Endeavour to Everest
Exploring an ambitious new route up the world's highest mountain.
Putting Everest in a new light
Invitation from an adventurer friend
Keith Ladzinski is always seeking to push back his boundaries and seek out new frontiers. That's why, in the spring of 2019, he was intrigued to get an offer from with his good friend, award-winning adventurer and National Geographic photographer Cory Richards, to join him and his climbing partner Esteban Mena, on an expedition to Mount Everest.
"In the world of mountaineering, Mt Everest has very much become a commercial destination with a lot of facets," agrees Keith, "It's a place where you can pay to have the logistics taken care of by Yak or Sherpa. In Nepal specifically, it's bringing in vast crowds of people each season eager to climb resulting in those long lines at the summit that were making headlines recently. The time has long gone when the world's highest peak is a distant dream for mountaineers."
That's not to diminish the danger though. There are numerous deaths every year, even on the most carefully managed ascents. As Keith points out, "At the end of the day, it's still a very serious mountain that requires everything you have."
Keith believes that part of Everest's romance is that it's more than just a mountain: it's a symbol to test oneself against, to experience and to conquer. With that in mind, the expedition was determined to attempt an ascent that had never been tried before.
"The route Cory and Esteban were attempting was a brand new route up the mountain from the side of China, not from the popular Nepal side, with no Sherpa support, no fixed lines, just the two of them. It was an extremely dangerous endeavor, and one that would require the perfect weather window, serious experience, as well as mental and physical preparation."
The decision to join and help document the expedition was not one to be taken lightly, but for Keith, it came down to the strength of his relationship with Cory.
"I've known Cory for well over 13 years, and I did one of the hardest expeditions of my life with Cory back in 2012 - a 50-day expedition to the interior of Antarctica. Cory is not only a well-known photographer: he's a true adventurer and alpinist. He's is a romantic in that he falls in love with whatever he's pursuing, but it's also coupled with very high standards. He was the first North American to climb an 8,000-meter peak in the winter, he was National Geographic Adventurer of the year in 2012, he's a seasoned National Geographic Photographer and all-round shooter. "
"Cory is a creative visionary and I always love collaborating with him because he sees things I don't. He's also a great friend with a big heart, and I think anyone who knows him would agree."
In the end, his confidence in Cory and the strength of their friendship made up Keith's mind to join the expedition.
Encountering the culture, history, beauty and people of Tibet
Their time together on the Tibetan Plateau on their way to Everest was enriched by Cory's vast love and deep knowledge of the area's mountains and cultural history.
"On our acclimation hikes it was great to see him light up as he pointed out mountains in the area," remembers Keith, "regaling me with stories of the alpinists who had made the first ascent, or had gotten stuck in intense storms. We spent every breakfast and dinner talking about the mountain - the beauty and terror of Everest that Cory knows all too well."
Keith also felt a sense of responsibility to his close friend who was attempting this dangerous endeavour. Nevertheless, the journey was still rich and alive with beauty and photographic inspiration, and experiencing it first-hand was a long-cherished dream for Keith.
"Our days in Tibet had everything and more," Keith explains, "The culture, the history and the beauty make it a remarkable place. Tibetan culture is beautiful, and seeing its history living on in rooted tradition and experiencing it through old monasteries was quite unique. From a photographic perspective there's so much life and color to document. I'm really happy with a lot of the cultural photos I shot during the trip. Spending time with the locals and seeing their way of life was quite a unique experience for me."
"There was a magical experience in Lhasa, Tibet. One afternoon while walking around a man walked up to me and asked where I was from. As we were talking, he asked me if I would like to see some of the city that most don't even realize exists."
"I eagerly said yes and off we went, on a tour into hidden entryways of buildings, onto rooftops, into tiny restaurants, etc. He seemed to know everyone, no matter where we went. Hours into it, he took me to his home. It turns out he is a famous restorationist for the monasteries in Lhasa and up the valley."
"He toured me around his property where I met his son, a bronze sculptor who was working on a giant statue, as well as his wife and daughter, who were making paint out of raw turquoise and gold. His family was extraordinarily artistic and I was fascinated as I watched them all work on crafts that have been in his family for thousands of years. I spent nearly 5 hours with him, a day I'll never forget, and a beautiful vignette of Tibetan culture."
Challenges against the elements with Nikon
Nikon — a reliable companion for any tough expedition
The journey from Lhasa to the base camp on the Chinese side of Everest takes several days, winding through the high altitude desert of the Tibetan Plateau with snow-covered peaks in the distance and quiet villages and small towns along the way - a journey Keith found rich in photography opportunities.
Base camp was where the true hardships started to kick in though, with the air desperately thin at an altitude of over 5,000 meters.
"It's all about acclimation," says Keith, "The rule of thumb is 'slow is fast'. You feel the altitude and moving around is a key thing to do each day, even when you don't want to. At the very least, you want to do a short hike, but every 2 or 3 days you need to put some miles in to get used to the altitude. You acclimate, then go higher, then repeat."
By the time they reached the second, more advanced base camp, they were over 7,000 meters above sea level and even the tiniest physical movements would take their toll. The views, however, were extraordinary, with a sense of scale that is difficult to grasp until you're confronted with it.
"Looking up at the face of Mount Everest is inspiring and terrifying," says Keith, "There's no question that you're looking at the biggest mountain on the planet: it's a giant wall of ice leading into a maze of rocks and couloirs. Gaining a sense of perspective is quite hard, unless you manage to spot a small climber through binoculars. Everything here is gigantic."
When moving through such harsh yet beautiful terrain, Keith had a tough balancing act when deciding what camera equipment to bring. It needed to be able to handle any situation so he wouldn't miss an opportunity for a beautiful image, but bring too much and he would be overburdened with gear.
"I packed really heavy with equipment and when you change camps everything is done by Yak, so weight isn't an issue," explains Keith, "However, when I was out shooting, I had to be pretty strategic with what I brought. Weight really matters at altitude and I shot 90% of the time on the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7. The other 10% was with the COOLPIX P1000 and a D850. Having the mirrorless setups was key. I primarily used the NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S, NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S, and the AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR."
The weather, especially on the Chinese side of the mountain, is extremely cold and windy, so it was also essential that the gear stand up to the harsh conditions.
"I'm quite hard on equipment, but Nikon gear has never let me down. I've taken Nikon gear on countless expeditions where we were living in tents in deeply remote locations - 50 days in Antarctica, deep into Greenland, the Amazon jungle, deserts in Bolivia, volcanos in the South Pacific etc. I've never lost a camera and I've shot in everything from katabatic winds in the snow to pouring rain."
The final path to the peak of Everest — a true challenge even for seasoned adventurers — was a special route reserved only for the experienced alpinists, Cory and Esteban, who had undergone intense training for months. Keith saw off Cory and Esteban from the advanced base camp when they attempted the final ascent themselves - an endeavor that in the end fell short of their goal, frustrated by worsening weather. Despite this, though, and in spite of the hardship and tough conditions, the expedition succeeded in pushing ahead into fresh territory - both into Everest itself, and in terms of Keith's exploration of his own creativity.
"To spend time on and around the tallest mountain on the planet was a truly unique experience," Keith concludes, "It was easy and fun to be creative in such a beautiful environment; the challenge was the altitude. You have to move slow and be patient. I have a tendency to be very erratic when I work, so this was a bit of a challenge for me. However, to see Everest right before my eyes, take in the thin air and feel the icy wind made it a truly visceral and unforgettable experience that I'll take with me for the rest of my life."
And Keith's images of Tibetan culture and the majesty of Everest will stay in our memories for many years to come. His rare experience will add to his well of creativity, from which Keith will be able to draw new worlds in his images.