Monday, December 20, 2010

Sandstone Ice Festival 2010

It's been just under one week after my return from the ice climbing festival in Sandstone Minnesota and I am just begining to take my first big bite out of the image processing and editing from the trip. It's great to have an opportunity to shoot several hundred photos in a single day and as it becomes a more frequent occurrence I hope to become a more efficient editor and organizer. In the mean time I will keep reminding myself that the turtle always beats the hare, and that slowing down my editing process always seems to increase quality. This post will consist of some of my favorites climbing shots from the weekend, as well as handful from winter camping and the festival party on Saturday night. Enjoy!

We arrived in Sandstone before the rumored epic snowfall was scheduled to begin. Our original plan was to stay the night in Menomonee Wisconsin on our way to Sandstone, but after a brief stop and checking the radar, we decided our only option was to continue that night. It was anticipated that the roads could receive a foot of snow overnight, and we worried that we'd be stuck in Menomonee for the weekend. This decision turned out to potentially save our weekend and also meant we got to spend another night camping! The three of us were excited to camp from the very beginning, and adding another night just meant one more night to have some winter fun. When we arrived at the park it was already night, and we drove around eventually find other people camping, and some even walking around in headlamps and layers down clothing. We were a little unsure where we should set up camp, but soon ran into a camper who had invited us to camp next to his quinzhee, which we soon found out is what most people would relate to as a snow cave. This area was conveniently located near a river, which provided that relaxing water sound, as well as still being only a few hundred feet from where the ice climbing was. We set up our tents and got bundled up under layers of down sleeping bags. I set off to into my tent and set up my strange little room and started boiling water to make some hot tea before bed. It became clear to me then that winter camping was a rewarding challenge, and I felt good knowing this patch of snow in the woods would be our beloved home from the next two days.

I woke up very warm in my sleeping bags, and I survived the night and even got some good rest. I reluctantly wiggled out of my bags and partially sat up to greet the soon-to-be vertical world. Already I could see steam coming from my body and quickly dissipating into the cold morning air. I knew getting completely out of my sleeping bag would be very refreshing to say the least. I gathered some courage and my coffee making supplies and committed to the morning outside. I opened my tent door to beautiful warming sun, fresh air, and plenty of untouched northern Minnesota snow. As I was walking around stretching my legs I found the quinzhee still in tact, but this time inside it sat my two friends Patrick and Ellen, who had woke up just before me and decided the (now abandoned) quinzhee would make a perfect breakfast abode. We gladly fit our three bodies into the one man cave and started working on preparing hot oatmeal, tea and coffee. The heat started to accumulate quickly in the cave and soon I had forgotten all about my tent and sleeping bag.

The night had brought us about 6-10 inches of snow and it continued to fall the entire first day of climbing. I was personally excited to shoot and climb in the snow because I thought it might give the photos a new look that I hadn't previously encountered yet. In addition I was looking to test of my new camera and was curious to its ability to shoot in "less-than-ideal" weather conditions. When I first arrived at the ice the clinics were just wrapping up, and after a few brief conversations I was in the clear to hang a rope and start shooting. It's always encouraging when people are willing to help out and are excited to have me shoot, it makes the entire process a lot more fun, and I think the photographs really flourish. But of course before I'd have any opportunity to take a photo, there was work to be done. In order to hang my own rope to shoot from, I needed to climb up and top out so I could rig a new anchor at the very top. In most scenarios I'd usual like to "warm up" a bit, and have my first climb not really matter, but in the interest of time I decided to attempt to on-sight my first ice climb of the season while also trailing a rope to be hung. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't afraid I'd botch it up, but I guess I must have learned enough from last years ice climbing experiences and I successfully toped out the climb. Then of course the really scary part was not the climbing, but getting to haul my new camera up an ice wall on the end of a rope!

From the top I had a lot of options as far as photography goes. With little gear I could set an anchor almost anywhere along the cliff's edge, as well as just simply walk around up top and around the corner to get shots from further back and off the ground. When photographing I am constantly looking for new angles and contemplating ways to get myself in a position to make a great image. At times this can be intensive rigging and hanging for hours, while others this means simply walking around and finding natural vantage points. I'd like to think the two approaches work together. I'm still learning some of the tricks to shooting ice climbing and by using several different approaches I am able to shoot a lot of photos, as well get a better idea of what I feel is most successful and in what application it could best function, i.e. websites, blogs, prints, or magazines. Every shoot continues to be learning experience that seems to yield progressively more ideas for the next shoot that is hopefully just around the corner.

Of course before my day of photographing was done there was physical work that I needed to do, and this meant more climbing! At times this aspect of my photography work is extremely fun, and other times it can be quite a pain, and today would be no exception. I geared up to do my last climb of the day, which beyond climbing would involve me topping out and cleaning the anchor and rope that I hung earlier in the day. I was excited to climb and went into it quite enthusiastically before I realized that my hands were colder than normal, and that my miss-matched old school isotoner gloves were pretty damp, and I was quickly struggling to maintain feeling in my hands. Knowing I had to complete my ascent, I decided to go with the "climb as fast as you can" approach. This approach seemed flawless; with the exception that the climb I was on was considerably more difficult than the terrain on my previous climb. I had to stop and shake out a few times, attempting to fight the building "pump" in my arms, and also trying to regain feeling in my hands. With little success I decided to go back to the climb fast technique, and before you could say "hypothermic frost bite" I had reached the top and was standing eagerly attempting to put my warmer mittens on. I struggled to locate the finger holes inside the mittens because of complete lack of feeing in my hands, and just putting my hand inside a mitten seemed dire. Eventually my hands were nestled in the warmth of the dry mittens, and I hunkered down and prepared myself for what would soon be the worst "screaming barfies" of my life. For those who are unfamiliar with this expression, it is used to describe the feeling when circulation and feeling is regained to numb and near frost bitten appendages such as fingers and toes. (The expression itself should give an indication to the level of temporary pain that can be reached.) Soon I was in the worst discomfort in years, and I sat moaning to myself for ten minutes while I waited for the infamous screaming barfies to pass... and when it did I continued to clean my anchor and shoot photos from the top for another hour or so before returning back to the ground for a much anticipated dinner.

When I got back to camp I heard Ellen yell "Matt!?" and I followed the warm sounding voice toward Patrick's two-man three-season tent. When I peaked inside I found two people covered in what looked like millions of layers of down, and a stove lit in the vestibule with some boiling water to help thaw out the home made soup from inside a mostly frozen Nalgene bottle. They invited me into the small tent, and I couldn't resist the offer. I took of my boots and crampons but with my harness still on I entered the tent. I soon found myself also covered under a pile of down comforters and jackets, nestled somewhere between their feet and the tent wall. It is here that we lay together and utilized the collective warmth of three bodies while dinner was heating, and continued our warm relaxation even for an hour or so after it was all done.

Myself, Patrick, Ellen and Jon enjoying the Sandstone nightlife.

After the warmer season was complete and our heat comas had subsided we were ready for the evening's festivities. There was a gear-swap, fireworks, raffle prizes and drinks to be had all before the night were to be complete. The Sandstone Ice Festival had brought together an impressive list of sponsors who had donated prizes from coffee to crampons and even two super nice down jackets! They had also organized fireworks to be launched just off the main drag street in Sandstone, conveniently just across the street from the pub where the after party was. It was quite the show, and I am certain I have never seen fireworks of that size so up close and personal, not to mention so close to the ground on main street next to a lumber yard! Very exciting!
After meeting a ton of really great people at the event party and sharing many stories, it was time to head back to our camp and bundle into my sleeping bags. I had decided earlier in the evening that I couldn't let the opportunity to sleep in a snow cave pass me by, so I quickly moved my sleeping accommodations into the dark and chilly Minnesota quinzhee. I lit myself a candle for addition light and a little warmth while I melted some snow for the evening's hot tea before bed. It was here I embraced my first winter camping experience most boldly, and when I woke my only regret was having not made the quinzhee myself. Like always, there is something to look forward to next year...

Quinzhee, sweet Quinzhee!

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