Alaska Range Project: Fall colors and first snow, Hayes Range

All photos: Carl Battreall

Professional wilderness photographer Carl Battreall has dedicated the last several years embarking on The Alaska Range Project, an ambitious photographic undertaking to capture all four seasons of the mysterious Alaska Range.

Located on a relatively narrow strip of land in south central Alaska, the 600-mile-long mountain range is considered one of the most remote, rugged and inaccessible regions in North America. As home to Mount McKinley, the continent's highest peak, this sliver of high-altitude Alaskan wilderness also lays claims to being the highest mountain range outside of Asia and the Andes.

Battreall has made multiple trips to the range since beginning the project in 2005, but there are many more expeditions ahead of him. Luckily, the Anchorage-based photographer has a great team of sponsors and supporters to backing him on this multi-year journey, which will eventually result in the first photography book dedicated to the Alaska Range.

Continue below for an interview with Battreall, as well as a sampling of the images he's taken so far.

Alaska Range Project: A fin of ice, Black Rapids Glacier

A fin of ice, Black Rapids Glacier

MNN: Tell us a little bit about your background and career in photography.

Carl Battreall: I started getting serious about photography in high school. I had a great teacher who encouraged me to pursue photography as a career. So right after I graduated from high school I walked into a local commercial photography studio and got a job. I have been working as a photographer ever since, that was 23 years ago!

Alaska Range Project: Gerstle Glacier, Delta Mountains.

Gerstle Glacier, already free of snow in March. Alaska Range glaciers are feeling the effects of climate change. Delta Mountains.

What inspired you to embark on the Alaska Range Project?
My wife and I were married on the Ruth Glacier, in the heart of the Alaska Range. After our wedding I was looking at maps of the range and realized how little I knew about it. Everyone knows Denali and Denali National Park, but I discovered that there was so much more to the range, places I had never heard of, hundreds of unnamed mountains and glaciers. I figured I would just go to the library and find a photography book of the Alaska Range, see what these places looked like, but there wasn't one; no had ever done a photography book the entire Alaska Range, which I thought was crazy.

Alaska Range Project: The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River

The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River

What makes the Alaska Range stand out from other North American ranges?
Its isolation is probably its defining character. These mountains are difficult to access and explore, and that can be frustrating as an explorer and photographer, and yet, that is what makes exploring and photographing the Alaska Range so rewarding.

I come back from photography expeditions in the Alaska Range totally wasted, often with my tail between my legs, having been hammered by the weather and the rugged terrain. And that is what reminds me that the Alaska Range is wilderness, not just in name, but in reality.

Another compelling aspect of the Alaska Range is that it is a complete mountain ecosystem, from the lichen to the caribou that feed upon it, up to the glaciers that keep the caribou cool and protected in the summer, it's all intact and most of it is healthy.

Alaska Range Project: Gillam Glacier, Mount Hess and Mount Deborah, Hayes Range

Gillam Glacier, Mount Hess and Mount Deborah, Hayes Range

Given the size and remoteness of the range, this is quite an ambitious project. What is your photographic strategy for capturing a comprehensive portrait of the area?
I first focus on the big mountains, as they take center stage in the book. Then I focus on the remote areas, the ones few people have heard of and even fewer have explored. After that I narrow my vision, zoom in on the plants and wildlife that live in the shadow of the mighty peaks. I only visit a place once, even if I get weathered in and never get a chance to really explore or take serious images. I just don't have enough time to return to place over and over. I do some aerial photography of mountains that are isolated and difficult to photograph from the ground. Sometimes the best perspective of a big mountain is taken from the air at about two-thirds up from its base.

I have two more seasons left to finish the photographs. I am trying loosen my vision, get more creative and abstract with my work, most of the "documentation" is complete, time to let my personal style shine through. 

Alaska Range Project: Moose skull and fall colors.

Moose skull and fall colors

Why is a photography project like this important for larger conservation efforts?
It's important on so many levels! We humans are really narrow-minded and seem to have great difficulty seeing or planning for the far future, beyond our own lifetime. This is pretty obvious with our relationship with the planet.

Only about one-third of the Alaska Range is under any state or federal protection and is up for grabs to the highest bidder. Large mineral extraction companies are already poking around, digging, searching. It is only a matter of  time before another huge gold or coal reserve will be found in the Alaska Range. The question will be, will the environmental community be ready? We seem to always be taken by surprise, then we scramble around in a panic. But if I can explore and document all those remote, unprotected areas, we will have a tool, we can say "Wait, we know what's out there, we have pictures, it's not just wasteland, it's amazing wilderness".

Alaska's greatest natural resource is its wilderness. We have more than all the other states combined and as wild areas throughout the world disappear, people will flock to Alaska, begging for pristine nature. If the politicians really cared about the long-term future of Alaskans like they claim, they would be protecting every piece of wilderness in the state.

Alaska Range Project: The Citadel, Neacola Mountains

The Citadel, Neacola Mountains

Are there any photographers or other artists who have influenced your work over the years?
The two photographers that truly inspired me when I was younger were Brett Weston and Aaron Siskind. In my early twenties, I had the opportunity to study with the visionary teacher, Ruth Bernhard, and master craftsman, John Sexton — their ideas and philosophies were really important during my formative years. And though I don't work in black and white much anymore, I still enjoy looking at monochrome work, particularly the work of Nick Brandt and Sebastião Salgado.

I am more influenced these days by people who truly live by example, who dedicate their lives to an art or to the environment or both; I am trying my best to do that myself. I am vegan and I try to limit my impact on this planet, the one that we all call home. The wild places I love and work in are directly affected by the way I live, so it would be insincere for me to not try and limit my footprint. No one is perfect; I am not, not even close, but there is so much hypocrisy these days, so many people preaching but not committing themselves.

Alaska Range Project: Lima Bean Lake, Denali National Park and Preserve

Lima Bean Lake, south side of Denali National Park and Preserve

To stay updated on this amazing journey, visit the official Alaska Range Project website and the Photograph Alaska Facebook page. To see more of Battreall's spectacular work, be sure to check out his online portfolio.

Alaska Range Project: Mixed light, Delta Mountains

Mixed light, Delta Mountains

Alaska Range Project: Thunder Mountain, Denali National Park and Preserve

The rarely seen Thunder Mountain, Denali National Park and Preserve

Alaska Range Project: Shadow of Mount Church

Shadow of Mount Church projected in the clouds by the rising sun

Alaska Range Project: Caribou and storm, Delta Mountains

Caribou and storm, Delta Mountains

Alaska Range Project: Caribou, Hayes Range

Caribou under unnamed peak, Hayes Range

Alaska Range Project: Hayes Glacier

Mixed light, Hayes Glacier

Alaska Range Project: Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

The rarely climbed Mount Russell, Denali National Park and Preserve

Alaska Range Project: The Angel, Revelation Mountains

The Angel, Revelation Mountains

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.