Virtual Mountaineering?

21 10 2012

One of the great pleasures of mountaineering literature is its ability to transport the reader from their comfortable reading chair into a sublime alpine landscape. Conversely, anyone who has read a lot of mountaineering literature has dealt with the frustration of trying to follow the narrative through a complex, unfamiliar landscape.

For the last several weeks I’ve been chipping away at a  fun side project at work where I’ve been embedding our Neal Carter photographs into Google Earth and then re-creating a virtual tour of Carter & Townsend’s complete 1923 exploratory mountaineering expedition into the mountains immediately on the east side of the Whistler Valley.

The narration is drawn from Charles Townsend’s first-hand account of the trip, published in the British Columbia Mountaineering Club’s club journal, the B.C. Mountaineer. The BC climbing community at the time still had very close cultural ties to their largely British roots, and Townsend’s account is written very much in the characteristic “stiff upper lip” tradition. In the few instances where Townsend admits to danger or difficulty, you can be assured that things had turned nasty.

I’m struggling to come up with a clear, concise description of the finished product; “virtual mountaineering”? Digital historical re-enactment? Regardless, my aim was to re-package a mountaineering narrative in a manner that combines the amazing geo-spatial context of Google Earth, the aesthetic and documentary qualities of historical photographs, and the authenticity of a first-hand written account.

The first clip covers their first objective, the first ascent of Wedge Mountain, the highest peak in Garibaldi Park. Note that they did not use the current approach, but began instead from the Wedge Creek drainage, slightly to the south of Wedgemount Creek. Their only glimpse of Wedgemount Lake would have been from Wedge’s summit of ridge. I have down-climbed their climbing route up the south-west face and can attest that the “two-foot cubed” rocks make for extremely awkward travel; too large for “scree-surfing,” too small for the stability of larger boulders, but still large enough to do some serious damage.

The second clip follows the pair as they venture deeper into the Coast Mountain wilderness, completing the first ascent of the lower but equally formidable Mount James Turner.

The third and final clip covers the second half of their trip, for which they hiked up the predecessor of today’s Singing Pass trail and based out of the old prospector’s cabin near the Oboe-Cowboy  Ridge col. (I’m assuming BC Parks disassembled the cabin, probably in the forties or fifties. Does anyone know more about this?). This clip contains perhaps the most interesting scenery since they actually climb a pre-development Whistler Mountain, as well as the most challenging climbing during the first ascent of Mount Diavolo (named in honour of their “hellish” climbing experience).

This was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. For those who are curious, the process was as follows:

  • Embed the photographs in Google Earth using the “Add photo” function. Familiarity with the landscape and patience with fidgety Google Earth controls comes in handy for getting things to line up just right.
  • Recording a rough of the tour using a video screen capture software (we used the very simple and awesomely named KRUT), using a combination of custom pathways, opacity controls,  and other Google Earth tricks. This process is far from perfect, and I’m interested to hear suggestions from anyone who has used Google Earth Pro, or knows how to customize Google Earth controls beyond the options provided in the program’s “preferences.”
  • Transcribe and record the audio.
  • Mix it all together using video editing software like Adobe Premiere. Substantial editing of the raw KRUT video file was necessary to eliminate the worst of Google Earth’s finickiness.

There’s plenty of potential for similar Google Earth-based historical narratives. Right now I’m looking forward to experimenting with on-screen annotation, integrate contemporary photography, and additional graphics. Such tours could potentially have a lot of different pedagogical applications as well.




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