Tag Archives: photography

Portrait of a Pilgrim

The Plan

We are on our way back to North America after having spent about five weeks in Spain, most of that walking the last 120 kilometres or so of the Camino de Santiago. What was the point of all that, you might ask? Why did we feel the need to drag ourselves, and in the end, a wheelchair, across a chunk of northern Spain? It would be great if I could say something glib like, “Because it was there” or “Because we like to go on vacations with a bit of a twist” but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For one thing, we can’t really afford to just jet off and wander around the Spanish countryside for weeks on end. Usually, we either need to find a way to keep working on the road (Internet access makes this possible, though it can also create huge logistical challenges when connectivity is not quite as good as we need it to be). Even better is when we can find a way to tie a project to a travel destination. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a destination travel article about a place we want to go (or, happen to be going anyway). Sometimes it’s using a destination or activity that takes place in a distant place (climbing, for example) in a book. Taking copious notes, reference photos, or conducting interviews to gather information is a way to write some of the travel costs off as long as the material is used somewhere down the road.

Digital nomad at work in a small cafe in the middle of nowhere.

In the case of this trip along the Camino Frances, though, the intention all along was to write a book about the trip and to find a way to integrate art (Dad’a art in particular). Not only is Dad’s work integrated into the written project, he is also beavering away on a series of works exploring the idea of creating a portrait of a pilgrim to be presented in an exhibition of work.

At the end of a long day of walking, Dad works on a drawing of the Castillo de Pambre

One of the the good things about being a writer or an artist is that all of life becomes a potential source of inspiration. That’s also one of the tough aspects of this type of job. There isn’t really a way to shut life off, close the office door and go home. Everything is raw material and holds the potential of the next great bit of writing or amazing painting. For someone in the arts, each day could be the one where our desire to create something worthwhile is realized. Just the act of living life becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, full of challenges and roadblocks to overcome on the way to coming up with something decent.

When we set off on the road to Santiago we knew we wanted to create something (visual art on Dad’s part, written work from me and Dani), but beyond that we weren’t exactly sure what our story would be. After all, we had plans, but plans never exactly correspond with reality.

The good news is that post trip we have plenty of raw material for a book and Dad is well on his way to creating some very cool pieces unlike anything he has ever done before. The walking together, the conversations in the evenings, the time spent looking at art, watching Dad create art, listening to conversations among other pilgrims, reading about the act of pilgrimage, visiting museums – all that input, that raw material provided a massive amount of information, stimulation, and inspiration. The creative wheels aren’t just turning, they are spinning fast.

We knew that part of the challenge after a trip is coming back and being thrown into real life distractions, so we decided to spend a couple of weeks together after we finished walking to Santiago in order to focus on the project. The process has been as challenging as anything we faced on the journey.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Some of our conversations have been predictable – like comparing notes about various high (and low) points of the trip, but we’ve also talked about mortality, what inspires us, surprises like how much we all liked the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s ode to nature and God in Barcelona, and what makes a great portrait. We’ve asked ourselves a lot of questions about the nature of pilgrimage and what a real pilgrim looks like. We sought out images of pilgrims in art and now, as we begin to write (and Dad continues to work with pen and ink and wax crayon and tempera paint sticks and watercolours) what is emerging is a story about our pilgrimage, but also a meditation on what it means to be a pilgrim – in words and images.

We collected dozens of pilgrim-related images on our trip… this one from the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago.

Dad is also exploring juxtapositions of self portraits with ancient depictions of pilgrims. He’s playing with stylistic twists and bold colour, taking fresh inspiration from time spent in the presence of Gaudi’s work, Picasso’s ever-evolving approaches to art and portraiture, and the many, many pilgrims we have seen in carvings, sculptures, murals, painted, drawn, and etched into stone.

We have been privy to Dad’s creative process in ways that have never been possible before now – living in close quarters for so long there is no way to avoid seeing how he comes up with ideas, starts sketching, restarts, scribbles, and polishes. At the same time, Dani and I have been clicking away on our keyboards.

The artist goes shopping – finding art supplies was easy in Barcelona.

I’ve been working on recreating our journey, integrating notes about art and history found along the way. I’m also trying to figure out the best way to share the conversations Dad and I have had over the past six weeks or so that we’ve been travelling together. Dani is digging deeper into the many moments that make up a pilgrim’s journey, writing a series of reflections and information essays that take the reader behind the scenes on subjects as varied as bedbugs and courier systems. The more we write and draw and talk and question, the more we discover to explore, describe, question and discuss.

Leaving Sarria…

“Is that where we are going?” Dad asks, pointing up.

“Unfortunately,” I answer.

“Oh my God. I haven’t trained for this.”

At one point we all worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say about our trip, that our three creative wells would simultaneously run dry. In fact, the opposite is happening. We all have found so much to explore I’m thinking our bigger task will not be thinking of what to include but what we will need to eventually trim out.

No fears about not having enough reference material!

Crane Pose

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m never going to be (more accurately, never was) one of those twenty-something yoginis who can do full standing splits on top of the Eiffel Tower (or a handstand on a rock in the middle of the ocean… honestly, have you seen some of those yoga poses on Instagram???) But, I wanted to have some fun with yoga poses and photography and so, with a little help from Picmonkey (which, btw, is a very fun way to spend an evening playing around with your mediocre images and seeing what can be made of them…) I took a series of photos in my very boring living room. Here’s Crane Pose if I were able to clone myself and time everything perfectly (sort of like a partner yoga solo selfie)… Maybe I should keep experimenting with the photo editing and just insert myself into some awe-inspiring locations…

Unexpected Colour

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On the walk to town…

At first, it seems as if the world has gone all monochromatic on you… And then, the subtle splashes of colour appear…

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Pinecones

 

Winter Walk – Canmore, Alberta

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When the temperature shoots up to a balmy -16C it’s time to bundle up and head outside! It’s strange how the body remembers things from childhood…

  1. How snow squeaks underfoot when the temperatures dip
  2. How hard it is to get the scarf just right – too high, your glasses fog up, too low, your nose and cheeks freeze.
  3. How you feel like the Michelin Man with all those layers on.
  4. How cold your fingers get when you take off your gloves.
  5. How your lungs cringe when you sprint for the traffic light.
  6. The perpetually runny nose.
  7. Stepping inside and instantly being bathed in sweat under all those layers.
  8. The speed with which your glasses fog up when you come inside.
  9. The brilliant burn of sun on snow.
  10. Those mountains, in their fine white cloaks.
  11. The sheer delight of being out there when it’s really too cold to be out there.

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Relax

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Relax

This week’s photo challenge asks us to post an image that evokes the word ‘relax.’ Even though this loveseat/mini sofa is really too small for three beings to truly get comfortable, they are all trying! Personally, I know of few things more relaxing than snuggling up with critters, their warmth, their unconditional affection, their soft snores… What’s not to love?

Ordinary Day at the Office

There are days when I just love my job. Writing the novel Deadpoint (which is a hi-interest, low-vocabulary novel for reluctant teen readers) has been fun from Day One. Day One was spent sitting at the bottom of a crag near Mount Yamnuska observing a class of climbers new to climbing outside. Fabio was one of the teachers and I took pages and pages of notes of what was going on. I was pretty new to the whole outdoor climbing world myself and it was a great chance to pay close attention to the kinds of challenges faced by people making the transition from gym climbing to real rock.

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When making observations on the spot you really never know what might wind up being useful. I love, love, love just scribbling away, recording every impression I possibly can – trying to use all my senses with a minimal amount of reflection. Eventually, a surprising number of these weird details, snippets of dialogue, etc. wind up making their way into the story. 

As I was sitting in the sun, scribbling away in my notebook, the three main characters started to emerge from wherever characters come from. Ayla is a keen gym climber who competes in climbing competitions, but struggles with a fear of falling (ok, that weird quirk – the fear of falling – was directly drawn from my own psyche). Lissy, her best friend, is a hard core outdoors enthusiast who was ‘conceived in a tent, born in a gully, and raised in a backpack.’ Lissy and her family can’t imagine a better place to hang out than somewhere deep in the wilderness. And then, there’s the boy – Carlos, a city kid who likes to free solo buildings for fun. Carlos is new in town and catches Lissy’s eye, which sets up the friendship tension in the story.

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Carlos was born at the base of a cliff on that very first day of note-taking. 

Long story short (you need to read the book if you want to see how it all turns out), the three teenagers find themselves in trouble on a multi-pitch climb in the mountains when the adult leader of the group is injured and incapacitated. I was pretty happy with the way things were going (more or less smoothly!) through the writing and editing process. It’s great when that happens – some stories come together a bit easier than others – this one was generally straightforward and involved lots of fun conversations and discussions with my in-house consultant, Fabio, about technical details of the climbing, the accident, the rescue, etc… In fact, we wound up working out plot problems while we were on our long climbing road trip down in the USA earlier this year. I wrote away while Fabio drove…

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This surprised me a bit, just how much climbers think and talk about falling. 

And then, after a couple of rounds of edits with two different editors at Orca, I was sent a cover mock-up. I don’t think I can post the photo that was originally suggested because of copyright issues, but basically it showed a teenager top-roping what is clearly a sport climb – she has been cleaning the route and has draws clipped to her harness. It’s almost a perfect image – the sense of being way up high is pretty good, the climbing isn’t terribly difficult, the model is age appropriate… But, if one is seconding on a trad route, a multi pitch, what she would have dangling from her gear loops would be cams and nuts and maybe a sling around her torso and, yes, some draws…

An interesting debate with the editor, publisher, and book designer followed about how important it was (or wasn’t) to get the technical details right in the cover image. The thought at the publishing house (where nobody climbs) was that the image they found made it look plenty scary and showed a climber way up high. When Fabio and I looked at the image we knew that a) it wasn’t accurate and b) really didn’t reflect what was going on in the story – which has a lot to do with the strange and very specific details of trad climbing. True, someone who knows nothing about climbing would not spot the differences, but anyone who read the book and was interested in climbing, or wanted to learn more, or who might actually have done some climbing would definitely be confused.

So, I suggested we could probably stage something that was equally interesting visually (appropriately aged female, seconding on a trad route, cams dangling from her gear loops, good exposure drop-off-wise, and – bonus – a lake in the distance, which is mentioned in the story as the place where the group sets up camp).

Both the editor and designer were skeptical that I could tick all the boxes and come up with something appropriate that was going to work better than the stock image. I suggested politely they let me try and sent a couple of generic shots I happened to have on hand from some climbs at Barrier Mountain.

All of this is quite unusual – in most cases, I am presented with a cover for a new book and we all know it’s basically a fait accompli. Writers don’t get to design covers, which is how it should be. I am not a designer. I tell stories. I am usually more than happy to let the experts deal with their areas of specialty.

So I was a bit surprised and rather delighted when I got the word back from the publisher that we could go ahead and see if we could come up with something.

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Our hard-working belayers up top, managing ropes and keeping us safe. Thanks, guys! (Fabio on the left, Greg on the right – we couldn’t have done it without you!)

Of course, this immediately threw me into a bit of a logistical tizzy. I needed someone who could climb, who could pass for 16/17, and who would be willing to be climb up and down and pose in different positions so we could get the right shot. We needed to have me in position parallel with her, and we needed her to be belayed from above. We needed a pair of patient and competent belayers who could lead the routes we had in mind. And, we needed some reasonable weather – the rain and clouds and thunderstorms of the first part of summer this year have not exactly made for perfect climbing weather. We needed some appropriate gear to dangle from the climber’s harness… And we needed that perfect location that would make sense within the story.

Which is how Anne and I wound up climbing side by side routes on the upper bit of Barrier Wall. Barrier Lake is off in the background and by shooting from The Flake (11a) towards In Us, Under Us (11b) we could get a sense of the exposure we were looking for. The climber needed to fill out the frame, so I didn’t want to be too far away.

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Anne on In Us, Under Us. Not a bad spot, hey? And, note that technically accurate assortment of gear hanging from her harness. There’s even a sling around her body and, if you look very closely, a nut tool. 

Fabio led In Us, Under Us and Greg McKee led The Flake and then the two very patient belayers set up belays above us. They stopped and started belaying as Anne and I climbed up side by side. We took dozens of photos along the way, with me clipping to bolts so I could push my feet against the wall and get both Anne and the backdrop framed reasonably well… Poor Anne had to climb and re-climb sections so I could climb a bit above her and then beside her to try to get something useable. And some of what she had to re-climb was not easy!

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Anne approaching the start of the climb, which begins on the ledge you see just above her. Getting started required climbing up the lower routes so we would appear to be high enough that a multi-pitch scenario would be plausible. 

We tried having her look up, look down, look away and pretend to be stressed, concentrating, scared, and neutral. We had her traverse off the route to try to get her to stand out better against the sky. We took some action shots, some pensive shots, and some just for fun of Anne looking happy. We lucked out with the weather (it was a glorious evening when we shot the series) and, in the end, one of the shots turned out well enough that – yes – it will be on the cover of the book!

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Anne was great about going up and moving back down and letting me get repositioned to try this angle and that…

 

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This shot was taken by Greg from above as we were working (note me being very bossy and pointing out where Anne should put her hand…). What’s weird about it is that it was taken right at the top of the climb but it doesn’t look like we are that far up. We were actually about 10 storeys up and right at the limit of what our ropes would allow us do in a single push from the ground… But right below us is a bit of a bulge in the rock so you can’t actually see the vast expanse of rock we’ve climbed up to get to where we are. The next photo below gives a better idea of the scale of the particular cliff we were working on. (Photo Credit: Greg McKee)

A couple of times as I was dangling and angling for a good shot I found myself marvelling at how absolutely cool it was to be climbing with such great people in such a stunning spot on a glorious day all in the name of work! Really, a day at the office simply does not get much better than this!

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At the very end of the day our reward was to climb the classic Beautiful Rainbow (11a). Look closely… I’m in there somewhere up toward the top. Remind me not to wear brown pants if I hope to be spotted on the rock! (Photo credit: Anne Rozek)

And, in the end, this is what the cover will look like!

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Something to ponder… keen observers who know the area will note that one, but not both, roads were removed from the image (ah, the joys of Photoshop!)… Stay tuned for a longer discussion in a future blog post about why, or why not, a designer might choose to modify an image… 

Kudos to Rachel at Orca Book Publishers for coming up with this cool-looking cover… Fingers crossed that the cover will catch the eye of some teen readers in search of a bit of vicarious adventure! Deadpoint is scheduled for release in January, 2017. If you happen to be a book blogger or a climbing blogger and you’d like to receive a review copy, get in touch and we may be able to send a one your way! Then you, too, can pick apart the cover and see whether or not we got it right!

 

 

 

M is for Munter (how to tie one), Mountains, Lady Mac, and Mixed Climbing

M is for mixed climbing, Munter and … and maybe mountains… and what about multi-pitches… Keep scrolling down if you want to get to the good part (the Munter video!)

On the first day of this challenge I was pretty sure I could dredge up something to say about climbing for each day of the alphabet… on about day five (E is for whatever E was for… M might also be about memory, or lack thereof…) I was feeling pretty panicky. I mean, you can only say so much about going up and not falling off, right? Well today I’m sitting here looking at my shortlist of M-words and I’m thinking that if I’m not careful this could develop into a long blog post!

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Me trying something waaaaaay too hard in the mixed climbing department. Sometimes you have to go past your limit to find the line in the sand… rock… ice… wherever. In this case, the line was about as high as you see here – just low enough, in fact that each time I fell off (many times) the rope stretch allowed me to gently hit the ground. With my backside.  

I’ll start with mixed climbing, a sub-genre of the climbing activity about which I had no idea before this past winter. In the vertical world in the dead of winter two solid forms (ice and rock) come together in the mountains. Climbing when you wind up transitioning from one to the other (and sometimes back again) is known as mixed climbing. The tools used are similar to ice climbing, but look closely and small difference begin to emerge.

Crampon points, for example. On a straight ice climb two front points give you a wider, more secure base upon which to perch (though, there are those who climb ice quite handily with mono-points). If there’s going to be a lot of rock on the route, though, it’s actually easier to climb with a mono-point, a single front prong. This is because the plane of the rock is very rarely exactly perpendicular to your foot placement. Unlike in ice where you can kick your foot in to create a more or less even distribution of weight over both points, on the rock, more likely you are going to carefully place your single point into an indent, small hole, or on a modest lip of rock. The chances of said placement point being exactly wide/deep/level/spaced to accommodate two fixed points on the front of your boot is slim.

Likewise, the blades of your ice tools can be swapped out with sturdier, less razor sharp options being better for rock than for ice. Fabio has a tool kit in the car especially for the purpose of swapping out pointy bits to best suit conditions.

Though both sections (rock and ice) of a mixed climb can be hard, sometimes the transitions between one and the other provides a particularly tricky challenge.

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Me transitioning between rock and ice at Haffner Creek earlier this season…

 

The Mighty Munter Hitch (Or, Italian Belay Knot)

A Munter hitch is named after Werner Munter, a Swiss mountain guide born in 1941 (though, the Italians were using it before Herr Munter, which is why it’s also known as an Italian hitch or Italian Belay). The knot is a bit like a clove hitch and can be used to belay a climber if you have a handy carabiner. What’s coolest about the knot is the way it’s sort of reversible – flipped in one direction it can be used like a brake (say when your buddy has fallen into a crevasse, you’ve stopped the fall by walloping your ice axe into the glacier and then throwing your body weight on top of the ax, and then you need to stop your friend from slithering deeper into said crevasse… After quickly building an anchor – and the thought of having to do this with gloves on and while sitting on my ice axe is nothing short of horrifying – you would then use a Munter to secure the rope leading to your fallen friend… well, not exactly – first you have to take the weight off the rope by transferring the weight of the climber to the newly built anchor… gads. That was meant to be a simple aside. Turns out it might need to be a whole other blog post.) Flip the same knot upside down and you can use it to belay your friend, letting out slack to lower her to a handy shelf or taking in slack as she climbs up and out of the crevasse.

Here’s my handy dandy how-to guide (and specially produced video!! Thanks to Fabio for being a Munter model…)

How to Tie a Munter Hitch

Step 1: Make a loop in the bit of rope that leads to the fallen climber. The end leading to the climber goes underneath.

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Step 2: Make another loop in the end of the rope that leads to your excess pile of rope (the end away from the climber). The excess end goes over the top.

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Step 3: Fold the rope in the middle to bring two loops together.

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Step 4: Insert a carabiner (preferably a nice big pear-shaped carabiner) through both loops.munter 4.jpg

Depending how the knot is oriented (which was much easier to show in the video), you can either belay (play out rope) or stop the rope from running. Now you have to watch the video, to see what I mean about flipping the knot’s orientation… Trust me. This will be the sexiest 90 seconds of knot tying you have ever had the pleasure of watching… there’s even music.

 

Mountains: I’m just going to throw the word in here because the entire world of rock climbing would disappear without them…

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Here’s one of my favourites, the iconic Mount Rundle in the Rockies. The first mountain I ever lived on was the more diminutive Tunnel Mountain, which reminded me of a round-backed hedgehog-like animal sleeping in a bucolic valley surrounded by unfriendly giants. As a kid I hiked up the Banff side of Tunnel on various occasions and, because our house was on the lower flank of this modest lump, spent many hours building forts, exploring, and playing hide and seek in the forest behind our house. It wasn’t until last summer, though, that I had the chance to climb up the steep backside of Tunnel and quickly realized that, in fact, even though it’s dwarfed by much bigger neighbours, Tunnel is still worthy of its mountain moniker.

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Mount Lady MacDonald is a popular hiking destination near Canmore. Here, she peeks over the trees at Grassi Lakes, where we were climbing yesterday afternoon. How handy that her name begins with the letter M.

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As for multi-pitches… well, another blog post, I guess! I am out of time… making that video was exhausting.