My name is Christian Beckwith; I’m a climber and skier from Jackson, Wyoming, a mountain town that serves as one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park. Because my inclinations often bring me to remote places, I need a hardy camera with which to document my adventures. It must be waterproof, because in winter, when I slide it back into my jacket pocket, it’s often covered in snow; and it must be shockproof, because I’m not as careful as I ought to be, and when I drop things they can fall a fair distance before coming to a stop, which as often as not can involve rock.
A few years ago I purchased a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1 because it was advertised as a “shockproof, waterproof” camera, and because it was orange. (I like orange.) I’d used it on numerous outings ever since, with fine results, despite numerous moments that tested the truth in your advertising.
But an adventure this spring put it through a more pronounced trial.
On May 12, 2012, I was with my friend Hans Johnstone on the Grand Teton, at 13,770 feet the perennial also-ran in the competition for Highest Point in the State of Wyoming. Hans is the proprietor of the Alpine House Bed & Breakfast and a father of three; he spent five years on the US Ski Team, representing the United States in the Nordic Combined event at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. Though his Olympic career is over, he continues to mystify his friends by seemingly growing stronger with each passing year.
On that particular Saturday, said strength was on display as he embarked on a mission to descend the Otterbody Route, a rather steep ski run down the east face of the Grand that ends in a hanging snowfield reminiscent of, well, an otter. I was with him that day, with my shockproof, waterproof Panasonic DMC-TS1 in my jacket pocket.
Apart from a personal interest in documenting the descent, there was a historical moment at play. If Hans succeeded in skiing the Otterbody, he would become the first to ski all the major routes on the mountain—no small accomplishment in the annals of ski mountaineering.
The nature of the Grand is less forgiving than on some ski mountains. While the angles are not, for the most part, exceedingly steep, the slopes are exposed, and negotiating them can require the use of ropes for something ski mountaineers call “rappelling,” which is what we do when we’re no longer brave enough to ski.
The Otterbody is tricky, as ski runs go. Once you negotiate the opening slopes of the Grand’s east face, you must enter a V-shaped notch to access the body of the Otter below. The angle of the slope here approaches 60°, so that as you prepare to make a turn, you must take care that the connection of your elbow with the slope behind you does not throw you off balance. As I followed Hans into this feature, I admit to feelings of anxiety.
As I mentioned, the Otterbody was the last route that Hans had to ski on the mountain, so I wanted to capture the event. When the precarious nature of my position abated long enough to permit it, I took photos of him as he skied.
When it was my turn to ski I put the camera away. Among our peers, we refer to certain types of moments as “retrospectively pleasurable,” i.e., they’re ones in which we look back from the safety of the bar and appreciate their quality more than we did in the actual moment, when the concern is whether we’ll make it back to a bar again at all.
The descent, for me, was retrospectively pleasurable. I did my best to navigate the Otterbody without bringing shame to those who had skied it before me. The feature is such that the fall line brings you against the pull of the mountain and creates an odd dichotomy in your head, wherein your vision and senses tell you that you are skiing in line with the natural angle of the slope, but your mind tells you that the immense sucking sensation you feel is the pull of your destiny, which lies immediately to the east, down some 2,000 feet to the Teepe Glacier. The glacier was named for Theodore Teepe, who, on August 4, 1925, entered the history books as the first known mountaineering fatality in the range when he fell down it. When you’re descending the slopes above it, his demise can occupy a not-insignificant percentage of your mental real estate, which does little to help your turns.
As I skied, Hans arrived at an anchor system at the northern edge of the Otterbody and busied himself setting up a rappel. My concern for the historical moment was, for the most part, outweighed by my concern for my wellbeing, but as I skied up to him, I slipped the camera from my jacket, snapped an image, then slid it back in.
Or at least I thought I did. A blur of movement alerted me to the fact that I had not. I looked down to see a flash of sunlight reflect from my bright orange Lumix. The camera bounced along the snow, which had been softened by the midday sun, then accelerated and hit a rock cliff at the edge of the slope.
The connection of metal and rock was abrupt. The camera ricocheted into the air, then quickly receded from view as it disappeared into the cliffs below.
I would have given more thought to the camera’s loss if the status of my own weren’t still in question.
“I dropped the camera,” I said.
“Huh,” Hans said. Norwegian in heritage, he has more physical than emotional latitude in his personal spectrum—a fine attribute in a ski mountaineer.
We made it safely down the remaining rappels that day, and I documented what I could with my iPhone, which I’d brought along for reports back on our safety to my wife. Once on the glacier, I descended in zigzags, intent on any hue that might possibly be orange. But the spring sun had turned the glacier’s snow to corn, and the chances of finding the camera were swallowed by the immensity of the slope. We had descended a fine route, and while I was sorry that Hans’ accomplishment would go without proper documentation, I was also happy to be alive.
Over the past few months I’ve watched as the heat of summer has melted the cloaks of snow from the Tetons’ flanks. The east face of the Grand went from an elegant, white-shrouded peak to a rocky pinnacle of stone puncturing the Western sky. Not unlike most of us as we age, it looks better covered than not.
As the snows receded, I knew that the glacier would be receding too. Though not Himalayan in size, the Teepe is big enough, and the camera small enough, that any thought of going up to look for it was patently absurd. Melting rivers of glacial water had undoubtedly washed it into the talus, three months of mountain weather had pelted it with rain, snow, sleet, and sun, and the glacier itself had withered. The camera could be anywhere among the acres of scree now exposed at the glacier’s toe.
But yesterday, following an expedition to the local supermarket with my daughter, an opportunity presented itself for a run. After a quick deposit home and a thirty-minute drive to Grand Teton National Park, I embarked along the Garnet Canyon trail for the Teepe Glacier.
A couple of hours after leaving the car I crested the moraine. What I saw was not pretty. The wide swathe of clean white snow we had descended in May was now an ugly, gray-streaked mess, pocked in stone and riddled by streams of water. Any delusions I might have had of finding the camera ebbed as I began to scout.
I worked my way up the periphery of the glacier as fastidiously as I could. Not only was the moraine a jumbled morass of rubble and boulders of every possible dimension; Teton gneiss is often golden, and wherever I looked there seemed to be at least as much orange as gray.
After thirty minutes of searching I sat down on a boulder in despair. I scanned the walls of the Grand above, trying to pinpoint exactly where we’d skied, exactly where I’d dropped the camera, and precisely what trajectory it might have taken after it left my sight. I added in the relative friction of metal on ice and three months of glacial melt. It was hopeless: I was not good at math. It had been a fool’s errand after all.
I took out my phone, snapped a photo of the glacier, and texted it to my wife with the caption, “Needle in a haystack.” At least, I thought, I’d had a good run.
I’d brought crampons and an axe with me. For no other reason than to justify their company, I put them on and started walking up the steepening glacier.
Ffity feet later, there it was: my little orange camera, perched innocuously against a small shard of rock. I let out a yodel.
I picked up the camera. One end, where the siding had partially detached from the main body, bulged alarmingly. The viewfinder was covered in grit, and the top of the body had some impressive dents, but other than that, the camera looked more or less the way it had before I dropped it. The display screen had more scratches than it had had that morning in May, but that was about it.
I needed to be back in town for a concert, so I shoved the camera into my pack and took off down the glacier. It could almost be said that I skipped, so great was my delight at the discovery.
Twenty minutes later I ran into some friends and blurted out what had happened.
“Does it still work?” one asked.
“I’ve got no idea,” I said. I’d been so overwhelmed at finding the camera that I’d forgotten to try to turn it on.
I pulled it from my pack. I pushed the button. A familiar digital beeping pinged out.
No photos would display, and an error message indicated that its journey had not been without event, but the camera still worked. There were even two bars remaining on the battery.
I ran the rest of the way down, got in my car and drove home. Once there, I inserted the memory card into my computer. iPhoto opened, and the images began to download. All of them came out, as you can see.
Panasonic, I’d like to thank you for making a shockproof, waterproof camera. I know that in cases like this the warranty may not apply. But I’m sending it along in the off chance that it will. Perhaps you can find a way to repair it. I would certainly like to bring it with me into the mountains once more.