Rock Climber And Mountaineer Ed Cooper Packed A Large Format Camera To The Top Of Many Of North America’s Highest Peaks
Now He Speaks Out About His Explorations, First Ascents, Sierra Club Books, Conservation And Philip Hyde’s Contribution
Short Bio of Ed Cooper
Ed Cooper is a pioneer mountaineer and fine art photographer who lives in the California wine country. At age 16, he climbed Mt. Rainier, 14,411′ (4392 meters), one of Washington’s most formidable peaks and photographed the experience. He has climbed and photographed mountains ever since, nearly always with a large format camera. His collection of summits includes Mt. Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska (20,320) the highest peak in North America and the 3,000 foot vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park.
In December 2003, the film, In the Shadow of the Chief: The Baldwin and Cooper Story came out telling the tale of Ed Cooper and Jim Baldwin’s unusual scaling of the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief near Squamish, British Columbia, Canada in 1961. The climb was sponsored by the town and the film features vintage footage of the original ascent, as well as new footage of a re-enactment.
His new book, Soul of the Heights: 50 Years Going to the Mountains, offers glimpses into mountaineering and rock climbing in the 1950s and early 1960s during the highly competitive era of first ascents, through his own experiences, photographs and exclusive firsthand accounts by climbers of the era about their first ascents of now top destination climbs. Ed Cooper’s 4×5 and 5×7 photographs include portraits of many of the best-known peaks in North America. His previous books are Soul of the Rockies: Portraits of America’s Largest Mountain Range, The American Wilderness in the Words of John Muir, Grand Canyon: Shrine of the Ages and Early Mining Days – California Gold Country: The Story Behind the Scenery. Ed Cooper’s photographs graced the famous Sierra Club Desk Calendars for many years, as well as many other prominent publications including many of the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series books and other Sierra Club Books and publications.
Climbing Mountains, Photographing For Sierra Club Books, Glen Canyon And Conservation
By Ed Cooper, March 2012
Date: Sometime in late 1956 or early 1957
Place: Washington State
Back then I was about 20 years old, busying myself with climbing the volcanoes and other peaks in the Pacific Northwest. These activities were carried on when I was not occupied with my studies at the University of Washington, or perhaps I should say, I went climbing when I should have been occupied with my studies. I had aspirations to visit other mountain areas also, such as the Sierra Nevada. One day I walked into a bookstore and spotted the following book: The Climber’s Guide to the High Sierrawritten by Hervey Voge and published by the Sierra Club. Immediately I purchased the book from the meager funds I had available at that time.
At the first opportunity, I sat down to look through the book and began to plan climbing objectives in the Sierra Nevada for the time when my financial situation would allow me to go there. At the front of the book were 17 black and white photographs. Six of the photos were by Ansel Adams, whose name I had heard only recently at that time. However, as I looked at all the images, my gaze quickly settled on one that was my favorite–the now iconic black and white photograph of Lake Ediza and the Minarets with the rock slabs on the left side of the picture. All the elements fall into place perfectly. It turned out that the photographer was Philip Hyde. Years later I heard that Ansel Adams had remarked that he liked Philip Hyde’s rendition of the Minarets better than his own.
It was to be a number of years before I made it to the Sierra Nevada, but it was not nearly so long before I learned more about Philip Hyde and his outstanding contribution–through his photography–to the conservation movement.
I remember looking with fascination at This is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers(1955) with an introduction and chapter by Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner and photographs by Philip Hyde and Martin Litton. Somewhat later I poured over Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula(1962) by Harold Gilliam and Philip Hyde. Philip’s books were all aimed at protecting diverse wilderness areas in the Western US. He provided more photography for the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series than did any other photographer.
In these years my climbs became increasingly difficult, but I found that I had a penchant for photography myself, progressing from an Ansco Panda box camera, to two 2 ¼ square folding cameras, and finally to my first 4×5 camera—a Speed Graphic in 1962. Later I progressed to actual view cameras, 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10. I found myself becoming more interested in capturing images on film than reaching summits or climbing large cliff faces.
I made what might be considered a pilgrimage about 1969 to meet Philip in his home in the northern Sierra Nevada. He was gracious; there was no air of pretentiousness about him. He wowed me by showing me his studio work area and many samples of his darkroom prints.
The Exhibit Format Series packed a powerful punch. How powerful it was I did not realize until February of 2012, when I received a letter from Bill Douglas in Annapolis, Maryland. I had done photography for The Alpine Lakes, a de facto wilderness area in the Cascade Mountains not far from Seattle. This book was published in a large format edition, similar to the Sierra Club Books, by the Seattle Mountaineers in 1971. The pressure by the mining, logging, and other interests to exploit this area was intense.
Bill described how President Ford had been persuaded to sign the bill to protect the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Washington’s then Governor Dan Evans had flown to Washington for an appointment with President Ford to try to persuade him to sign the bill, but had forgotten to take a copy of The Alpine Lakes book with him. Bill Douglas and Dan Evans were hiking buddies who had talked about the importance of this meeting. Bill ended up taking his own copy of the book to the White House, where Dan showed the book to President Ford. Words were not needed. Ford exclaimed something like “This is beautiful country – it’s gotta be protected,” and signed the bill. Bill still has that book with the inscription “To Bill Douglas, with warmest best wishes, Gerald R. Ford.” That is the power of conservation photography.
While Philip’s books resulted in the protection of many wild areas, conservationists will always remember with regret the place that got away. I refer to Glen Canyon, flooded when Glen Canyon Dam was built to create what is now Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona. I am sure Philip felt this regret acutely, as he had spent time capturing one-of-a-kind images of this now flooded national treasure. On a visit there just recently in 2011, I saw large areas of ugly mud flats left behind by receding Lake Powell with the reservoir level at that time down more than 100 feet.
Philip Hyde said: “For every place there will always be people that want to exploit it, and there will always be people—hopefully—that want to save it and keep it as it is. Even with the risk of inviting crowds into Paradise, better to publish your photographs and rally the troops. What’s in the frame of the photograph matters artistically, to be sure, but what’s outside the frame can destroy it.” Truer words were never spoken.
We are fortunate to have David Leland Hyde, Philip’s son, continuing to bring his father’s legacy to us in digital restorations of many of Philip’s images that were crucially important to the conservation movement, as well as the stories behind them. Both the stories and images might otherwise be lost.