• Dan Hilden

New Website; New Blog!


A lot has changed since I launched my first website almost 10 years ago in the spring of 2008. To introduce myself and this blog I'll go into detail about that period of time... The year that I decided to get serious about photography and build a website. Most of us could probably write a whole book about our formative years. That's not my goal here. I'll keep this as brief as I can, and maybe go into more detail about parts of this time in my life in future posts.

At the time I was packing up my life to get ready for what would turn out to be a 16 month long period of life on the road. I knew that I was going to Peru to climb mountains. I knew that I would take a lot of photos and would want to share them with people back home. Instagram didn't exist and I wasn't on Facebook yet, so I learned the basics of HTML and built a website. I didn't know that in Peru I would get sick for most of a month, give up on climbing mountains, spend months hitching and busing around the country, and eventually end up photographing and writing about refugees and the aid workers trying to help them a year after a major earthquake leveled a city on the southern coast.

When I got back to the US the last thing I wanted to do was settle down. Figuring I would save money to travel by not paying rent I loaded everything I might need into the back of a beat up pickup that was as old as I was, and hit the road. I drove up and down Cascadia taking photos, visiting old friends in cities that I hadn't spent much time in, and checking out places in the mountains that I hadn't been before. What little money I had came from occasional jobs assisting photographers with photo shoots, and short term labor jobs. I made just enough to put fuel in my truck (with help from Craigslist ride shares when driving between major cities) and eat enough calories to sustain life.

Winter found me crashing on an old friend's couch in Bozeman, Montana. I wasn't much of a skier at the time, and while Bozeman is somewhat of an ice climbing Mecca, I'd sold my ice tools in Peru to finance my travels. As far as I knew my only plan was to use my friend's house as a basecamp for short trips to shoot photos of wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. On my first day in town however, I decided to go for a drive up Hyalite Canyon to look at the famous (to ice climbers anyway) frozen waterfalls. At the parking area, as I was lacing up my boots to go have a look around, two strangers walked up and introduced themselves as Jeff and Roy. They immediately offered to let me climb with them, and told me that I could borrow their tools. I couldn't have known it at the time, but meeting them that day might have been the beginning of a new chapter in my life. We climbed several times a week, and before long I'd met more people and was heading up the canyon almost every day. I took a couple trips down to Yellowstone to shoot photos, but I was becoming too obsessed with ice climbing to think about much else.

Six weeks later I begrudgingly returned to Olympia, Washington to complete the last quarter that I needed to graduate from college. Throughout most of my college years I worked at restaurants to cover my rent and other living expenses. This last few months was different. I told myself that if I got a halfway decent job and moved into comfortable living situation, I'd risk getting too comfortable and find myself stuck after graduation. The obvious solution was to keep scraping by on odd jobs, and keep living in my truck. It'll be great, I told myself... Because I'd have no money and no place that I could fully relax, I'd be forced to spend more time studying than ever before. Hunger is a great teacher of discipline.

The plan worked to some degree. I was enrolled in an upper division visual art program, which meant I had a key to the school's art building so that I could work after hours. Our program didn't involve much time in an actual classroom. We'd research artists and do presentations on their work and life, listen to the occasional lecture, and get together for critiques. Most of our time was ours to use or to squander. I worked like never before. I poured over every book on photography that I could get my hands on, took photos, edited photos from my time on the road, sent letters to art directors and photo editors, and applied to galleries and arts walks.

The only thing I could afford to do other than study was kill time in the school's gym. I daydreamed about coming climbing season non-stop, and with a couple of specific goals in mind I trained obsessively- I'd lift weights and traverse the climbing gym for at least an hour in the morning, spend another hour lifting weights in the afternoon, and then go for a run in the evening if it wasn't raining. I'd never minded running in the rain in the past, but when you don't have a place to dry your cloths, you do what you can to stay dry.

It was a wet spring in Washington. Most of them are. I'd sleep in wet cloths so that they would dry out a little overnight, and sometimes I had to dry out my only pair of shoes over my camp stove. Most of the time I found the patter of raindrops on my truck's metal canopy soothing, but more than once, morning found me passed out on a couch in the art building or library. I was pretty much always at least a little damp, but it made me really appreciate a sunny day.

In 2009 jobs of any kind were hard to come by. An under-the-table economy was thriving thanks to the job boards on Craigslist, but it was not a worker's market. So many people were out of work that those looking for short term workers could offer an insanely low wage, and get dozens of overqualified applicants to jump at the opportunity. At one point I worked with a scrabbled together remodeling crew where the head builder was only making $12 per hour- Less than half of what he was making at his previous job. One night on my way to such a job I parked my truck and slept in a rest area south of Seattle. In the morning I woke up to find the place packed, and the restroom crowded with people brushing their teeth. The rest area had turned into a sort of ephemeral homeless camp for the underemployed. I managed to get the occasional day or two of work in order eat, but found myself only able to budget about $20 a week on food.

The art market wasn't exactly booming either. Is it ever? I managed to get my photos shown in a cocktail bar in Tacoma, and Arts Walks in Olympia and Issaquah, Washington. I sold a couple of prints in Olympia. In Issaquah I got to set up in the main venue, but only made $3 off of a postcard. A friend had loaned me her car to drive there because I couldn't afford enough gas for my truck. The cocktail bar? When I went back to pick up my framed photos a couple of months later they were collecting dust in a back closet. The bartender made me a drink on the house. It had a nice kick, thanks to my empty stomach.

I hit the road the day after I graduated. A friend had told me that you can make $50 a week selling plasma in Bellingham, Washington. $20 the first time you do it in a week, $30 the second time. I've always had a bit of a fear of needles, but $50 was enough to fill my gas tank, and Bellingham was on the way to Squamish, BC, where I planned to start my climbing season. Some people call it "donating plasma," but I was "selling plasma." I was not doing it to be altruistic... I did it to buy gas, and maybe a six pack now and then.

Having not seen much success in the photography business, I found myself pulling out my camera less and less as the climbing season went along. Success in business depends too much on other people's goals and opinions, I remember thinking, success in climbing mountains is completely up to me. I was transitioning from starving artist, to dirtbag climber. I soon found that my time climbing in Montana, the long hours training in the gym, and all of the visualising and obsessing over routes and mountains was paying off: I had hardly climbed in the mountains in almost two years (something I attribute to my sickness in Peru in 2008, and an injury sustained by rockfall 2007), and was suddenly flying up classic moderate routes and ticking off the occasional harder route.

On the long drive home from Montana that winter an idea flashed in my head that seemed completely crazy at the time, but inspired me enough that I pulled over and scribbled a few thoughts about it in my notebook. I wanted to see if I could climb the Northeast Buttress of Mount Goode alone, in a single day. Forming a massive ridgeline between two remote valleys, Mount Goode is the tallest mountain in the North Cascades National Park. Complete with a long approach, a swift creek crossing, a steep, broken glacier guarding 2,500 feet of rock climbing, and a somewhat complex descent, the Northeast Buttress is one of the true classic alpine routes in the Cascades. I'd climbed the route a few years earlier in three long days, which included a night spent miles away from our sleeping bags.

By September I felt like I was ready for anything. I sold a liter of plasma in order to fill my gas tank, and headed up Highway 20 to sleep at the trailhead. I was on the move by 3:30am. The 15 miles of trail walking and running took longer than I’d expected, but after crossing the creek and bushwhacking up the mountain's lower slopes I was still at the base of the glacier before the heat of the day would start to make the crossing sketchy. The tongue of the glacier was steep enough to make climbing it in lightweight crampons and approach shoes, as expected, the most gripping part of the day. The 2,500 feet of rock climbing was the easy part, and I was on the summit at 2pm. After a series of rapels I lost the path on the 5000 foot descent to Park Creek, but eventually stumbled out of the brush onto the trail. I was relieved that most of the real danger was over with, but still had 20 miles to go. Within a couple of hours darkness had crept into the narrow valley. After startling a couple of bears resting too close to the trail I decided to walk with my ice axe in my hand, and when my tired legs started to have trouble balancing my body it became a cane. The last mile took an eternity. It felt like I was walking on broken glass. I dragged myself across the road and to my car around 3:40 am. The 35 miles and 12,500 feet of elevation gain had taken just over 24 hours.

In the coming years I'd go on to do things in the mountains that were more improbable than that climb, but nothing ever seemed completely impossible after that day. Over the next few days I made my way to Leavenworth, Washington to help a friend remodel his house. I didn't know it yet, but after 16 months my time on the road had come to an end. I've lived in Leavenworth for nine years now. I don't see much reason to ever leave, but who knows what the future holds? 10 years ago I was an adventure-obsessed photographer. My life was very different back then, but some things haven't changed.

#climbing #Washington

© 2017 by Dan Hilden

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