May 2014: photo expedition to Annapurna I (8.091 m)
After fourteen years since my last visit, in May 2014 I went back to Himalaya. This time without ice axe nor crampons, but only with my camera. The aim of the trip was no longer the summit of an Eight Thousand, but the desire to lay on a gelatin silver paper the soul of the highest mountains of the world. The same soul that fascinated me as a mountaineer, the same soul inspiring the dreams of many thousands of human beings who venture themselves up to those summits.
Thank to the example and the inspiration inherited by Shiro Shirahata, Vittorio Sella, Ansel Adams and my teacher John Sexton, in time I have gradually conceived the project of photographing in Himalaya with my Linhof 4×5” camera using traditional black and white films. Pursuing this project, I went back to the long and narrow valleys of Nepal, and walking among rhododendron forests often immersed in fog and along the cracked moraines of the glaciers, I reached the foot of the South face of Annapurna I, an area known as “Annapurna Sanctuary”.
Although it was May, the photo expediton was marked by bad weather. During the month spent in Nepal, I could not enjoy an entire single day of clear skies. The mountains were visible only at sunrise for two or three hours, then the clouds wrapped them and everything else until dark. Luckily enough, the south face of Dhaulagiri was visible from the hilltop of Poon Hill, as the south faces of Annapurna I and Annapurna South were visible from the base camp: at sunrise these walls were soon illuminated by the sun, so that I was able to photograph them.
With Machapuchare I was not so lucky: only one day, in late afternoon, the clouds opened up allowing me to take photos from the Annapurna base camp. From Dhampus, though, the fog was always so thick that I could not make a single shot. I also regret not being allowed to take photos of the West side of the Annapurna group from the top of Poon Hill: the sky in the afternoon was always cloudy.
At the end of my stay, in spite of all these weather troubles, I did have some good negatives. Beyond that, I could also renew my contacts with Himalaya and Nepal and fully understand the ways and the pace needed for the making of a photographic expedition: they are, in fact, totally different both from those of an ordinary trek and from those of a climbing expedition at high altitude. The weight of my photo gear – more than 30 kilos – and of my personal equipment led to ask for the help of three porters. Moreover, to be organized in the best way during the trip, I also enrolled a “sirdar” who, as leader of the group of the porters, was of big logistic support.
Since the films must be handled in total darkness while uploading and downloading the filmholders, I had to use a small “portable darkroom”, called changing bag, similar to a miniature camp tent. This job was always very troublesome. Down in the valleys the climate is hot and humidity very high, like in a tropical land, and my hands inside the changing bag became wet very rapidly. On the contrary, in altitude, above 3.500 mt. and at the base camp, the temperature was very cold and often below zero Celsius, so my hands became soon rigid and insensitive. The uploading and downloading job was always complicated, and it was to be done every day, at the end of a very exhausting day, taking me an awful lot of time.
At the start and at the end of my trip, I went around Kathmandu to photograph the city and its temples. I already had a lot of color slides in 35 mm that I had made during the Nineties, but to
look at the city once again with a new vision in black and white, through the ground glass of my Linhof, was a new and interesting experience. Bodnath, Pashupatinath, Swayanbunath, Patan, Bagdapur… new shapes and new undertones originated from this renewed experience of Himalaya and the sacred places of its religious traditions.
Today, after the terrible earthquake of April 2015, these temples and the many historical landmarks of Nepal have disappeared forever, together with a huge loss of human lives.