On the Trails of the Glaciers

Posted on: October 8, 2010


[Photo] Fabiano Ventura

Editor's Note: Alpinist 32 features photography from Fabiano Ventura's latest project: On the Trails of the Glaciers. Ventura's objective is to explore changes in the world's major glaciers by taking modern photos from exactly the same location as those taken on expeditions a century ago. The project has not only created striking visual dichotomies, but the final results—data, really—are a scientifically valuable compendium that could be used to measure glacial changes over the last 80 to 100 years. Alpinist Assistant Editor Keese Lane spoke with Ventura to learn more about On the Trails of the Glaciers. Their conversation follows.

What inspired you to start this project?

I started this project to communicate, through photography, the need to protect at-risk ecosystems. I wanted to create a multidisciplinary project that could result in public events; this method seemed the best way to spread important concepts such as sustainable development and, in this case, the importance of water, and the glaciers from which it partially derives.

Through this project, which is organized by the nonprofit association Macromicro, of which I am chairman, we plan to investigate the effects of climate change on the most important glaciers in the world, by sending expeditions to the different continents. Through the comparison between historical and modern photographs, and with the collaboration of a qualified scientific committee, we aim to reach a better understanding of the global climate change situation. So our goal is not only to collect qualitative data, by comparing photographs, but also to bring researchers right into the field.

When did you first start thinking about doing a project like this?

In 2004 I was the official photographer of a climbing/scientific expedition, K2 2004 Fifty Years Later, organized to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first ascent of K2. For that expedition I had the opportunity to do basically the same work as done in 1909 by the mountaineer/photographer Vittorio Sella (who has always been an inspiration for my own work) and Massimo Terzano, who, in 1929, was the photographer for the Duke of Spoleto's Karakoram expedition.

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During our expedition I tried to pinpoint the actual places from which Sella and Terzano had taken their pictures, and was able to take some shots with the same perspective as the historical images, but my duties and the difficulties I met on the mountain didn't allow me to carry out this project with the needed accuracy. When I returned to Italy from that trip, I started a long and thorough search in historic archives and organized a scientific committee to give the future project On the Trails of the Glaciers the necessary scientific support.

What was it about the historical photos that captivated you?

Their unique aesthetic beauty, their scientific value, which is still useful even today, and their absolute value in terms of the conditions and difficulties encountered by their authors to obtain them.

Why did you begin with the Karakoram?

Since the first half of the last century, Italians have had a special relationship with the Karakoram mountains: Many expeditions ventured there and produced a huge amount of scientific data and photographs that are still useful today. We also wanted to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of one of the most important Italian expeditions to the Karakoram, that of Luigi Amedeo Duke of Abruzzi and his photographer Vittorio Sella. Those two were followed by Dainelli and Giotto De Filippi in 1913-1914, Duke of Spoleto in 1929, and Ardito Desio in 1954. Personally, I felt the urgency to accept this inheritance, and to continue their research by starting my own project in the same place. Moreover, given the complexity and the anomaly of glacial dynamics in these mountains compared to the ones of the near Himalaya, there was a strong scientific interest for choosing the Karakoram.

[Photo] Fabiano Ventura

Did doing this project change your perception of Sella and Terzano's work? Do you feel any connection to the Duke and Sella now after traveling along their footsteps?

Absolutely. Very much has changed since I started working on this project over five years ago. The respect that I feel towards them has really increased. I researched their ways of working, by reading their travel diaries, their technical notes and books on their expeditions; I must say that, given the equipment and the clothing they used and the great logistical difficulties they faced, their works are nothing less than heroic. Just consider a few examples: Our photographic equipment is made out of lightweight and durable materials such as carbon fiber, magnesium and aluminum alloys; their equipment was made out of iron and wood. Our clothing is waterproof, breathable and thin thanks to materials such as Gore-Tex, capilene baselayers, pile fabrics and duck feathers; their clothing was mostly made from cotton and wool. Our journey to Karakoram took three days, using airliners and Jeeps; their journeys took months, using ships and horses. During our expeditions we easily found our way with GPS, and communicated with journalists and friends on the Internet and by satellite phone; they literally lost all contact with the world and committed their thoughts and their experiences just to the paper of their travel diaries.

Today, technological innovation has brought us comfort and undeniable advantages, but perhaps it takes away the possibility to face a slow and romantic journey. It also has shielded us from the physical difficulties that previous generations faced.

Often, I'm the first one in a century to retrace the paths of ancient explorers and photographers far from the usual expedition routes; sometimes, when I find small traces of these explorers, I feel as I'm able to speak with them, and somewhat share their emotions.

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