Icicle TV sat down and interviewed mountain photographer John Scurlock over coffee recently. John’s new book Snow& Spire chronicles a decade long project; flying around the Cascade mountains in his homemade airplane, photographing remote jagged peaks… all in the dead of winter. John discusses life and his passion for flying where few have ever been.
To see all of John’s photography go to: www.pbase.com/nolock
John’s book can be purchased at: www.wolverinepublishing.com
I was born in Detroit, my dad was an architect. He worked in Detroit but then we moved to Ann Arbor. I was always sort of an outdoors person; Boy scouts and so on. We traveled out west as a family to Wyoming and Oregon. That was my first exposure to mountains when I was a little kid. I can remember driving across Wyoming knowing that there were going to be mountains but never had seen a mountain before. Eventually you could see this gleam on the horizon; it was white snow and all of us kids were like “There’s a mountain!”. So I had this sort of fantasy introduction to mountains.
The move out west
Eventually I went to Michigan state for forestry and then on to Oregon state for grad school for forestry. My wife got a job with the Forest service because we got burned out on Graduate school. She applied and applied and we waited and waited. We were going to go where ever the first job opened up. Finally when the letter came the post was for Baker River. I had worked for the USFS in eastern Oregon and I thought that was where we were going. So we got out the map and it was right next to the North Cascades.
Freedom of the hills
I came from a climbing background. I hiked the PCT through Washington by myself when I was 19. I’ve spent some time on the ground in remote areas. I’m more of a tourist rather than a highly technical climber. I took some climbing classes back in college in Oregon and I remember people waiting for the Fred Beckey guides to come out. I remember when they came out people flocking to the store to buy it. We would sit there reading them for hours, obsessing. I knew what was out there in terms of routes and of the photography of those routes. Having climbed, flown and skied I’ve realized there is a very close parallel to climbing and skiing. It’s all about decision making and risk management.
John’s home built Van RV-6 took nine years to build.
So I didn’t think about flying very seriously until I was in my 30’s. I had a friend tell me one day “I had a free flight lesson, you should go out and do it” I went out there and took the flight lesson and I was hooked!” The instructor said “you don’t need perfect vision for recreational flying” so I went on and got my pilots license. That was probably in 1983 or 1984.
I was always an amateur photographer. When I was a kid my grandparents gave me this brownie camera. When I was in high school I had this Minolta single lens reflex camera. I was shooting lots of slides. I still have boxes of those slides under my bed. Eventually I switched over to film point and shoot because I realized that you’re not doing anything with your slides. You’re not looking at them. If you have a 4×6 print you can pass it around.
The learning curve
I had flown around Mt. Baker in Cessnas before. It’s only about 10 minutes from the Concrete airport and it acts like a magnet. I started thinking then about taking photos from an airplane. I would take my film cameras up and take photos. Digital really had not taken off yet. The film camera I was using was this little point and shoot and the shutter had some kind of problem. The pictures were coming out half dark and half light and I was getting really frustrated. That’s when I switched to digital.
It’s like I tell people; cars, boats, planes have stability built into them when they are designed. You can set the controls so the plane will pretty much fly hands off for short periods of time. My airplane is not that stable because it’s a high performance airplane but you can trim it out and fly it with your thumb.
I was getting more and more into digital photography and I was doing some stuff for the US geological survey I was taking all kinds of photos of Mt. Baker. Back then www.pbase.com was kind of the best photo websites. So I got an account and loaded some photos up on there so I could load them up and use them as examples on their forums.
Meeting the masters
About that time through the USGS I got connected with Austin Post. At that time he was 83. If you look in the Fred Beckey alpine guides you see many pictures by Austin Post. He took so many pictures of glaciers and mountains. Back in the 60’s and early 70’s during the golden age of aerial glacier photography he was the guy. I went down there to his house on Vashon to meet him and show him some photos he was like “I know a guy who would like to see these.” That’s how I met John Roper. John was this renowned climber and authority on the North cascades. He was raised in Newhalem, at the foot of the mountains. I sent him a stack of photos. He’s this highly obsessive kind of guy and when he got the photos on a disc they were set to music. He turned the music off and sat there and freeze framed each photo. According to his wife he sat there for three straight days! (Laughs) I would have a picture out and say “that’s Mount Terror” and he would say “well… what about the other twenty peaks in the background?” He could name every mountain and every little bump. He knew them because he was obsessed with them. John was the guy who started passing my photos around to climbers. He would always hound me and say “you really need to put more of these photos on the internet.”
A watershed moment
The very first thing that ever happened was the northwest face of Chiwawa Mountain.
I was flying around it, and I knew that climbers were looking at the pictures. I was flying around it and I always shoot out of the left side of the plane. I came around the northwest face and there is this cliff with this perfect vertical crack going straight up it. I thought at the time” somebody’s going to want to climb it” So I posted it up on my website and I was sending emails out to John Roper and other people I was in contact with and it was like “check this out”. It was 8 or 11 days later Colin Haley and Dave Burdick went in there on snowmobiles and climbed it. It was definitely a watershed moment. It was a window opening that people who were climbing at really high levels were picking through this stuff looking for the little details.
Out of the blue
I had people telling me”you should do a book.” Austin Post himself wrote a famous book, Glacier Ice, and people were telling him “it had better be a labor of love” implying that he was going to lose his shirt. So there was a guy working for Wolverine publishing in Colorado who was a climber. He told the publisher “I know a guy; you should do a book with him.” They contacted me about four years ago out of the blue. They contacted me in March and I was like “oh wow, that would be cool.” I asked them when they wanted it by and they said August…I said “that can’t happen” (laughs) So, I kinda deferred on that one.
Stages and changes
I went through some life changes. I live by myself now. Kind of got to thinking I’m getting older now and I sent that publisher an email and asked him “are you still interested?” No response for about four months… and then I get this email. He said ”I’ve been traveling in Europe and I just got your email, yeah, were really interested.” That was in early 2010. I think he kind of got the vibe then that I really don’t want to rush it out. He said “we would like to have it out in time for Christmas 2011.” They sent me a contract and I started right in on the writing in particular because that was the part I didn’t have.
My mother was progressing through independent living through assisted living to an adult family home and I knew that was going to be a crisis at some point and I knew I was going to have to be the one taking care of her. That’s why I got the writing done right away.
Snow & Spire
For the last couple years, all the photography I was doing was with the intention of a book. Once I had the new camera it was a totally transformational experience in terms of landscape photography. I was able to go out and take photographs in conditions I could never do with the older cameras. I was trying to be obsessive and comprehensive.
There was not any part of it I did not want to leave untouched…I didn’t want to leave any room for anybody else.
There is always something coming. I’m glad I had my say so. I’m very fortunate in that regard, believe me. I had help from some extremely talented people; Lowell Skoog and Dave Tucker to name a few. The designer McKenzie Long from California, she’s been brilliant and a lot of the beauty in the book is because of her. I had so much help from the people from North Cascades National Park.
The price of flying is going up so I’m being very selective. I would like to do some more photography in the Coast Mountains of BC. It’s a vast range; a thousand miles from Vancouver to Alaska. I’ve covered a lot of it but there’s still a lot I’ve yet to cover. I’ve been as far north as the Stikine icefield. I kind of tend to not be so excited to photograph stuff that’s already been photographed. I’d like to photograph the Juneau ice field but that thing has been blanketed with research and photographs. I’d really like to get into the Fairweathers and the St. Elias range sometime but I need to be retired, living up there with a lot of time on my hands if I was going to do that kind of thing. There’s huge icefields in BC that have been largely unseen… The Andre’ icefield, that one is quite obscure. Blake Herrington has been in there to Mt. Desire.
These are remote difficult areas to get to. I’m highly attracted to remote and difficult…and unseen.