A Life Exposed: Gordon Wiltsie
January 20, 2009
By Heath A Korvola
From the pages of our favorite adventure magazines, photographs dazzle and tantalize our spirits of adventure. We have become accustomed to bird's-eye views of the world's best climbers tackling huge routes on the tallest mountains or of arduous expeditions that last for months through distant lands. Yet, as familiar as the faces become as we read their stories and see their likeness on the pages, we know little about the person who's out in front dangling precipitously with the camera. The unsung shooter who's not just keeping up, but working ahead - documenting the entire journey. Gordon Wiltsie's face may not grace magazine covers - but the Bozeman photographer's work shows up in magazines like National Geographic, Outside and Life.
His photographic journeys have taken him from his home in Bozeman, where he and his wife, Meredith operate Alpenimage, their stock photo company. His résumé reads like a dream list for anyone chasing a life of big adventure-pre-Incan Peru, the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet, Antactica's Mount Vaughn, big walls in Baffin Island, Canada. Yet it is here in Montana where he has laid his roots, raised his family and continues to find adventure.
Wiltsie began chasing photographs as a high school student in Bishop, Calif. Located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Death Valley and Yosemite National Park, the outdoors became the most influential classroom for Wiltsie. There, Wiltsie says, he developed his philosophy about climbing, which is centered around wilderness appreciation rather than wilderness conquest or competition.
Soon he was documenting his outdoor adventures and climbing with such greats as Doug Robinson and the late Galen Rowell. These photographers appeared perfectly ordinary and yet they were getting published in what he considered to be famous magazines. "It dawned on me that that drive is as just important as talent," Wiltsie says.
In 1984, together with two partners, Jay Jensen and Allan Pietrasanta, Wiltsie completed an assignment for Ski and set out after a two-week self ski adventure. The trio was attempting a pioneering winter ski traverse from Ladakh to Kashmir in northern India. Nothing like this had been attempted before and it was much harder than the group anticipated. "I look back on it as a great experience, but it wasn't at the time," Wiltsie says now. The skiers ran out of food, and near the end of their trip, all three were caught in a massive avalanche that carried them over cliffs.
During the following decade he set about on a wild course documenting both poles of the earth. He became especially enamored with Antarctica. "It just blew my mind, I had no idea that Antarctica was as beautiful as it was," he remembers from his first trip there.
As the millennium wound to a close, Wiltsie's emphasis with his work continued to shift along the spectrum of photography. He began to place more importance on the places he was visiting and the impact that they were sustaining.
Today this current of consciousness is carrying him more and more into the lives of diminishing cultures and their struggles to stay afloat. "I am kind of growing out of my primary focus being on extreme adventure, which got carried to the extreme," he says. "I am moving much more in a cultural direction. My last assignment was in Mongolia and that, since the time I was in Nepal, has always been the kind of photography I wanted to do." His latest work is due out in the fall with National Geographic and details the plight of people in Mongolia and their efforts of migration. "I would like to be recognized as much as for my appreciation of the human environment, the real human environment on this planet, as more the artificial adventure environment we create to entertain ourselves," Wiltsie says.
Wiltsie has seen a great deal of what will not be around much longer. With this as inspiration he continues working today to save what is still out there and educate us all as to why and how this is to be done. He proudly acknowledges that his work with local agencies here in Montana such as the Yellowstone Coalition has made a difference. Much the same way his more public interest in protecting Antarctica is credited with bringing a very distant subject to light.
For the rest of us out snapping away through our own personal expeditions down the road or across the state Wiltsie recommends just getting out. "Push creative limits, find new ways to see things," he urges emphatically.