You know you have cool friends when one of them asks if you are interested in photographing his wedding on a glacier. I never for a minute thought he was joking—it made perfect sense to me. Russ and I were backcountry skiing last November when he first mentioned his and Kala’s plans to get married in the wilderness. Both Kala and Russ have bagged dozens of peaks, routes, climbs, scrambles, skis, ridges, saddles and anything else on a mountain in the Pacific Northwest. I did not doubt Russ and Kala’s resolve to have a wedding perched on the side of a mountain; but once I ventured onto the Sulphide glacier with them and two dozen guests and the weather turned, I began to wonder if it would really happen.
Day 1: The Hike In
The plan was to rendezvous with the wedding party at Russ & Kala’s Ballard home in Seattle at 0500. Some last minute packing and searching for camera gear had me arriving closer to 6 AM. Russ, friend and hairstylist extrodinaire Desiree, Kala’s brother Leif, and I piled into my Volkswagen and took off for the Marblemount Ranger Station. Since the actual site of the wedding landed in the North Cascades National Park, we needed a permit to camp overnight. After squaring things up with the rangers, we darted back down Highway 20 before peeling off onto the Baker Lake road. Several twists, turns and dirt tracks later, we arrived at the Shannon Ridge Trailhead and met the rest of the wedding party. It was quite an impressive group: friends from Seattle, Bozeman and both sets of parents.
After sorting gear and making sure everyone had an ice axes, crampons and trekking poles; we set off down the old logging road that served as the beginning of the trail. We quickly arrived at some switchbacks, and began gaining elevation. At this point I started to feel the two camera bodies, multiple batteries, lenses, flashes, light stand and loads of other photography gear I was hauling in addition to my regular snow camping kit. My pack felt heavy, but I tried to play it cool.
The well worn trail eventually gave way to the “Climbers Trail,” a faint path that wound its way steeply through downed trees, mud, bushes and general treachery. The trick to following the climbers trail was not looking down, but looking up. Every several hundred feet a fluorescent colored flag was tied to a branch—in most cases, this was the only indication we were on the right track.
After several hundred vertical feet of shenanigans, the climbers trail finally lead to a clearing and the snow covered Shannon Ridge. Clouds hung low in the sky and the typical grand view of Mount Baker was blocked. Despite the poor visibility, we all decided to take a break and have lunch. Easing my heavy pack down onto the snow, I searched for one of the bagels and hummus that I packed to fuel me for the second half of the hike in. The remainder of the day would be spent entirely on snow. Once we wrapped lunch, we traipsed along Shannon Ridge. After recovering a tent and some champagne stealthily stashed by Russ and Kala the weekend prior, we made our way through the low clouds onto the Sulphide Glacier. We selected a rock outcropping as a our camp; and carved out a platform to pitch our tents in the side of the glacier’s snow. Foul weather moved in quickly; and like everyone else at camp, Des and I retreated to our tent early.
That night the wind picked up and the clouds began to burst. From inside the tent it first sounded like rain, then as the tent walls started to sag it became obvious—we were in the middle of a July snowstorm. The weather continued all night and I occasionally pounded the tent to shake off the heavy summer snow.
Day 2: Weather Hold
Conditions did not improve through the morning. The snow still rained down; and the 20+ wedding guests stayed tent-bound. Several adventurous souls, including Leif, Pete, Russ and Tom, suited up to boil and filter water for the rest of those. They would come by the tent, “knock” on the fly and let us know that they had clean or boiling water to make oatmeal or freeze dried meals. A little before lunchtime the snow stopped, and to stave off a case of tent-fever, I geared up and made my way to the cook tent. A group before us had dug out a circular “booth” in the snow. They even left a little “table” in the middle. One of the adventure wedding guests (Jen, I think) brought a tarp that we were able to sling over the booth. The end result was a protected shelter where everyone could sit, socialize, cook, eat and drink.
I hung out in the tent for hours. First, I started with some tea. I think I got some cred with the Bozeman contingent when I whipped out a bag of Evening in Missoula—regardless, it was exactly what my wet and slightly cold bones needed. After some food and several shift changes (people cycled in and out of the tent), things got interesting. Jen, Justin and Des showed up with Jello shots. Yes. Jello shots. Again, how do you know you have rad friends: they bring a fifth of vodka and Jello into the backcountry. We all slid several helpings of J E L L O down our throats, then passed around a few boxes of wine. Aaron and I broke some whiskey and Scotch and guess what—instant party. I even got kind of drunk. Nevermind that you couldn’t see more than 20 feet outside and could barely feel your toes; this was a wedding goddamit and we we’re going to have fun.
Day 3: Putting the Wedding in Adventure Wedding
At this point no one would argue that we were short on adventure, but would there be a wedding? It’s not that Russ and Kala were having cold feet (metaphorically), but the conditions on day 2 were hardly suited to wedding dresses and vows. As the sun rose on our third day on the side of Mount Shuksan, everyone began to stir in the tents. The first rays had not even crested over the North Cascades, and we could already tell in the early dawn that today was going to be beautiful. I grabbed my cameras, through on my puffy, laced up my down booties and started up the Sulphide Glacier.
We all made it to the edge of the Sulphide Glacier. From here we had great views of Shuksan’s summit pyramid further up the route, but also a sweeping vista of Mount Baker. Watching the sun gradually illuminate this volcanic beast was one of the most beautiful sights I have been fortunate enough to witness in all my time in the Pacific Northwest.
After a healthy dose of early morning mountain gazing, it was time to stage a wedding. Russ changed into a suit, the bridal party donned their appropriately Northwest matching outfits, and Kala began the process of assembling her dress. No shortcuts or compromises were taken when it came to the gown—she went all out.
The ceremony was beautiful. Desiree said a few words, and Aaron read a speech Curtis prepared (who was unable to attend due to a unfortunately timed ankle injury). Russ and Kala shared vows with each other, and Colter did an amazing job of keeping the whole ceremony on track. Leif even delivered the rings on a carabiner. Afterwards, documents were signed, witnesses attested and the whole thing became official. Russ & Kala were indeed married on Mount Shuksan’s Sulphide Glacier. Now all that was left were a few portraits, a flower toss, a garter hunt and popping the champagne.
By early afternoon, we were packed up and ready to descend. Kala had stashed the dress away, and the only evidence that a wedding had occurred was a champagne buzz that I would quickly hike off. Several climbers came up on us during the ceremony and ‘reception;’ the looks on their faces were priceless—and not a single person didn’t mention how cool the whole idea was. I have to agree. Since Russ and Kala are only going to get married once, this might be only wedding I ever attend, let alone photograph, on a glacier. Well done you two!
I used two cameras to photograph the Adventure Wedding. I wore a camera bag with my Olympus Pen E-P3 on my chest at all times. Having this light and powerful camera easily accessible at all points during the climb, camp and ceremony was critical to catch every moment. I exclusively used the 14-150mm lens on the Olympus. It allowed me to get both wide angle and telephoto shots quickly, offering extremes my DSLR kit did not offer. The other camera I brought with me was my trusty Nikon D300 outfitted with the exquisite 24-70mm f/2.8. I used this lens primarily during the ceremony, portraits and in the early morning during the sunrise on the third day. To help light, I brought a giant reflector that Aaron dutifully aimed at the bride, groom and subjects. Since I was in danger of having intense backlighting for the ceremony and portraits, the reflector helped out immensely.