Jonathan Byers has blogged about repeat photography working like a time machine — he finds old photographs of the mountains, sometimes in books worth more than his camera, maps out where they were taken, hikes in to that spot, holds up the historic photo and travels to the past for a moment. Then, he takes a picture of the present, one that shows how the face of these peaks has changed — the snow thinned and the glaciers retreated.
This winter, he’s traveling through South America to concentrate his time in a region subject to ongoing debates about building dams that would change the face of the region forever and could have residual effects on the world’s second largest ice cap, found in the Chilean region of Patagonia.
Cerro Fitz Roy between Argentina and Chile, 1945 and 2012 | Courtesy of Jonathan Byers
The following text and photos were submitted by Byers from South America. This piece is the first in a series that will cover Byers’ trip, reporting on his work recording changes to glaciers and snowpack in and around Patagonia National Park and, finally, on his attempt at Mount Fitz Roy, near El Chalten in southern Patagonia. First climbed in 1952 by French alpinists, the 11,020-foot-tall peak is still considered one of the most technically challenging on the planet.
People who spend time in the mountains are often the ones who notice the changes happening there. Every year there seems to be less snow for skiing than I remember growing up. Likewise, the rivers seem to be running lower. I can remember having trouble crossing them on previous backpacking trips. And where I once crossed a river of glacier ice to get to a peak there is now a jumbled moraine.
While none of this is scientific proof, we’ve all seen it.
A few years ago, while I was working as a teacher in Yosemite National Park, a friend and I got the idea to find historic photographs of alpine areas and go out and repeat them to show the changes that have happened on a longer time scale. Using our skills as backpackers and climbers, we could get to these places where early photographers once stood and come back with a current photo to show how they have changed. From this, we started the Alpine of the Americas Project, a citizen-science-based organization to have people see these changes for themselves by repeating photos, to provide valuable information for climate scientists and powerful visuals of the changes that are occurring. Over the last year, we’ve led trips, walked hundreds of miles, and repeated over 50 historic photos in the Sierra Nevada in California and the Andes in Patagonia.
Big Arroyo in Sequoia National Park, California, with inset by F.E. Matthes in 1935 | Courtesy of Lyn Williams
This week, I’m going to be leaving the little town in southern Chile where I’ve been working as a guide, to go back to El Chalten, Argentina, under the clean granite spires of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. I came down here last year with hopes of climbing, but after a fatal accident, I realized that I didn’t quite have the rescue skills required for this serious level of alpinism. I spent the good weather days finding historic photo locations and documenting the incredible changes that have occurred, but I have unfinished business.
This past spring I received a Live Your Dream grant from the American Alpine Club in Golden that helped me acquire the climbing rescue training I needed to go back to Fitz Roy knowing that I have the skills needed to be a safe climber.
On rest days I’ll be out trying to find more of these historic photo locations. There are hundreds of historic photos throughout the Americas that we hope to repeat; some are easy to get to and some are much more difficult, and you don’t need to be a “photographer” to visit these places and have a view into the past. To see more photos and see how you can get involved, visit us at alpineamericas.com.