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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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Introduction


In July 2013, our family had holidays in the South Island, New Zealand. During our visit to Mt Cook, we were stuck there for two days due to a severe snowstorm: roads were closed, all trails became inaccessible, and we couldn’t do anything.


In Alpine Lodge, I picked up Pat Barrett’s book “True South” and read through it in two days. Eventually, this book gave me completely new insights about New Zealand mountains, especially the Southern Alps, and also significantly revised my photography journey from then.

Pat Barrett's True South

Pat Barrett’s True South


I was fascinated by New Zealand Southern Alps and simply wanted to make mountainous images from there. But I knew this was not simple at all, as I never had any Alps mountaineering experience before. As a starting point, the only way that I can achieve my goal is to learn Alps mountaineering knowledge and skills from very beginning.


During 12 –18 January 2014, I participated in Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Guides’ Mountain Experience Course (MEC). MEC is an introduction course designated for people who want to explore Alps with essential mountaineering skills.


Mueller Hut – MEC training base


The course started in the afternoon of 12 January 2014. In the morning 13 January 2014, we departed from Unwin Hut – New Zealand Alpine Club’s base camp, started to hike towards Mueller Hut.


Mueller Hut is one of the earliest Alpine huts in New Zealand. It has been built 5 times through out the years. The first hut was built in 1914.


At 1800 metres on the Sealy Range (nearly half as high as Aoraki/Mt Cook’s summit), the view from the hut is a 360-degree panorama of glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks. From a tourist viewpoint, it is a great site for hearing and viewing ice falls, alpine sunrises and equally unforgettable sunsets. The climb to the hut through alpine scrub, herb fields and scree slopes is an achievement in itself, or the start of further opportunities for the more experienced.

Sealy Range Topo Map.

Sealy Range Topo Map.


However, from a mountaineering standpoint, Sealy Range, where the Mueller Hut located, has been viewed as a rather risk region like most Alpine areas. Since 1964, 5 people died in this area and the last tragedy happened in 1994 when a 34 yo Japanese woman took a day walk to Mueller Hut but never returned.

Tragedies happened in Sealy Range

Tragedies happened on Sealy Range.


As Mueller Hut is surrounded by Glaciers and various mountain peaks, it has been used as one of the mountaineering training bases operated by the Alpine Guides at Aoraki/Mt Cook.


Our Alpine training then started from Mueller Hut. Our MEC consisted of just three people: our guide Italian mountaineer Alessandro Beber (28 yo), Tom Witt from South Australia (21 yo) and myself (51 yo).


It took us 4 hours from the car park hiking to Mueller Hut, while each of us carried a heavy backpack, including all mountaineering gears (ice axe, crampons, helmet, etc), sleeping bag, 5 days foods, etc.. In addition to these essential stuff, I had to carry extra 3.6 kg for camera, lens, tripod, and batteries in my backpack. This added to 25 kg of my backpack weight, which had exceeded my previous 18 kg backpack record for long distance hiking.

Mueller Hut.

Mueller Hut.


Walking on the Edges


On the first day when we arrived in Mueller Hut, Alessandro took Tom and me to a nearby mountain that one slope was covered by ice. We were trained essential skills such as glacier walking using ice axe, self-arrest, and rope techniques.


The next day we encountered an extremely bad weather that snowstorm came with 80-90 km/h wind speed. Our goal was to get to Mt Annette (2235 m height), for that we had to cross several glacier slopes, which was very challenging for me. Both Tom and I fell down couple of times on glacier slopes, but we were able to stop our falls using self-arrest techniques that we just learnt the day before.

Alessandro and Tom.

Alessandro and Tom.

Heading to the Summit.

Heading to the Summit.


Climbing to the Summits


During our MEC training in Mueller Hut, we had been able to climb three mountain summits: Mount Ollivier (1933 m), Mount Kitchener (2042 m) and Mount Annette (2235 m), while to get to the last two summits, there were involved extensive glacier slope crossing.

Beyond the Plains.

Beyond the Plains.

Yan on the Summit of Mt Kitchener.

Yan on the Summit of Mt Kitchener.


The weather in Alpine regions could change suddenly. On 15 January, on our way back from the summit of Mt Kitchener, we saw a huge lentic cloud was forming. Alessandro told us that strong wind would be coming soon. Indeed, by the time we arrived at Mueller Hut, the weather dramatically changed, the wind speed had increased to almost 100 km/h.

Alessandro and Tom

Alessandro and Tom

Alessandro and Tom

Alessandro and Tom

Lentic cloud was forming.

Lentic cloud was forming.


Some Facts


Mueller Hut is at 1800 m altitude. The elevation gain from Aoraki/Mt Cook Village to Mueller Hut is about 1000 m, while the hiking distance is just about 5 km. So it is a very steep walk. The first part of the route consists of many steep stairs, walking with heavy backpack or/and under strong wind could be difficult. The second part of the route consists of scree, snow ground, etc., no marked trails, only having some poles to indicating the direction. But these poles will become invisible in winter due to thick snow coverage.


Mueller Hut provides rain water and gas for visitors. However, going to Mueller Hut in winter is not generally easy. All trails and marks will be covered by thick layer of snow and avalanche risk does exist. It is recommended that only experienced trampers or with mountain guide companions should go to Mueller Hut in winter.


Due to its Alpine nature, weather around Sealy Range may change dramatically all year around. Wind speed is generally high. Once the wind speed reaches 65 km/h, it is considered to be risk to hike along mountain ridges in this area. During our three-day stay in Mueller Hut, we have witnessed a few sudden changes of the weather, and the wind speed once reached to about 100 km/h.


Final Words

Back to Unwin  - NZ Alpine Club Hut.

Back to Unwin – NZ Alpine Club Hut.


This Mountain Experience Course has provided me important mountaineering knowledge and skills, especially for traveling in the mountains above the snowline. I think I have established essential self confidence for extensively exploring New Zealand in the future: from Sea to Summit. More concrete photography plans targeting New Zealand Southern Alps are being on the way based on this great experience.

Yan's MEC Certificate

Yan’s MEC Certificate.


Check out my photographs from this trip in my website gallery:
New Zealand Southern Alps (2014).


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.

Since I came back from our New Zealand Photography Expedition (22 April – 10 May 2011), I have been so busy with my university work. But the idea of writing something about this great expedition has not been faded away. I will slowly start to refresh my memory about this photography experience.

Over many of my New Zealand photographs that I have been processed, the image “Moonlight” was one of my favorites. I clearly remembered it was the early morning of the day we were about to leave Mt Cook and it was the second time we came to Tasman River. The location itself had full of interesting subjects: rocks, icebergs, snowing mountains, rivers, etc.. However, to make a harmony and interesting image of them was quite challenging. My first day of photographing this place was not successful. This morning, when we arrived there about 6.40am, the moon was still hung on the sky, while the sunrise was about to start shortly. Comparing to the morning one day earlier, this time I was very impressed with the moon reflection in the flowing water of the river. I decided to include this “moon” into my frame and at the same time to also capture the moon in the sky. To make the moon reflection more visible, I set up my tripod into the water in order to get the closest viewpoint. One big challenge for this shot was the light difference between the foreground and the sky. I used my Singh Ray 3 f-stop reverse GND plus a 2 f-stop GND (soft). With a relative long exposure time, I captured the scene that was very closed to what I saw in the field.

The post processing was a bit tedious. While 2 GND filters had made the foreground rocks quite visible, the two sides of mountain backgrounds were still very dark. In Photoshop CS5, I used TK luminosity technique to isolate the two side mountains under “Super Darks”, and lifted the curve to make them brighter. Then through a layer paint, I kept the surrounding areas not been affected by such luminosity adjustment. The final result is showed below, and I am quite satisfied with it. “Moonlight” was recently published in 1x.com.

The shooting data as follows: Shutter speed: 30 seconds, ISO: 400, Aperture: f/5.6, Filters: Singh Ray 3 f-stop reverse GND, 2 f-stop GND (soft).

Moonlight

Moonlight