Go Negative

Photographers and other visual artists talk about “negative space,” the space beyond the subject where nothing seems to be happening.   It is a key element of artistic composition.  As a design principal, it gives the eye “a place to rest.”

Struggling up the fixed lines to the West Buttress of Denali carrying 70 lb loads, I thought a lot about negative space.  But not the artistic kind.  I thought about the negative space I should have created in my pack by jettisoning the things I really didn’t need, creating room,  and a greater opportunity for rest.

Perhaps it could be said that “less is more.”  But I think less is really less.  And less is a good thing.  Often in art.  And certainly in a backpack.

Off the hill, it’s a good thing too.  We are trained to do more, produce more, have more.  We’re busy. We multitask.  We juggle.  We keep the balls in the air. We email and voicemail and text message and twitter. And we’re exhausted and stressed.

This may be heretical.  But less may be better.  A little negative space might make life lighter and richer.

But with all of life’s pressures, how do we create this negative space? These are three areas that I am paying attention to:

1.  Doing less; saying “no” to more.  There are some days that my “To Do” list looks like the Manhattan phone book.  I arrive at the end of the day having accomplished nowhere near everything I set out to do, feeling frustrated and depleted.  On days that I focus on just two or three important tasks, the entire day feels more manageable.  There just feels like there is more space.  Saying no is tough sometimes.  But it lightens the load.

2.  Cutting down on multi-tasking.  Ann has suggested that text messaging, reading directions, listening to a Nightingale-Conant program and carrying on a conversation all while driving at 85 mph might be injurious to the health.  And she might be right!  But more than that, multi-tasking makes us less present.  If I am emailing and at the same time listening to my associate who has a concern about a research project, I do neither very well.  When I am fully in the moment, life seems less crazy.

3.  De-cluttering.  I am a clutterer.  I like stuff.  But stuff gets complicating.  Clutter reduces our efficiency.  By keeping our work spaces  and living spaces clear, our creative energies are nourished. We flow more. We stumble less. We are more productive because less gets in the way.

I discovered a book recently that I really love.  It’s called The Power of Less by Leo Babauta. Babauta says, “I’m a firm believer in simplicity.  My life is better when I simplify it, when I cut down on the noise and I’m able to enjoy the things I love.”  Babauta believes that “simplicity boils down to two steps:  1.  Identify the essential.  2.  Eliminate the rest.”  This beautifully written book provides a road map for creating a more peaceful life, a life with more space.

Babauta also has a great blog called Zen Habits.  It’s really worth subscribing to.

Living more simply is what motivated Thoreau.  He went to the woods to live freely and thoughtfully.    He offered “first prize” to the person who could live one day deliberately. Thomas McNamara in his book The Human Adventure says, “Because we do too many things, the one important thing remains undone… . If our lives are crowded with things or even with people, we will not notice any one of them sufficiently to make an act of love.”

Saying no is sabbath rest.

The image,  from a hillside in Washington state, has lots of negative space. Places for the eye – and the spirit – to rest.

Go negative.


I See Dead People

Adventure has risk.  But life itself is risky.  No one makes it out alive.

Sunday’s New York Times carried the obituary of legendary climber Riccardo Cassin.  Cassin, who was 100 years old when he died, climbed more than 2,500 routes over a career that spanned more than six decades. Many of the climbs were first ascents; many of them are still considered  the most challenging, difficult and classic routes in the world.

After a heart condition sidelined him from a K2 expedition in 1954, Cassin went on to establish one of the most sought after climbs in the Alaska Range that now bears his name.  Finding great joy in the mountains, Cassin climbed well into his 80s.

This summer’s issue of Alpinst announced that  John Bachar had fallen to his death while soloing near his home in Mammouth, California, leaving a wife and a son.  Bachar was 51 years old. Bachar established some of the most astounding big wall routes in the world.  He was an idol and an icon for those of us who came of age to climbing in the ’70s and ’80s.

As I reflected on the lives of these two great adventurers, my mind drifted back, as it often does when pondering “big questions,” to to a warm Sunday afternoon in February.  Although many years ago now, the images and the sensations of that day are not diminished by the passage of time.   Called to the scene of an accident as an EMT, I crawled into the back of a crushed car to discover that the young driver was my climbing partner Chris.  I held his head and watched his life ebb.  He was 28. The oncoming car had crossed the yellow line. That driver walked away.

It is the arbitrariness that is so troubling, isn’t it?  And even more, the brevity of it all.

In Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, Don Juan tells Castaneda “to take death as your advisor.”  It is in the shadow of death that life becomes so precious; to be enjoyed and lived; not deferred; not at some time in the future; but right now.

And what is the point?  Alpinist’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Kennedy, in his piece about Bachar, said it so eloquently:  “it’s the need to engage ourselves fully, joyfully and vehemently, as he did, in each moment, each climb, each passion and ideal, that will resonate from the fierce and perfect grace of an uncompromising life.”

Psychologist and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield in his beautiful book A Path With Heart says this: “What matters is how we live.  This is why it is so difficult and so important to ask the question of ourselves: ‘Am I living my path fully, do I live without regret?'”

The Hebrew psalmist chants: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” Buddhism teaches:  Be. Here. Now.

This is an image I made of my friend Jess.  Yes, she’s wearing mountain boots and crampons; yes, she’s at 11,000 feet; yes, she’s doing a handstand in the snow.

Let’s live – and adventure – with joy.  Fully.  Here.  Right now.


Still Waters

Ann and I had an unusual vacation – unusual for us:  We didn’t do anything. We had sailed east to Vineyard Sound and into Buzzards Bay, spending some superbly tranquil days on the remote and untrammeled island of Cuttyhunk. But the weather was “challenging.” So we came home. And did nothing. And it was wonderful.

Those days that we spent just hanging out in the studio got me thinking about the power of “stopping.”  We are all so plugged in with our Crackberries and laptops and cellphones and emails and faxes.  It’s rare that any of us can actually disconnect and “stop.”  Stopping is counter-cultural. Being “busy”  is a badge of honor.

Part of the satisfaction for me of adventuring to remote places is disconnecting, going “off the grid.” It is refreshing to be out of touch and unreachable.  It is a time to be peaceful, a time to renew.  And many times, even on big expeditions, it is a time to stop.

When we stop, we don’t get things “done”, we don’t accomplish anything. Yet in the stopping, it is as if the jar of muddy water that is our mind settles, and we can see our way again.  That is the great paradox, isn’t it?  That in the act of stopping, we re-create.

Technology, of course, encroaches almost everywhere now. When I first travelled to the Great Ranges in the early ’90s, direct communication with the outside world was impracticable if not impossible.  If you needed to communicate, you sent a runner with a letter.  Sometimes other climbers would take a message out for you… or bring one in.  But otherwise, you were completely on your own.

When I was on Denali this past May, we carried a Sat phone not much bigger than a cell phone. The technology is amazing and it was re-assuring to know that if we needed to be in communication with the outside world, we could.  But it also took away from that sense of isolation that is part of the renewal.

And so as the corners of the globe become less remote, it seems all the more important to learn how to stop, even when we can’t escape.  It’s not a strong component in my skill set.  But it’s worth working on.


The image is from outside Reykjavik.  The still geothermal waters belie the formation and renewal of the earth that continues to unfold below.

Here’s to stopping more – along the paths of our adventures and every day.

Journeys on the Edge

Two months ago, my wife Ann brought home a beautiful coffee table book from the library called: Galen Rowell: A Retrospective.  I was so captivated by the images – so vibrant, so awe inspiring were they – that I couldn’t put the book down.  I carried it everywhere with me.  When the time ran out, I asked Ann to renew it.  And when the time ran out again, I went on line and ordered a copy to own.  I simply can’t wait until it comes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Galen Rowell, I encourage you to visit the website that hosts his work:  www.mountainlight.com.  Galen was the preeminent outdoor and adventure photographer, the first and best of his kind.  He believed that to capture the best images, one needed to truly be in the outdoors: not an observer but  a participant.  He referred to his images as “dynamic landscapes” capturing the convergences of light and form.  He believed in pre-visualizing the magic that would illuminate the high and distant places that were the subjects of his explorations, living by the credo “luck favors the prepared mind.”

Sadly, Galen died long before his time.  But I had the great fortune of studying with him while he lived in the Berkley hills of California.  His energy was unstoppable and his sense of the possible unmatched.  For him, living was an action sport. He would often say that the best photographs – the most compelling images – could be found at the edges of things: land and sea, mountain and plain, the clearing storm, the oncoming dawn.

Perhaps the same can be said of life:  it is best experienced out on the edge. These are the edges I endeavor to explore in my photography – and in my life. These are the edges I hope to explore in these pages. The edges of our work, our creativity our physical abilities.  These are the edges that all of us should explore for full and vibrant lives: lives lived in a dynamic landscape.

The photograph that accompanies this post was made on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania – the largest unbroken caldera in the world – late in the afternoon as a storm was clearing over the basin.

May we all seek out those journeys that push the edges of what is possible in our lives.