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Capturing the Moment:
The Image That Got Away

By Tom Bol
Photographer Tom Bol setting up a shot on the NOLS Canyonlands Alumni Photography trip.
© Jason Buchovecky

“I count 17 sharks, man,” a grizzled old sailor announces to me in a thick rastafarian accent. “I hope they are not hungry today, man. Maybe we should feed them before you get in the water.”

Watching the dark silhouettes cruising in transparent turquoise water gets my adrenaline pumping. I’m on a sea kayaking expedition in the Bahamas. My job: to photograph the trip, which includes jumping in the water with my underwater camera and shooting kayakers and sharks. I can hardly wait. Being on an expedition, camera in hand, creating images… life can’t get any better!

I’ve done many expeditions over the years, and they continue to be a big part of my life. Why do I like expeditions? The reasons are similar to students’ impressions of their NOLS course: the strong bond and camaraderie with other expedition members, practicing and learning new skills, the simplicity of life, the oneness with nature and wilderness, and the enjoyment of experiencing a new culture. These traits will always be an important part of an expedition to me.

The only thing that has changed over the years are the skills I am most interested in pursuing. Originally my only interest was how hard the climbing would be, or what hazardous coastline I needed to paddle. Climbing and paddling are still a big part of why I go on expeditions—I’m passionate about both. But now capturing the spirit of the expedition with my camera is where the real excitement lies.

There is an old adage about fly-fishing; it’s not really about catching the fish, it’s about getting on the river and enjoying the outdoors. For me, photography has taken on this role. I always look forward to my next expedition, and the desire to create images on the expedition keeps me up at night in anticipation.

Sometimes in my quest to capture a great image, something special will happen that would not have occurred if I hadn’t been taking a photograph. Once I was on an expedition to Nanda Devi, a 25,000-foot peak in the Himalayas of India. We were camped at about 19,000 feet on Longstaff Col, a narrow snow-encrusted ridge below the peak. The view toward the summit was incredible. One night we had clear skies and a full moon; I knew this was my chance to make an outstanding image.

That night I crawled out of my tent in near zero degree temperatures, wondering if this really was a good idea. Nanda Devi was glistening in the moonlight, so I quickly packed up my camera gear and headed across the narrow icy ridge. In my excitement to get the shot, I decided to only wear my inner boots. Note to self—it doesn’t matter how great the photo is, wear the right gear (i.e. boots, crampons). I quickly found a good composition, set up my tripod, and began making images. I was ecstatic! Even Galen Rowell would be jealous of these shots!

“Crunch, crunch…crack!” Suddenly I heard a strange noise coming from behind me. It must be the wind, I thought, maybe some rock fall on the ridge. I didn’t have time to be distracted from the incredible photo I was making.

“Crunch…crunch…crunch.” Okay, I knew I heard something, but it had to be the wind, right? Everyone was in their tent sleeping except me, so what else could be making this noise? I remained focused on getting my shot.

“Crunch…huff…crunch…huff…crunch.” A full body chill shot through my body. Something was behind me, slowly approaching, almost like it was stalking me. Worse, I could hear it breathing.

Right about now I was wishing I had my crampons on, because I was so jittery I thought I was going to fall off the ridge, cartwheeling thousands of feet to the valley floor. Mustering all the courage I had, I slowly looked over my shoulder. And then I saw it. For a brief moment, I saw movement in the moonlight. It definitely was not a person, but it was big, and it was coming my way.

I took off in a quick bear-like shuffle, half standing, half crawling, towards the tent. I practically ripped the tent door off, jumped in my sleeping bag, and stared at the tent walls. I knew that thing was out there, right now approaching camp, ready to attack. Of course my tentmates were all asleep, dreaming of some warm tropical beach, while I waited for imminent disaster. After at least an hour staring at the tent wall, I finally fell asleep.

In the morning, John Hauf, another NOLS instructor on the expedition, crawled out of the tent to start cooking breakfast. He didn’t know about my eerie encounter the previous night.

“Hey, you guys, you aren’t going to believe what I found,” John excitedly explained to our group. “There are snow leopard tracks in camp!”

Finally, the mysterious creature from last night was identified. I felt a sense of relief, then awe. I had practically been nose to nose with a snow leopard. These big cats are rare, very few people have seen them in the wild.

“You aren’t going to believe what happened to me last night…” I said.

Expeditions are filled with special moments, events that last a lifetime. Photography is my way of capturing and communicating these experiences to others. Not only do I want to experience the expedition, but more importantly I want to share these experiences with others. Photography is my means to accomplish this expedition goal.

Did those moonlight images of Nanda Devi ever come out? Not a one. Every shot was dark and blurry. But what I did capture that night was an experience I will never forget, not on film, but in my mind.

A long-time NOLS instructor, Tom Bol has had images published in magazines including National Geographic Adventure, Men’s Journal, Runner’s World, the Wall Street Journal, and various other editorial and trade publications. From his studio in Ft. Collins, Colo., he manages over 60,000 stock images, and teaches photography workshops, including NOLS Alumni Photography trips and the upcoming Alumni Sail Seminar October 22-26.

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