50 Mind Blowing Photos from the PCT (Part I)
Two-words describing my work as a filmmaker, adventurer and composer.
My name’s Andy Laub, Founder & Director of As it Happens TV.
Three-years ago I left my job at Discovery Channel to capture something they weren’t… real adventure.
My inspiration grew out of a 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
That passion turned into a mission.. capture and share a life-changing journey.
Because inspiring more people to explore the outdoors, means there will be more people to protect it.
In 2011 I set out on the first chapter of this new direction with my hiking buddy Ian Mangiardi and a camera on the 2,500-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
The following two-part photo gallery captures an intimate portrait of that journey.
This collection of images is unlike any thru-hiker slideshow out there…
Every picture and corresponding story dives deeper into the thrill, struggle and ultimate triumph of walking across a continent.
The vignettes below are only part of the story that is As it Happens: Pacific Crest Trail – on April 26, 2014 the documentary I created around that same journey will be released. The film features beautiful cinematography, an original soundtrack and a narrative only a thru-hiker could tell.
The first stretch of the PCT from the Mexican border completely shattered all previous notions I had about life in the desert.
Back in New York City I pictured the desert as a barren place- filled with sand, rocks and a few lizards.
But, the actual reality blew me away – leaving me walking for miles inside the Mojave’s bloom.
The desert is a place of extremes- days hit 100 degrees, while nights drop into the twenties. To survive you must adapt and we’d begun the process…
Waking up well before dawn we took advantage of chilly mornings to avoid the heat of the day.
On one such dawn we stumbled out of camp and began a march on a flat, sandy valley floor.
Just as the sun crested the horizon I recoiled in fear- next to my foot was an S-shaped rock.
Luckily, this sidewinder laid frozen from the chilly night before.
Even though the immobile snake could barely move its eyes I stayed well out of reach while snapping this shot.
Happy to be off the snowy ridgeline, I snapped this picture just before shit hit the fan.
Moments after I switched my camera off the sun dropped, and with it went the heat and afternoon silence.
We heard a low roar from the hills above, then intense blasts of wind funneled thru the valley and struck our camp. The tent and guy lines ripped out of of the earth and began rolling across the valley floor.
Luckily, there was enough vegetation surrounding us, so it didn’t get too far before catching it.
This was the first time I experienced the power of the desert.
Beginning about halfway thru the Mojave we began snapping portraits of each other just before heading into town for resupply.
When I look at this picture of myself I see the effects of a hundred or so miles of desert, but then I look into those eyes and see my soul… real human spirit.
2011 record snow levels in the High Sierra changed more than just hiking in the high country. We felt the effects all the way down in the Mojave.
Every water hole on our maps ran fast and reservoir pools were full. So much so, we saw swarms of mosquitos in the middle of the desert.
While we thought these little guys were bad, nothing compared to the swarms we’d face in the valleys to our north.
Nearing the end of the Mojave we trekked thru a valley owned by the city of Los Angeles. By the end of it, we weren’t just cursing the heat, we gave a big middle-finger to the City of Angels itself.
Imagine walking along the road in the picture above. Now, imagine the sound of crisp-mountain water rushing just underneath your feet…
Welcome to the LA Aqueduct section of the PCT. For roughly 30-miles we literally walked on water- but, because of the cement covering it, couldn’t pull any to quench our thirst.
Before heading out on the PCT in 2011 I worked in New York City as a television writer and producer. By the end of the Mojave section I’d forgotten all about writing and chased a new love… the camera.
Each day became a shooting opportunity. Every mile found my eyes scouring the landscape – excited to see what flora and fauna dominated each valley and peak.
During golden hours- the hour around sunrise/sunset, when light’s at its best- I headed out of camp and captured the world around me.
The desert light, mixed with strange textures, profound backdrops and vivid colors inspired this work- to look deeper, capture the unique and share the smallest details with a world too busy to see them.
Knocking off the desert we ascended out of Kennedy Meadows and into the High Sierra. From the first step we realized this was a whole new world…
Snow replaced sand, deep valleys replaced desert flats and navigating turned into a mind game of trusting the boot pack in front of you.
Early into the altitude we took our first detour of the thru-hike ~ Mount Whitney
Ripping out of basecamp well before dawn, the snow still had crunch and the sun hadn’t found its way into the Whitney’s bowl, where this photograph was taken.
Surrounded by a sucking silence- walking thru this landscape was surreal- a high so intense you could call it spiritual.
Man built cathedrals. Mother Earth built mountains.
As we walked next to the giant pitches of Mount Whitney I couldn’t help but look up. These granite faces were the work of a glacier’s slow brushstroke over time.
Being in their presence struck a paradox within me- deeply humbled, yet will strengthened.
The summer solstice marks a tradition in the outdoor world… Hike Naked Day!
Seeing as that day fell on our summit of Mount Whitney, we had to celebrate.
Hands in the air and asses out, we said hello to the hundreds of snowy miles to our north.
Descending Mount Whitney and turning north on the PCT we faced the reality of the navigating after the highest snow year on record…
Post holing, deadly stream crossings and zero switchbacks- every step a battle, every view, a different shade of white.
On a thru-hike it’s easy to get lost in counting miles, gauging climbs and trading Cliff bars. That said, it’s just as easy to miss the rare and unusual…
Pictured above John Muir’s favorite plant – the Sierra Snow Flower
A fungus flower- this extraordinary species only grows above 10,000 feet, underneath cavernous snow pack. After it blooms, the California sun burns up in less than two-days.
The Sierra Snow Flower’s fragile nature, short-existence and exclusivity to the high country establish it as one of the small wonders of the high country.
Somewhere in a deep valley in Egypt lie the mummies of ancient pharaohs. They dub this canyon The Valley of Kings.
I’ve never been there, but I find it hard to believe it could be more majestic than King’s Canyon, California.
The most remote part of the High Sierras and one of the most isolated sections of the entire Pacific Crest- King’s Canyon immediately follows the descent of infamous Forester Pass.
The moment this picture was taken we were nearly frozen from a late afternoon climb up and over Forester. Our maps pointed to a camp somewhere on the edge of the wood line. With nightfall and hypothermia imminent, we literally ran to get there.
That night struggled to stay warm – wrapped in our sleeping bags, snow underneath the tent- every time I experienced a sharp shiver I picked up my camera and looked at this picture. Just seeing that sunset helped me through that cold night.
Our first resupply in the High Sierra was in the town of Bishop, CA.
We were forced to lay over and wait for the postman to deliver better snow gear we sent ourselves from back east.
Hanging around we befriended Jesse, the motel’s maintenance guy, and his girl Allison.
Waiting wasn’t so bad with our new friends. We sat out on their front porch and spent three-afternoons sipping whiskey and talking about the mountains.
Jesse grew up in Montana and experienced the mountains on horseback. His tall tales and friendly manner were a welcome warmth from the cold we’d just come from.
The day our gear arrived we knew we had to leave, but before we said goodbye to our new friends they drove us out of town and up into the desert mountains paralleling the High Sierra.
This shot is a view of me looking towards the PCT from those dusty peaks. A strange feeling washed over me knowing I’d be heading back into those snowy monsters.
While a high quality camera and photographer’s ability are key to the success of a studio shoot, the art of nature photography hinges on one principle – being in the right place, at the right time.
At first glance this principle seems simple, but getting to that place… just in time- can be the hardest task of all.
Setting out on Muir Pass we’d been slogging over ten-hours to cover only eight-miles of trail. This ascent tested our collective will, trudging up the slow and steep terrain, breathing manically on each step.
Then, reaching the 12,000-ft apex, a snow squall enveloped us. While other thru-hikers ducked into the Muir Hut, I remained outside, waiting for the clouds to race over me, provide a clearing for my camera.
Then, the storm lifted. My eyes widened as I captured the scene in front of me…
Distant peaks piercing through soft light and quickly moving clouds- a scene so beautiful, yet so fleeting, the whole day’s experience defines what it takes to be a nature photographer.
In the world of adventure television we have a saying… beauty’s grounded in danger.
This shot of a seemingly placid nap hides the maze of fury directly behind it.
Deep within northern Yosemite’s backcountry- we faced deadly stream crossings and raging rivers. Many of which were not even on our maps. Navigating thru this hell we saw entire faces of mountains ripped off in the spring ‘s meltdown.
With water everywhere, moving at such force, we spent days searching for safe crossings. Usually settling on places where creeks widened to avoid the rushes of shallow water– which meant longer fords in deeper water.
Our record for fords in a day stands at twelve. That record was set on the day this picture was taken and is the reason Ian’s passed out, soaking wet and absorbing in the California sun.
Hitching is a lost art in the United States. But, the writer inside me finds it exhilarating- you never know who you’ll come across, what their story is and how it will add to yours.
Typically us thru-hikers make runs to and from trail towns to resupply, get a hot meal and if we feel like it, do our laundry.
For me, this kind of hitch isn’t enough…
I’m an extremist about the things I love- hence why I’m a thru-hiker- but also why we decided to hitch 300-miles across California to celebrate Independence Day in Santa Cruz.
I snapped this photo about halfway thru that odyssey near Fresno.
Far from the trail and the community around it, we didn’t land a ride for over three-hours.
It took two-days, but using only our thumbs, we made it just in time for the fireworks.
North of Lake Tahoe the snow pack began breaking up. Relieved with more dirt and faster miles we knew most of the dangerous snow and creek crossings laid behind us.
What we also knew was we’d gone so slow thru the Sierras that if we didn’t pick up our pace winter would come crashing down on us before we’d reach Canada.
With a new urgency we picked up the pace.
Pushing hard miles into Northern California we were happy for the dirt, but found the volcanic landscape difficult to find potable water in.
Day after day we suffered dry camps, or going to bed without a drop of water.
When we did find a sizeable creek, we lingered… for two reasons.
- Drink up
We began fly-fishing every opportunity we got. Adding rainbow trout to our ramen, or cous cous was both delicious and needed for the bump in daily-mileage.
Since the PCT I’ve eaten plenty of seafood, but nothing compares to those meals with freshly caught, perfectly cooked rainbows.
Moving across Hat Creek Rim, a notorious 30-mile plateau without water, we saw a snowcap in the distance – at over 14,000-ft Mount Shasta stands as California’s largest volcano.
The PCT does not go over Shasta, it skirts well around it. To attempt its summit meant a detour, or losing time in our race against winter.
We silently thought about the detour as the mountain bobbed on the horizon. Then, after striking up a fire in camp we made a decision…
We’d survived the snowiest year on record in the High Sierra; were stronger than ever and excited at the chance to bag another 14er…
The next day we began a detour to the giant looming in the east.
Slowly, we hitched across California’s 89-North towards the Shasta Wilderness.
As romantic as thumbing a ride sounds, finding it pleasurable really comes down to how you well you deal with the wait.
Sometimes hours go by without landing a ride…. To kill the time I usually began snapping pictures of whatever was next to the road.
Between rides on this detour I made a discovery…
Anything rich with color and texture is best captured in macro, or super up close.
Just look at the details on this common California caterpillar…
Furry antlers, air force style facemask and fading from white to a dark crimson are those back fins.
Far away he looked like a twig. Up close he reminded me of a stegosaurus- a perfectly engineered, minimalistic creature- the fruit of Northern California’s ecosystem.
Launching out of Shasta basecamp at 3AM we ascended over 3,000-ft before the sky cracked into a soft shade of salmon.
We were moving fast, nothing could stop us… this feeling described not just this ascent, but our general confidence towards the miles remaining on the Pacific Crest.
Feeling the warmth wash over us, we sat in silence. We didn’t know it, but this brief pause marked the apex of summer- the steps after would mark the beginning of a new, darker chapter.
Check out: 50 Mind Blowing Photos from the PCT Part II
To preview the original soundtrack – written and recorded by Andy Laub – click here.
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