Mountaineering: Gearing Up for the Hike

Mountaineering, Mt. Washington

The photo above was taken in February near the summit of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. My friend (pictured above) and I hiked on an unseasonably warm winter day, when summit temperatures were around 10 F (-12 C) and winds were less than 20 mph (32 km/h). It's not unusual for temperatures on Mt. Washington to drop well below -20 F (-29 C), with high winds causing wind chills well below -40 F/C. For many years the observatory held the record for the highest wind speed measured on the surface of the earth: 231 mph (372 km/h). Because of the extreme temperatures and winds, Mt. Washington is often referred to as having "the world's worst weather".

The round-trip summit hike takes between 6 and 10 hours depending on hiker fitness, route selection, weather, preparedness, and other factors. Crampons are a must at higher elevations during the winter. An ice-axe is recommended for certain routes. Emergency gear (shelter, extra layers, extra food, extra water, etc) is a must since the weather can turn quickly and rescue services aren't as rapid during the winter. All of the extra winter gear required for a winter hike of this caliber can weigh significantly more than the equipment for the same hike during the summer.

What's a photographer to do? Any hike or climb longer than a few hours is taxing enough on the body, without the extra complication and weight of carrying camera equipment along with you.

My advice: less is more when planning a photography-oriented hike. I carefully evaluate each piece of potential equipment to bring, and ask myself two important questions about it:

  1. Am I very likely to use it?
  2. Is the extra weight that it adds to my pack really worth it?

Only when the answer to both questions is a resounding YES, do I end up taking the peice of gear. That 8mm fisheye might make for some cool photos, but if I'm unlikely to ever mount it up then why bring it along? The same goes for that 300mm f/4. Sure, I could get some great wildlife photos with it, but maybe I can get some photos that are almost as good using a much lighter lens? Using this method, I took a very minimalistic set of equipment with me on the Mt. Washington hike:

That's it! If I thought I might have encountered some wildlife as well, I'd also have brought a fairly light telephoto with me (like the Nikon 55-300mm VR).

Remember: packing light doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to miss the shot. Plan and evaluate your needs carefully, and you should be able to maximize both your hiking enjoyment and the quality of your resulting photos.