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Meet the adventurer: Garrett Fisher on chasing glaciers around the world

The American photographer and pilot is on a mission to capture as many glaciers as he can, leaning out of his single-engine plane, before they disappear. Here, he talks about working in the Alps and creating a record of images for future generations.

Published 11 Aug 2021, 15:04 BST, Updated 12 Aug 2021, 16:17 BST
Garrett Fisher flies a 70-year-old Piper PA11 plane, with no electrical instrument or GPS, to get aerial ...

Garrett Fisher flies a 70-year-old Piper PA11 plane, with no electrical instruments or GPS, to get aerial shots of vanishing glaciers. 

Photograph by Garrett Fisher

Where did your passion for glaciers come from?

The first time I remember thinking about glaciers was in the late 1990s. I was a teenager, and a nerdy friend told me about one of the first iconic studies of the time that indicated Glacier National Park in Montana would melt by 2030. I was in upstate New York, I’d never even been to a real mountain range, but I had a visceral reaction: I had to see them before they were gone. It just felt wrong that something like that would disappear.

Then life got in the way. I moved to the East Coast and it took until 2015, when I was living in the US Rockies, to get off my rear end and start chasing them. I was going to move to Germany and ship my plane, and I thought of that study. I realised that if I didn’t see the glaciers then, I may never see them. That’s what got things started.

You own a 70-year-old Piper PA11, with no electrical instruments or GPS. Why do you use this particular model?

The plane chose me. My grandfather had been flying this style of airplane since the 1940s, and during his retirement he restored crashed aircrafts of this family. He found this plane in the late 1980s and restored it over a period of time. When I turned 16, he told me this was the plane I’d learn how to fly in. Then my father owned it, and when he passed away in 2010, I acquired it.

Aerial photography wasn’t an ambition at the time. I was an amateur photographer, but very enthusiastic. I started taking pictures from the air for fun, and it was evident from the get-go I had a knack for it — I could see ways to avoid issues with haze and perspective. I moved out to Colorado in 2013 and put the plane in the highest airport in North America, which is twice as high as the highest in Europe, and started trying to figure out mountain flying by myself. Within eight months of arriving, I had my first aerial photography book — Colorado’s 58 peaks over 14,000ft — all taken on that plane, without a radio, without anything.

How do you fly solo and take photographs at the same time?

Practically speaking, I’m always at least about 1,500ft above any physical object, and I’m moving at the speed of a car on a motorway, so there’s a lot of time before I can conceivably hit something. Once I set the throttle, it stays constant without having to touch it. The rudder is foot-controlled, and I hold the stick in my left hand and the camera in my right hand. I take largely wide-angle shots, so even though I’m looking through the viewfinder, I can partially look after aircraft orientation, too.

It’s a choreographed art — flying a plane is special; flying in the mountains is exponentially more complicated, and flying at high altitude with a camera adds that additional dimension. I understand it’s complex, but I’ve been doing it for a while, so it’s become second nature.

What’s the most extraordinary thing you’ve seen from your plane?

I’m continuously wowed by sights like clouds forming off the leeside of the Matterhorn or gale-force winds at 16,000ft around Mont Blanc, but what strikes me most is the Konkordiaplatz in Switzerland. It’s part of the Aletsch glacier system, which is the longest in the Alps, where four major glaciers converge. It’s something you don’t get tired of seeing, and it doesn’t have to be an award-winning photo day to feel awed by it.

Konkordiaplatz is part of the Swiss Aletsch glacier system, which is the longest in the Alps, where four major glaciers converge.

Photograph by Garrett Fisher

How does it feel to chase after something that’s forecast to disappear in the near future?

I have conflicting feelings. In the winter, the glaciers are visible, but they’re not clearly evident because they’re masked by snowpack, so one can become desensitised to the immediacy of climate change ramifications. It usually strikes when I’m most wowed by them, in the peak of summer, when there’s little snowpack and I can see every detail — the thing that makes them visible is the very thing that’s melting them. My first reaction when I see blue ice cascading down the mountainside in thundering waterfalls is to think, that’s beautiful. Then I realise that’s the damage.  

The Alps have one third of the ski resorts in the world, so they resonate with the Western world as the capital of mountain culture. However, in the middle of a clear August day, looking at the whole range from a high vantage point, there aren’t a lot of glaciers there anyway. That, to me, is the saddest part. It isn’t a far-flung concept — I can see them all being gone. The thought of how long this can last is always in the back of my mind when I’m flying.

Why is it important to capture photographs of glaciers?

From a technical standpoint, one can see things from a plane that can’t be seen from the ground without extensive trekking and being extremely skilled. The pictures I take are landscape images people can relate to, as though they were in a national park, seeing the glaciers from the best overlook. My goal in documenting glaciers is also to bring this perspective. I think when people see the photos, they’re moved, and they want to see these places. Glaciers are very hard to get to, and as our world progresses, I’m sure we’d naturally find ways to bring people to them to enjoy them, but they’ll be gone by the time we develop that infrastructure. Waiting isn’t an option.

Earlier this year, you set up the Global Glacier Initiative — a project with the aim of collecting glacier images from around the world. How do you hope your pictures will be used in the future?

When it comes to glaciers, I consider them jewels. They’re beautiful, and from an ecological standpoint, unless you’re living in a place that depends on ice for water flow, we can live without them. I don’t mean to be a pessimist — when it comes to climate change, I think we’ll probably save the human race but not the glaciers. Around 100 to 200 years from now, people will be interested in this past, mystical world that was covered with glaciers in certain areas. My goal is to think of that — what if we lose them? Let’s get them before they’re gone because if we wait until 2050 to realise we might not save them, we’ll have already lost tons of mass. That’s the first thought — the generation that haven’t been born yet. I do believe the images will also be useful for science and outreach purposes, but I’m not convinced anything I do will lead to specific action. I’m trying to share the majesty I experience because if you look at who owns glaciers, it’s the public.

What are your plans for the future?

This summer, I hope to finish photographing every last glacier in the Alps, which will be pretty intense. Then, Canada and Scandinavia are the easiest next steps. There are a bunch of glaciers in Colombia, all the way down to Bolivia and then, skipping over the Atacama Desert, to Patagonia. I alternate between stressing and getting excited about the Himalayas. I spend my spare time staring at maps of places like Turkmenistan and Northern Pakistan. I lay awake at night thinking about Peruvian bureaucracy — I can’t not think about it.

To learn more about Garrett’s work, head to garrettfisher.me and globalglacierinitiative.org, or search @highaltitudephotos

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