Mastery in the Mountains

Adventure Photography: Survival of the Fittest with Paul Zizka

Paul Zizka
Photo: Graham McKerrell

Adventure photographer Paul Zizka loves the backcountry. Glaciers in Antarctica and icy fjords in Greenland are some of his favourite destinations. Getting there is often physically demanding and can be an adventure in itself. Ice climbing up a frozen waterfall? Check. Scaling some of the Rockies’ highest peaks? Check. Hiking for days through mountain passes and over remote icefields? Check.

Zizka is one of Canada’s top adventure photographers with an armful of awards to prove it. His photos focus on natural landscapes around the world with an emphasis on the vastness of wild places. He often includes himself in his photos to show the scale of the environment and you’ll see him as a tiny figure perched on the edge of a granite cliff or floating on an iceberg, staring up at a starry sky.

Ice Dreams
[/media-credit] “Ice Dreams” Night ice climbing at Haffner Creek, Kootenay National Park. Here the climber makes his way up towards not one but two galaxies: our own as well as Andromeda (center of the frame).
Photo: Paul Zizka

“You need to be doing the activity itself in order to be able to shoot it,” he explains. “I don’t do anything at a cutting-edge level, only at a level good enough to safely get the photo. Some of the hardest earned images are of ice and sometimes ice climbing is required. There’s a fair bit of physical output for some shots, that’s for sure.”

Now that he’s the father of two young daughters, Zizka laughs that he no longer has a fitness ‘routine’ as he’s too busy being a dad. Instead, he tries to push himself physically before a photography trip, focussing on the activities that will be required to get great shots. That could mean climbing a few mountains, getting some ski days in or hiking with a heavy backpack to get prepared.

Like a Dream
[/media-credit] “Like a Dream,” An incredible view for Mike Stuart as he clings to the ice of the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park.
Photo: Paul Zizka

“I have to be a little bit more efficient now [with fitness],” Zizka explains. “I do things smarter and am a bit tougher on myself. I try to do things locally to mimic what I’ll need abroad to keep it productive from a photography standpoint.”

He’s modest about his sporting skills but looking at some of his images, it’s clear he’s a skilled outdoorsman. Some of his favourite photos were taken on a mountaineering trip up Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3,959 m (12,989 feet). This is a technically challenging climb for experienced mountaineers with only 10 per cent of climbers actually summitting. Zizka hefted a 60 lb pack up to high camp and then summitted with a lighter, 20 – 25 lb pack, still a feat at high elevation.

Frozen Kingdom
[/media-credit] “Frozen Kingdom,” A perfect moment on Mount Robson.
Photo: Paul Zizka

“It was really thrilling to climb Mount Robson and I treasure those images,” he says. “A lot of mountain images take several days to get. You can’t just drive up and do it again.”

Looking at Zizka’s photos it’s clear he favours cold climates. High latitudes and high mountaineering are two of his criteria for great photo destinations and after the Canadian Rockies, Greenland is his favourite place on earth to take photos.

“It’s the ultimate playground for a photographer,” he enthuses. “There’s lots of ice, an amazing night sky and complete freedom. Ice and snow simplify the landscape and create impressive skylines. It’s a magical place full of interesting shapes and colours. There’s so much to like! And now, the gear is so good, you can get photographs relatively comfortably.”

Zizka fell in love with the Rocky Mountains when he moved to Banff from Quebec City in his mid-twenties, and took a job at Bow Lake. He did not have a car at the time so spent a lot of time walking and enjoying the environment.

“That experience allowed me to see beautiful places and I had the urge to document it through photos,” Zizka explains. “I love remote places and wilderness. Places where there are very few humans.”

Within two years of taking up photography, Zizka was self-supporting through his work and looking at his photos it’s clear why. They provide the viewer with access to a world they may not see otherwise and communicate a sense of awesome scope and wonder. Today, with clients like Apple and Canon supporting his vision, he’s expanded to the world of teaching, offering travel workshops for would-be adventure photographers through his workshop company OFFBEAT.

Crystal Chamber
[/media-credit] “Crystal Chamber,” Exploring the depths of a surreal ice cave, hidden within a glacier in the Canadian Rockies.
Photo: Paul Zizka

He recently returned from Antarctica with a group of students and has trips planned to the Faroe Islands, Mongolia, Greenland and Kananaskis Country in Alberta, later this year.

“I look for places that are somewhat ‘fringe’ – the next photo hot spot that currently is off the radar,” Zizka explains, “although the location also needs to be logistically feasible for a group.”

Zizka arrives at the workshop location ahead of the students and pushes himself creatively and physically, adventuring to places he might not be able to take his pupils. On these trips, he can indulge his specific interests in the night sky and compelling landscapes.

While Zizka admits that some of his photos require a bit of ‘discomfort,’ it’s obvious that he relishes the challenges. And for him, capturing the magic of the natural world makes all the effort worthwhile.

Lead image by Graham McKerrell

Photos by Paul Zizka