Published: October 2011
The Mountains That Made the Man
A portfolio by Peter Essick pays tribute to Ansel Adams and the craggy California wilderness named in his honor.
By Robert M. Poole

On his first trip to the Sierra Nevada, in June of 1916, Ansel Adams went armed with a camera—a Kodak No. 1 Brownie—and started shooting. "I expect to be broke if I keep up the rate I am taking pictures," the budding 14-year-old photographer wrote to his Aunt Mary in San Francisco that summer. "I have taken 30 already."

He kept shooting for almost seven decades, until his death at age 82 in 1984, by which time he had become a world-famous photographer and a powerful voice for wilderness. Although he traveled far and wide, he returned again and again to the Sierra—"a noble gesture of the earth," in his phrase—for the adventure, artistic inspiration, friendship, and solace he found among its jagged granite peaks, snow-swept passes, and brooding skies. His uncompromising portrayal of these subjects still draws pilgrims to the wilderness that bears his name, deep in the heart of the High Sierra, in hopes of seeing what Ansel Adams saw there.

On a bright August morning, a group of Adams admirers emerged from the trees on horseback, making a cloud of dust as they came into view of Thousand Island Lake, at 9,833 feet a splendid prospect in the strong, slanting sunlight. The boulder-strewn lake, surrounded by lush alpine meadows, glittered under a flawless blue sky, with the black hulks of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter anchoring the scene. The horsemen picketed their mounts in a stand of pines, and one of them explained the object of this journey. "We're looking for Ansel's tripod holes," said Michael, at age 77 an ebullient internist from Fresno, now retired. He was joking about the tripod holes but not about his hope of finding the exact spot where Adams had made a memorable early image of the lake and Banner Peak—and surprised himself in the process.

"I made many drab shots and suffered some embarrassing failures," Adams wrote in his autobiography, recalling the 1923 trip to Thousand Island Lake. But one image proved an exception. "I can recall the excitement of the scene," he went on. "It seemed that everything fell into place in the most agreeable way: rock, cloud, mountain, and exposure … This picture still has a unity and magic that very few others suggested in those early years."

It was a defining moment for Adams, then 21 and still undecided over whether to pursue a career as a classical pianist or a photographer. "That trip in 1923 helped push him toward photography—he knew he really had something," said Michael, who had followed Adams's career closely, analyzing his pictures, absorbing his writings, and traveling to many of the places where he had worked. But Michael had never visited this corner of Adams country, accessed via narrow trails that climb the eastern slope of the Sierra to emerge in the wilderness.

"Well, I finally made it to Thousand Island Lake," crowed Michael, celebrating his arrival on the heights and seeming very much at home there. He wandered easily among the lakeside boulders in an old Stetson, and with his rugged good looks and white beard, he was the spitting image of Ansel Adams—for good reason: Michael Adams was the photographer's only son, here to reconnect with the old man and round out a footnote of family history involving Banner Peak.

"When my father made that picture," said Michael, "he was traveling with his friend Harold Saville. They had a burro to carry their equipment. Ansel took pictures, and Harold held the donkey. When the Banner Peak photo became famous, Harold loved telling everybody, 'I held Ansel's ass while he made that picture!' Harold loved that story. And now I can say I've seen the place where Harold held Ansel's ass!"

Michael was still chuckling over that one as he picked his way along the lakeshore, searching for the ass-holding place, while his son, Matthew, and I wandered up and down the lake, scrutinizing the scene, roasting in the unobstructed sun, and feeling deflated that none of the venues looked quite right. Finally we triangulated a couple of boulders with Banner Peak and nailed the location at 37° 43' N, 119° 10' W. The view was just as Ansel Adams had seen it, except for the absence of the feathery clouds that brushed his mountains and the presence of a pine on the right, which had insinuated its way into the composition since 1923.

"Otherwise, pretty much what my grandfather saw," said Matthew Adams, who continues the family interest in photography as president of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park. Loose-limbed and rangy, Matthew is a young version of his grandfather, with his Roman nose and dark, arching eyebrows. He whipped out a pocket camera and snapped a picture of his father, who took off his Stetson and beamed by the lake that had caught Ansel's eye so long ago.

Mission accomplished, we saddled up and plodded back to camp on the sturdy, steady horses we had picked up in June Lake. We eased down one trail and up another, through high meadows bright with lupine and Indian paintbrush, past twisted junipers on the heights, and over the pass to the Clark Lakes, where our tent camp commanded a fine view of the mountains. The shadows lengthened, the stars popped into place, and the air chilled abruptly. We pulled our chairs closer to the fire, remembering the man who had brought us together.

"I think my father was happy that the Sierra Club and others put his work to good use," Michael said. He had been fiddling with a new Polaroid camera, which prompted the obvious question: Was he a photographer too? "No, I'm not," he said. "That's the first thing people ask me. The second thing they ask is what my father would think of digital photography. My answer is that he'd love it. He was always excited by the technical aspects of photography. He was always experimenting. So yes, I think he'd be very enthusiastic about digital, and he would find some way to use it."

To look at his photographs, you might get the mistaken notion that Ansel Adams was a severe man who viewed the world coldly, from a great distance and with little interest in humanity. In reality he was a gregarious creature with a salty sense of humor, a voluble style, and a sprawling network of friends who felt his death keenly.

Two such friends were William A. Turnage, then president of the Wilderness Society, and Alan Cranston, the California senator who rose to the position of Democratic whip in the late 1970s. When Adams died, Cranston wasted little time in calling Turnage to commiserate.

"What can we do for Ansel?" the senator asked. Turnage was ready with an answer: create a new Ansel Adams Wilderness area, which, along with the expanded John Muir Wilderness, would link two of the great High Sierra national parks, Yosemite and Sequoia. "This would thrill Ansel more than anything else could do—but it requires an act of Congress," Turnage recalls telling Cranston.

The senator readily agreed and ran with the idea. He persuaded his Republican colleague from California, Senator Pete Wilson, to cosponsor legislation that added 119,000 acres to the existing Minarets Wilderness and renamed it to honor their friend. Within months of Adams's death, the designation sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

The campfire at the Clark Lakes was burning down. Michael Adams stared into the embers and spoke again of his father, now a permanent presence in the mountains all around us. "He'd be tickled to know that this part of the country has his name on it. He'd love that."

Robert M. Poole's latest book is On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. Photographer Peter Essick counts Ansel Adams as a major source of inspiration for his career.