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Ansel Adams in the Canadian Rockies

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With a foreword by Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and period texts that capture the spirit of adventure that surrounded this ambitious trek, Ansel Adams in the Canadian Rockies is a fine chronicle of one of Ansel Adams’ earliest major photographic expeditions and the only one he ever made outside the United States.

 

 

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FOREWORD BY SIERRA CLUB EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR MICHAEL BRUNE:


The Sierra Club’s 1928 annual outing, or “High Trip,” was billed as “an exceptional opportunity to visit some of Canada’s wonderlands.” A young Ansel Adams was brought on as a volunteer photographer. Setting out by special train from San Francisco, some 130 club members undertook a month-long camping expedition that would involve arduous climbs in Mount Robson Provincial Park and neighboring Jasper National Park, with stops to take in natural wonders such as Amethyst Lake, Bennington Glacier, and Emperor Falls. It was during this journey that Ansel Adams began to find his voice as a serious creative photographer, making images that foreshadow the majestic mountain vistas for which he would become renowned.


When Sierra Club leader Will Colby invited Ansel Adams to join the 1928 High Trip to the Canadian Rockies as its official (though unpaid) photographer, it was actually the second time he had given Adams a job. In 1920, Colby had awarded him the position of summer custodian of the Sierra Club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley—the start of a long and productive association. “It is hard to tell which shaped the other more—Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club,” wrote David Brower, the Club’s first executive director. “What does matter is that the mutuality was important.”


Colby’s invitation to Adams was a vote of confidence in both the younger man’s photographic abilities and his future as a Sierra Club leader. Colby had begun the tradition of an annual Sierra Club summer trip in 1901, and he personally led the outings for nearly three decades. That Colby is one of the few individual participants portrayed in Adams’ photographs of the trip is not surprising. After John Muir, no other person better personified the Sierra Club and its ideals.


The High Trip Colby planned for 1928 was to be the most ambitious yet. Although previous outings had ventured beyond California, this would be the first to cross an international border. Despite the additional logistics, the 1928 trip stuck to the standard High Trip formula. Up to two hundred Sierra Club members would trek into the wilderness, make a series of camps (actually three separate camps, for men, women, and married couples), and spend weeks hiking, climbing, listening to natural-history lectures, and contributing to the evening’s entertainment of music or skits.


The trip came at a transformative time for Adams both personally and professionally. He was still a relative newlywed (his wife, Virginia, stayed home), and it had been just over a year since the groundbreaking photograph of Yosemite’s Half Dome (“Monolith”), when Adams realized he could successfully previsualize an image. Yet, although the young photographer considered himself an artist, he also knew that his cardinal responsibility on the High Trip was to make photographic mementos for the participants (and to show those who remained behind what they had missed). Still, what exquisite mementos!


After returning to California, Adams selected the best images from the trip, including a handful of contributions from three other photographers, including close friend Cedric Wright, and printed a portfolio that he sold “at cost, thirty dollars, to other members of the trip.” As far as we know, the bound presentation album in the Sierra Club’s possession, which was dedicated to Will Colby, is the only one to have survived. Fittingly, it now resides in the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library, and many of the photographs in this volume are reproduced from its original prints.


Although Will Colby served on the Sierra Club’s board of directors for two more decades, he led only one more High Trip after 1928. He had already succeeded, however, in recruiting Ansel Adams into the second generation of leaders, who would continue the High Trip tradition for decades to come. Adams assisted in planning routes and even served as a paid photographer on at least one subsequent trip.


Ultimately, the Sierra Club’s expansion beyond Northern California, along with the growing realization that large groups of people are not compatible with pristine wilderness, led to the High Trip being replaced by the many smaller outings that are run today. Instead of taking one big group to a single destination, Sierra Club volunteers help more than two hundred fifty thousand people in small groups explore thousands of wild places annually.


Adams’ photographs played a pivotal part in helping to protect some of our most precious wild places. He would surely have been saddened to know that, because of climate disruption, the glorious glaciers he photographed during the High Trip have steadily receded. Today, the Robson Glacier’s terminus is more than a mile from where the 1928 High Trippers found it.


Will Colby created the High Trips as a way to heed John Muir’s call to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” As we admire this unique visual document that Ansel Adams made of the snowy Canadian Rockies nearly a century ago, we may also discern another, more alarming message.

—Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director

 

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