Terra Galleria Photography

Con Dao Islands, Vietnam’s last unspoiled costal destination

The Con Dao Islands are possibly the last unspoiled coastal destination in Vietnam. Traveling there, you feel you’ve made it to the end of the country. Less than two decades ago, the only air link to the mainland was a helicopter carrying mostly military personnel that flew a few days a week. Read on to find out why those remote and obscure islands should be on the adventurous traveler’s list.

Last spring I traveled to Vietnam – for the tenth time – to attend my mother’s funeral with my family. When I announced to our relatives our intention to visit the Con Dao Islands afterwards, they all said it was such a sad place, and suggested Phu Quoc Island instead.

Con Dao’s past

The Con Dao Islands have a grim reputation amongst the Vietnamese because starting from 1862, under French colonial rule, they were home to the most feared penal colony in the country. Most of the prisoners were nationalist and independence activists. An estimated 22,000 died on the island.

Since the closure of the prisons in 1975, the visitors to Con Dao have been mainly Vietnamese on a patriotic pilgrimage to honor national heroes. The most celebrated of the Con Dao prisons victims is Vo Thi Sau, at age 19, the first woman to be executed on the island in 1952.

The town of Con Son

The attraction for the visitor is that the islands tragic history, combined with its remoteness, has left them remarkably untouched. The Con Dao Islands are located in the South China Sea, 115 miles (185 km) south of Vung Tau, 143 miles (143 km) from Ho Chi Minh City. Of the 16 islands and islets, only the largest one, Con Son (also known as Con Lon), is inhabited.

Con Son, the only town on the island, feels like a sleepy village. The atmosphere is more relaxed than any other place I’ve seen in Vietnam. Cars are rare. Crime is non-existent: residents don’t even lock their doors or their bikes. It is surreal to stroll the seafront promenade in Con Son and see it totally deserted most of the day.

Some activity takes place at sunrise, mostly on the piers where fishermen unload their catch. However, it is in the evenings that the locals gather there. The main beach goes from almost empty to quite popular with a few street vendors offering foods.

The streets are lined with tall trees. Fading colonial-area buildings confer a sense of visiting an abandoned outpost of French Indochina.

The old custom house has been restored, and transformed into the only beachfront cafe, a great place for a drink or ice-cream.

Loi Voi Beach is at the north end of the promenade. An Hai Beach lies at the south end of the promenade. You’ll find there beach front resorts with stunning views of Con Son Bay and offshore islands and islets.

Bay Canh Island

The largest of those islands, Bay Canh, is entirely located within Con Dao National Park – which also protects most of the forested interior of Con Son Island. It was interesting to see Vietnam’s implementation of “America’s Best Idea”, complete with maps, a visitor center and ranger station, interpretive signs, and paved trails.

We hired a boatman with a speed boat to take us for a day to Bay Canh. The turquoise waters invited snorkeling. Traveling with the family, I didn’t scuba dive, but I wasn’t surprised to read that Con Dao offers by far the best diving in Vietnam. I saw two dive shops in town, which appear to be certified to international standards.

The coastline of Bay Canh is quite varied. One of the last primeval mangrove forest in Vietnam grows there, home to tank-crabs foraging for food. There are also sandy beaches where sea turtles lay eggs at night during the mating season.

Con Son South

Because of its small size – 20 square miles (51 square km) – Con Son island can be easily explored by rented motorbike or by taxi. Going south, the road ends at the colorful fishing port of Ben Dam, set in a beautiful lagoon.

On the way, you’ll pass Nhat Beach, maybe the most beautiful beach of the island, with its fine white sand, rocks, and backdrop. I didn’t see a soul on the wind-swept and pristine beach.

Con Son North

Going north, the road skirts the mountains (elevation 1,500 feet) which make the island so rugged. The number of beaches is limited, however their backdrop is spectacular.

It ends at the airport. Orange sand Dan Trau Beach sits right at the end of the runway. Unlike at the other beaches on the island, which are all undeveloped, two makeshift restaurants offer food and drinks, as well as restrooms and showers. Because of the rugged topography of the island, the airstrip, bookended by two beaches, is short, accommodating only propeller planes.

While waiting for our flight, Con Dao Island had one last treat in store for us: a stand selling edible bird’s nest. The congealed saliva of Asian swiftlets are one of the world’s most rare and expensive foods – sometimes dubbed the “caviar of the East”. Once reserved for emperors and their courts, the food is consumed as a porridge. I find it rather bland, but it is believed to deliver a lot of health benefits – at a price: a kilogram (32 onces) retails for about $2,500. The nests are harvested by climbing on the sea cliffs and the sea caves of Con Dao’s archipelago small islets. I wished I had learned from them before, so that we could have to arranged a visit to witness the precarious activity.

Traveling to Con Dao Islands

Con Dao Islands are a 1 hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City via Vietnam Airlines, the only airline to fly there. There are about 5 flights a day, with the cost in the $150-$200 range (RT). For individual travelers, renting a scooter offers the most flexibility, however taxis have recently become available.

Con Son offers a range of accommodations for all budgets, from budget guesthouses (starting at $20) to resorts ($100), with the outlier being the Six Senses Resort ($600-$2,000). We stayed at the Con Dao Sea Cabanas (also known at Con Dao camping). They offer the most reasonably priced beach front accommodation on the island, in the form of tent-shaped, A-frame individual bungalows which are small but adequately equipped (mini-fridge and AC). We didn’t make a reservation and just asked the taxi driver to take us there from the airport.

Con Dao’s future

With its great natural beauty, it is clear that the future of Con Dao Island is bright. It is interesting to compare it to the other southern archipelago, Phu Quoc Island. They are the two most compelling beach destinations in Vietnam, partly protected as national parks that include thick interior jungle and turquoise bays.

Phu Quoc, large and fringed with wide sandy beaches, home to a recent international airport, is on the verge of major development which the Vietnamese governement hope will make it the next Phuket. By contrast, they would like Con Dao to become a high-end destination pioneered by the Six Senses Resort – where “Brangelina” has stayed. However, because of the respect for the tragic history of the place, development has been very slow. To this day, foreign visitors remain very rare. Will you be one of them ?

More photos of Con Dao Islands

How to photograph through windows: my top 12 tips

The only way to get some of the most striking cityscapes and city skylines is to shoot through windows, often from high-rise hotels. The techniques described in this post will let you overcome the obstacle posed by the glass to get a technically perfect image.

The day after I returned from a trip during which I hiked and scrambled all over the place through canyons in Zion National Park, I sprained my ankle on a sidewalk while running our Chihuahua. Not being able to travel in the great outdoors opened up some time for a few architectural and urban assignments, one of which consisted of photographing the skyline of San Jose, CA for a client.

The San Jose skyline is low because downtown is directly in the approach path to San Jose International Airport. Nevertheless, it includes a number of landmark buildings. After identifying the Hilton hotel as the spot from which most of those buildings could be captured in a single shot, I booked an upper floor room – although I live in San Jose! I had photographed many times before through windows, so I came well prepared for the shot, and was confident that I would be able to produce usable images. So will you after you read this post.

The two main issues when photographing through windows are glare and reflexions. Those can be used to artistic effect (I have a whole project about window reflexions), however this post is about eliminating them. Newly published research details an algorithm able to separate reflections, but while we are waiting for those results to make it into a product, manual post-processing is extremely difficult, so for now the best is to take care of them while shooting.

1. Look for single-glass windows

Modern hotels often have double or even triple glass windows. With them, there is a reflection from the inner pane and another reflection from the outer pane. The additional glare and internal reflections sometimes cannot be totally eliminated even with the tips below. If possible, try to avoid them.

2. Clean the window

It’s easy to forget, but it’s worth to take time to inspect the window carefully. If necessary, wipe down a large portion of the window, not just the area in front of the lens. If you can also clean the outside, be sure to do it. However, even if some dirt remains outside, take heart that it will not show up in the image when applying tips #4 and $5. However, it will reduce contrast.

3. Time your shoot so that the window is not lit

When the sun strikes a window, not only it creates glare, but any defects and dirt become more visible. Try to time the shoot when the window is in the shade. If the building casts shade on parts of the window, position yourself to shoot through that part. That’s just not the sun, though. Be careful that windows can be illuminated from outside at night. The darker it gets, the more problematic it is, especially with double glass windows.

4. Use a large aperture

Shallow depth of field minimizes the effect of window glare and defects by reducing depth of field. In fact, with a wide open lens, you can even shoot through a fine grid – such as mosquito net – without it showing in the picture when it rests against the lens.

5. Shoot from as close as possible to the window

Besides helping reduce reflections, this reduces the effect of window glare and dirt by pushing them out of the depth of field area (see #5). The closer you get to the window, the more its surface gets out of focus.

6. Beware of vibration if touching the glass

If shooting straight (see #7), resting the lens against the glass creates enough of a seal to eliminate reflections. However, if using an SLR, the contact against the glass amplifies the vibration caused by the mirror. In that case, use live view.

7. Shoot as straight as possible

The more directly you look through the glass, the fewer reflections you get. At a large angle, you get light that bouncing inside the window glass, causing a displaced ghost image, more noticeable with double-glass windows. A lens with shift is ideal because it let you shoot with the lens straight on, while varying the composition. Also, note that wide-angle lenses capture more reflections than longer lenses.

8. Beware of using a polarizing filter

One of the main uses of polarizing filters is to reduce reflections and glare on surfaces, however polarizing filters can create undesirable patterns while shooting through transparent materials. Shooting through the windows of an airliner with a polarizing filter almost always create weird color shifts. Some high-rise hotels use polarizing glass in their windows which result in a similar effect. The effect is strong in the image below, but it can be subtle enough that you will notice it only when processing the image on the computer, when it is too late!

9. Turn lights off and move away bright objects

To avoid reflections, the key is to make the interior as dark as possible. Naturally, you’ll want to turn off all the lights if you can. Also move away from the window bright objects such as lamps, and cover white sheets. In order to make the room darker, you might be tempted to draw the curtains, leaving only an opening for shooting, but this is counter-productive. Most curtains have a light-colored lining to reflect the heat, which will also bounce light back onto the glass.

10. Wear dark clothing

You will be standing close to the camera, so make sure to wear something that doesn’t bounce light back to the glass!

11. Bring a rubber hood

Although major camera and lens manufacturers provide only rigid hoods, you can find third-party lens hoods made of rubber. Their intent was to make the hood collapsible and adaptable to various lenses. However, in this case, their point is to make a seal keeping light from getting in between the window and the lens if you place the hood onto the glass window. The flexibility of the hood allows you to angle the lens a bit if needed.

12. Bring a dark cloth

If you need more flexibility than a rubber hood can offer, the solution that often works when everything else fails is to use a dark cloth over the camera so that you create your own dark space. For the San Jose shot, I brought a large black cloth that I used to focus my large format camera. I affixed it to the glass using gaffer tape – which does not leave marks unlike some duct tape. Although the space was large enough for my head and the camera, after composing, I got out of the dark cloth to make sure the seal was perfect. When traveling, I don’t always pack the dark cloth, but I always make sure to have a jacket lined with black fabric (Marmot’s Dryclime shirt is great). If I do not have tape, after composing, I put the camera on self-timer and hold the jacket against the glass with both hands (note #6, though). In a pinch, draping a dark T-shirt around the lens can work, but it can be difficult control its intrusion into the picture.

Using those techniques, I was able to photograph the images that illustrate this post. If you’ve made nice photographs through windows, please share them! Are there other tips you’ve found useful for shooting through windows ?

Galen Rowell Books

Summary: A survey of more than ten of Galen Rowell’s books, representative of the whole arc of his career, by a photographer he deeply inspired.

Galen Rowell (1940-2002) was a man of many considerable talents who touched several universes: one of the world’s most accomplished climbers and adventurers, a prolific author, an advocate for conservation and Tibet, and the “the world’s best known photojournalist”. However, like Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Philip Hyde before, his enduring love and most influential area was landscape photography. Although his work, also primary published by Sierra Club Books, can be traced to this great American lineage inspired by Transcendentalism, Rowell differs from them in a simple, but profund way. Whereas they all relied on the large format camera, Galen Rowell worked exclusively with 35mm cameras and color slide film.

With them, Rowell traded descriptive power for mobility and speed, with emotional appeal being the main goal. He pioneered a kind of photography in which he was not a detached observer, but rather a participant in the scenes that he photographed. His presence (sometimes explicit, often implied) added a new meaning to the photographs, for the landscape and the adventure were part of each other. His light equipment made it possible to reach the mountain tops and show the views from there. It also allowed him to seek ephemeral moments when light and landscape interact in ways that transcend specific situations.

As a testimony to the appeal of his approach, unlike Eliot Porter or Philip Hyde, several of his books are still in print. The power of those books can be attributed to his writing as much as to his photography. Rowell was a writer with considerable intellectual depth and broad knowledge. Like Ansel Adams, his two main subjects were photography and the natural world. However, unlike Adams, he articulated his vision specifically to place his photographs in a story. He understood that the photograph alone could only arise emotions, whereas words would add facts and context. Although Rowell lectured, exhibited, taught workshops, and wrote in magazines, his books made the strongest impact.

The Vertical World of Yosemite: A Collection of Writings and Photographs on Rock Climbing in Yosemite

Galen Rowell took up photography to document his climbs in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, starting from 1962. In 1972, he boldly sold his small automotive business to become a full-time photographer, while he was the father of two small children. By a turn of luck, within a year, he landed a National Geographic assignment to photograph a climb in Yosemite. Exceeding expectations, he participated in the first clean (without pitons) ascent of the face of Half-Dome, producing a reportage which became the cover story of the June 1974 issue of the magazine. His first book also emerged from that effort.

Although The Vertical World of Yosemite (1974) is the first pictorial volume about the world of climbing in Yosemite, it is not of interest to photographers, except maybe to see how Rowell started. The book is an anthology, for which Rowell edited the texts by fellow climbers, wrote introductions, and contributed photographs – slightly less than half. All the photographs by other climbers are in black and white. Some of Rowell’s are in color. Most of the photographs are action photos from the wall, with a few striking portraits. They are essentially documentary and not particularly well reproduced. However, amongst them are “El Capitan Clearing Storm”, one of his greatest images of the Valley, which I feel captures its dynamic nature like no other. Its low vantage point places the viewer in the scene, unlike Ansel Adams “Winter Clear Storm”, whose high viewpoint imbues it with a comparatively disembodied quality.

The Yosemite

John Muir’s explorations of Yosemite took place a century before Galen Rowell’s own, but the juxtaposition of their work in The Yosemite (1989) is felicitous. With his spiritual perspective and clear description of the park, Muir created a classic work of natural history. The book alternates between the reproduction of Muir’s entire work, and pages devoted to Rowell’s contributions, highlighted by a different typography. For each of the 100 plates of photographs, Rowell not only selected a quote from Muir relevant to the photograph (as Philip Hyde would also do in his last book) but also answered Muir in his own words.

As a climber residing in Berkeley, Yosemite was naturally Rowell’s playground. Following in his footsteps, I also spent countless days hiking, climbing, and skiing in the park, eventually resulting in a book. Having memorized each of the turns on the road from Berkeley to Yosemite, I often tried to improve my personal speed record for the drive, until clocking in at what I thought was a respectable 2 hours and 15 minutes. I subsequently learned that Galen Rowell had bested David Brower’s record of one hour and half (source).

Rowell’s initial focus was on adventure. After the publication of his esthetic manifesto in Mountain Light, photography took first place. Rowell’s intimate familiarity with Yosemite has resulted in one of my two favorite color photography books of the park (the other one is William Neill’s). Although the landmarks are there, Rowell managed to create intensely personal images through attention to light, weather, thorough exploration of out of the beaten path locations (such as Ribbon Falls and Diving Board), and the inclusion of figures in the landscape. Not all images look impressive, but the more you know Yosemite and its iconography, the more you appreciate what Rowell did as a whole.

In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods

In 1975, Galen Rowell was invited to join the American expedition to K2, his first trip out of North America. In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods (1977) combines a particularly candid account of the human dynamics within the failed 1975 American expedition with an extensive recounting of former K2 expeditions. The first book he wrote and illustrated entirely, it is about mountaineering and climbers (rather than even the climb), however the photographs convey the beauty of the region.

Most of the book is devoted to the narrative, which has become a mountaineering classic. Small black and white reproductions of images from a number of photographers, including Rowell, serve merely to illustrate the narrative. In addition, six groups of eight plates reproduce Rowell’s photographs in color. They include many of the enduring images he would discuss in Mountain Light.

Mountains of the Middle Kingdom

It is in the Himalayas that Rowell’s life as an mountaineer-explorer blossomed. Inspired by the new frontiers, Rowell would combine his intellectual curiosity, writing, and photography into pioneering adventure photojournalism. In 1980 and 1981, Rowell travelled through all the eight mountain provinces of China – the first westerner to do so – climbing many peaks along the way. Mountains of the Middle Kingdom (1983) is “a rediscovery of mountain regions lost in history, created by a blend of past and present, exploration and politics, mountains and people”. After reading seemingly every book about the region, Rowell wrote with exceptional insight about the natural history, history, and politics of the region, adding mountaineering for good measure, in what became his trademark synthesis. In particular, although his sympathy lies with the Tibetan people, he manages to weave a nuanced story which neither follows the official Chinese nor Tibetan points of view.

The photographs in the book testify to the vast range of his interests, including landscapes, and cultural images. The book cover features his most famous image, “Rainbow over Potala”, which was taken on the first of his trips. Packaged by Yolla Bolly Press, the book design reproduces Rowell’s main color images on full pages. Expedition and historic images are incorporated to the text and reproduced in black and white. Galen would later upgrade the status of one of them, “Anye Machin in high winds” (p 164) by selecting it for Mountain Light – in color.

My Tibet, Text by his Holiness the Fourteenth Dali Lama of Tibet

In this first books, Rowell’s writing was as important as the images. Feeling that the most significant contribution he could make to the Tibetan cause was to make great photographs to show the world what should be preserved in Tibet, he strived to create a “visual record of one of the earth’s unique wild places”. From the start of the My Tibet book project, Rowell envisioned the writing to be by the Dalai Lama. The idea of such a respected political and religious leader commenting on images by an adventure photographer looked unlikely, if not preposterous. However, Rowell arranged an audience with the Dalai Lama, and during the slide-show that he shared with him, they bonded over their common passion for Tibetan wildlife.

My Tibet (1990) consists of photographs of varied subjects, paired with specific comments about them by the Dalai Lama, who also contributed a few essays. Those photographs defined how the world saw Tibet. Nobody had made a better portrait of the region, and nobody probably will, given the unfortunate changes that have occurred since then. Galen’s growing reputation allowed him to turn into a life-long advocate for the environment and culture in Tibet.

Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and Antarctic

The sub-polar regions have always been a fertile ground for adventure. Rowell’s all-around abilities excelled in their forbidding terrain, harsh beauty, and pristine condition. At the time of publication (1995), the poles hadn’t been reached yet by mass tourism. Like Eliot Porter’s, Rowell’s trip to the Antarctica was accomplished on scientific ships with the aid of NSF grants. The sense of exploration and discovery is palpable in the book. The photographs are impressive and inspired, striking a remarkable balance between fine art photography and photojournalism. Rowell aimed to make them accessible by balancing the unfamiliar with the familiar. He succeeded by mixing images of scenery, wildlife, and human interest – mountaineers as well as scientists and native inhabitants.

The organization of the book is original and compelling. Part one consists of 37 pairs of matching photos – one from the Arctic and one from the Antarctic – reproduced full-page on a spread, with a short caption. They reveal the fascinating similarities and differences between the northern regions and the southern regions. Part two contains 24 two page photo-essays on a range of topics. Most of the writing is in part three. It consists of comments on each of the photographs in parts one and two, providing a mix of background information and details on how he came to make the photographs.

Poles Apart is more photo-centric than his previous books. The photographs shine, with plenty of white space. They are well reproduced, at a size when their grain isn’t readily apparent. There is just enough text in the extended captions to provide understanding for the subjects, yet not overwhelm the photographs. The design achieves some of the best balance between information and photographs I’ve seen in a photography book. For all those reasons, I consider Poles Apart to be Galen Rowell’s best photography book.

Bay Area Wild: A Celebration of the Natural Heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area

After a lifetime of exploring far and wild places, Galen Rowell turned his lens towards his native San Francisco Bay Area relatively late in his life. His inspiration came upon his wife Barbara’s observation that the Bay Area’s parks offered more diverse landscapes than Costa Rica, a much touted ecotravel destination. “Though I had spent decades celebrating the grand design of natural areas around the world in words and photographs, I had looked right past the extraordinary rich and varied wild hills, valleys, deltas, bay, ocean, islands and mountains in my own backyard.”

Some say that you do your best work close to home. However, after traveling to the most spectacular places on earth, would Rowell find enough inspiration in the Bay Area ? “I’ve known all along that more of what I am seeking in the wild is right here in my home state of California than anywhere else on earth. But… I couldn’t say it with authority until I had all those journeys to Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, China, South America, Antarctica and Alaska behind me”. Living conveniently near the locations allowed him to return frequently, resulting in some of his most carefully crafted landscape photography. Great variations of light and feeling characterize a mature vision. In this seemingly modest ground, Rowell produced images rivaling his work from remote corners of the earth.

For the text of Bay Area Wild (1997), Rowell chose to deliver a conservation message, highlighting environmental issues, and our responsibility to protect the planet, viewing the book as a “guide for other rapidly expanding metropolitan areas”. The Bay Area wildlife can be more elusive than in wilder places. To complete the project in a timely manner, Galen enlisted photographer Michael Sewell, who had spent years developing unusual techniques to capture wildlife images in the Bay Area. It is interesting that Sewell also contributed some landscape images which could easily have been attributed to Rowell. At a book signing, I asked Galen Rowell which of his books were favorites. He placed Bay Area Wild on his short list, together with Poles Apart, My Tibet, and The Yosemite.

North America the Beautiful

In this latter years, Rowell focused less on expedition-style photography than on more mainstream (if the term is appropriate for any of his photography) nature photography. As his Mountain Light business demanded more of his time, expeditions became shorter and less intense. North America the Beautiful was published by AAA (2001), and then reprinted by White Star (2006) and JG Press (2010). The book consists of portfolios organized by vast geographic regions, from Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean, to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and Alaska with the temperate areas in-between. Each of them is introduced by personal comments by Rowell about the region.

Because of the oversize format of 14.3 x 10.5 inch (largest of any of his books), and the availability of images by other photographers of some of the same subjects, the book shows some of the limitations of Rowell’s 35mm approach. The printing often appears overly grainy and lacking in tonality, particularly in colorful skies. Nevertheless, as the last book he wrote and photographed, North America the Beautiful sums up magnificently Galen Rowell’s life work in the natural areas of our continent.

Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape

One of the main subjects Galen Rowell had been writing about is photography. He was interested not only in the mechanics of the medium and the physics of light, but also in its cognitive aspects and its relationship to human perception. In his own photographic work, Rowell was particularly fond of optical phenomena in the natural world. He referred to his landscape photographs as “dynamic landscapes”: not only because of the fast-changing conditions, but also his strenuous pursuit of the best camera position at the optimal moment. His photographic practice could be summarized as: anticipate opportunities, seek edges (both geographic and temporal) and travel light.

Mountain Light (1986) developed those topics amidst a backdrop of inspiring travel narratives. The book is organized into 7 sections of short essays discussing various aspects of Rowell’s work, alternating with 8 “exhibits”, which consist of photographs thematically related, each accompanied by a comment on the context of the photograph. Galen understood that light is the primary ingredient for photographs. He looked for it to express peak moments in nature. The exhibits start with types of light: magic hour, backlight, soft light, sundown to sunrise, artist’s light. They end with dynamic situations: figures in a landscape, light against light, unexpected convergence.

I first realized that the type of mountain photography I was doing could be elevated to an art form through the words and images in Mountain Light, when a friend from North America shared his copy with me in the late eighties – Rowell’s name was hardly known in France back then. Although the book is almost as much about mountaineering than about photography, I still rank it as one of the all-time classic books about photography. Now it its 10th printing, it is one of the most successful how-to photography books, called “the classiest how-to text on landscape color photography ever published” by the New York Times. As an instructional book, what make it shine is that it teaches by example. Rowell teaches not by telling you what to do, but by telling you what he did, and what he thought at the time he took the pictures. In addition, the tone throughout is remarkably informal and honest. Unlike others, Rowell doesn’t hesitate to share his unsuccessful stories.

Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography

In the later stage of his career, Rowell became an active photography educator. In 1987, Steve Warner invited him to write a column for Outdoor Photographer, which had launched two years earlier. I always considered that column to be the best part of the magazine, and judging by its popularity, I probably wasn’t alone. Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography (1993) is a compilation of 60 of those columns, revised for publication as essays in a book. As you should expect from columns, the essays form wide-ranging musings, rather than a chapter book. Their topics cover equipment tips as well as philosophical discussions, often veering far from photography.

Part 2 (“Preparations”) include two innovative photographic techniques that Rowell used in order to extend the dynamic range to be captured on film. Many landscape photographers, including myself, credit Rowell with introducing them to graduated neutral density (GND) filters. The line of filters he developed in collaboration with Singh-Ray were at that time almost the only choice for exacting work. I remember driving to his Mountain Light gallery in Albany to purchase a set, which was handed to me by Gary Crabbe himself. Another less known contribution was his technique of using balanced fill flash to lighten the deepest shadows in a subtle way.

Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography

As Galen Rowell’s Outdoor Photographer column ran until his untimely death, there was enough material for a follow up. Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography (2001), the exact twin to Galen Rowell’s Vision, is likewise organized into four parts: Visions, Preparations, Journeys, Realizations. Like its predecessor, to keep it affordable, the designer found an ingenious solution. The 66 essays are printed on matte paper, with the illustrations vividly reproduced on glossy pages grouped into blocks, cross-listed with the essays. The trim was also kept smaller than photography books.

Of the four parts, three of them are essentially timeless. Like in the previous book, the first part, discussing various aspects of perception and the creative process, provide the most insight into photography. The third part relates travel experiences in a diaristic style, whereas the forth part articulates various thoughts on publishing, conservation, and the role of photography. Only sections of the second part, about equipment and technique, may sound outdated because they are specific to slide film.

Galen Rowell: A Retrospective

In 2002, on the same day as this post, Aug 11, Galen and Barbara Rowell perished in a small plane crash. A few years later, the editors of Sierra Club Books, Rowell’s primary publisher, compiled a magnificent tribute. Galen Rowell: A Retrospective (2006) is the only book to trace the entire arc of Rowell’s career. Numerous essays and comments are contributed by friends and associates from the many worlds that Rowell touched: mountaineering, conservation, publishing, and photography. Contemporary art is not one of them, but critic and curator Andy Grundberg writes in his essay “Rowell, with his 35mm equipment and adventurous spirit, was someone who both traveled light and traveled with the light. His faith in the revelatory powers of light as it appears on film coincided with a deep conviction in the power of images to reflect the aspiration of the human spirit”.

The 175 plates representing all the aspects of his career include most of his great “hits”. They benefit from the best reproduction of any of Rowell’s books by far, made possible by the new digital workflow which helped produce accurate colors and mitigate 35mm grain. The clean design, with plenty of white space, presents each of the seven chapters as a portfolio: The Mountain photographer, Expedition chronicles, Conserving the Wild, Asian Kingdoms, To the Ends of the Earth, Coming home, The Visionary Landscape. This sumptuous, oversize volume is the clear choice for an excellent overview of Rowell’s career. However, there is one missing component. The book was not put together by Galen Rowell, and feature little of his writing, even though Andy Grundberg points out that “what distinguishes Rowell’s photography was the pictures symbiotic relationship to narrative”.

Galen Rowell was a tremendously prolific photographer and writer, with credits over thirty books. I have limited this survey to the books on my shelf. I am sure I have missed good ones. What other books of Galen Rowell are your favorites ?

Part 5 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Virgin Islands National Park’s Hidden Gem: Salomon Beach

If you visit Virgin Islands National Park, you almost certainly won’t miss famous Trunk Bay and its neighboring beaches on the North Shore. On an extended stay, you may explore the wilder part of the island, on the side opposite to Cruz Bay, the island’s main town. However, it may come as a surprise that the beach I found the most photogenic in the entire park is not only a walking distance from Cruz Bay and the visitor center, but also pretty quiet despite that proximity.

What makes Salomon Beach a favorite is the presence of three small palm trees right on the beach, with taller palm trees quite close to the water. They lend themselves to a number of compositions that evoke a tropical feeling. No other beach in this National Park presents a similar configuration. Note that as the tree on the left is quite small, I sat down on the sand for this composition, to make sure its palms didn’t overlap with the trees fringing the beach.

Why is this very pretty beach out of the beaten path ? Salomon Beach is much quieter than other north shore beaches because it takes a bit of a walk to reach. It is only about 1 mile each way, but you are walking in the heat of the tropics. Most people don’t care about carrying their beach gear that far when they can park a short distance from other beaches. The beach is pristine, which means absolutely no facilities.

The trailhead is not obvious, although it starts right behind the National Park Visitor Center! The Visitor Center parking spots have a time limit, but you can get an extended parking permit inside. To start, climb the unmarked stairs on the side of the road opposite the Visitor Center, then veer left on the Lower Lindt Trail. You follow a well-maintained trail along the hillside before descending towards Salomon Beach on a steeper spur. If you continue 10 minutes on the main trail, you’ll reach Honeymoon Beach, not as pretty and more popular due the proximity to the Caneel resort. From there, you could return through the Upper Lindt Trail, which, unlike the Lower Lindt Trail, offers some views.

I’ve read that more people visit in the morning, maybe because the palm trees provide more shade on the beach at that time of the day. For photography, the light on Salomon Beach is best from mid-morning to sunset, precisely when the palm tree shadows are less distracting. In the late afternoon, the trees are better lit, but mid-day, the water is a more vivid blue turquoise. When I visited the beach, I had the whole place to myself in the late afternoon, before a party of three arrived before sunset. They promptly left after the sun set. I stayed alone for night photography. The distant lights of St Thomas provided some faint illumination. Photographed backlit, they looked like a setting sun, although they were dim enough to allow the stars to shine above. Some additional light from my headlamp helped enliven the image with the greens of the palm trees.

Four Camera Systems to Photograph In and Above Water

A particular equipment challenge occurs when you are photographing mostly above water, but you may be briefly drenched or submerged in water. To address a range of needs, I review four camera systems that I’ve used in those situations, in increasing order of complexity, cost, and image quality.

There is an entire industry dedicated to underwater photography. However, most underwater camera systems are overkill, and often not even usable in situations when most of the photography is above water, but the camera may also be submerged at a shallow depth, such as in rafting or canyoneering… or just a family holiday at the beach.

Phone: Moko flexible case

These days, the most commonly used cameras are phones. During our descent of Zion’s Mystery Canyon, everybody in our group (except me) took pictures only with a phone. It is easy to make a phone waterproof while maintaining its picture-taking functionalities.

In a pinch, a good ziplock bag protects a phone against a short submersion. Somehow surprisingly, the touch screen works just fine. An inexpensive IPX8 certified waterproof case uses the same idea, with a thicker plastic and a more reliable locking mechanism which is claimed to work underwater down to 98 feet.

Point & Shoot camera: Olympus TG

A mid-range P&S camera is a step-up in image quality, flexibility, and ruggedness. However, unlike for a phone, putting a camera in a waterproof bag reduces its functionality, as controls become difficult to operate. The solution is to buy a amphibious P&S camera, which does not require an enclosure.

Almost each major brand offers one. When I bought my first waterproof P&S camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, I relied on reviews emphasizing image quality and functionality. It died on the first trip, an easy Hawaii vacation. The one thing that you want to make sure is to buy a camera which is actually waterproof. With similar small sensor sizes, all those cameras yield comparable image quality.

When I looked for a replacement, I eliminated all the cameras that had any reviews on amazon with owners complaining about leaks. This led me to the Olympus TG-2. So far it is still working. Being shockproof and crushproof it is good for lending to the kids or to my wife! We can assume the current Olympus TG-4 is as durable, and offers better images- it has RAW capture that the TG-2 lacked.

Premium compact: Sony RX100 with Meikon UW housing

The Sony RX 100 ushered in the area of “premium compact” cameras. Its relatively large 1-inch sensor, RAW capture, and relatively good lens let it capture images significantly better than P&S cameras (some say almost DSLR-quality) while remaining pocketable. There is only one camera in this class which is waterproof, the Nikon 1 AW1, but, as you can see in the 1-star reviews, there have been complaints of leaks.

Instead of going this route, I bought an underwater housing for my RX 100. Being designed for scuba diving, those are tough, rigid boxes sure to keep your camera dry! They are dedicated to a specific camera model, and equipped with buttons and dials designed to match almost each of the camera’s controls.

Underwater housing for larger cameras are extremely bulky and heavy. This is not a problem underwater where they become weightless, but it makes them unsuitable for use above water. However, the RX 100 is so small that its housings are only the size of a chunky compact, very manageable above water. The other issue with underwater housings is that they are usually quite expensive: the ones sold by UW specialist Backscatter range from $475 to $1,250. However, in the case of the RX 100, the Chinese manufacturer Meikon makes an affordable housing sold with various branding. Similar housings are available for the RX 100 II, RX 100 III and RX 100 IV cameras.

Compared to the more expensive housings, the Meikon’s controls are not as smooth, and there is no way to rotate the central dial in the back, however by assigning carefully custom controls, it is possible to operate all significant functions.

DSLR: Outex

To shoot with your DSLR in a wet environment where the camera might be briefly submerged, there are only two solutions that I have found to be practical.

You can keep your camera in a small dry bag. When you want to photograph, you take it out of the dry bag. When there is a risk of submersion, you seal the dry bag.

If you want the camera to become waterproof so that you can keep it deployed at all times, the best solution I have seen is the Outex system. The Outex is IP08 tested, which means it can be submerged to depths of 30 feet, good enough for anything but scuba diving.

The other bag-based systems (such as EWA-marine) use a clear heavy vinyl. This let you see the dials, but the rigidity of the material makes it problematic to use any controls on the camera or lens other than the shutter release. A photographer I know liked it to “trying to use a camera with mittens designed for subzero conditions”. By contrast, the rubber used in the Outex is flexible enough to give reasonable access to controls above water. On the other hand, the Outex is totally opaque, so you need to be familiar enough with your camera that you can operate it without looking at the controls!

The Outex is a modular system. The basic system consists of a cover, optical lens, viewfinder adaptor, and viewfinder lens, all fitted to your camera body and lens (about $400). You need to be careful when ordering components, since Outex does not accept returns. If you don’t want to have to purchase multiple optical lenses, you should make sure to get the largest filter thread size you need, then adapt to smaller lenses with a step-down ring. Choose also carefully the main cover. For instance, the basic cover, with openings just at the front and back, cannot be converted for tripod use. If you ever plan to use a tripod, you need a cover with a hole for the tripod adapter.

Installing the Outex takes some effort, as you have to pull and stretch it over the camera so that it passes into openings that are smaller than it. You also have to make sure the pressure rings are properly screwed. It takes me about 10 minutes, so it’s not something you can take on and off easily.

For a while, I was frustrated by a serious design flaw: the viewfinder lens and adaptor does not stay in place in its slot. Once it falls off, it’s difficult to see through the viewfinder and it’s tricky to put back on, making the unit barely usable. However, I solved the issue with an easy (in hindsight) DIY solution: wrap a string around the top of the adaptor, tie it to the tripod mount in order to prevent the viewfinder lens from sliding up, keep the tension with a cord lock. Other problems which cannot be fixed are that the dials aren’t easy to turn (especially in the water), the viewfinder lens prevents access to some buttons, and it is not easy to see the viewfinder if you are wearing glasses.

In spite of those limitations, the Outex works. It kept my Canons dry while splashed by the rapids of the Grand Canyon and while wading in the pools of the Zion Canyons. I would not hesitate to use it again for similar outings.

Have you photographed in such situations where you most of the photography is above water, but the camera may also be submerged ? What was your equipment choice ?

Five ways to photograph the Zion Narrows (and other places) without people

The Zion Narrows are amongst the most unique hikes in America. For details, refer to my post: National Parks Photo Spot #10: Zion Narrows (whole series here).

The downside of accessibility and awesomeness is popularity. Compared to the canyons mentioned in the previous posts, the Zion Narrows can feel downright crowded. For photography, this is a problem, because the canyon is the “trail”. Yet, on a summer visit, I was able to make photographs without people in them, and even find some measure of solitude. Here are five ways to do so.

Hike further

If you want to see fewer people, hiking further always works. The Narrows are no exception. There, the threshold appears to be the Orderville Junction, which is only about 1.5 miles from the end of Riverside Walk. Most people turn around here, so if you continue, you’ll find considerably fewer people. Even at the Imlay Rock, only about 0.5 miles from the Orderville Junction, hiking traffic was sporadic.

Start early or stay late

During the summer, you cannot drive your car into Zion Canyon, but instead you must use the park’s free shuttle. The system has been great for relieving traffic congestion, but limits the day hike window. In the summer, the first shuttle starts at 6:00am from the visitor center. The last one leaves from the Temple of Sinawava at 9:15pm (schedule here). When traveling up canyon, I’ve noticed that the shuttles before 7:30am are quite empty.

The last shuttles are quite full, but it doesn’t mean that day hikers stay late in the Narrows, as the setting is more intimidating than regular trails. Hiking back from the Imlay Rock at around 6:45pm, I was rewarded by the experience of having the whole Narrows by myself. I didn’t see a single other person until the trailhead at the bus stop. I certainly had to work fast, but I still had enough time to make long-exposure photographs at several spots, and catch the 9:00pm bus – leaving myself a bit of a margin.

Photograph close-ups

Even when there is an almost continuous stream of hikers in the middle of the stream, if you photograph only one side of the canyon, you will find that most will have the courtesy to walk behind you.

Use a very long exposure

Sometimes, the light dictates you to photograph at a particular time of the day. If people in the scene are moving, they will not register in an exposure which is much longer than the time they stayed in the scene.

Blend multiple exposures

If you cannot use a shutter speed slow enough (for instance because it is quite bright and you forgot your ND filter) and waiting for all people to clear out from your picture takes forever, you can turn to Photoshop. It’s my last resort option, but at least, there is a way which doesn’t require too much work.

Erasing people from a single frame with the clone tool can be extremely time-consuming because you have to re-draw the background behind them. My preferred technique consists of using multiple exposures with the camera on a tripod and then blend the images. You just need to take enough pictures that each spot is free of people in at least one picture.

This example uses three pictures, and combines the right of picture 1, the middle of picture 2, and the left of picture 3. In Photoshop, layer the pictures, align them, then use the eraser tool on the people in relevant layers. It works like magic! You can also try File > Scripts > Statistics > Median (Photoshop Extended or CC required) to do the same automatically, but in my experience this works well only if you have at least a dozen pictures.

Although the examples in this post are from the Narrows, where it is more difficult to exclude people from the landscape than on regular trails, the ideas are applicable to other locations as well.

Zion Canyons: Part 5 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Hidden and Echo Canyons: a pair of easily explored canyons in Zion

In the heart of Zion, Hidden and Echo canyons give you a good taste of the varied off-trail adventures to be had in Zion’s backcountry, as you explore a lush hanging canyon and a narrow slot, easy enough for hiking, but wild enough to feel out of the beaten path.

Unlike the previously described canyons, route finding is straighforward, as you can hike to the entrance of the canyon on a good trail. Although some scrambling over boulders is required, it is not as intimidating as in Keyhole Canyon. You can normally hike Hidden Canyon without getting your feet wet. In dry conditions, you could hike Echo Canyon without wadding in water.

The trailhead for both canyons starts at the Weeping Rock trailhead (7th stop on the Zion Canyon Shuttle). At the beginning, you will be following steep switchbacks along the popular Observation Point Trail.

Hidden Canyon

After about 0.5 miles on the Observation Point Trail, you come to a junction. Turn right towards the path less traveled. Unlike the Observation Point Trail, the Hidden Canyon trail doesn’t lead to a spectacular viewpoint. Instead, the trail takes you to the mouth of a narrow hanging canyon. There are a few exposed sections equipped with chains and stair steps. Because the trail stops at the canyon entrance (1 mile from trailhead, 800 feet elevation gain), exploring the canyon gives a good taste of backcountry hiking. You have to contend with a number of obstacles, however you cannot get lost between the narrow walls.

The canyon is full of possiblities for photographing intimate scenes. You’ll pass surprisingly lush plant communities, fern and moss-covered walls, and a small arch on your right, 0.5 miles into the canyon.

Although you can go about a mile to the base of a dry fall, most hikers will want to stop shortly after the arch, when the climbing over rocks on your left becomes quite exposed and awkward. Going up may look easy, but we had to help some hikers to go down, which is always more difficult, as the ledge is slopping and it is difficult to see your feet.

The light in the canyon is best in mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when the sun doesn’t reach directly into the canyon bottom. At those times, the soft glow of light, reflected off the canyon walls, fills shadows with a warm color. Earlier and later in the day, only the tops of the canyon rims are lit by sunlight and the depths are in deep shadow.

Echo Canyon

At about mile 2, after passing through tall walls, the Observation Point Trail crosses a wash. If you continue up the trail, you will soon reach a tunnel-like section, with a mysterious dark slot right at the edge of the trail, below you. That slot is Echo Canyon. Hidden Canyon is no longer a secret, but few know about Echo Canyon.

To enter it, walk right into the canyon at the wash. During a dry summer, you can continue for up to 2 miles! However, the water level in the canyons was quite high last June (as seen in Pine Creek Canyon). Since I wasn’t ready to wade this time, I contented myself with photographs from the entrance. Like for Keyhole Canyon, a full exploration of Echo Canyon requires technical canyoneering.

Zion Canyons: Part 4 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

A non-technical slot in Zion: Keyhole Canyon

If the previous posts have awakened your interest for Zion’s slot canyons, but you don’t want to engage in technical canyoneering, read on. Keyhole Canyon, which I describe in detail, may be the best opportunity for adventurous hikers to explore a beautiful small Zion slot without swims or rappels.

Dominated by slickrock, Zion Plateau, the area of the park east of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel along Highway 9, has a different character from Zion Canyon. At a first glance, what strikes you is the more open scenery. However, Zion Plateau also conceals unexpected places where you can experience narrow canyons close and personal.


Start of the approach up the bowl. Head towards hoodoo in the center of the picture.

Keyhole Canyon is possibly Zion’s most accessible narrow slot canyon. The approach time is only about 15 minutes, with great views. The canyon has two distinct parts. In the photos, our group is wearing wetsuits and harnesses in anticipation for the second part (west), which involves rappels and is wet, cold, and dark. You will not need such gear if you do only the first part (east). It requires only off-trail hiking and scrambling, with a bit of climbing. You will need to pack your gear so that both of your hands are free. The reward is to adventure in a beautiful location out of the beaten path that gives you a taste of Zion’s technical canyons.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 40mm, f/8.0 1/40s, ISO 1000

The first part of Keyhole Canyon isn’t very dark compared to other canyons, so hand-holding your camera is possible. However, a tripod will allow you ensure a sharp image with better depth of field and e a lower ISO for a cleaner image. Since those may not be readily visible in a web-sized image, I’ve indicated some of the camera settings used in the early afternoon.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 27mm, f/8 1/30s, ISO 1250


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 24mm, f/16 0.6s, ISO 100

Before going, be sure to check the weather forecast, and do not enter the canyon if precipitations threaten since the canyon is subject to dangerous flash floods.

Directions

Park at a north-side pullout at mile 1.7 from the east entrance kiosk, and walk west along the road for 0.2 miles. Hike up for about 0.25 miles a steep slickrock bowl north to a pass with a hoodoo. Scramble down carefully a steep and loose gully on the other side, grabbing roots and branches. The slot will be on your left.


Start of the descent in the gully

In the narrow slot, you’ll face obstacles such as jammed boulders and logs, that you will have to downclimb for heights up to your body. If you squeeze yourself between the narrow opposing walls, you will be safe! However, a 10-feet rope or sling could be useful for lowering bags or helping members of your party go faster.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 19mm, f/8 1/15s, ISO 2000

Depending on the conditions, you may have to wade through potholes of water that can be waist deep. Plan accordingly by wearing shoes and clothing that you don’t mind getting wet. A camera carried in a backpack shouldn’t get wet, but it is always safer to use a dry bag.


Canon EOS 5Dmk3, 17-40mm lens @ 23mm, f/16.0 0.8s, ISO 100

When the canyon opens up again to a sandy wash, after about 0.2 miles, turn around, since the second part requires technical canyoneering. You’ll climb up the obstacles that you downclimbed. The light can change fast in those narrow canyons, so even though the section of canyon was short you might see something new on your way back.

Zion Canyons: Part 3 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

The bowels of the earth: Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon

Each of Zion’s canyons have an individual character. While Mystery Canyon was long, diverse, lush, and open, Pine Creek offered a hauntingly beautiful subterranean experience in a surprisingly cold slot canyon, with an incredibly lucky find.

In Zion National Park, the soft sandstone rock has been eroded by flash floods into narrow crevices which can look like caverns from the inside. Pine Creek Canyon let you travel the bowels of the earth in claustrophobic passageways and huge chambers that allow only a glitter of glowing light into their depth.

The twisting slot canyons trap pot holes of water which remain frigid because the sun never reaches them. I was surprised to find out that even when the temperatures in the desert soar in the 100Fs, the water in the subterranean canyons remains cold enough that without protection such as wetsuits, it would be very easy to get hypothermic.

Last year, I had planned to descend Pine Creek Canyon with my brother-in-law, but because I got injured while rafting the Grand Canyon, he went alone. He had found Pine Creek Canyon mostly dry. It turned out that because of a mid-May storm, Pine Creek Canyon had ten times more water than last year. Sections that were totally dry last year were so deep that the women in our group had to swim. I love how those changes remind us that our planet is living and unpredictable.

My inspiration for descending Pine Creek Canyon was Floris Van Breugel’s photographs of the “Cathedral” chamber. However, when we got there, the light wasn’t quite right. With the water in the pool below so deep that even my full-size tripod didn’t keep the camera above the water, I gave up on trying to wait.

In the subsequent dim corridor, the high water created a mesmerizing setting. I walked with water up to my shoulders, holding the tripod extended above my head to keep the attached camera out of the water. A waist deep section allowed me to set up the camera for a long exposure.

The highlight of our visit was to find a pair of juvenile owls perched on a sculptured log – perfectly still during the 1s exposure. Who said that a 24mm lens isn’t appropriate for bird photography ? As we moved across the glowing chamber, their body remained totally motionless, but their eyes tracked us intently.

The easy approach and exit combine with the canyon’s beauty to make it the Zion canyoneering classic. Not to forget the fun of swims and rappels! On the last one, you hang from the rope for 100 feet without touching the rock.

In the depth of Pine Creek Canyon, you may feel in the wilderness, but the canyon parallels the Zion tunnel and the Canyon Overlook Trail. It is remarkable to be able to explore a place so close to civilization, yet so different, truly a hidden wonder.

More photos of Pine Creek Canyon
More photos of Zion Canyoneering

Zion Canyons: Part 2 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Zion’s Mystery Canyon

Zion is a land of deeply cut and narrow canyons. With a few exceptions, their beauty cannot be seen by hiking. On my last trip to Zion, by descending some of the “technical” canyons that require the use of ropes and harnesses, I sought to experience parts of the park seen only by few visitors, such as Mystery Canyon.

Exploring technical canyons combines hiking, climbing techniques, and swimming into the sport of canyoneering. The reference resource for canyoneering in Zion is Tom Jones’ Canyoneering USA. Tom named Mystery Canyon as his favorite Zion canyon, because it “has everything”.

We started the day on the East Mesa Trail, which travels isolated forests and meadows atop a flat plateau to the east of Zion Canyon. Mystery Canyon involves a lot of hiking in a surprisingly verdant canyon beneath sheer walls, alternating between open and narrow sections that provide a wonderful diversity of scenery.

Besides exploration, the fun of canyoneering consists in using various techniques to pass obstacles. Rappels are necessary when you encounter large drops. We did a dozen rappels in Mystery Canyon. The first series are encountered in the Rock Narrows, when the character of the canyon changes to sculptured narrows.

Unlike some canyoneering routes, Mystery Canyon is relatively dry. The most spectacular rappel of the day took place in a large alcove. Since I was one of the two most experienced climbers in our group, I went first. I made sure to put my camera away in a dry bag, since I knew that this rappel would land into a pool (called Mystery Springs). However, this wasn’t enough to prepare me for the experience of rappelling straight into a pool too deep to stand. My first reaction upon entering the cold water, still attached to the rope, was “Now what ?”. I figured out that with the large backpack I was carrying (containing my dry bag, tripod, and an extra rope), my best option was to swim out on my back.

Our journey which started on a gentle plateau, ended up in the Zion Narrows. Mystery Canyon has a perfect finale, the rappel along Mystery Falls – the first landmark that you see when you hike into the Narrows. I was elated to see this familiar sight from a new perspective.

Our group had beginners that did very well on this long day. Canyoneering is quite accessible, provided that you travel with experienced partners. Unlike climbing, the focus isn’t on difficulty, but rather on exploration.

More photos of Pine Creek Canyon

More photos of Zion Canyoneering

Zion Canyons: Part 5 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5