Bradford Washburn was the pioneer of aerial mountain photography and remains the patron saint for all who’ve come after, including Austin Timm, a Clyde Park, Montana-based pilot and photographer. Lots of pilots are creating gorgeous mountain photos, from John Scurlock in the North Cascades to Steph Abegg elsewhere in the Northwest, but by staying committed to the deeply saturated and richly contrasted black and white, Timm stays very much within the Washburn tradition.
His hope is that his images, dozens of which are posted to a website called NavAid, will be as useful to Montana climbers, skiers, search and rescue pros, and others as Washburn’s have been to Alaskan mountain travelers. AJ caught up with him to learn more.
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How long have you been working on this project?
I have been taking pictures out of airplanes for personal use for as long as I can remember – I grew up in a multi-generation airline family. This project got underway informally in 2010 with us taking more photos of mountains than anything else, and largely in Montana. Friends and family began strongly urging us in late 2014 to pick up our efforts and transition from taking “pretty photos” to “capturing data”; at that urging we took our first systematic photo flight in February 2015 with an unusually thin snowpack. We held those photos privately for quite a while as we we mulled whether or not to release them publicly, and for that matter how to release them publicly. In early November 2015 we finally decided to launch the photos on our website in the noncommercial “NavAid” format.
Where did the idea come from?
I did rescue work for five years as a wilderness EMT for a local volunteer (but very busy) agency – Gallatin County Search and Rescue – in that time I was very active in the alpine/helicopter team, which aptly named used helicopters to search for and rescue injured hikers, climbers, skiers, and hunters from the backcountry—not just within our jurisdiction but also a lot of mutual aid. In my time with that organization we frequently operated with very little information and lots of jet fuel. A typical call may involve an injured person on a ridge “somewhere north of Sacagawea Peak (Northern Bridgers).” The 911 center would attempt to get us GPS coordinates, but due to lack of cell towers those coordinates were usually unreliable.
Of course, these calls would come 90 minutes before sunset in partly to mostly cloudy skies. Our best resource was Google Earth—we would use it to scout cliff bands, lakes, meadows, and other terrain features. But looking at Google Earth to create a rescue plan is sort of like using the game Operation to plan a real life invasive surgery in the emergency room.
We were all climbers, and we all knew who Brad Washburn was and what he did for the climbing community in Alaska. That was the first mental seed for a guidebook idea and that was probably back in 2009. All we needed were high quality pictures, a difficult task considering that the Bridger Mountains are a lone ridge. There are no opposing ridges to stand on with a tripod, to take revealing photos you need an aircraft.
What’s the ultimate goal?
The ultimate goal is fourfold. One, to provide all backcountry adventurers with a revealing, accurate, and uncluttered resource with which to plan their trips. I do not wish to discriminate amongst user groups. Human powered or coal fired, and rifle, ski pole, or ice axe makes no difference to me in terms of this resource.
Two, to provide a benchmark or reference point that historians, climatologists, ranchers, and others can use to evaluate their world well into the future. All we have now in the public domain are random photographs taken in different places, at different times, by different people; I intend to change that randomness with a more scientific approach.
Three, to get this resource out there for search and rescue professionals and anyone else who serves the public interest so that the public may actually be better served.
Four, I have had lots of advantages provided to me in years past (I’m only 27 years old) by people who had the unique capability of easily providing someone else a benefit, now I find myself in the same shoes. Why would I bogart this cool resource?
Looking south along the Bridger Ridge from Flathead Pass
Have you had any complaints from locals who don’t want the peaks shared?
I have had one hater. I only share publicly available, non-contested information from the USGS. Official names and official elevations, I strive not to share many details, I want the adventurer to have the experience of doing their own research. I also do not share all the details available to me and I definitely do not share unofficial names of couloirs, gullies, bowls, or summits (the local secrets).
I expected a lot more friction than I’ve received. It turns out that a lot of native Montanans and transplants who have been here much longer than myself actually really appreciate this project. They understand the value in it, particularly the value of documentation and also the benefit from showing adventurers that there are many options in planning their weekend, they don’t have to keep going to the same trailhead time and time again. They very much appreciate that I am not sharing secrets. Also, we should acknowledge that there are already a lot of photos out there, but they’re taken from ridges, summits, and valleys—my photos are just a different angle, that’s all. They also take more work to obtain, don’t even get me started on the difficulty of weather forecasting in mountain flying, and then trying to combine that with good photography conditions.
It’s important to me that I let people know that I am not a professional photographer, I am not charging for my photos and I will not be charging for my photos. We are hosting NavAid on our business website but only because it’s convenient and on message. It’s strictly non-commercial and we have paid for all the flying, photography equipment, editing software, and breakfast sandwiches out of our own pocket. If it ever stops being fun for us I guess we’d just take it offline.
The queen of the Northern Bridgers – Sacagawea Peak – stands high above Fairy Lake.