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Mountain Light Darkened

Features
posted: 11/23/2002

Galen Rowell had a dizzying travel schedule. Nepal, Tibet, China, Pakistan. The Arctic and Antarctica. Patagonia. Africa. It seemed like I was always running into him in Alaska or the Himalaya-but wherever it was, his bonhomie was a welcome antidote to life on the road.

Galen was a superb all-around alpinist and wilderness traveler. Many of his best trips involved skiing: Among them were a 285-mile winter ski traverse of the Karakoram and a climb of 24,757-foot Mustagh Ata, perhaps the highest ascent and descent yet performed entirely on skis.

In the wee hours of August 11, 2002, Galen, his wife, Barbara, and another passenger were riding in a Cessna piloted by a close friend. Two miles south of their home runway in Bishop, California, the plane crashed for reasons unknown as of this writing. Everyone aboard died on impact.

Though Galen was the one most often mentioned in the news, it is impossible to understand him without considering Barbara. Their lives were entwined.

Still in his 20s and working as a car mechanic, Galen decided to leverage his considerable talents as a rock climber in Yosemite and become a photographer of mountains. Barbara was a self-described gypsy: She loved wandering, flying her airplanes, and seeing sublime landscapes. At one point, while doing marketing work for The North Face, she hired Galen to write about and photograph a backpack. Love followed.

Barbara soon ran the couple's photography business, Mountain Light, and was a frequent companion on Galen's trips. She often produced, by her husband's own admission, a sizable portion of the best images in the picture file.

Galen's photography celebrated the 19th-century romantic notion that landscapes untouched by human hands are the repository of the pure and holy. From this perspective, another sunrise over the Sierra was always worth shooting. And the mass market loved it: In 25 years, he published 18 books and countless magazine articles, and hosted workshops in far-flung corners of the planet. Ironically and sadly, lives that had been so much about traveling the world came to an end so close to home.

Wildlife photographer James Balog is the author of five books, and his images have appeared in dozens of international art collections. In 1996, he was the first photographer ever commissioned to create stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.

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