Man scales a wall of blue ice

Cold Capture

Words: Terray Sylvester 
Photos: Martin Lugger

An elite ice climber, a wall of frozen avalanche debris, and the light to make it shine: Adventure photographer Martin Lugger on the elements of an award-winning shoot

It’s evening in late October and Martin Lugger is manoeuvring in a tight trench at the foot of the north face of Hochstadel, a Gothically-spired massif in Austria’s Lienz Dolomite Range. The rock wall at his back rises some 2,000 vertiginous feet. If it sheds stone or ice, Lugger will have nowhere to hide, but his attention is in his camera viewfinder, focused on his friend, Peter Ortner, who is ascending, without rope, an overhanging ice cliff a few feet from the rock. The route rarely exists. It forms only when a cold summer comes hard on the heels of a big winter—when Hochstadel sheds avalanches large enough that the debris lasts into the Fall, then freezes into a substance not quite ice, not quite snow. Semi-solid, the climb is dangerous and ephemeral. It is also beautiful. Nature’s hand has given it a crystalline geometry which, thanks to Lugger’s studio lights, shines a deep sapphire hue.

A one-time architecture student, Lugger strayed into photography in 2006 after he caught a glimpse of shooters working an extreme sports competition in his hometown of Lienz, Austria. His images of skiing and slack lining have drawn praise from National Geographic and were shortlisted for a prestigious Red Bull Illume award in 2013. Lugger shows us what it takes to pull off a prize-worthy shoot in extreme circumstances.

Wooden steps that lead to a long, twisty dirt path through mountains


“To be honest it wasn’t even my idea. It was Peter Ortner’s, and it was an awesome location. Sometimes locations look nice but you can’t get there, or they don’t work for photos, or you have the wrong light. But this time it all worked great. There is always a little bit of luck.”

Man in a white helmet and climbing gear looks at a mountain of ice


“A year or two earlier a climber wanted to climb this thing and part of it broke. The guy was buried. He was really injured. So when we arrived, just as a joke, to prove it would be safe, Peter hammered on the snowfield with his hand. It cracked all over. We said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t go. It’s too dangerous.’ But Peter said, ‘No, let’s try it.’”

Man in climbing gear ascends an ice wall


“Peter wanted to climb it once without a rope. I asked him, ‘Are you sure?’ I have to be sure to not push the athlete to do something they don’t feel comfortable with. I know Peter is really focussed. He knows what he is able to do. He has balls of steel? But it always leaves a little bit of a bad feeling in your stomach. The risk is always there. You have to live with it, or you have to not do it.”

Man in climbing gear ascends an ice wall


“I set up a couple of strobes with blue colour gels and a handful with a long distance reflector, but just with the standard light that comes out of the strobe. Blue was the only colour option. It underlines the cold temperatures and says, ‘winter’ and ‘snow.’ Plus, Peter has this blue suit. It’s perfect.”

Man in climbing gear ascends an ice wall


“There is a black line on the edges of the patterns in the snow. It’s mud from the summer, and it accentuates the shapes. It’s like when ladies put on eyeliner to accentuate their eyes. Then, when you light it from the side these structures pop out even more.”

3 people stand around the top of an ice cave


“There is no standard lighting recipe in my opinion. You have to predict what you can use, and what you can carry, because you can’t carry everything! If I could give advice to people who want to get into lighting outdoors action photos, I would recommend using two or three Canon or Nikon speedlights. They are small but you can still achieve nice results.”

Man in climbing gear ascends an ice wall


“What inspires me is getting to exciting places and getting to know exciting characters—what they do, how they live, how they think—to capture them and capture the moment. Afterwards, I look at the photos and I’m satisfied that I joined a great moment—that I was a part of it.”

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11 2015 The Red Bulletin

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