I was standing on a pile of white shale rocks in the middle of nowhere, some 12,000 feet above sea level. The wind was unforgivingly cold that afternoon, nearly pushing me over the ridge into a gorge of jagged basalt. What forces possessed me to climb up the Rockies with ancient Kodak cameras only to endure this horrific climate? Why did I bring three of these hundred-year-old cameras requiring manual film-loading when the cold froze my fingers? The answer: a fantastic mountainous sprawl of snow and bristling aspens.
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While the Trail Ridge Road leading up the Rockies was well-traveled, I felt a bit like pioneers and land surveyors of the past. In 1891, the woefully hopeless Admiral Robert Peary set off from Brooklyn on a second expedition into Greenland, hoping he could map out the northernmost extent of the island. His goal was to prove Greenland an island and find the North Pole, but his claim of finding the North Pole was dubious at best. The man was more of a snake-oil showman than an explorer. He and his men were so haplessly unprepared for the savage weather that, according to Dr. Cook, the expedition’s surgeon, “[they spent] the first Arctic night with the usual half insane mentality of novices.” But even this claim was hyperbolic, and Cook was later charged with fraud for promoting fraudulent oil companies.
Peary wanted photographs; he saddled his expedition with several cameras—the most notable were three No. 4 Kodaks. These giant box cameras required a knob to focus, a string-cock to fire the shutter, and a stiff winding key, but they were capable of 100 or 250 exposures on one roll of film. Peary admired the durability of their construction, but George Eastman, of the Eastman Kodak Company, saw the expedition as a marketing crusade. If a Kodak could endure the North Pole — or the closest land to it in Greenland — it would be proven the superior camera. His campaign—titled “Kodaks at the North Pole”—had worked. George Eastman would reel confidently back into his chair knowing that the first images of the northernmost extent of the globe were taken on Kodak film — using a Kodak camera.
This was the story that flashed through my mind as I gently coasted up the Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. In the back seat I had three Kodak cameras: a 1917 Autographic folding camera, a 1920 folding Premo, and a 1908 No. 2 Brownie, which I didn’t use. I also had 7 rolls of Ilford 124 black and white film, 2 rolls of Pan 60, 1 roll of Ilford orthochomatic, a Nikon F4 to serve as a light meter, a wooden Folmer Graflex Crown tripod from 1901, and a metal No. 2 Kodak tripod from around the same year. If Peary could endure the North Pole, I thought, I could surely endure the Rockies.
From Deer Mountain fork, to the Rainbow Curve, the drive was relatively easy. The road wound through a thick aspen blanket with no foreseeable end. I watched the valley grow smaller and smaller beneath me. Suddenly the snowy mountaintops that seemed so high were now within walking range. The road stretched from one peak to another, the wind made for a shaky drive. Over a century ago, you would have had to forge your way through; climbing cliffs, hacking through brush, and crossing the tundra. I was thankful for those roads.
The Forest Canyon overlook is a good rest stop before setting out on the drive’s final leg. Either that or the Ute trail-head. I took neither. Instead, I barreled into a pull-out just before the rock cut where I attempted to hike down this vague, wind-struck ledge to get a better view of the canyon. In the car, I had fixed the Autographic to the wooden tripod, and the Premo to the metal tripod — but under those intolerable currents, I had to brace one camera with one arm, holding the other camera beneath my other arm, then interchanging them without dropping them. If I did, the wind would kick it right over the ledge. The cold wind paralyzed my fingers, making it nearly impossible to manually adjust the focus and the shutter, but thankfully I had a shutter cable.
At the rock cut, I changed film rolls—a delicate song and dance to ensure the film is wound tightly, correctly, and accurately. The Premo took 120 film, which is still widely in use, but the Autographic and the Brownie took obsolete 116, which is slightly wider than 120. This meant using plastic bumpers on the ends of the spool to “adapt” 120 so it could just barely fit into a 116 cartridge slot. You would then wind film leader on the intake spool, and then close the camera before it has a chance to unravel. The process is so cumbersome and tedious, I refused to do it in the vacuum of that horrible wind.
The sun was going down fast, and I felt my car rocking. I was on the right side of the road, closest inland, but I worried about the drive back down. If the wind got under my car, nothing would stop me from plummeting over. Watching people cut through the wind at 40mph in their 4-wheel SUVs made me jealous and anxious. The lava cliffs were far too windy to explore; I couldn’t even open the door. And that sprawling vista—that magnificent arrangement of ancient mountains, and endless tundra—nearly ran me off the road.
With a bit of luck, I reached the Alpine Visitor Center. The Alpine Ridge Trail will take you to the highest point accessible by foot, but many hikers were bent over from altitude sickness because they hadn’t acclimated — neither did I. I figured a few periodic pauses to catch my breath, and a few chugs of water would prevent the malaise. My body could hardly endure a flight of stairs let alone a steep alpine trail, but I wasn’t about to give up. Would Peary give up? Would Eastman give up?
I soldiered up with all my cameras, and when I reached the top, I fell to my knees. No arrangement of words or idioms can express the sheer magnitude of beauty in those mountains. Millions of years worth of geological evolution gave birth to a formation so overwhelming, so incredible, it brought tears to my eyes. We were mice among prehistoric giants, pilgrims in a land wholly unaware of our presence where time crawls, and where the animals cross uninterrupted. Kodak had a name for it: The Kodak Moment. It surely was.
Shooting on Ilford can be forgiven as long as the body and lens are Kodak ordained. While others eased along with their iPhones and selfie sticks, I was perched on a rock frantically trying to load the film and the converters into the camera—the wind nearly blew the roll out of my hand, and one of the converters dropped between the rocks, but with a bit of luck, the Autographic was ready. Peary brought Kodaks to the northernmost reaches of the globe, and while I wasn’t the first to bring Kodak to the Rockies, I surely was the first to bring these Kodaks to the highest elevation on foot — at least so far.
But that really wasn’t the point, was it? A little bit of “the old” can go a long way, especially in the modern world, but nobody should be expected to learn how to operate a 100-year-old camera to add flavor in their lives. Sometimes breaking out of the mold and trying something weird and new (or old in my case) can add an extra layer of adventure. Hiking is one thing; driving a hike is another, but throwing a wrench into the well-oiled machinery is a fine way to get the blood pumping, and solidify a stronger memory. Life should never be stale; it should always teeter on the verge of absurdity.