop was Queenstown – a town in Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. Although this was my second time to this small town and we mainly traveled along the previous paths that I had in 2011, there were still plenty of new and exciting photography experiences during our four days stay in Queenstown, and one such experience was shooting at Kawarau River.


Kawarau River is well known as the site of the world’s first commercial bungy jump. The river starts from Lake Wakatipu, and flows generally eastwards for about 60 km until it reaches Lake Dunstan near Cromwell. We stayed in a hotel just at the west end of Kawarau River connecting to Lake Wakatipu. One our team member found a position on a cliff above the river that provided a nice viewpoint of the river with the snowing mountains background. The scene was just magnificent!

I had two chances to make photographs at this location, both in early morning. For the first time, the sunrise light was wonderful, but its direction was not quite right and I did not want to comprise the composition. On the day we were leaving Queenstown, I decided to take the last chance. I went up before 5am, and came to this place in the darkness. It was surprising that the Milky Way was still clearly hung on the sky and the twilight was about to illuminate the surroundings, while two strips of red clouds were just across in the sky. This was my first to witness such a wonderful Milky Way when the sky started to change its colors.


Karawau River


I took a number of shots with ISO 1600 to focus on the sky that captured such beautiful Milky Way and clouds. But the foreground river and the right side mountains were completely under exposed. As I did want to have the river as the foreground in my final image, I had to wait until the sky was bright enough so that I could make proper shoots to capture the river and mountain details. Furthermore, the composition had to also be changed by lowering my camera body down slightly so that the frame contained all interesting elements around the river.

The post process was not too difficult. The final image was from combining three shots together – each with different exposure times: one focusing on the Milky Way (ISO 1600), one focusing on the right side mountains details, and one focusing on the river. The last two shots had the same composition containing a small portion of the sky. The blend was made in two steps. Firstly, the last two shots were blended together to reveal sufficient details of the mountains as well as river. Then this blended image was stitched with the first shot so that a square frame was finally produced to contain both sufficient sky and foreground.

As a final note, this image probably not only shows a very unique viewpoint of Kawarau River, but also presents a very special moment at this place.