Alex Steelsmith
"It was only about a quarter mile to the summit-a very dramatic and beautiful stretch, with long drop-offs on both sides and the sharp edge of the ridge forming a gigantic serrated blade of ice against the sky."

          "As we continued to rise in elevation, the temperature rose too (the high clouds were trapping some heat), and for a couple of hours the wind decreased. We were amazed, and wondered how long it would hold up. Soon we could see the summit ridge looming above us, and after a few more hours of climbing we were ascending the final headwall and climbing onto the narrow ridge. From there it was only about a quarter mile to the summit-a very dramatic and beautiful stretch, with long drop-offs on both sides and the sharp edge of the ridge forming a gigantic serrated blade of ice against the sky. It was just a matter of following that ridge upward until there was nothing left to climb . . .
          " . . . Since my trip, I've started working on more than one Denali painting. But if there's a single image that captures my experience, if there's one painting that can sum it up, it's this view from the summit . . .
          " . . . Among other things, I wanted it to express the pristine, calm feeling of a high white place above a storm, so high that you can see the curve of the earth, with clouds that seem to recede forever. I also wanted to depict some of the otherworldly, ethereal qualities of the light at that altitude-the way the sky takes on a deep blue-black color and the windblown snow and ice formations shine in the brilliant sun . . .
          " . . . One person wrote: 'Why would you ever want to leave the comfort of your home at sea level in paradise, to spend a month in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet? Is it "because it's there"?' Part of the answer is that for as long as I can remember I've been drawn to mountains-some of my earliest memories are of painting and climbing them-and this one is particularly compelling. Traveling on foot through so much natural beauty heightens my perceptions and creates a unique bond between the mountain and the artwork: it's one of my ways of doing a study for the painting, and at the same time it becomes the inspiration for it . . .
          "The urge to paint a mountain is no different than the urge to paint anything else; when I see a mountain, it presents a challenge that can only be met with a painting-and for me that's a more difficult challenge than climbing the mountain. As an artist, one of my jobs is to create something that doesn't exist, something out of thin air (literally, in this case). So it's not a question of climbing a mountain 'because it's there.' It's more that I want to make the painting because it isn't there."
-From Alex's description of his mountaineering/painting/fundraising expedition
on Denali (Mount McKinley) for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation

"All you could hear above the sound of the wind was the scraping of ice axes and steel crampon points in the ice and snow, and lungs gasping for oxygen. The sky was clear, the stars brilliant, and the Milky Way the brightest I've ever seen it. If you were watching from the distance, all you'd have seen was a faint dotted line of lights moving slowly upward in the darkness-the only indication that a small group of men connected by ropes, each wearing a climbing helmet with a headlamp attached, was inching its way up the side of an enormous extinct volcano."

          "It was a great trip, even more full of unexpected turns of events than I expected . . .
          "The first three days consisted of a 30-mile hike up two isolated river valleys to base camp. As the terrain became rougher and steeper, native vegetation gradually gave way to scree slopes, gorges, snowfields, crashing waterfalls, and increasingly spectacular scenery . . .
          " . . .Views appeared around practically every rock outcropping or snowdrift that I could spend months painting, among them some of the most beautiful landscapes I've ever been lucky enough to climb through. One of the more fascinating sights was the penitentes-jagged abstract-looking snow and ice pinnacles that stand on the side of the mountain like gigantic stalagmites. Penitentes form as a result of unique climate conditions on glaciers and snowfields at high altitudes in the Andes, carved by sun and wind into free-form sculptures. They're named for their resemblance to praying monks in white robes (penitente is Spanish for 'penitent one,' and I'm told connotes 'saint') . . . At an elevation of about 16,000 feet, I climbed through whole armies of them, some ten feet taller than me. I was most intrigued by the way they held the light, each reflecting the intense sunlight onto the ones in front of it while at the same time being back-lit by the ones behind it. I had all I could do not to stop climbing and spend the rest of my time on the mountain among the penitentes . . .
          "I would've been perfectly content not climbing any higher, but at the same time I felt curious about what good options for the painting I might find above. That's what had kept me going, more than anything else . . . the natural urge to see as much as I can of my subject, from as many viewpoints as possible . . . The possibilities for the painting kept pulling me higher on the mountain . . .
          "Despite the weather, it was beautiful climbing out of high camp. All you could hear above the sound of the wind was the scraping of ice axes and steel crampon points in the ice and snow, and lungs gasping for oxygen. The sky was clear, the stars brilliant, and the Milky Way the brightest I've ever seen it. If you were watching from the distance, all you'd have seen was a faint dotted line of lights moving slowly upward in the darkness-the only indication that a small group of men connected by ropes, each wearing a climbing helmet with a headlamp attached, was inching its way up the side of an enormous extinct volcano. I kept thinking about what a great scratchboard drawing this would make, depicting only the stars, the black silhouette of the mountain, and the tiny constellation of headlamps below . . .
          "As the sun rose, it illuminated an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the landscape of Chile in the shadows of the mountains far below. (Aconcagua is in Argentina but close to the Chilean border, and the Pacific was only about 90 miles away). At one point, looking down into Chile, I was reminded of a line from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who once crossed the Andes, that seemed particularly appropriate: 'Give me silence, water, hope, / Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.'
           "At about 20,000 feet we were hit head-on by the Andes' infamous Viento Blanco, or 'White Wind,' a weather phenomenon of high wind from the west and southwest (Antartica) containing snow and micro ice crystals that make it the scourge of andinistas (the Spanish term for mountaineers). I don't know what velocity it reached, but it was stronger than anything we'd experienced yet, and for the rest of the day it never let up. The visibility steadily got worse, and the wind became so intense that another climber only 20 feet below you wouldn't see any footprints or other marks you left in the snow because they'd be instantly drifted over. One thing was becoming clear: I wouldn't have the opportunity that day to use any of the art equipment in my pack. (Instead, I actually found myself thinking it would provide some extra ballast to help keep me from blowing off the mountain!) . . .
          "I couldn't imagine painting Aconcagua without painting penitentes, so I included a group in the foreground. With their namesake in mind, I thought of them as a procession of giant ice-monks moving up the mountain in unison. I liked the idea of having them blend together as they recede in the distance, to the point where none stands out above the others and eventually you can no longer see them as separate individuals: a potentially infinite number of climbing saints, merging into a single white shape and becoming part of the mountain."
-From Alex's description of his mountaineering/painting/fundraising expedition
on Aconcagua (the highest peak in the Western hemisphere) for the Muscular Dystrophy Association


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