August 11, 2012 is the 10th death anniversary of famed adventurers and photographers Galen and Barbara Rowell. The International Campaign for Tibet’s Rowell Fund for Tibet was initiated in their memory, given their passionate interest in and love for Tibet. The Fund provides grants to projects by Tibetans that deal with themes close to Galen and Barbara. This week we announced the application process for the 2012-13 grant cycle.
Jimmy Chin, who is a member of the Rowell Fund for Tibet’s Advisory Board, recalls in this blog piece the inspiration he had received from Galen. Jimmy is an expert climber/photographer, and was a member of Galen Rowell’s last expedition that traversed the Chang Tang in Tibet in 2002.
Remembering Galen Rowell
by Jimmy Chin
I remember it was 4pm on a Friday in the Spring of 1999 when I first met Galen. I had arrived in Berkeley on Monday, intent on meeting him and asking for beta about the Charakusa Valley in Pakistan. At the time, I was living out of the back of my old Subaru Loyale and had only recently spent my first couple of seasons in Yosemite. I had climbed the Nose in a day and a handful of other El Cap routes and thought I was ready to take it to the next level. I wanted to apply everything I had learned (which was really not that much) to the infamous walls and towers of the Karakoram. Galen was going to be the key figure in my plans since I had no idea where to go and how to get there. I only knew that he had visited an amazing valley in Pakistan with Conrad Anker and Peter Croft the year before and I figured if it was good enough for my personal climbing heroes to go there, it would certainly be good enough for me and my buddies.
I spent a week hanging out in the lobby of Galen’s gallery. The office manager let me know that Galen was extremely busy that week, but wanted to meet me. He just needed to find the right moment. So I came back everyday, and waited. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday went by. I felt like a student from Chinese lore prostrating outside the grandmaster’s studio waiting to get invited in to sweep the floors. I figured I needed to pay my due diligence. The office manager was kind and let me take over the sitting room in the lobby while I poured over Galen’s books and photos. I had a superficial understanding that he was considered the greatest adventure photographer of his time but I hadn’t understood the depth of his intellect, his humanity or the number and breadth of his daring adventures around the world until I started reading his books. He was not only an amazing photographer, but he was also a great writer, story teller and humanitarian.
It didn’t seem possible that one person could have experienced so much in one lifetime and I knew I was only touching the surface of what he had done. I was blown away and completely inspired. He changed the course of my life and I hadn’t even met him.
By Friday afternoon, I was so awe struck and intimidated that I wanted to run out the door when he finally came down the stairs to meet with me. “You must be Jimmy.” I just nodded. “Well, you have my undivided attention for the next two hours. Let’s go!” We went up to his office and he asked me what I wanted to know. I barely eeked out “Charakusa Valley” and his entire demeanor changed. I literally saw the glisten in his eye as a big smile came across his face and he looked genuinely excited to share stories of his adventures there. Over the next hour, climber to climber, he gave me my own personal slide show, pointing out objectives and lines from the beautiful images he had produced from his trip there. Later, he pulled out an outtake from his files and handed me an image of two towers in the valley he thought I should climb. He said, “here, take this and you can get it scanned to show potential sponsors or for climbing grant applications.”
During the last hour, Galen took me into a room full of prints that needed to be signed. It was a treasure trove of some of his greatest images laid out on tables. We walked from image to image as he signed each and explained the stories behind each image, the expeditions that they were taken on and how he shot them. He also pointed out his favorites. I still remember how excited and animated he was telling each story. I was got lost in each one, lapping up every last word.
After he photo copied a bunch of maps for me, gave me the contact info for Nazir Sabir, he shook my hand firmly and handed me a signed book. I didn’t quite know what had hit me. I thanked him profusely and started out the door. On the way out he shouted, “if you go, make sure you bring a camera.”
I did. My expedition to Pakistan in the summer of 1999 would be the start of my career as a photographer. It was also the beginning of over a decade of expeditions around the world, including one to the Chang Tang Plateau with Galen in 2002 for National Geographic. I got to see him work and learned lessons from him that I still use every time I shoot. He was such a character and still driven at 61. I was less than half his age and we crossed the Chang Tang with Conrad Anker and Rick Ridgeway, unsupported and on some days traveling 20 miles a day, hauling gear at over 17,000ft. It was epic.
Tragically, after finally forming a true friendship and bond with him on the expedition, he and his wife died in a plane crash a month after the trip. My personal understanding of the accident was that he had already far overstepped the amount of life experiences for one person in lifetime.
Since my time with him in 2002, I’ve appreciated more and more what he embodied, the spirit of his photography and his adventures. I tried to carry on his legacy the best I knew how. Over the years, I applied his “participatory” style of photography, shooting climbing and ski mountaineering expeditions from the inside out while swinging lead or breaking trail. I climbed, skied and shot on some of the toughest expeditions I could think of and tried to come back with images people had never seen in hopes that someday I could inspire someone the way he had inspired me.
Learn more about ICT’s Rowell Fund for Tibet »