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Mirrorless on the Mountain: Nikon's Z Cameras Document Everest Expedition

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© Keith Ladzinski

The Nikon Z Series on Everest – Two Nikon Ambassadors set out for Everest, one to attempt to summit via a new route, the other to document the effort.

Ultimately, it's the weather that decides, and trying to beat the weather on Everest is not a good gamble.

If you've seen the video—and if you haven't, please do—you know that the jet stream shifted and Cory Richards and Keith Ladzinski wisely walked away from an attempt at the summit.

"Everest transcends what you're capable of," Keith says. "It comes down to what the mountain is capable of."

The plan was for Cory and his climbing partner, Esteban "Topo" Mena, to make a summit attempt along a new route from the Tibetan (North Face) side of the mountain. Both men are accomplished high-altitude climbers. Cory had reached the top of Everest twice; Topo, once. It would have been a climb without oxygen, and the route, which Cory describes as obvious but technically difficult, had never before been tried.

"The idea was that I'd document the expedition," Keith says. "I'd go with them as far as Advanced Base Camp—which is at about 21,000 feet—and hike out a bit with them to get some video and stills."     

From the Advanced Base Camp, Cory and Topo would have made two hard pushes to the top. "But the top of Everest, at 29,000 feet, literally sits within the jet stream," Keith says, "and there were a few weeks where the jet stream had shifted directly into the mountain and it was nuking up there. That wind can come in and ravage the Advanced Base Camp, and then you can find yourself in a horrible situation, especially if you've gone higher. Part of the weather window is waiting for those winds to be appropriate, because people literally get blown off the mountain."

"The mountain is sort of the ultimate decider," Cory adds. "You can have all the skill in the world, and all of your strength might get you further up, but if you're fighting against it, if you're not working in sync with the conditions, the likelihood of finding yourself in serious trouble is increased."

Clearly, the window of opportunity had closed, and the right decision was the only decision: not this time. There'll be another year, another window, another chance.

Images of Everest

Both Cory and Keith carried Z system cameras and lenses, with Keith the main storyteller. The Z cameras' light weight figured prominently in their use, and there were, in fact, several on the expedition for both hands-on shooting and use as time-lapse remotes. "Sometimes we had two or three cameras running at once, and there was a lot of behind-the-scenes coverage as well," Keith says.

They also had a COOLPIX P1000 on the adventure because Cory and Keith envisioned its long-ranging 4.3-539mm zoom lens—the equivalent of a 24-3000mm in 35mm format—serving to reveal aspects of the new route. "It was fantastic," Keith says. "Cory and Topo would take pictures of the route—it was unclimbed, so there was zero recon and zero support—and they'd zoom in, sometimes on the LCD, sometimes on the offloaded images on the laptop. It was really a big help in unlocking some of the mysteries of the route."

Most of Keith's photos were shot with the Z 6. "I'd say 70 percent of my priority was to shoot video and I leaned heavily on the Z 6 for that. It's incredible to be able to pop that little switch and go stills-to-video and back and forth, and not remove your eye from the EVF."

The cameras handed the environment flawlessly, but it was their size and weight—their "being nimble and light"—that Keith stressed. "You're working in pretty miserable conditions—long, arduous hikes, it's cold, your hands hurt, and when things happen, they happen quickly, and you want—you need to—get them. The cool thing about those little mirrorless cameras is I'm going to have a camera around my neck no matter what, but the fact that it's ultra-light and I have two or three batteries inside my jacket pocket staying warm—that's the perfect setup for going out and working in the adventure space."

Cory's been a Nikon shooter for many years, but he's fairly new to the Z system. "I'd played around with it beforehand, taken it on a couple shoots," he says, "but I didn't have a lot of experience, so for me this was really a rubber-hitting-the-road test," he says. "I was pretty much blown away by the cameras' capacity to handle the wet and freezing conditions. And a lot of our travel was at night—to stay cooler even though it's incredibly cold—and I was really impressed with the low-light capability."

He found also that the Z cameras gave him greater control over creative choices. "The ease of toggling back and forth between viewfinder and LCD gave me that 'how am I going to approach this shot?' consideration. Do I pop up the LCD and shoot on silent and just shoot from the hip or do I compose more carefully? And because with the EVF you actually see what you're getting, I felt there was more truth to the image I was trying to create. It required less thinking and more being."

There is, he agrees, a greater sense of being in the moment of the shot. "You still pick your settings and compose, so artistically you're making all the decisions, but what the electronic viewfinder allows you to do is understand much more quickly if you're getting what you want to get."

Time and Again

Cory shot his images in black and white partly because he was curious about the tonal capabilities of the Z cameras and partly because of what black-and-white images would suggest and require. "If you extract color from almost any photograph, you freeze it in a way, because now you don't have the identifiers of the color palette chosen by a point in history. You allow people's imaginations to wander into this storied landscape that's still on the very fringes of contemporary society and culture. By extracting color we're actually allowing more imagination to come into play."

 It's likely though that Everest itself was the main reason for the black-and-white choice. "There's something timeless about black-and-white photography," Cory says, "and I think it sort of speaks to our more romantic sensibilities and to the history of this side of the mountain—of Mallory and Irvine disappearing. There's sort of a nostalgic sense that occurs to me here, and I wanted to play with that artistically."

It would be nearly impossible for an experienced climber to be on Everest and not think of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, British climbers who disappeared on the mountain on June 8, 1924. They were last seen less than 1,000 feet from the summit, and there is no way of knowing if they died going up or coming down. Mallory's body was found in 1999. Irvine, who carried a camera that might contain the answer, has not been found.

"It's possible Mallory reached the summit," Cory says, "and if he did, it would have been an amazing feat. But in the rules of climbing—there are very few, but there are some, and one of the primary tenets is that it doesn't matter if you made it to the top if you don't come down."

In that context, the history of Everest stands as it's written: on May 8, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit...because they did, and because they came down.

Nikon Ambassador Cory Richards was named National Geographic's 2012 Adventurer of the Year. A selection of his striking photographs and videos are featured at coryrichards.com.

Keith Ladzinski is a contributing photographer at National Geographic, an Emmy-nominated director and a Nikon Ambassador. His background includes skateboarding, rock climbing and extreme sports photography. These days his emphasis is still extreme sports along with natural history, climate change and advertising assignments. Visit his website at ladzinski.com.

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