Frozen in time: The winter photography of James Champa

By Ivey Slowoski

Loading a backpack with enough photographic gear to stagger a mule, Jim Champa ’80 trudges along miles of trails to find solitude and make portraits of nature’s unusual side. His favorite time: winter. His favorite place: the Glacier Peak Wilderness. His goal: find something uncommonly beautiful and capture it on film.

“The further I go into the back country, the greater the opportunity for magnificent images,” he says. An engineer by trade, Champa, 43, seeks the quiet of less-traveled roads to counteract the stress of working and commuting. There’s an element of egotism in finding a shot that no one else has, he admits, but that’s not his principle motivation. “It’s important to realize that the images I make are less self-expression and more simply recording what I believe to be a design made by God, Himself.”

Champa, who lives in Port Orchard, Wash., began taking pictures while traipsing through the woods in a Boy Scout uniform. He taught himself how to use a 35mm camera so he could show his parents what he’d seen on camping trips. It wasn’t until 1993, after he broke his childhood camera while climbing Mt. Olympus, that he decided to take his photography up a notch. He began working with medium- and large-format cameras, which capture images on bigger transparencies and in finer detail than 35mm negatives, allowing him to make high-quality enlargements. That’s when he started taking photography seriously.

“One of the great lessons I’ve learned is to take the time to not merely look, but to really see what’s there,” he says.

It is probably true that all Northwest photographers make a pilgrimage to Mount Rainier National Park. Although my interest is to photograph unfamiliar landscapes, no portfolio would be complete without The Mountain. With a dark-o’clock departure from my home on the Kitsap Peninsula, I later stumble out of the car at Chinook Pass. Then it’s a slip and slide along a frozen Naches Peak Loop Trail within the William O. Douglas Wilderness. Hoping for clear skies, there is only approaching storm clouds. Worse, a cloud cap obliterates Rainier’s summit. Utterly disappointed and muttering indignation, I nevertheless find a suitable spot to unload gear and extend the tripod legs. What I don’t see, east of the ridge line behind me, is a 93-million mile clear line-of-sight to the sun. Then, without warning, Rainier seems to explode with fire. I cannot believe what is unfolding. The light show is over in less than two minutes and The Mountain returns to steel gray. Now I am not so easily misled to indignant muttering.
I don’t know what to make of this. The icicles are about 12 inches long. They hang from a log, which straddles Stave Creek in Wenatchee National Forest. The light is very dim, so I must make a two-second exposure, and that blurs the flowing water. You might well suppose the fast moving water would whittle the icicles to mere points. But those puddles of ice spread out over the water! With utmost care, I position the tripod and camera while standing in the frigid water, and 20 minutes elapse before tripping the shutter. One rubber boot leaks and thus I give to this image the title Popsicle Toes.
Rising 9,415 feet above sea level, Mt. Stuart is Washington State’s second highest nonvolcanic peak. Stuart is an outstanding alpine adventure; I first climbed it via the West Ridge, which approximately follows the left hand skyline to the summit. There’s a good bit of interesting geology here as well. The rock comprising Stuart is an intrusive igneous rock about 90 million years old. Recent studies suggest that it might have solidified at a latitude roughly corresponding to the Baja Peninsula. Then, immense tectonic forces transported it more than a thousand miles north to its present location.
Umtanum Creek Falls is located south of Ellensburg. I hopped out of the car and with a heavy load of camera gear, hurried down the trail to reach the falls. Oblivious to my surroundings and in too much of a rush, I did not notice that a fresh snowfall was covering a veneer of solid ice on the trail. Encountering a brief rise, my feet slipped. I managed to twist slightly as a shoulder slammed into the inclined ice-skating rink. The rotator cuff was screaming at me. With one inoperative arm, I one-handed the entire set up for this image, a very unpleasant task. After a visit to a friend who is a physical therapist and working his prescribed exercises, I am healed from that mishap. My ice axe is now along on every trip.
Crystal Lakes Trail gently rises along switchbacks above the sinuous meander of White River. Along the way, stunted conifers marking an avalanche track allow this view of Mount Rainier. I very much enjoy the backcountry after winter’s first snow. The great constant of western Washington weather is that during winter it rains a lot and snows even more at higher elevations. Only for a short while is it possible to capture the contrast between winter white and forest green. And so you must very carefully watch for signs of brief clearing after the first storm and then make a run for it, lest the next storm completely buries the landscape.
Sometimes, very rarely indeed, winter weather clears as high pressure forces the jet stream away from the Northwest. Under cloudless skies, several days of freeze/thaw cycles melts snow from conifers and hardens the snowpack. I come upon this January scene in the East Fork Foss River Valley, Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Originally intending to trek higher to Necklace Valley, I am halted at the only river crossing; a log rimed with several inches of ice. Not wanting to risk a plunge into the frigid water, I turn back. Necklace Valley will wait for another day.
Eastern Washington is not remarkable for abundant snowfall during winter months. The Cascade Mountains effectively block moisture-laden clouds from dropping their frozen masses here at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, south of Spokane. Absent too is the virtually impenetrable understory, which is found in almost every valley west of the Cascade Crest. Instead, here at Turnbull, wide-open walking under towering Ponderosa pines leads wherever your feet take you, without snowshoes or skis.
Several years ago, I came upon this snowscape during an attempt to climb Coleman Pinnacle in Mt. Baker Wilderness. I was amazed that the wind-sculpted patterns appeared flawless; no broken cornices and no avalanche tracks. Absolute perfection. And no camera gear with me! The sudden onset of wind and a wall of approaching storm clouds abruptly halted the climb. Wanting to photograph that scene became an obsession; I waited seven winters. Winter snows bury the boundaries of lake shores, talus, and subalpine meadows. Identities are dissolved into a seamless white fabric.
Weather is critical to determining the scale of images burned into photographic emulsion. On this day I have great plans to photograph the monstrous hulk of Johannesburg Mountain in North Cascades National Park. Instead, an unexpected late-September snowstorm hides the mountains from view. Walking a tread which takes me higher to Cascade Pass, I see this. While Johannesburg proclaims grandeur, the leaves, fruit, and stems reveal simplicity. There is a lesson here. In all things, regardless of scale, there is beauty. Be certain to rejoice in it!