FAIRBANKS - Flipping through the pages of “My Wrangell Mountains,” a new book featuring the work of Swiss photographer Ruedi Homberger, will quickly send readers searching for adequate superlatives to describe what it contains.
Homberger has spent considerable time during the past two decades climbing up, skiing down and flying over the rugged peaks that sprawl out from the southeastern corner of mainland Alaska and onward into Canada. Along the way, he’s taken countless pictures, and the ones that have been gathered in this beautifully produced volume will immediately convey to readers what draws him repeatedly into these wild lands.
Mountains spill out of these pages the way lava flows from a volcano: upward then outward in every imaginable direction. As Fairbanks geophysicist Gary Larsen notes in his brief forward, the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains don’t form a chain the way most ranges do. Rather, “The ranges are thick, deep in all directions, and every horizon gained promises another climb to another divide before the next horizon revealed. Nowhere else in Alaska can you become so endlessly surrounded by high mountains, glaciers, rock, and ice.”
It is this grandness that Homberger brings out in his work. The book is packed with photos showing multiple ridges and peaks spanning out as far as the lens can see. Broad rivers, deep valleys, marching glaciers and massive ice fields are all on display. Rugged beaches, thick forests, pristine lakes, and alpine tundra are also visited; and while the emphasis is on landscapes, even some of the resident animals make appearances.
Homberger first came to this wonderland at the invitation of Paul Claus, the owner of the remote Ultima Thule Lodge, deep in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The two met by chance 20 years ago in Nepal and in the intervening years have become exceptionally close friends as well as cohorts in countless adventures. It was in part due to Claus’s influence that Homberger became a pilot at age 60 so he could expand his horizons and lend an aerial perspective to his photographic work.
The results of his efforts are stunning. The heavily patterned Bering Glacier is seen in both wide angle and detailed form. The Guyot Glacier is shot from both its exit and its top. The Bagley Ice Field appears poised to swallow numerous ridges. A full moon rests on the shoulder of Mount Logan. A chain of summits, including the Twaharpies, University Peak, and the 16,421-foot Mount Bona, span across two pages. The steeply uprising Ocypete Peak dominates a full page, with endless mountains pouring off into the distance. The steaming caldera of Mount Wrangell melts an otherwise frigid field of snow and ice. Four glaciers spill into Icy Bay.
While high peaks dominate this book, they are hardly the only things found here. Homberger has trod all over this region and has brought back images of less immediately dramatic but equally beautiful locales. The Copper River Delta — with its bogs, meandering streams and patches of spruce forest — offers an almost oppressively flat counterpoint to all the high mountains of previous pages. The long, untouched coast of the Gulf of Alaska curves off into the horizon. The Chitina River is seen from several places along its course. Tundra scenes, many of them shot during the brief but gorgeous days of fall, abound.
Homberger’s strength lies in his astonishing ability to capture magnitude, but he also provides some close up shots of driftwood, wildlife tracks, plants and berries, shells and even a few animals, including Dall sheep, moose, salmon and Steller sea lions.
Unlike many pictorial books, this one includes humans in quite a few photos. This makes sense in more than one way. Not only are people are part of this world, bearing witness to the surroundings, but unlike most national parks outside Alaska, people live within the boundaries of Wrangell-St. Elias. To exclude them would mean a significant part of Homberger’s experiences would have been left out.
Since Homberger is a climber as well as a photographer, numerous pictures depict sometimes hair-raising ascents of such places as the summits of University Peak and Mount Hawkins, as well as a frozen waterfall and an unnamed cliff upon which a quartet of climbers stands perilously close to the edge. Many of Homberger’s fellow voyagers are also seen extreme skiing down the sides of these slopes.
Another frequent indicator of humans is the continual presence of airplanes, the vehicles that allow Homberger to explore this country so deeply. Aviation buffs will love this book for all of its shots of planes soaring through mountains, parked on glaciers and skirting the sea.
The final section of the book focuses on the daily life of the Clauses (Homberger’s adoptive second family) and events in the tiny community of McCarthy, located 100 miles from their lodge. It’s a fine tribute to his good friends, as well as a reminder that this is a wilderness where people live and work.
Along with all the pictures come several brief but well-written essays by longtime Alaskan artist Jona Van Zyle, illustrated with drawings by her equally acclaimed husband, Jon.
The emphasis, however, is on the photographs, and, even by the exceedingly high standards of Alaska pictorials, this book is truly spectacular. For all their beauty and immensity, the Wrangells never get as much coverage as other mountainous areas of Alaska. Hopefully this book will help rectify this. It’s an ideal holiday gift for nearly anyone. Buy a few copies, keep one for yourself, and start planning your next adventure.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
My Wrangell Mountains
Art by Jon Van Zyle
Essays by Jona Van Zyle
236 pages • 2011