Gordon Wiltsie: Creating a Career in Expedition Photography and Storytelling

A cool, moist wind blows from the Pacific Ocean as I drive up California Highway 1, past the beach town of Half Moon Bay. I’m meeting with expedition photographer and University of California Santa Cruz graduate Gordon Wiltsie to talk about his remarkable career, and how his education prepared him for the adventurous life he created for himself.

There’s a layer of ocean fog at 1,000 feet so the sunlight is soft, while the air is cool and damp. Despite the highway traffic, it is quiet, with muffling fog softly drifting in and out of the stands of eucalyptus and redwood. In some ways, it reminds me of photos that Wiltsie has published of the mountains of California, Nepal, and Peru, where the fog sweeps in over thick high-mountain forests.

And I wonder, “how did a mountain adventurer end up at sea level?”

I arrive at Gordon’s house, and am greeted by him and Sarah Caldwell, UC Santa Cruz Humanities Division Assistant Director of Development. It was Sarah who set up our meeting, and who had engaged both of us as part of an outreach program to involve more UC Santa Cruz humanities graduates in the division’s planning, activities, and future.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, just south of Pescadero, CA.

Gordon is slender, with a medium build, somewhat shaggy brown hair and a calm, relaxed manner; but as soon as he begins to speak, his intensity flares, he gestures, and you can see the qualities of perseverance and attention to detail that have made him a successful explorer and artist. As we sit at the dinner table, Sarah takes photos of us talking, and I notice several striking landscapes on the walls and the shelves — samples from his 40-year career, traveling to the world’s most remote, challenging and often dangerous locations, to explore, photograph and describe, in concise and moving prose, what he saw, felt, and experienced.

Gordon Wiltsie. Photo by Sarah Caldwell.

As we get acquainted, Gordon explains that his photography has taken a significant turn in recent years. His four decades of adventure travel to fierce and punishing locations have taken some toll on his ability, and willingness, to adapt to such harsh conditions; so not long ago, he moved with his family down to sea level, and now has set a new career focus. He is feeling good and excited about what’s he’s doing and what is still to come in his creative work.

We first want to understand how he became an expedition photographer; to do that, we begin with his two years at Amherst, a renowned, 200-year-old, private, (then) men-only liberal arts college in eastern Massachusetts. His father and uncles had attended Amherst, so the strong family tradition had sent him there. It was at Amherst that Gordon made a radical decision that set him on his career and life’s path.

A California Adventurer Moves East Then Back West

At the end of his sophomore year, Gordon Wiltsie had a clear academic path, and a bright future lay ahead. His two years at Amherst had been successful, the college was intellectually exciting and challenging, and his talent for math and science had made him his chemistry professor’s choice as a teaching assistant in his upcoming junior year.

“He was going to mentor me,” says Wiltsie. “I was really good at math, but at Amherst, I also got exposed to Shakespeare, quantum mechanics, sociology… and I loved political science.”

But something wasn’t right: “In some ways I got caught up in all of that, but I didn’t really fit in there.”

So Wiltsie changed his plans. Completely. Rather than return to Amherst for a third year, he did two things that dramatically altered the course of his career, and his life.

First, he decided to take a year off, to work and then to travel. He explains, “I worked at a Union Carbide mine, and for the Forest Service, and saved up enough money to travel for six months. Just vagabonding; I bought this beat-up old VW bus. I learned how to fix everything; it was a life-changing event.” He then headed to Europe, and encountered some wild and dangerous situations, especially in Turkey where had a run-in with a Brazilian drug smuggler.

Mongolia, Darhad Valley, Young riders race bareback at a festival before their annual fall migration. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie (used with permission).

Second, he applied to UC Santa Cruz. “Before I went off to Europe, I applied to UC Santa Cruz, and I was accepted while I was still on the road,” Gordon says. UCSC had actually been his first choice while still in high school, but family tradition had been a strong influence on his choice of Amherst. After two years at Amherst, he realized he wanted to return home.

Wiltsie was born and raised in Bishop, CA, a small (population under 3,000) high-desert town at the base of Mt. Whitney on the Eastern escarpment of the lofty Sierra Nevada. He loved growing up in Bishop: “It was spectacular: it was in the mountains, and my parents were adventurous, so we did some amazing things out in the wilderness.” As a teenager, Wiltsie learned mountaineering and other outdoor skills, and became comfortable with high altitude, extremes of heat and cold, wind, rain — all preparations for the career that was to come.

Horses graze in Round Valley area of Owens Valley, beneath a clearing spring storm over the eastern Sierra Nevada escarpment, CA. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie (used with permission).

Still in high school, he discovered two activities that would later define his career: writing and photography. Gordon says, “In high school I became a yearbook photographer. I had been taking pictures since I was a kid, and I had taken hundreds of rolls of film, so that became the focus of my life. Then writing; I was editor of the school yearbook.”

After his two years at Amherst, Wiltsie realized he wanted to return to the life and friends he had known in the mountains while in high school. “I was still part of this mountaineering community in California that included some pretty significant people who are still leaders; Doug Robinson, and while still in high school, I met Galen Rowell.” As it turned out, Robinson was already beginning a career as a mountaineering writer, and Galen was a young photographer who would later be called “the Ansel Adams” of his generation. Both would play important roles in Gordon’s professional development.

In 1974, mountaineers Jay Jensen & Roger Schley sit by a campfire before climbing in the Palisades region of the Sierra Nevada, California (John Muir Wilderness). Photo by Gordon Wiltsie (used with permission).

In hindsight, it was likely a pretty straightforward decision: “My friends were in the mountains, climbing, and skiing in the winter. At Amherst, I just thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I could have had a good life teaching Chemistry, but I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It was a decision point in my career; I had made up my mind.”

At Kresge College, Things Come Together Quickly

After a year spent working and traveling, Wiltsie enrolled in Kresge College, changing his major from Chemistry to Creative Writing and Photography.

In his first quarter at Kresge, Gordon quickly transitioned to a new course of study: “My first year at Santa Cruz, I took a writing course, from a novelist named Jim Houston, that blew my mind. He loved some of my writing, especially my stories about the drug world in Istanbul.”

Already, his climbing and traveling experiences were providing the material he needed to formulate his career. Wiltsie explains, “Photography was my driving force, but the written word was important for creating a market for the pictures. I did it because it was ‘cool’ in high school. I’m good at writing succinctly. Then I fell in love with writing in Jim Houston’s class, because I got to write about what I had done, and what I did was pretty amazing.”

He elaborates, “I also took a chemistry class, and a biology class, and an independent study. But Kresge didn’t have a dark room yet, so I was using the dark room at College V (now Porter College). The professor who was teaching photography, Ken Ruth, was a great photographer, and a real technician. He didn’t quite know what to do with me. But he taught me a lot about precision, and the importance of tonality.”

Then, Gordon discovered that he could use an independent study to travel, and his sister told him about a foreign study program in Nepal; he realized he could go abroad, take photos, write about his experiences,and get college credit all at the same time.

“Santa Cruz was just set up for independent study,” he explains. “Professor Carter Wilson, a brilliant community studies professor who had done extensive field work in Guatemala, offered to chair a committee to supervise my work, and together with Ken Ruth and James Houston, sponsored me for a quarter or more of independent study.”

With academic advisors supporting him in what he most wanted to do, Wiltsie packed his bags and set off again.

He says “I went to Nepal and lived with this family who didn’t speak English. I was just free to do what I wanted. I was writing and doing photography, and I came back with a portfolio.”

Nepal, Himalayas. 80 year old rice farmer of Maghar tribe. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie (used with permission).

It was a seminal time in Wiltsie’s new career: while in Nepal, “I climbed my first 20,000-foot mountain, by myself. I put the expedition together, I lived with this family, I did all this amazing stuff. And I was just twenty-one years old.”

That independent study was the beginning of an exhilarating career that took him to some of the highest, coldest and most severe locations on earth, in a profession that Gordon describes as “expedition photographer.”

In the process, the world lost a potentially fine chemist, but gained an adventurer who would bring some of the earth’s most inaccessible places, the people who live there, and their amazing stories to the public’s attention.

Wiltsie’s major projects and achievements from those years are well documented in his 2006 book, To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer.

Why did Gordon choose UC Santa Cruz? He says, “The thing I loved about UC Santa Cruz, and the reason I came, was that I knew it had a lot more academic freedom. Plus it was a gorgeous campus, and it was closer to Yosemite Valley; that was a big draw.”

He adds, “I just thought there would be more freedom. And it so exceeded my expectations. Right off the bat, I met classmates who were really inspirational, and Jim Houston, who was so nurturing. It was a whole different experience than I had had before.”

Back Home, Someone Is Working on His Behalf

Meanwhile, another development, of which Gordon at first had no knowledge, was reinforcing his new direction. His old climbing buddies were helping his career while he was out of the country. Wiltsie explains, “While I was in Nepal, Doug Robinson, that up-and-coming writer, took some of my black and white photos from Europe and some earlier climbing trips, and he sent them to Mountain Gazette magazine. And while I was in Nepal, they put one of my photos on the inside of the magazine, and another on the cover, and they also put my name in the masthead.”

Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. Alex Lowe climbs difficult “aid” high on Great Sail Peak above Stewart Valley. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie (used with permission).

Gordon had become a *professional* nature and travel photographer for one of the leading mountaineering magazines — all without his knowledge. In his words, “when I got back from Nepal and learned what had happened, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’”

Still a student, he was already a published writer and photographer in a career he had just begun to define, thanks to the efforts of his climbing partners.

Once he returned, his academic work at UC Santa Cruz continued. He says, “I had this realization, ‘this is where I’m going.’ My senior year, I had to take literature, and core requirements, and a history class — all this broadened my horizon, just like at Amherst. I spent hours every day writing on a typewriter on my bed, or in the darkroom, just cranking out prints. I had a photography exhibit at Kresge, I had photos published in the campus publications; and meanwhile, I’m also getting checks every month from this magazine. It wasn’t enough income to support me, but it was very encouraging.”

His good fortune in publishing also continued: “Ascent magazine spotted the work I had done in a student-run seminar on creative photography, where we all got together and we created these amazing pictures. So Ascent published some of my photos, and one thing led to another.”

The editor of another outdoors magazine, Outside, then offered work to the photographers and writers for Mountain Gazette, including Gordon. “I was in the right place for the right time for all kinds of things to happen,” he says.

There is yet one more important piece of the puzzle that was aligning for Gordon. “The other thing is that I had this second skill: I had become a climbing guide. At first I gave it the short shrift, but then I realized it was vital. I had worked in the Palisades (High Sierra peaks south of Bishop, CA), leading mountaineering students up difficult climbing routes up 14,000-foot mountains. That then evolved in to more trips to Nepal, early trekking trips. Eventually that even led to guiding climbing expeditions in Antarctica.”

He summarizes: “It was that combination of guiding, photography and writing that made me a really good bet to be their guide, because they’d get publicity; and the magazines loved it, because my way was paid by the trekkers and climbers.”

Advice for Students Considering UCSC Humanities

Wiltsie’s unique career is a testament to the success and fulfillment that can come from discovering a personal passion, and then enabling that passion with an education in the arts and humanities. Sarah asks Gordon: “What would you suggest for someone who wants to consider UC Santa Cruz or the humanities, and what questions should they ask themselves?”

Gordon’s reply is a clear reflection of his UC Santa Cruz experience: “UC Santa Cruz is a really open-minded setting. The community is that way, the colleges are that way. You have everything from really rigorous science to extremely creative thinking in the arts. UCSC strikes me as a extremely broad-based curriculum, not as rigorously focused as some of the universities are.”

He continues, “I’m a big supporter of a broad education. I mean, even if I had stayed at Amherst in Chemistry, I know doctors and lawyers who were friends of mine, they often felt it was important to major in Philosophy. If you focus on just one thing, you miss out on so much that makes you a complete person. Knowing about Shakespeare, you hear a line from a play later in your life, and it has meaning.”

He then tells of a lesson he *wishes* he had learned: “Maybe learn Latin, or Spanish. I studied French in high school and I did really well, but I thought it was ‘stupid,’ because I lived in California. Then when I got to Amherst, they wanted me to skip a year and continue in straight into advanced French, but I was afraid I would fail. I even convinced the language board that the language would have no relevance to my life. So they let me skip it.

“Then, a year later, I was vagabonding in France, and I thought, ‘What a stupid decision that was!’”

Back to Sarah’s question, Gordon summarizes: “The broader your education, the happier a person you become, and the more interesting a person you will be, when you emerge out the other end.”

He adds, “The question I would ask is: ‘is this really what I want to do?’ So many people I know hurl themselves toward something, not because they want to do it, but because they think they should do it. Or, someone tells them they should do it.”

It comes down to what motivates you, and what you can become good at; and a Humanities education is a great way to discover what this is for you personally. A popular quote in the Humanities (attributed to Yeats and Plutarch) says, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the kindling of a fire.”

Gordon elaborates: “When I got to Amherst, the fire was lit. But what *really* lit it was taking that writing class at UC Santa Cruz, and learning that I could write something that was exciting. That I had the experience, that I had the formula. I remember Jim Houston said writers should always have a second career: ‘Take Gordon here, he can take people into the mountains.’”

The other message from his life is patience: “ Don’t expect immediate gratification. I couldn’t give that strongly enough, to someone who wants to be in a creative endeavor. I had coffee this morning with a very successful fine art photographer. We talked about how many years it took us to build a stable of reliable clients to have a viable, going thing.

“I was supporting myself for a long time, but so many college kids ask me: ‘I want to be a National Geographic photographer, what do I have to do?’

“And I say, there is no formula, it’s not like being a doctor. There’s no curriculum.”

Humanities as Building Blocks for a Creative Career

As Gordon has shown, a successful and meaningful career can be created through a combination of hard work, focus, and some (often unexpected) help, such as the efforts of his friends in Bishop and the support of his academic advisors. But this can only take place if the foundational building blocks are already in place; and what still remains to be done is crafting the artistry.

Gordon explains why a broad humanities and arts education is so critical: “I knew how to make my camera take good pictures; I could learn that. But, the ‘being an artist’ part — I don’t know if you can teach that, actually. But I know that my artistry has been improved by exposure to painting and other art forms. It has a lot to do with photography, but so does the background knowledge of history.

“I guess the broader point is: learn communications skills. It’s like the basic equation for photography: f-stop, shutter speed, depth of field. You don’t need an SLR (single-lens reflex camera); any camera or smart phone is enough. Just be able to express yourself clearly in words and images.”

In summary, it’s devotion to a craft that makes you stand out: “There have been times when the camera, the light meter went completely dead, from the cold…, you had to know… I had learned to shoot on manual, I still shoot a lot on manual. I understand it and I have control of it. If you don’t have the experience, you are at a disadvantage.”

If you want to build a successful creative career, what does it take? “I think you need two things: you have to be passionate about it, like in my case, photography.” But you also have to have something else, as James Houston suggested. “There are the guys who make it into National Geographic, for example,” Gordon explains. “Like the guy who is their ‘bug’ photographer. He’s a brilliant photographer, but he is also a professor of Entomology and really knows his stuff. They also have a ‘volcano’ guy — he’s not a scientist, but he’s learned a lot about his subject. I was a mountaineer, and I really knew what I was doing.”

Another skill that everyone can benefit from is effective writing: “That’s another thing I would recommend: learn to write effectively. Learn how to express your self clearly, what you are thinking. No matter what you do, that’s important.”

And if you are not a photographer, consider adding that to your list of skills: “And here’s a new piece of advice: learn photography. No matter what you do, everybody has got one of these now (shows his iPhone). Photography is ‘a dime a dozen,’ so it’s expected from everyone.”

Our conversation then turns to how Gordon has explored using photography with UC Santa Cruz scientists, as a valuable learning tool: “Ari Friedlaender, Associate Researcher at the UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Sciences, said something recently: he gets these killer photographs of the whales he is studying. It may not be exactly what he is doing his research about, but if he gives a presentation, he’s got this imagery from his photos, and that really engages people.”

Now, a New Focus for His Career

Today, Gordon works on projects that are less physically demanding than before, but his expedition experience is still a force in his life. He says, “Now my attitude is: ‘I got to do that?’ It’s just incredible. I now have this huge body of work, and I’m continuing to work on it in new ways. And I still have room to create so much more. And my new art is *soooo* different; I’m doing canvas prints. I’m doing landscapes, trying to be more painterly.”

To illustrate, Wiltsie shows us an example of a photograph he has begun to rework, a landscape of the Pacific coast next to the nearby town of Pescadero: “This is out of the raw negative. I haven’t added color, but it’s not that much manipulated. This is digital; I’m not going back to film, unless I start shooting black and white. You can’t do with film what you can do with digital, by any means.”

It’s an entirely new phase for a veteran photographer who is seeing the world in new ways, and who is also seeing his own past work in new ways: “When I digitize my old work, it looks so much better.”

“What brings me joy is connecting with the world.”

We are wrapping up the interview, and Sarah asks, “What brings you joy?”

Gordon reflects for a moment, then replies, “What brings me joy is connecting with the world — really connecting with the world around me. The time I feel it the most is when I take my camera, with maybe one lens, and I’ll drive down the coast, maybe to Pescadero. And I’ll just sit with this lens, and watch what happens.

“And all of a sudden, you become part of this world around, and the magic of life starts to unfold. I see the birds swooping, soaring, and feeding, and, wow, I realize that every creature around me is looking at the same world — in its own way, at the same time — and that all of our vantages are as real as the waves crashing around us.

“It’s astonishing to see how much is going on around us, if only we slow down to look: a harbor seal pops up its head to peek around, as legions of little sanderlings race back and forth on a beach to scoop up tiny crabs, in front of an endless succession of waves into which pelicans plunge dive for fish, and where flocks of scoter ducks spend their entire lives amongst the froth.”

Pelicans fly past Point Montara Lighthouse on the California coast south of San Francisco. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie (used with permission).

He pauses, and says, “And all of this time, hundreds of people are driving past in their cars, unaware of any of this majesty and wonder.”

Gordon continues, “It’s all about really connecting with the time and space that we are in — something you can do anywhere that you have the freedom just to be. You’d have to be very enlightened and mindful to live that way all of the time, but I definitely feel most alive when I’m there and I’m present.”

It’s clear that Gordon has spent a lot of time — during those long mountain treks, or gazing across the vast Himalayan range from a 20,000 foot peak, or simply sitting on a local beach — considering what it means to truly be in the moment.

He admits, “But it’s so hard to be present. So many things, thoughts that distract us, planning, working…. We really can no longer live in the world as a hunter gatherers, caught up in the moment and acting like the animals that we really are. But it brings me great meaning to really visit the landscapes around me and remind myself that I am just but one creature among many that are also important to the wheel of life — the world in which we really do live. And that’s a world that really exists.”

Taking the time to be present in the world can then lead to further awareness. Gordon continues, “And from just knowing that this vibrant, life-giving world around me is always there — with or without me — I have a belief system from which I can shape my political thinking. When I hear that someone wants to put an oil derrick out there, for example — to make money for people who can’t even see the life and creation that call the landscape home — I gotta fight that. And to fight it you have to come out of that world and engage in the world of human action.”

He shows us another photograph, an idyllic, sunset scene of a lighthouse on the shore, and the ocean, with clouds, and a distant flock of pelicans — a photo that just happened while he was on assignment photographing a house on the shore.

Gordon explains, “Ever since I shot this I have wished that the birds could be closer to the camera, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances without resorting to Photoshop. If I’d had the freedom to be in the ‘zone,’ I could have waited, and another flock might have flown past a little closer. But I was working, shooting architecture photos of a beach house on a deadline and glimpsed this picture almost by accident. And as I raced out to the porch, the elements fell into place. Just as I was lifting my camera to frame the peninsula, the ocean and the sky, the birds flew past.”

Like so many successful endeavors, a great photograph is often a unique combination of planning, expertise, artistry, and chance.

He continues, “The final thing I wanted was for the lighthouse to flash, but to get it I had to wait, and then the birds got smaller. It was the best that I could before I had to get back to my job. I didn’t even see it at the time, but there are also tiny, distant hikers and a fishing boat, themselves also perfectly positioned! It definitely caught the mood and a sense of the place.”

It’s a nice summary for Gordon’s approach to his career, and his life: he goes with what he has, and makes the most of it. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t; and sometimes, now and then, a stroke of magic appears where you didn’t expect it.

He says, “I was in the creative zone to trying to frame up this beautiful sunset. Getting back to my point: you’ve got to come out of that, and focus your energies.”

To see more of Gordon’s work, visit his website at AlpenImage: Gordon Wiltsie Photography.

A Vast and Deep World Long Explored

Whether he intended it or not, Gordon’s last comments threw open the door to a vast and deep world long explored by philosophers, theologians and creative artists: what is the nature of our experience, of our place in the world? How can we find what has meaning in our lives until we explore what the world has to offer? These are not the questions of someone distracted by tasks, schedules or timelines; these are timeless and enduring, and they are core to our lives.

Expedition members ski near the Fenris Mountains in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. Mount Ulvetanna is the large peak in the left background. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie (used with permission).

And this is what the humanities offer: they provide a broad foundation on which you can build your studies, your career, your life; and they can sustain you through the course of your studies, your career, and your life to find your meaning, and your purpose.

This story of Gordon Wiltsie is the second in a series, Beyond the Forest: David Gleason’s Humanities Alumni Profiles. Throughout this series, we’ll continue to look at the lives and careers of UC Santa Cruz grads who have found their own paths using the humanities as their foundation.

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