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Mountain Reconnaissance with John Scurlock

John Scurlock has been flying since 1986, and upon completing his home-built airplane in 2001, he began exploring the skies over Mt. Baker. During those initial flights, Scurlock could see in the distance the North Cascades, and inevitably, his interests as a mountaineer drew him to further survey the peaks from his cockpit. Eventually, the aerial photography that he brought back from his many flights was passed along to other curious climbers who began using his photos as a form of reconnaissance. These days, Scurlock’s work is frequently used for route planning as well as serving to inspire future ascents, much to the appreciation of many in the climbing community. For this week’s online feature, Alpinist chose to take some time to interview John and talk about the relation between climbing and aviation, and what the two respective pursuits can learn from each other.

The north face of Mt. Baker during a spring storm. It was his first flights around Mt. Baker in his home-built plane that lead to John Scurlock’s pursuit of close-range peak flying and photography. [Photo] John Scurlock

Alpinist: How did you come to be a mountain photographer?

Scurlock: After I built and first flew my airplane, it was natural to desire to fly around the volcano Mt Baker, which is a ten-minute flight north of my home. It was because of the Baker flights that I would look the relatively short distance into the North Cascades and wonder what it was like to fly in those areas, particularly during winter when the range assumed a wild, otherworldly look. Because of my mountaineering and exploration interests, I knew that the range had been little seen or explored during winter, and I was aware that little of it had been photographed under those conditions.

A: How does flying in close range of peaks differ from other flying conditions?

S: Wind is the main issue. The mountains perturb the air mass,making flight down amongst the peaks extremely rough at times, whereas under those same conditions it might be perfectly calm above. During winter, all the aspects of the weather are exaggerated–the wind blows harder, the weather changes faster, it’s a lot colder, and conditions on the ground are much worse.

A: What inherent connections exist between aviation and mountaineering?

S: The issues are much the same for both endeavors–a personal drive based on imagination and longing for remote places, and an awareness of their unforgiving nature towards those that would take their hazards lightly. With both mountaineering and aviation, you have to be systematic in your approach, anticipate the possible bad outcomes, and manage the uncertainties as best possible. Above all else, you must have the judgment to know when to turn back or not go at all. These are things I try my best to keep in mind.

A: What is the first occasion you can recall in which your photography subsequently inspired an ascent?

S: The first and maybe most important of these was the Colin Haley-Dave Burdick ascent of the Intravenous route on the northwest face of Chiwawa Mountain, eleven days after I took the first winter photographs of it. I remember circling that mountain and seeing that incredible crack, fairly atypical for the North Cascades, and thinking, ‘Holy Shit, somebody is going to want to climb that’, and then only eleven days later, it was done, to my complete surprise.

The northwest face of Chiwawa; the vertical line at mid-face is Intravenous (IV WI4+ M6), first climbed by Colin Haley and Dave Burdick in 2005. Scurlock’s photograph inspired the climber’s subsequent ascent of the chimney. [Photo] John Scurlock

A: What is the first time you can remember in which you were asked for photographs as a means of planning a climb?

S: The earliest instance I recall of a climber asking about a specific view was Mike Layton, back in spring of 2005, wanting to know about conditions on Nooksack Tower. I had just flown by it the previous day on a “scenic tour” with my sister-in-law, and I thought ‘what the heck, I’m here, I’ll snap a couple of shots of it.’ One of those photos went to Mike, and then he went and did the climb. Shortly thereafter I invited him to go flying, during which we flew over the east face of South East Mox, with him
simultaneously taking still and video images, a camera in each hand, and then saying, which I will never forget, “Holy Shit, I am so gettin’ laid tonight!” All this while listening to Led Zeppelin on the stereo (yes it has a stereo).

A: What about aerial photography is most helpful to climbers using it as a reference for planning a route?

S: I think probably the photography reveals lines that were previously unknown, chutes for skiers that were hidden, and aspects of the peaks that were
formerly little known. Having done the climbing I did and being a compulsive reader of guidebooks, maps, and climbing literature, I have a pretty good idea of what climbers are looking for. From time to time, I get input from various climbers such as Don Serl, John Roper, John Baldwin, and others suggesting that if I was going to be photographing certain areas, I should cover certain peaks or certain glaciers, for example. This kind of thing has been greatly helpful to me also.

Nooksack Tower, taken under winter conditions, which John found “particularly
satisfying for because the rather severe turbulence conditions”. [Photo] John Scurlock

A: Since you began your pursuit of aerial photography, have your interests in mountaineering and peak flying strengthened off one another?

S: I’d say the answer is yes. I pay a lot closer attention to the history and current affairs of climbing than I did before I began doing mountain photography. I am fascinated by the imagination, ambition, and drive for adventure I see in climbers nowadays who are climbing things I would have never even considered for myself. My days of doing anything more than ‘moderate’ climbing are probably in the past (I turned 54 this year), but my climbing interests, and certainly my drive to see and photograph some of these crazy places, is undiminished.

See more of John Scurlock’s aerial photography in Issue 21 or visit