Photo credit: Rick Ridgeway

Gordon Wiltsie on his vertical commute to work

Photographer with an Altitude

Gordon Wiltsie (B.A., literature and creative writing, Kresge '75) photographs the icy ends of the Earth

Sticking with chemistry might have been a lot less dangerous, but then Gordon Wiltsie would never have explored the North Pole by dogsled, survived two avalanches in Kashmir, or found that lost tomb in the jungles of Peru.

"I think that's been the luckiest thing about my career. I get to do a lot of things that people would consider a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says freelance adventure photographer Wiltsie, whose work has appeared several times in National Geographic, as well as in many outdoor-adventure magazines.

It was at UCSC that Wiltsie - a chemistry major who transferred from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1973 - abandoned that field for creative writing and photography. A creative writing course his first quarter at UCSC, taught by author James D. Houston, followed by independent study for two quarters in Nepal, ignited his new interest.

The time in Nepal, where he learned the language and went on various climbing trips, "was very much a life-changing experience," Wiltsie says. When he returned to UCSC, he threw himself into his new passion, selling stories and photographs while still in school. "I think I worked harder than even a chemistry major," he recalls.

Antarctica has exerted a special hold on Wiltsie for years, and the photographer considers the National Geographic cover story on a mountaineering expedition to Antarctica's Queen Maud Land his crowning achievement. The story was the culmination of eight trips he made to the continent. In addition to taking the photographs for the February 1998 story, Wiltsie conceived and organized the trip and raised the money that made it possible.

Covering climbing expeditions in remote areas has brought its share of close calls. While climbing on Canada's Baffin Island, inside the Arctic Circle (for a January 1999 National Geographic article), rocks as big as refrigerators tumbled all around Wiltsie's party.

"You spend enough time in the mountains, and rocks fall on you," he says matter-of-factly.

On assignment for Ski magazine, Wiltsie found a cross-country skiing trip in Kashmir with two friends even more harrowing. With one steep slope to go, "this avalanche roared down and swept us over a cliff." Bleeding profusely, Wiltsie blacked out for a time and suffered temporary amnesia. "My friends thought I might be paralyzed - until another avalanche came, and I ran for my life." Wiltsie sustained two crushed vertebrae, several broken ribs, and a concussion. Left with three single skis, Wiltsie and his friends took two days to ski and walk their way out. Their families were panicked, but the consummate photographer was especially upset because the avalanche had swept away his camera. "I was having conniptions," he remembers.

Times like that, Wiltsie says, make him reflect on what he does. "I think you'd have to be out of your mind not to question it periodically. I don't think about abandoning photography, but I think about whether I really need to push things this hard." The mind plays tricks on him, though. Wiltsie says the "golden sieve of memory" causes him to forget the worst parts of a trip. "It can transform infinite misery to the greatest experience of my life." As if to illustrate his point, Wiltsie notes that his Kashmir experience made "a very good story" that he sold to various publications and used in lectures.

Early on, Wiltsie developed a reputation for being almost impervious to cold, a trait that has served him well during trips to both poles, the Himalayan Mountains, and the Swiss Alps. But he has also experienced the world's warmer climates, having climbed in a remote desert region in China and rappelled down a remote Andes cliff to find ancient tombs in the jungles of Peru. (Wiltsie had to take some of the tomb pictures as he swung from a rope and spun in midair.)

When he's not off on an expedition, Wiltsie's time is taken up with short assignments, editing, and planning for the next adventure. The longtime Californian is now based in Bozeman, Montana, where he lives with his wife, Meredith, and sons Nick and Ben. (Meredith, who attended UCSC but graduated from UC Berkeley, is business manager for Wiltsie's company, Alpenimage Ltd.)

Wiltsie also serves as a cultural guide for National Geographic Exhibitions tours and is on the advisory board for the National Geographic Expeditions Council, which provides funding for various trips. His role as a guide reflects his interest not only in the mountains but in the people at the bases of those mountains. "I'm looking to concentrate more on worldwide environmental and cultural issues," he says, though he has no plans to abandon what he refers to as "the wild places."

In fact, Wiltsie points out there are plenty of climbs left on his to-do list. "The world is so big that the number of places I'd like to go is almost infinite." The Dolpo region of Nepal has always been of interest, he says, and then there's southern India, and he'd also like to see more of Africa. "I've never been to Australia. I'd like to go there, or to New Zealand...."

- Louise Gilmore Donahue


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