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Ansel Adams Wilderness: Witness To Magic

With the click of a shutter, Ansel Adams captured the beauty and soul of wild places and showed us that in nature, there is magic.

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CLICK! Photographer Jim Stimson snaps the shutter and then patiently recomposes the scene in front of us–a row of steel-gray peaks against the pale blue September sky. Below, the green swoop of the valley underlines it all like a painter?s final brush stroke. It’s an hour into our hike out of Agnew Meadows, the dusty trail leading uphill through the trees. We have just now come to the first clearing, the first good spot to rest, the first unobstructed view of the peaks.

And a surprise.

It’s not surprising that the peaks of the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area rise up before us so sheer and ice-cut. Or that the sharp cliffs are tufted with snowfields even in September. The surprise, to me at least, is that the whole scene is not in black and white.

I knew, of course, it wouldn’t be. Deep down, I knew the aspen leaves would glitter gold and the high lakes would be like deep blue eyes set in the granite. Yet, like so many other people, my first visions of California?s Sierra Nevada came not in person but through the camera of Ansel Adams. For years the only pictures I carried in my mind of what John Muir called “The Range of Light” were in black and white–the silver cliffs of Half Dome balancing a bone-white moon, Bridal Veil Falls flowing in white mist, a parade of clouds throwing velvet-black shadows on Yosemite Valley. “Here,” one reviewer wrote of Adams’s photography, “is to be found the very essence of the Sierra.” His work captured that essence so crisply, so sharply, it etched the beauty of these mountains so deeply into the mind that as I stepped to the edge of the clearing to see the peaks for the first time with my own eyes, I half expected the Sierra to be in black and white.

Art has the ability to change the very way we look at the world. The art of Ansel Adams has that kind of power.

Born in San Francisco in 1902, Ansel Adams would become the most honored, most recognized, and most influential photographer in the world. It is fitting, then, that his first memories were of light, of watching luminous clouds scuttle across

a blue sky as an infant. At 12, he took up the piano with such skill and emotion that his parents urged him toward a career in music. But, the light would not go away.

In 1916, on a family trip to Yosemite, the 14-year-old Adams saw the light again–this time in the Sierra. The immensity of the unbound space, the smell of the pines, the deep shadows, the cliffs rising to “undreamed of heights”–to young Ansel Adams it was all “so intense as to be almost painful.” He wrote, “I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite.” It was written in the light.

“I was climbing a long ridge west of Mt. Clark,” he wrote about one of his early journeys into the Sierra. “I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching push up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light…. I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments.”

No words perhaps. But, photography could, perhaps, come close.

CLICK! Jim trips the shutter on another photograph and then quickly glances up at the menacing sky. We have climbed out of the valley and onto the high plateau of Thousand Island Lake just as a thunderstorm prowls over the peaks from the west, clouds as gray as rock, the wind restless and indecisive. The air, even at this elevation, seems thick, heavy as a wet rag. The light has a tinge of green.

“God, this is dramatic lighting,” Jim says,

wavering between setting up another photograph

and launching himself into his raingear. Lightning begins to flicker ahead, cracking the bowl of the sky. A few low growls of thunder roll like rocks down the valley. The first drumbeats of hail hammer against the hood of my rainjacket, a gust of wind heavy with the smell of rain, and then…sunlight.

The storm missed us. The sky clears. The sun breaks out as if in a crescendo. I sit on the bare rocks, dazed at our luck, while Jim frantically photographs the ever-changing light and the clouds disappearing as swiftly as flocks of birds.

“That’s the beauty of the light in the Sierra,” he says as he packs up his camera and we continue on the trail, now in full sunlight. “Sometimes it can be sharp, cutting light, sometimes softer, almost pastel. It gives you the entire tonal range.”

Maybe it is the clarity of the high-elevation air, the contrasts between gray rock and feather-white snowfields, or the thousands of little lakes that reflect the light back up at you. Maybe it has to do with the drama of building clouds in an afternoon thunderstorm, the polished rock that glitters like shards of ice, or the shadows–blue-black at twilight, dark as coal at midday, almost purple at dawn. But there is something in the sweet light of the Sierra that shimmers with beauty. “There is,” as Ansel Adams once said about the Sierra, “light everywhere!”

Yet seeing that light and capturing it on film are two different things. When Ansel Adams began making photographs of the Sierra, the art of photography was in its infancy. The hand-held camera had been introduced only a decade or so before. With no formal training in photography or composition, his first Yosemite photo–taken with the Kodak Number 1 Box Brownie camera his parents had given him–was a disaster. Climbing atop a rotted stump for a better view of Half Dome, he slipped as the stump collapsed beneath him. “On the way down headfirst,” Adams wrote, “I inadvertently pushed the shutter.”

He would get better.

His piano training had taught Adams that improvement required strict practice. He threw himself into photography. Beginning with his trip in 1916, Adams would photograph the Sierra every year for more than half a century, clamoring across hundreds of square miles of mountainous country, often on Sierra Club trips, with up to 65 pounds of camera gear and precious little mountaineering knowledge.

“We used window sash cord, an eighth of an inch thick (as climbing rope),” he recalled in an interview with Backpacker. “Of course, if one of us fell, it would have cut us in two….In a sense, it’s a miracle I’m alive, because we did have some hazardous experiences and didn’t know anything about climbing technique.”

But he did survive, and the photography he brought back from those mountain journeys improved steadily. To deal with the stark contrasts of white snow and dark rock, Adams developed “The Zone System,” which helped him and millions of photographers since calibrate proper exposure. He spent endless hours in the darkroom refining technique and printing his work to his own demanding specifications. “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print is the performance,” Adams once wrote.

The “performances” that came through in his early photography kept moving closer and closer to capturing what he called the “great earth-gesture of the Sierra.” Each one a learning experience, each one a lesson. And then, he hiked to Thousand Island Lake.

CLICK! The day’s first light has not yet begun to seep into the blue-black sky over Thousand Island Lake when I hear someone stirring outside my tent. Still in my sleeping bag, I stick my head through the flap for a look. Jim, camera in hand, smiles back and pantomimes a question–pointing first at his camera and then at the peaks still silhouetted in the dark. Without exchanging a word, we throw water bottles, gorp, and an extra jacket into our daypacks and move off toward the lake.

By the time Ansel Adams sat on the shores of this same lake that summer day in 1923, he had been struggling for 7 years to translate the beauty he saw in the Sierra onto film. What he was after was not simply postcard scenery, but something deeper; not just the “external event” of light on rock, but also the “internal event.” A good photograph, he said, is always “an investigation of both the outer and inner worlds.” When the two come together in a photograph, “witness the magic that is our world,” as Adams himself used to say.

Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake (1923), taken almost exactly from the spot where we are sitting, was the first Ansel Adams photograph to show a glimmer of capturing that magic.

The sun breaks over the horizon, flowing like an exhaled breath over the peaks. Clouds tinge salmon-red; the summits of Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter glow golden. The mountains, just for a moment, seem more than rock. It is as if the day’s first light has brought them to life, pumping blood into their stone hearts.

I hear Jim behind me on a rock, clicking the shutter on his camera and laughing to himself, delighted at the beauty of it all.

“I never met Ansel Adams,” Jim says in a loud voice across the small creek that separates us. “But from what I’ve read and from talking to people who did know him, I’ve heard he had this big, infectious grin.” Looking back down into his viewfinder at the shimmering light, he adds, “I’ll bet he’d be grinning from ear to ear

right now.”

With the making of Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake, and even more significantly, “Monolith” 4 years later, Adams began to touch the live pulse of his artistic vision, to bear witness to the magic of the world through his camera. His musical career was forgotten, despite the efforts of his mother. “Don’t give up the piano!” she admonished in a letter. “The camera cannot express the human soul!”

“Perhaps the camera cannot,” Ansel wrote back, “but the photographer can.”

Ansel Adams did just that. During the 1930s and ’40s, his creative vision burned as brightly as the Sierra itself. “Sometimes I feel like God just puts me in the right place at the right time and all I have to do is release the shutter,” he once said. He traveled widely to be “in the right place at the right time” to release the shutter, photographing dozens of national parks–“The Tetons and Snake River” (1942), “Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake” (1948), “Leaf, Glacier Bay National Park” (1948), and others.

But his favorite subject remained the Sierra, site of his most famous works–“Clearing Winter Storm” (1935), “Frozen Lake and Cliffs” (1932), and “Tenaya Creek” (1948). “His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods,” said one reviewer.

Gallery exhibits, magazine work, books such as Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1940 and This Is the American Earth in 1959, began to bring those “mythical gods” off the mountaintops and into people’s parlors and living rooms, opening millions of eyes to the beauty and wonder of our last wild places. Photography was now fine art: Ansel Adams its finest artist. And, if Ansel Adams could find beauty in our last remaining wild places, then perhaps there was something more in these wild places than just timber and minerals, something very worth protecting.

CLICK! After a climb up Banner Peak, Jim snaps one last photograph of Thousand Island Lake as we head back down the valley on the John Muir. That a trail named for John Muir would traverse a wilderness named for Ansel Adams seems poetically

ironic. Muir used his fiery words in defense of wilderness; Adams used is photography and his persistence.

To Adams, art and activism were separate branches that sprang from the same trunk. “I believe the approach of the artist and the approach of the environmentalist,” he said, “are fairly close in that both are, to a rather impressive degree, concerned with the ‘affirmation of life’… Response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.”

And people responded to the natural beauty of his photography. Adams himself prowled the halls of Congress with a collection of Kings Canyon photographs promoting a proposed national park. The park became a reality in 1940. His 1959 book This Is the American Earth has been called “one of the great statements in the history of conservation.” In 1975, he presented President Ford with a print of “Yosemite: Clearing Winter Storm” (1935) with the instructions, “Now, Mr. President, every time you look up at this picture, I want you to remember your obligation to the national parks.”

And in 1972, as President Carter signed into law the largest land preservation act in American history and protected more than 104 million acres of Alaska, a print of “Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake” hung prominently in the White House, a timely gift from Ansel Adams.

CLICK! Jim releases the shutter and looks up. The sharp peaks of the Minarets are peering down on Ediza Lake, silver-gray against a sky ruffled with storm clouds: another scene that Ansel Adams photographed. In fact, it’s difficult to go anywhere in the Sierra and not be near the scene of one of the more than 40,000 negatives he created during his long career, photographs that link him forever with the Sierra. “Dear Mr. Adams,” a woman once wrote him in a letter, “In writing to you I almost feel that I am writing to…Yosemite Valley itself.”

For more than 40 years, Adams sat on the board of the Sierra Club and spoke out in support of national parks and protection of wild places. They had been his art, his love, and his life.

When Ansel Adams died in 1984 at the age of 82, he returned to the mountains one last time. His son Michael scattered the photographer’s ashes from the summit of an 11,760-foot peak near the southeastern boundary of Yosemite National Park, a peak later renamed Mt. Ansel Adams, in a wilderness area later renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Yet the greatest legacy of the famous photographer lies not in renaming mountains or wilderness areas, but in the inspiration his relentless pursuit of beauty has been to a whole new generation of wilderness photographers.

“I’d like to think I put a lot of my own personal vision into my photography,” says Jim, who was honored by the Sierra Club with the 1998 Ansel Adams Award for his own work. “But there is no doubting the influence Ansel Adams had on photography as an art form. Anyone working in photography today has been, at least in part, influenced by what he accomplished.”

“So, then,” I say as Jim and I hike along Shadow Creek back toward the trailhead, “Ansel Adams inspired so many photographers today that it’s almost as if every time you hear the click of a shutter in the backcountry, it’s a kind of tribute to him.”

Jim looks at me and smiles. He reaches for his camera.


Expedition Planner


The Ansel Adams Wilderness Area is surrounded by public lands, including Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. Many people–mostly windshield tourists and dayhikers–access the wilderness through the touristy towns of Mammoth Lakes and June Lake or via Tuolumne in Yosemite. Those seeking solitude usually head for the more remote points to the south.

Permits: Required for all overnight trips, and quotas are in effect from the last Friday of June to September 15. Try to make trip reservations in advance. If you plan to stay at Reds Meadow or Devils Postpile, make reservations (800-280-CAMP).

Shuttles: For traffic’s sake, during peak (summer) season, a mandatory shuttle bus runs from the Mammoth Mountain Inn (800-228-4947) to Minaret Summit, and down to Agnew Meadows, Reds Meadow, Rainbow Falls, and Devils Postpile. Hours of operation are 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. You must have a specific campground permit to drive into the area during these hours. The upside is free, stop-to-stop service in the valley (you’ll need it for the Agnew Meadows to Devils Postpile point-to-point routes, as well as for others). For additional shuttle services, call Sierra Express Transportation (760-924-TAXI), which specializes in backpacker trailhead services.

Impact restrictions: Camping restrictions–the result of heavy impact–are in effect around Thousand Island, Garnet, Shadow, and Ediza Lakes, among others. Restricted areas are posted, but ask when getting your permit.

Pit stop: Before heading into, or after coming out of, the wilderness, the Good Life Caf? (760-934-1734) has the tastiest breakfast and lunch in Mammoth Lakes; Whiskey Creek (760-934-2555) offers good dinners and microbrews; and Java City (760-934-8576) is the Colombian hook, found on Minaret Road inside the Travel Lodge.

Guides:Sierra North: 100 Back-Country Trips, by Thomas Winnett, et al. ($15.95) and High Sierra Hiking Guide: Devils Postpile (includes map), by Ron Felzer ($12.95); both available from Wilderness Press, (800) 443-7227;

Hiking the Sierra Nevada, by Barry Parr (Falcon Publishing, 800-582-2665;; $15.95).

The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails, by R. J. Secor ($29.95) and Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, by Steve Roper ($16.95); both available

from The Mountaineers Books, (800) 553-4453; www.

Maps:USGS quads (888-ASK-USGS;; $4).

Yosemite National Park and Vicinity (Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227;; $6.95).

Ansel Adams Wilderness, Forest Service topo (available at any of the ranger stations mentioned throughout; $4).

Trail Map of the Mammoth High Country (Tom Harrison, 415-456-7940; $6.95).

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