Photographer waits, watches for perfect light on Mount McKinley

Michelle Theriault Boots
Norio Matsumoto spent roughly 6 weeks on Whistler Glacier in the Alaska Range. He flew up to the glacier Dec. 28 and left Feb. 9. He used the same snow cave the whole time.
Photo courtesy of Norio Matsumoto
Norio Matsumoto spent roughly 6 weeks on Whistler Glacier in the Alaska Range. He flew up to the glacier Dec. 28 and left Feb. 9. He used the same snow cave the whole time.
Photo courtesy of Norio Matsumoto
Norio Matsumoto spent roughly 6 weeks on Whistler Glacier in the Alaska Range. He flew up to the glacier Dec. 28 and left Feb. 9. He used the same snow cave the whole time.
Photo courtesy of Norio Matsumoto
Norio Matsumoto spent roughly 6 weeks on Whistler Glacier in the Alaska Range. He flew up to the glacier Dec. 28 and left Feb. 9. He used the same snow cave the whole time.
Photo courtesy of Norio Matsumoto
Norio Matsumoto spent roughly 6 weeks on Whistler Glacier in the Alaska Range. He flew up to the glacier Dec. 28 and left Feb. 9. He used the same snow cave the whole time.
Photo courtesy of Norio Matsumoto

Alone on a glacier with a front-seat view of Mount McKinley in late January, Norio Matsumoto attended to the familiar daily routine of his month-long winter camping trips.

During the short hours of light, he shoveled snow. As darkness fell, he ate rice and beans with nori seaweed, read books in his snow cave and called his wife in Japan on a satellite phone.

The Japanese photographer had been camped on Whistler Glacier, a small "pocket glacier" 4,000 feet up in the Alaska Range, since late December.

With the end of his trip nearing, Matsumoto had all but given up on getting any great photos of the northern lights, the ostensible purpose for his trip. And then one frigid midnight they appeared, a river of pale green light filling a star-speckled sky behind the jagged peaks.

At last, Matsumoto was fully in his element: a lone man in a vast stadium of ice, rock and snow capturing the aurora from a perspective no other human had ever seen.

"It felt like the northern lights were just for me," he said.

For the past dozen or so years, Matsumoto has camped on glaciers in the Alaska Range in the dead of winter for more than a month at a time -- seeking the perfect photograph of northern lights on Denali, but also something more intangible: the chance for an encounter with the natural world that will make him feel "very small."

FOOTSTEPS OF HOSHINO

This winter, Matsumoto spent Dec. 28 to Feb. 9 on Whistler Glacier, a small tributary of the larger Ruth Glacier.

Matsumoto is slight and soft-spoken. He has the shaggy look of a man who spends nearly as much time in the wilderness as he does in civilization. He was born and reared in the quiet Shikoku region of southern Japan. The son of English teachers, he knew early on that he wanted a life different from that pursued by many of his peers: a respectable college followed by a lifetime of work at a big company.

In a bookstore at the college where he studied industrial sociology, he stumbled on a book by the famous Japanese nature photographer Michio Hoshino. The photos and stories were of Alaska: caribou in the Arctic, whales in Southeast, tiny details of lichen and vast mountain ranges.

Hoshino was known in Alaska and Japan not only for his photos but for his gentle nature and knack for developing deep friendships. He was killed by a brown bear in Russia in 1996.

Matsumoto knew he wanted to find what Hoshino had found in Alaska, "to be out in the wilderness, camp for a long time and feel the things that he had felt."

So he quit his Japanese college and moved to Fairbanks to attend the University of Alaska. He was shocked by the cold and harsh winters. He moved to Juneau, where he earned a degree from the University of Alaska Southeast. He liked the feeling of a place teeming with rich, mossy life and the way the mountains and ocean met.

In Juneau, he started making solo camping trips to take photographs, as Hoshino had, of whales and the northern lights over Mount Saint Elias.

But that wasn't enough. What he really wanted, he decided, was to was photograph the most beautiful sight in the most beautiful place on earth -- the northern lights over Denali.

The first year, the winter of 1999-2000, he camped on the Kahiltna Glacier a few miles from Denali base camp. Pilot Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi remembers a young man who seemed to have little idea about the rigors of winter camping on a glacier.

"He was a complete pilgrim," Roderick recalled. He feared for him, but Matsumoto rode out minus 50-degree temperatures and harsh winds.

But the magical shot of the northern lights over Denali never materialized.

Still, when Matsumoto came off the mountain, he was ecstatic.

"I was so fulfilled even though I didn't get any photos," Matsumoto said. "Because I tried my best, and I survived."

Winter after winter he has returned.

'PRETTY MUCH ANOMALIES

Solo winter camping in the range is extremely rare, said Coley Gentzel, the lead mountaineering ranger for Denali National Park. Some winters there are only one or two people in the range -- sometimes just Matsumoto and another Japanese climber named Masatoshi Kuriaki, "The Japanese Caribou," who is known for expeditions like his solo walk from Prudhoe Bay to Anchorage.

It takes a special kind of person, Gentzel said, to want to make such a trip. Rescue is rarely an option, so the self-sufficiency must be total.

"These fellows are pretty much anomalies," Gentzel said. "It's a testament to how difficult (conditions are) and how not very much fun it is in the winter."

At least once Matsumoto and Kuriaki stumbled across one another on the mountain. In 2001, the two spent a day together, eating ramen noodles by lantern light before Kuriaki set off to attempt an ascent of Mount Foraker.

Matsumoto is different, friends, pilots and park officials say. He has no peak-bagging or record-setting objectives. He keeps a low profile and seems wholly uninterested in promoting his trips.

Only once has Matsumoto asked to be picked up early by his air taxi; that was in 2007 when a relentless windstorm began to destroy his snow cave.

Some years, he has returned from the mountain having "taken literally no photos," said Matt Kirchhoff, director of bird conservation for Audubon of Alaska and a close friend of Matsumoto for 15 years.

Kirchoff calls Matsumoto his "adopted Japanese son."

After a month on a glacier, was Matsumoto disappointed by the lack of photos?

"He says no, it was a beautiful experience," Kirchhoff said.

Matsumoto's attitude contains more than a whisper of his inspiration, Michio Hoshino, who was famous for "just being present in a place and watching and waiting," Kirchhoff said.

During the summer, Matsumoto solo camps for months at a time on a remote island in the Tongass, photographing whales. Recently he has been making trips to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to camp and photograph.

During spring and fall he returns to Japan, where he can earn money giving talks about travels at schools and businesses. He also writes and publishes photos of his excursions in Japanese newspapers.

He's always planning the next winter's trip. The solitude, the cold and even the suffering he experiences in the Alaska Range make him feel alive, he said. It couldn't be more opposite of the life of corporate servitude he feared as a young man.

Without the trips, he said sweetly, "I would go crazy."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News