Being a photographer, I often find myself in remote places: devoid of human interference and in pursuit of the perfect photograph. As we all know, New Zealand’s backcountry is unpredictable at best and it pays to be well prepared.
It was mid April when I received a last minute invite from some friends who were heading to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park to spend a night in Mueller Hut to photograph the stars, and fingers crossed, an incredible sunrise over Mount Cook itself. Of course as it was last minute the hut was fully booked, so not wanting to miss out I decided to pack my bivvy bag with the intention of spending the night atop Mount Ollivier where I figured I’d get the best view.
If you have ever travelled with a bunch of photographers you will know that getting anywhere is a slow process… By the time we started our hike it was late afternoon and the idea of getting set up while it was still light was long gone. Instead the goal was the Sealy Tarns for sunset, then onwards to Mueller hut during twilight, before leaving the others to make my way to the summit under the guidance of my head torch.
As soon as the sun disappeared the temperature plummeted. It was going to be one of those clear frosty nights, that are always the coldest! Not long after reaching the top of Mount Ollivier (overlooking Mount Cook Village and towards the Burnett Mountains) I set up my camera to capture the rising moon, with the Milky Way core above. Many photographers opt not to bother capturing images in these conditions due to the brightness of the moon. However I love capturing the way the moon lights up the landscape in images like this.
After shooting a few images I quickly set up camp on the only flat piece of rock I’d found since getting up there and lay down exhausted from the days adventures. Before long I was bundled up and drifting off to sleep as I counted shooting stars and listened to the rhythmic sound of my camera shooting a timelapse, and the occasional roar of a distant avalanche. These are the moments I live for.
A few hours later I woke up to check the progress of my timelapse, and to see how the landscape around me had changed with the moon. An inversion layer of cloud had formed like a river in the valleys around me, as mystical as a scene from Lord of the Rings. I secretly hoped my timelapse had managed to capture it all before it ran out of battery! After a few minutes I jumped back into my sleeping bag to escape the freezing temperatures, only to find that in my rush I’d somehow managed to split the zip. After fluffing around for a bit I realised I had managed to completely break it – great.
Generally I’m a great sleeper and I wasn’t going to let this ruin my night, so being stubborn I did my best to wrap myself as warmly as I could to try to get some sleep. Ten minutes, thirty minutes, one hour, it wasn’t working. I could feel my internal core temperature dropping and knew I had to do something – quickly!
I got stuck into some frenzied jumping jacks and press ups while taking stock of the situation. No one likes admitting defeat and heading back down in the middle of the night – plus my boots were frozen, and I did not want to risk dying from exposure – I was stuck in a pickle. As I warmed up from the frantic exercising, my brain began to make sense of the situation and I went through the provisions I had in my head. I knew I had my emergency blanket and a roll of tape in my survival kit. I figured if I put it all together I might be able to make something that would keep me reasonably warm for the rest of the night.
Thinking quickly I got to work and taped up my sleeping bag so it would hold its shape and keep in as much warm air as possible. I then put it inside my sleeping bag liner to keep it together, before hopping in to my emergency survival bag, then my sleeping bag, and finally my bivvy bag. I was pretty chuffed with what I’d put together, and dare I say I was nearly warmer like this than I was before!
I slept like a baby through to the early hours when I woke up to find the rivers of fog had become an ocean of fog and I was seemingly marooned on a rocky island. Not that I cared; in all directions I could see mountainous peaks piercing through the inversion layer, including the king of them all, Aoraki Mount Cook. I was in photography heaven!
As dawn got closer the fog intensified and I soon found myself engulfed, unable to see or capture much of the sunrise. In the short moments there was a gap I got my camera working overtime, and luckily came away with a few images that certainly made the entire experience worth it.
Unfortunately my friends awoke to a complete whiteout at the hut and decided against heading to the summit to join me for sunrise, something they were gutted about later on when I showed them my images!
You can see more of Talmans adventures over on his Instagram and Facebook accounts – @talman & @TalmanMadsenPhotography