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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Abre los Ojos

"80% of the information we receive is through our eyes."  -- filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg

Any photographer worth their salt will tell you dramatic lighting is the key to most great shots. Sharp angles, shadows, a depth of field that this gives the final image. The combination of dark and light can also convey a sense of scale, of texture to an otherwise uniform image.

This may explain the frequency with which people want to see and shoot sunrises and sunsets. Over the years I've photographed hundreds, ranging from sunsets in places like Key West, Hudson Bay and the Mediterranean, and sunrises in Hawaii, Mexico and a lot of major cities around the world. There is a context and story for each of them.

A week or so ago as I write this my wife and I joined a Canadian 01 Adventures tour up the side of Blackcomb Mountain, just to the east of Whistler Village in British Columbia. We were in town for a few days, and you can expect a full trip report in the coming weeks. Blackcomb, along with its sibling Whistler Mountain, is one of the most popular and respected ski destinations in the world. But in the off season, other than hiking there's little to do other than take in the view. But…and this is important…it's one helluva view.

We met the tour guides, Nick and Morgan, in the large plaza in front of the Carleton Lodge in Whistler, just a couple of minutes by foot from our hotel. (Whistler is imminently walkable, with plenty of shopping, eating and coffee to make any visitor happy.) Nick was to be our driver for a group of six, with Morgan taking the second vehicle with four passengers. Our small band together marched a block or so over to the Jeeps -- bright red and easy-to-spot -- where they were parked on Blackcomb Way, facing the mountain and ready to go.

A pause for a short description. 

Blackcomb, for the vast majority of wintertime visitors, is a smooth, sloping giant of a hill with a hundred different possible ski routes. What most people never experience or realize, is that Blackcomb is a rugged, rock-strewn, steeply sloped monster when it comes to travel during the off months. A raw band of switchback roads and dirt pathways comprise the majority of routes to the top when the slopes are not active and the lifts engaged. The top is just shy of 7500 feet, and a rapid ascent, by road, takes a half hour or so of a fairly rapid near-offroading race along the switchbacks and cliffhanging turns. Not for the automotive faint-of-heart. To realize that a portion of the trip back down would be in the dark, and you can see the challenge and, frankly, the excitement.

Back to our story.

Nick piled us into our Jeep, the lead vehicle, and my wife and I clambered into the back -- knowing full well it's usually the bumpiest (and hence, fun) seat in the house. On the other hand, in this case there was almost no legroom, which came close to resulting in serious muscle cramps during the bumping and grinding that followed. The other four passengers in our Jeep were a Middle Eastern family comprised of two parents -- just a little older than we are -- and their sons, who looked to be in their early twenties or late teens. Very nice couple, and later on the boys (thankfully) offered to take the "rumble" seats on the trip back down. Up is one thing, but at 53 my hips weren't sure they were up to another round in the back. (Being fair, we had already been out on a 5K cliffside hike earlier in the day so the joints were already a bit sore.)

The first quarter mile was pretty smooth, but soon we veered off the main gravel road onto a series of dirt pathways which would get us to the top a little faster. The ride was quite a bit of fun, though not as bumpy -- or slow -- as our trip in Sedona. Still, a very good good "e-ticket" attraction. Nick did a terrific job of pointing out various sights, and letting us know the differences between what we were doing on this trip and what we might find a few months later, or earlier, on the same route. He made the observation I reference above, regarding the mountain's terrain under the snow -- that most skiers have no idea about the rocks and boulders they might be blithely sailing across, while we in the Jeeps would be feeling every one of them.

We continued our journey, noting how quickly the village kept falling away with each successive switchback until the view was almost dizzyingly immense. The air was pristine and the sky was completely clear -- we were told this is a rarity for mid-October. which is typically overcast and quite wet. No rain during our five days, which the locals assured us was "unusual". But it was unbelievably clear, and the air held that kind of cold dampness that adds an aspect of clarity and chill to the world. The sky was a deep blue by the time we reached the summit -- our Jeep went beyond the lookout point to take a quick look at the glacier itself before returning back down to meet the other group and watch the sun set.

As we piled out of the vehicle, the sun was just above the horizon. The valley below was already dark, and the lights of Whistler were already on and visible from the slopes. The boys from our Jeep started a snowball fight with Dad (who lost, pretty badly), while Mom took pictures of the family, the scenery and just about everything she could see. The boys feigned falling (or pushing themselves) off the edge of the cliff, and finally they all settled in and asked me to take their picture against the snowy background of Whistler Mountain just to our south.

As often happens, we all stopped talking and moving about as it came time for the sun to go down. Nick and Morgan quietly went person to person asking if anyone wanted their photograph against the view -- which you can see the results of our own shot to the right.

Gradually the sun disappeared behind the peaks opposite us, and we began packing ourselves back into the Jeep for the ride back down, drawing up to the drop-off point just after the darkness fell completely. (Along the way back down we saw the bobsledding trail set up for the 2010 Olympics and followed a part of its path down. Even devoid of snow, it looks terrifically challenging for the athletes.)

Nick and Morgan did a great job, and we recommend the sunset tour up Blackcomb for anyone who doesn't suffer from altitude sickness or a medical condition that makes a bumpy ride a bad idea. For everyone else, the view and the experience are highly worth it. 

(Canadian Wilderness Adventures can be found at: Canadian 01 Tours ) 

There are times in life when all you can do is stand, awestruck, staring at the immensity of the world which surrounds you. We, as humans, tend to get wrapped up in ourselves and our surroundings, and lose sight of the fact that Mother Nature is an immense and beautiful creature, putting our greatest achievements in humiliating perspective. This was one of those moments. Surrounding by a tremendous vista of mountains and glaciers, with the lights from the tiny village of Whistler blinking in the shadows, we got a true sense of the enormity of the world around us. As the sun set behind the Pacific Range of mountains, you can't help but put things in perspective in your own mind. We become so obsessed with the micro that we completely lose sight of the macro. Literally, not seeing the forest for the trees.

As I remarked above, there is something about a sunset that is beautiful no matter what the setting. So when the setting is itself a spectacle, the combination of setting sun and view below create stunning vistas which I can only hope to convey slightly in my words and pictures. Below are some of additional images that struck me as representing the experience. I hope you enjoy.

More about the rest of the trip in a future post.
A Road Less Traveled

Nick in his office

Moment of Truth

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