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On the Trails of the Glaciers

[Photo] Fabiano Ventura

Editor’s Note: Alpinist 32 features photography from Fabiano Ventura’s latest project: On the Trails of the Glaciers. Ventura’s objective is to explore changes in the world’s major glaciers by taking modern photos from exactly the same location as those taken on expeditions a century ago. The project has not only created striking visual dichotomies, but the final results–data, really–are a scientifically valuable compendium that could be used to measure glacial changes over the last 80 to 100 years. Alpinist Assistant Editor Keese Lane spoke with Ventura to learn more about On the Trails of the Glaciers. Their conversation follows.

What inspired you to start this project?

I started this project to communicate, through photography, the need to protect at-risk ecosystems. I wanted to create a multidisciplinary project that could result in public events; this method seemed the best way to spread important concepts such as sustainable development and, in this case, the importance of water, and the glaciers from which it partially derives.

Through this project, which is organized by the nonprofit association Macromicro, of which I am chairman, we plan to investigate the effects of climate change on the most important glaciers in the world, by sending expeditions to the different continents. Through the comparison between historical and modern photographs, and with the collaboration of a qualified scientific committee, we aim to reach a better understanding of the global climate change situation. So our goal is not only to collect qualitative data, by comparing photographs, but also to bring researchers right into the field.

When did you first start thinking about doing a project like this?

In 2004 I was the official photographer of a climbing/scientific expedition, K2 2004 Fifty Years Later, organized to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first ascent of K2. For that expedition I had the opportunity to do basically the same work as done in 1909 by the mountaineer/photographer Vittorio Sella (who has always been an inspiration for my own work) and Massimo Terzano, who, in 1929, was the photographer for the Duke of Spoleto’s Karakoram expedition.

During our expedition I tried to pinpoint the actual places from which Sella and Terzano had taken their pictures, and was able to take some shots with the same perspective as the historical images, but my duties and the difficulties I met on the mountain didn’t allow me to carry out this project with the needed accuracy. When I returned to Italy from that trip, I started a long and thorough search in historic archives and organized a scientific committee to give the future project On the Trails of the Glaciers the necessary scientific support.

What was it about the historical photos that captivated you?

Their unique aesthetic beauty, their scientific value, which is still useful even today, and their absolute value in terms of the conditions and difficulties encountered by their authors to obtain them.

Why did you begin with the Karakoram?

Since the first half of the last century, Italians have had a special relationship with the Karakoram mountains: Many expeditions ventured there and produced a huge amount of scientific data and photographs that are still useful today. We also wanted to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of one of the most important Italian expeditions to the Karakoram, that of Luigi Amedeo Duke of Abruzzi and his photographer Vittorio Sella. Those two were followed by Dainelli and Giotto De Filippi in 1913-1914, Duke of Spoleto in 1929, and Ardito Desio in 1954. Personally, I felt the urgency to accept this inheritance, and to continue their research by starting my own project in the same place. Moreover, given the complexity and the anomaly of glacial dynamics in these mountains compared to the ones of the near Himalaya, there was a strong scientific interest for choosing the Karakoram.

[Photo] Fabiano Ventura

Did doing this project change your perception of Sella and Terzano’s work? Do you feel any connection to the Duke and Sella now after traveling along their footsteps?

Absolutely. Very much has changed since I started working on this project over five years ago. The respect that I feel towards them has really increased. I researched their ways of working, by reading their travel diaries, their technical notes and books on their expeditions; I must say that, given the equipment and the clothing they used and the great logistical difficulties they faced, their works are nothing less than heroic. Just consider a few examples: Our photographic equipment is made out of lightweight and durable materials such as carbon fiber, magnesium and aluminum alloys; their equipment was made out of iron and wood. Our clothing is waterproof, breathable and thin thanks to materials such as Gore-Tex, capilene baselayers, pile fabrics and duck feathers; their clothing was mostly made from cotton and wool. Our journey to Karakoram took three days, using airliners and Jeeps; their journeys took months, using ships and horses. During our expeditions we easily found our way with GPS, and communicated with journalists and friends on the Internet and by satellite phone; they literally lost all contact with the world and committed their thoughts and their experiences just to the paper of their travel diaries.

Today, technological innovation has brought us comfort and undeniable advantages, but perhaps it takes away the possibility to face a slow and romantic journey. It also has shielded us from the physical difficulties that previous generations faced.

Often, I’m the first one in a century to retrace the paths of ancient explorers and photographers far from the usual expedition routes; sometimes, when I find small traces of these explorers, I feel as I’m able to speak with them, and somewhat share their emotions.

[Photo] Fabiano Ventura

How difficult was it to actually find each shooting location? Can you talk a little bit about what it was like researching the old trips? Where and how did you do it?

The search for the actual photographic locations was one of the most difficult activities, but also one of the most exciting. We had to take into account all the logistical difficulties due to the enormous vastness and the distances to be walked on the glaciers, not to mention the altitude. The research was performed in part before leaving Italy, and in part in the field. Information for the first expedition was gathered in Italy, by searching historic archives for images, texts and historical maps, with the valuable collaboration of the Italian Geographic Society, Military Geographic Institute, Fondazione Sella, the Ardito Desio Association and the National Museum of the Mountain.

We selected the historic photographs with the help of the researchers from our scientific committee, taking into account two main desired features: aesthetic beauty and scientific value. Then, we started to trace the points on modern maps, using all the data retrieved from the travel diaries, the original routes and also from photographic points, which in some cases were marked on Sella’s maps. Moreover, in addition to marking those spots on our new maps, we traced the points on a DEM (Digital Elevation Model) to render 3D models of the terrain, to preview the viewpoint and verify that it matched with historic pictures.

During the expedition, we adopted several different methods of searching: we had printouts of the historical images with us, to be compared directly with the always-changing landscape during the climbs. Before the photographic climbing, surveys were always performed, and after having carefully considered the time of the original shots, in order to reproduce also the illumination as best as possible, we previewed the final image using the Digital Elevation Model rendering to determine if the locations we wanted to reach were the right ones. At the end, usually on the day after we left, we would make the shot. Finally, we also carried the old maps so we could compare our routes to the historical ones.

How large was your scientific committee? What did they do while you were taking the photographs?

The international scientific committee is composed by some of the world’s leading experts in glaciology. During the expedition, geologist Pinuccio D’Aquila performed surveys in the field, under the coordination of Prof. Kenneth Hewitt, Prof. Claudio Smiraglia and Dr. Massimo Pecci. Due to the rough nature of the environment, we were limited in the types of instruments we could carry. In particular, we used a special cartographic GPS in order to perform geomorphological and glaciological mappings, a metric rib, a crystallographic plate, a magnifying glass, a dynamometer and a volume sampler for snow surveys regarding the thickness of snow and ice, crevasses and ice formations. We made GPS cross sections of the Biafo, Baltoro and Liligo glacier fronts, and measurements at the Memorial and the Desio boulders, important landmarks in the area.

How long were you in the Karakoram? Can you talk a little about expedition life?

The expedition lasted 45 days. After several days spent in Islamabad carrying out various bureaucratic duties and finally receiving the special permits needed to access the restricted area of the Baltoro glacier, we left by plane for the city of Skardu. What hard work it was to receive those special permits. It took almost three months!

In just over a month, the field expedition traveled more than 200km by foot. Often, it was necessary to leave at night in order to avoid the risk of falling rocks or avalanches. Sometimes we were away from base camp for three or four days in order to reach the right location. For our inspection visits, we often reached the base of the mountain to be climbed and studied the ascent route with binoculars. After each ascent, there was the work of recording the data (photographs, scientific data and videos), and the writing of a travelogue to be sent to the website’s editorial team via satellite with the comparative photos, texts and video streams. We aimed always to keep the website updated with daily reports.

The only thing that we didn’t have to take care of was food. Our dear chef Rashool was in contact via radio at any hour of the night, and was always able to make us wonderful dinners.

[Photo] Fabiano Ventura

How has the landscape and culture in the region changed over the last 100 years?

Landscapes, glaciers and even human culture have changed very slightly in the last century. This is a very remote, hardly accessible region, where technological innovations don’t bring many advancements. According to our researchers, the Karakoram sports very peculiar behavior, exceedingly different from that of the Alps or even of the nearby Himalaya, places where the glaciers’ melting is extremely noticeable. The different behavior of the Karakoram was the reason that our research in the region was of such interest to the scientists.

[Photo] Fabiano Ventura

Why did you use film and not digital cameras, and in particular large-format cameras?

The decision to do all the shooting on film and large format (4×5 inch plates) was necessary in order to capture very high resolution images capable of providing the same details as the historic photographs, not to the mention advantages such as extremely low distortion, extreme sharpness of the bench lenses. The need to compare the old photographs with modern ones also made it important to avoid any parallax effect. After I had found where the original picture was shot, I had to use the same focal ratio and the same film size. Most importantly, I aimed to push the quality of the shots to the highest instrumental limits available today, with the hope of obtaining ultra-high resolution images. (By scanning a single 4×5 inch plate at 2,200 dpi, one can obtain a 8,800×11,000-pixel bitmap image, a total of 100 million pixels for each image!)

During the expedition we collected panoramic mosaic images composed of up to seven plates which, when joined together, form a single image of more than 500 million pixels almost 80,000 pixels wide. Similar resolutions allow us to obtain prints nearly without interpolation up to over 40 feet wide! The choice to achieve such high resolutions was taken both for scientific purposes and to create a photo exhibition with very large prints, in order to give a stronger suggestion and solicit a deeper level of attention from the project’s audience.

What is it like visiting the mountains with the goal of photographing them as opposed to climbing them?

The first time I came there, I was the photographer of a mountaineering and scientific expedition; this time the expedition was a photographic and scientific one, and organized exclusively by me. The two activities, mountaineering and photography, are inseparable. Often, to reach the right photographic location you must be an alpinist even if you don’t want to reach the highest peaks; it’s always necessary to climb and to face the mountains to reach the exact spots from which to take the pictures.

A documentary exhibition and a photographic exhibition are related to this expedition. Can you tell us about them?

The documentary is produced by Roberto D’Angelo’s SD Cinematografica and will be distributed worldwide through major television networks. Filmed in full HD, it will run 52 minutes and will be available in three languages (English, German and Italian). You can also view a short trailer. The first photographic exhibition took place in Rome last winter, in a very prestigious location, and was a great success both in terms of number of visitors and media coverage. We have several exhibitions in many different European cities. The exhibition is made of more than 40 high-quality and large-size photographic prints; among these pictures there are eight three-meters-wide panoramic images. All modern photographs are associated with their matching historic images and can be viewed at

Pictures of the exhibition setup and its opening can be viewed here.

The next event will be the scientific convention 1909-2009: One Hundred Years of Glaciology and Photography in Karakoram–Problems and Results of a Secular Symbiosis, which will be held in Rome on October 15, 2010 at the Italian Geographic Society. Find out more here.

What is the future for On the Trails of Glaciers?

We are currently involved in the organization of the next expedition, which will take place in Caucasus in 2011. Having gathered a large consensus by the international scientific community, we have expanded the scientific committee. We have already found many photographic archives useful to make our comparisons. Vittorio Sella alone had organized three photographic expeditions to that area in the 1800s.

Moreover, the project plans three more expeditions to investigate the situation in Alaska, the Andes and the Alps.

For more information, please visit: (Italian) or (English).

Additionally, more information and photos from On the Trails of the Glaciers are contained in Alpinist 32. For a limited time, subscribe to Alpinist for a year and get an extra issue for free.