Ever since I remember I was always obsessed with something.
The first obsession I remember taking over me was collecting Lego sets at a very young age. It drove my dad insane, because living in post-communist Poland western Lego sets were pretty expensive, as were the majority of imported goods at the time. Later came collecting models of cars, plastic ships (which took quite a bit of labour to assemble, however this time my dad, as a professional sailor and ex-fisherman, was also interested in participating) and a few other things. As the years went along, all of these obsessions came to pass and I found new things to occupy myself with.
When I discovered photography, I also discovered my first love.
I think obsession and love go very well together. When you put these two in one place exciting things start to happen. But it can also lead down a dangerous path.
One of the first subjects I remember shooting, at about 14 or 15 years of age, were local landscapes. Growing up in a small community in North-West Poland, it was the only thing available to shoot at the time. Unlike America, people here didn’t believe in telling their story. They shied away from the camera and preferred to keep to themselves.
I continued shooting landscapes throughout the years and I continue to do so today. I do this partially as a homage to the subject that allowed me to learn my craft and partially because I genuinely enjoy to travel and to find new places of beauty. And I continue to obsess about getting the perfect shot.
This obsession almost killed me recently.
I had a really hard year, both professionally and personally, and I decided to take a little break from London. The lease on my rental flat was finishing, I managed to tie up all the freelance work and it was time to go. I decided I’ll spend some time in the mountains, rethink my life away from the distractions of the big city and chase after getting that elusive perfect shot.
After some Googling I ended up in the Karwendel in Austria on the promise of it not being too busy. The Alps can be very crowded during the summer holidays. I was travelling in August after all — during the peak tourist season. Typically I try to travel off-season, but this time I didn’t have that luxury.
After multiple days of day-hikes it was time to disappear for a few days. I started off in Scharnitz. After I packed everything I thought I needed my pack weighed in probably around 15kg. I wasn’t particularly stoked, as the temperatures were already in the high 20s (centigrade) and due to rise over the next few days. The idea was to explore the areas around the huts, bag a few peaks and come back by the end of the week with some good landscape images.
The practice in which I collect my images is considered dangerous by some. I heard so many times I should find a safer way of doing it. I go solo, over exposed terrain and at night. My commitment to having the perfect light dictates the rules.
- I go solo, because I so far failed to find anybody interested in getting up at 2am voluntarily to go climb a mountain.
- I need exposed terrain to make my images look more dramatic and to get the right perspective.
- I go at night, because I want the morning light. It also helps me avoid thunderstorms that often happen during the afternoon in the higher ranges. And if I get stuck, I have a lot of daylight ahead of me to figure out how to get back down.
I woke up just before 3am that morning. I couldn’t sleep. When you sleep in communal rooms you realise how many people have breathing problems. The room in the hut had maybe about 15 people sleeping in it. At least half were snoring — loudly. The neighbour’s snoring was so loud it pierced through my 35dB earplugs. It was time to get out.
Quick tea, some dry breakfast, check headlamp, check spare batteries, go. I have extra time, I will get to the peak on time without the necessity to hurry.
The problem with navigating at night with only a headlamp is that in the mountains things often look different than during the day. And I ended up losing my way going up. By UK standards it was meant to be a grade 1 scramble, maybe verging on grade 2 on some short sections. I shortly ended up in grade 3 / grade 4 terrain.
The Austrian Karwendel consists largely of very fragile limestone. With the extreme weather that these mountains get during the winter, the rock gets very easily eroded and becomes rotten in the summer. It breaks easily, there’s loads of loose stone everywhere, steep scree. A very unpleasant place to be when you realise you’re on the wrong route.
Looking back, if I didn’t have my camera with me, I would have turned around. But I needed to get there on time to take the image I planned in my head days ago. And surely as a trad climber I can handle this terrain.
It was dark. I heard some animal noises from above, which sounded like Chamois. I located them with the light of my head-torch. I circled around them, as I didn’t want them to throw rocks down if they panic. Behind me the moon was in the waning crescent phase, the only point of reference in an otherwise dark environment shining like a harbinger of doom. Each time I looked back at it I had a funny feeling something’s going to go wrong. At the same time I knew that the sun will start to come up shortly and I have quite a bit of distance to cover to get to the top.
I sent some rocks flying down into the valley. One of my feet lost ground. I looked down at the falling rock. It was a stark reminder of the dangers of the environment I’m in. Alone. In the dark. I started to traverse as going up was sending me into more unstable rock. I found a steep, but reasonably stable area that looked like a very old, forgotten path. Unfortunately this only lasted a few minutes and I was faced with a choice of going back, or trying to clamber over some extremely unstable scree. If I can only make the next 30 metres I will get to a bigger rock face that should provide me with some more easy climbing terrain.
After some very careful zigzags, walking extremely delicately, I managed to touch more stable rock. I was relieved. It cannot be much harder from here. I climb up. The next 30 minutes resembled a very steep and muddy staircase. Not exactly the most enjoyable terrain, but relatively safe in comparison to the earlier. I arrived at another rocky section requiring some easy climbing. Onto a very narrow ridge section, which only lasted a few metres, but with several hundred metres of drop on each side. Then some more easy climbing.
More rocks into the valley. I’m standing on a one inch piece of solid rock with my right foot. The left handhold is loose. The right handhold seems stable, but at this stage I’m suspicious of anything I’m holding onto. I try to find anything solid that will allow me to continue my journey in relative safety. It takes me a few minutes to find a safe way up without dislodging more rock. Then over another unstable scree section and over to a flat ridge a few metres wide.
I look around. The sun is almost up. I sit down. Slightly shaken. I take out some water. Drink. Look at the way ahead of me. I look back at the way I came up. I have no desire to go forwards. The terrain ahead of me looks even worse than what I already experienced. Knowing the way I took up, I also have little desire to go back down. But I cannot stay.
I take out my camera.
I stayed here for maybe 30 or 40 minutes trying to get some images from my failed night excursion. Document some of the wonderful sights I am blessed with today. The thought of not being able to get back down, or falling into the valley along with the rock constantly in the back of my head.
It’s time to attempt to get back down to safety. I drink more water, eat more dry food. Pack my camera, tighten the straps on my backpack and start to slowly make my way down. Now in the morning light I can see everything clearly. I spot a mark on the rock about 30 metres to my left. I traverse over some more scree and bad rock to get to it. I see the route I was meant to take up. My soul fills with joy.
The way down is blissfully uneventful. I analyse the area as I start going down and realise I ventured about 100 metres away from the path I planned to take.
The mountain just doesn’t look the same at night.
So don’t let the obsession kill you. It’s ok to fail. There’s always tomorrow to accomplish what we couldn’t accomplish today.
Przemek is a portrait photographer, videographer and producer working out of London, UK. He travels in his spare time to find new places of beauty. His work can be found at http://schadenkind.com/