“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
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!
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.
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.
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