Chasing Galen

I probably wouldn't have taken up photography again if it weren't for the inspiration of a great teacher


On 11 August 2002, Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara were killed in a small plane crash near their home in Bishop, California. I've added a short piece at the end that says more directly what Galen and Barbara meant to me. All of us who met and knew Galen and Barbara miss them both. 

A long time ago, or so it seems now, I trained as a filmmaker and photographer. As I came of age, I served as photographer for my high school yearbook, a couple of newspapers, shot photos and film for television stations, and even worked for a short time as a stringer to ABC News at one point. But when I got involved in computers in 1976, I sold off my cameras, and pretty much gave up any creative activity. I was a computer nerd before the stereotype even existed. 

For 15 years the only camera I owned was an inexpensive point-and-shoot, which I rarely used.

In the early 90's, depressed from the breakup of a long-term relationship that should have lasted a lifetime, tired from the unrelenting pace of product development in Silicon Valley, and bored by always having to take short vacations in Tahoe, I decided it was time for a long visit to someplace that would rekindle my innate curiosity and love of anything new. While browsing through the glossy brochure of Wilderness Travel looking for the truly exotic adventure, Africa suddenly beckoned. 

Lions. Elephants. Wildebeest. Oh my.

So I immediately signed up for a tour to Botswana and started reading everything I could find on the area in anticipation of my coming adventure. A month of Africa immersion later--two months before the trip was to depart--a very apologetic Wilderness Travel representation called to tell me that they had to cancel that trip. Meanwhile, the company I worked at, GO Corporation, was fighting for its life. Our product, the Penpoint operating system, was just a bit ahead of its time (actually, it still would be if launched today). Girlfriend gone. Trip canceled. Company closing down. My depression was nearly complete.

A few weeks later, as I was wading through an unappealing assortment of employment ads in the San Jose Mercury News, Wilderness Travel called again. Did I still want to go to Botswana?

I considered my dwindling bank account and lack of a job. 

"Sure," I answered.

"Do you have a camera?" 

What kind of question was that? Since when did tour operators care about whether you bring a camera on their trips?

"This new tour goes to the same destinations as the one you originally booked, but it's part of a photo workshop with Galen Rowell," came the answer. "Do you know who Galen Rowell is?"

I knew who Galen was. Growing up in the Bay Area and having spent a great deal of time researching and hiking in Yosemite, I had encountered his inspiring Sierra photography many times. In fact, I had just seen an exhibit of his photos, and greatly admired the photos from Mountain Light, one of his coffee table books that was "in" at the time. I wasn't exactly sure what Galen was going to do in Botswana, as I had always associated him with climbing in the Sierra, but a great photographer should be at least a decent photography teacher, right? 

As I prepared for the trip, I made a pact with myself. Wherever Galen went, I was going to follow. I wanted to find out just how he got all those great shots. I wouldn't make a nuisance of myself, but I wanted to see him at work, close up. Since I'm the embodiment of the law "a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by a force," I even wrote this pact out in my notebook: "Wherever Galen goes, I go." I practiced saying this out loud to reinforce the message, then promptly plopped down on the couch for a nap.


Botswana is flat as a pancake. From the northern border to the southern there's a total elevation difference of five feet, which is one of the reasons why the Okavango River delta empties into a desert instead of an ocean.

Flat except for a pimple of a rock called the Tsodillo Hills, which juts up out of the otherwise featureless terrain. The attraction here is bushmen paintings on the rocks. After landing on a dirt strip nearby, we walked all around the Hills photographing paintings at eye level, until we came to the best ones. 


These paintings are up maybe 100 feet or more above the base. Like everyone else on the tour, I took out my 500mm lens, put an extender on it, and started shooting. Then I looked at Galen. He wasn't getting out his longest lens, he was getting out his 16mm lens and discarding all the rest of his gear. What the? 

Did I mention that Galen's a renowned climber? Somehow I had managed to ignore that when I made my pledge to follow him. But I quickly abandoned my long lens and other gear, grabbed my 17mm lens and headed off after Galen.


Did I mention that I'm not a renowned climber? Actually, I'm not a climber at all. More like a faller, actually. Nevertheless, I did my best to watch what Galen was doing and scramble up the rocks and cliff behind him as fast as I could.

I arrived about at the top about fifteen minutes after Galen. He turned to me and said, "Oh good, I needed a model. Here, climb this rock and straddle the gap looking over the paintings." For a few minutes I modeled for Galen, then we reversed roles and he modeled for me (I just ran across Galen's version of me climbing above the paintings in the 2005 Geographic Expeditions catalog).


This, then, is how my "Chasing Galen" series began. Over the years I've gone on a number of memorable trips with him. During that time I've shot Galen: 

hanging off the only cliff in Botswana


jumping into glacier fed lakes at 16,500 feet


chasing rainbows


racing in front of a glacier to get a shot before the light disappeared


trying to figure out how to climb vertical walls


and climbing them.


I was even inspired by this last event to write a limerick:

If a person is a rock a scalin'
You can bet it is certainly Galen
His hand goes up there
A leg in mid-air
And he's got his great picture Chilean.

But the unique thing about Galen is this: he's perpetual motion in action. And while sometimes it's tiresome to watch him, you can't help but be inspired by his energy, as well as for his unrelenting love of climbing and photography. He gets those great photographs because he is always looking for that image that defines his vision of a place. He doesn't limit his feet to only the proven path, and he doesn't let a slab of rock get in his way. I've even watched him chase monkeys up trees, mostly because it was great fun and exercise, but also because he wondered if there might be a picture in it. In short, you cannot travel with Galen and not be inspired to find your own passion.

I've run with Galen at 17,000 feet, hiked 18 miles up and down mountains with him in one day, shivered with him in frigid weather and high winds waiting for the light to "turn perfect," and even climbed the fence with him at Victoria Falls National Park in the dark of night so that we'd be in position for the perfect sunrise photos (and, yes, we paid our entrance fee on the way out). 

I've never once regretted my pact with myself on that Africa trip. Watching Galen at work has led me to examine my own photography and creativity, and has taken me in directions I didn't know were there. I'm no longer chasing Galen, but chasing my own dreams and visions. 

If great teachers turn on the light for their students, Galen's shined more brightly than others. 


Books by Galen

Galen's written or provided photographs for dozens of books. Here are some of my favorites that are still readily available:

Help support this site by ordering one Galen's books through the links, above [affiliate links]

From the 3rd issue of my D1 Report:

On August 11th, I received a grim reminder of what happens when you put off until tomorrow what you should do today.

That was the morning that Galen Rowell and Barbara Cushman Rowell, two good friends and extraordinary people, died in a plane accident near their home in Bishop, California. The Rowells were on their way home from Galen's Arctic Circle workshop in a small chartered plane. They were two miles from their home airport when the crash occurred. Two miles from safety. Two miles from continuing their passions. Two miles from still being with us. Sometimes the shortest distance is the longest.

I hadn't actually talked to Galen in person since he moved his offices from Emeryville, though we exchanged a few emails and phone calls. It seemed that our paths kept crossing but not quite intersecting over the last two years. Earlier this year [2002] I was in his neck of the woods for a couple of weeks, but Galen was off on one of his extended shoots. And when he was on the East coast, I was on the West. 

Since the last time I had a chance to talk to Galen and Barbara face to face, I transitioned from being a part time photographer to full time, something that had been in the works for a considerable period, but never quite seemed to happen. Galen was a large part of the reason why I grew more confident in my photographic abilities over the years, and without his support and encouragement, I never would have made the transition. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Galen helped me get the job of lead editor at BACKPACKER Magazine: he gave me an unsolicited personal reference that I only found out about only after I took the job. When I worked with Galen on articles for the magazine, he continued his encouragement of both my writing and photographic endeavors. 

I had been saving up my Thank Yous for quite some time, hoping to catch Galen in one of those rare down times we photographers have. I wanted to thank him for all that he's done for me without hurry, without interruptions, and in person. And I never got that chance because I didn't make the time to do it.

So I'll do it publicly now to all who will listen: Galen Rowell was one of the most remarkable people in the world. Certainly the most remarkable I've met. He lived and breathed his chosen crafts. He always aspired to do his best. He answered any and all questions that came his way, no matter how inane or simple they might be. He gave of his time and wisdom so freely that Barbara often had to reign him in so as not to completely overextend himself. Galen was articulate, and yes, opinionated, on virtually every subject you might bring up. His passion showed in his approach to photography, to writing, to climbing, and to life in general. Barbara, too, was just as passionate and talented. Her long-awaited book on her small plane adventure flying from the US to Patagonia and back is due out this fall (now available; see my Book Recommendations page). Barbara was also a remarkable candid portrait photographer, recently switching over to a D100 for her work. Barbara was the less publicly visible of the Rowells, but she and Galen were a remarkable pairing, one that consistently amazed you in its depth and breadth.

When I first met Galen, I was in awe of the man. I still am. Over the years, Galen and I shared many a backcountry path together and I learned a great deal from him. I certainly learned how to be a better photographer. But I also learned not to subvert my passions, to be open and free with others, and to give back to the lands and places from which I experienced such joy [this explains why I helped establish a trails trust fund in Galen's name]. I owe Galen for opening my eyes to new alternatives, to better photographs, to a simpler, more enjoyable way to live. I thank him for all he taught me, and for all the good times we shared together. I was privileged to meet and work with Galen. He changed my life, as he did many others, even those of people he never met. How can you ever find enough Thank Yous to pay back that kind of debt?

As I've already mentioned, Barbara Cushman Rowell was a fine photographer in her own right. Indeed, with certain subjects, such as candid portraiture, she was a far better photographer than Galen. And she, too, was a remarkable person. She was to the Mountain Light business what Galen was to the photography. Her passions were people, planes, and business, not necessarily in that order. Ironically, Barbara and I met as teens in the Sierras, though neither of us remembered that the first time we met again as adults. It seems that special places sometimes have a way of bringing people together that you don't expect. 

I'm extremely saddened that Galen and Barbara are no longer with us. But they always will be in spirit. To my death I'll carry the memories of these two fine people. And I'll try not to unlearn all the things Galen taught me…

I came across a quote the other day that seems to apply here. "There are not ten people in the world whose deaths would spoil my dinner, but there are one or two whose deaths would break my heart." (Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1833) I suspect that Galen and Barbara's deaths spoiled one heck of a lot of dinners. A large number of hearts were broken, as well, including mine. They will be missed.

Galen, Barbara, if you're somewhere that this message gets to you: thank you, thank you, thank you.

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