Last December, I spent almost the entire month in New Hampshire on the top of Mount Washington, the home of the world’s worst weather. I was hired to shoot wintery, interactive content for the newly updated “Extreme Mount Washington” summit museum set to open spring 2014. The idea was to capture the extreme winter environment, that many people are unable to safely enjoy, and present it as an immersive experience for summertime visitors.
I had almost every piece of television production gear I own trucked to the summit up the icy, 8 mile, narrow and winding Auto Road. I did not rent anything and my obvious goal was to bring back all my equipment in working order. I had heard stories that the summit of Mt. Washington was unforgiving on electronics and many companies pay to use this extreme environment to test their product’s limitations. I would be operating well below the limits of my very expensive television gear and I had jobs scheduled in Boston when I returned from New Hampshire. I had to get the shot, but always present in the back of my mind was protecting myself and my kit.
I shot on many cameras for this ambitious project and each one had a specific task. I used a Sony PDW-F800, a Red One MX, two Canon 5dmk2 DSLRs, a Canon 5dmk3, four GoPro Hero2 POVs, a Fastec Imaging TS3 Cine high speed, and a Sony PMW-F3.
The primary documentary television camera was my workhorse: the Sony PDW-F800 XDCAM. I brought up two HD 2/3 inch lenses, a Fujinon ZA17x7.6 and a super wide Fujinon HA13x4.5. Most of the time, I shot with the wide angle, staying very close to the people I was hired to document. While shooting outside, the visibility was so confining that it felt like I was shooting underwater. I had to be within feet of my subject because of the dense fog and blowing snow. No zooming because the wind was pulling the Porta Brace polar jacketed camera off my shoulder.
One day, I was shooting in 117 MPH wind gusts and nearly lost the camera. The lens servo handle torqued so hard on my hand that it pulled screws out of the barrel and detached the gears from the zoom treads. My rabbit fur hat was ripped from my head and will probably be found by hikers somewhere in the Great Gulf this July.
I found that there was an exponential increase in wind force as you get up near 100 miles per hour. For example, you can work in 80 MPH or so, but once you reach or break 100 MPH, it is a whole different monster. Just standing up in 100 plus MPH winds is an exhausting effort, and sometimes not even possible. The wind literally takes your breath away and the unpredictability of a gust will toss you and your camera down into an icy mess. Sustained wind was easier to deal with, gusts were like lightning strikes. Terrifying, rogue and random.
I had one fight with 110 MPH winds where I was hit so hard (fortunately not holding a camera), that I was unable to get back to the door on the observation deck. I clawed my fingers, elbows and boots into the frozen deck, but the powerful invisible hand pushed my shoulders back away from the building. I tried so hard to right myself, but also had trouble breathing. I was forced to go all the way to the back of the obs deck, sliding on my stomach, wishing I had a self arresting ice axe, to the entrance near the generator building. It was a scary experience I will never forget and I was very cold when I finally got inside the Sherman Adams building.
Working with television gear in those conditions was a challenge. I always kept some of my lenses cold in the tower (the cold room) so that moving from the warm summit buildings to the frigid exterior would help me to keep lens fogging, icing and other problems in check. I did not use my Vocas MB-325 matte box for fear that it would get blown off the end of the lens like a lose pair of ski goggles. Instead, I used a 127mm Formatt UV protective glass filter threaded directly into the Fujinon wide eye. Needless to say, I brought two spares (at $330 a piece) and expected to break or scratch them. My original protective filter spontaneously shattered for no reason in -30F while shooting blowing snow and ice at sunset. I broke a second one when I was scraping ice off it.
I found the Sony F800 to be best powered by Anton Bauer Hytrons. These Nickel Metal Hydride batteries preformed much better in the -20F to -30F temperatures than the lithium Dionics. The Dionics would lose power and voltage would fluctuate wildly in just a few minutes of exposure to the insane temperatures. The battery gauge on the side of it would flash and inside the camera viewfinder, “90%”, “low”, “70%”, “90%”, “low” would flash in a random chaotic manner.
I did my best to keep the internal environment enclosed by the Porta Brace polar working jacket (camera, wireless mic receivers and batteries) as warm as possible. I used chemical hand and body warmers placed inside the jacket to keep the batteries warm. But when the wind tore through any opening at near 100 MPH, it rendered the heaters useless.
About 15 days into my adventure, the $40,000 Sony PDW-F800, my pride and joy, malfunctioned. This was the low point of my Extreme Mount Washington experience.
I had been shooting around the summit cone in thick frozen fog, blowing snow and 85 MPH sustained winds for about 15 minutes. The camera stopped recording and the disk ejected itself while in the polar bag. I had error messages appear in the frosted eyepiece. I noticed a lot of rime ice had formed on the dark camera jacket and when I looked down at my arms, my EMS jacket was covered in ice. But my attention was fully focused on the loud clicking noise coming from the F800.
I ran inside, stripped off the bag and found the camera to be in a vicious cycle of eject sequence. No matter what I tried, the door opened and spit out the disk. I could hear the eject motors keep repeating the process. I freaked out, powered down and pulled the battery. The camera was silent. I could see rime ice on the camera body and on the air intake vents. I wiped the chassis down and after a few minutes, placed the battery back on the gold mount. I powered up the F800 and to my isolated horror, the camera continued to run the eject cycle and the disk transport/eject motors recycled over and over in a rhythmic clatter.
I screamed a few choice words down dark corridors and ran to Roger, the lead IT guy and well rounded engineer. I told him what happened, and I needed professional assistance. I asked him if I could get on a phone and call Rule Boston Camera, the place where I bought the F800 about two years ago. Roger set me up in a private spot and I made the microwave call into Boston. An engineer at Rule tried to help me out, but to no avail. This was too hard to fix over a telephone. I was trapped on the summit without a working camera and if the thing was to be fixed, it was up to me.
I did something that I never thought I would ever do to my baby, open heart surgery! I placed the camera on its side in a room Roger called “the equipment intensive care unit” A.K.A., the ICU. This is the spot Roger visits frequently when he too has to fix what mother nature tried to destroy. I pulled the battery, grabbed a hair dryer and some tools. I removed a few screws, opened the side and had a look under the hood. What I found was not good. The cards that preform all the signal and mechanical processing were coated in a thin layer of ice. The heat generated by the polar bag and the camera itself was not enough to offset the powerful wind blown fog, loaded super cooled water droplets, from getting driven into every tiny hole and vent on the side of the camera.
I fired up the hair dryer on low power and carefully dried off the innards for about 20 minutes. I stopped when there was no sign of moisture inside or out on the F800. I reseated all the cards, checking them closely for burn marks or other issues I was not qualified to diagnose. I replaced the side panel, tightened the screws and placed the camera up right. I grabbed a battery and snapped it on the Anton Bauer rear gold mount. I took a deep breath and flipped the power switch to the on position. The camera fired up like nothing ever happened. This experience proved to me how much of a workhorse the Sony PDW-F800 is after that torture test and how happy I am to be an owner/operator. I continue to use this amazing camera on high profile jobs. I trust the F800 with my career!
My improvised “MacGyver” fix for this internal icing issue was to jam some foam from one of my Pelican cases into the main air intake tunnel inside the F800. It functioned like an air filter and stopped frozen fog from icing up the circuit boards. This worked well and as soon as I was done shooting outside in extreme icing and winds, I would pull the foam from the camera and normal things up.
I addition to the F800, I also used Canon DSLRs to capture still images for large museum displays and panoramic exhibits. The two 5dmk2 cameras were also placed inside Pelican 1300 cases that I modified to act as heated and protective housing to capture time lapses in the intense weather.
Before I went up Mt. Washington, I tested out the home made contraptions in my freezer and figured out how much power would be needed to keep them fired up.
I built two housings by cutting a 4.25 inch hole in the side of the Pelican case. I then glued a square piece of 4.5×4.5 inch laminate plate glass into the void to act as a window for the lens to shoot through. I purchased this pre-cut glass from a local store that sells plate glass. It was cheap, like $20 for five square cut pieces. Next, I rigged electrical cables into the side of the case so that I could power the camera using the Canon A/C power supply. This power also energized some Frost King 6 foot water pipe heater wire that I coiled up on the outside of the case around where the lens would take pictures from. All of this customization including 1300 Pelican case, glass, heaters and power only cost about $100 for each enclosure. The Canon power supply would set you back more, but you could make a cheap one using a dummy battery and transformer. The results were impressive and I was officially the first person ever to successfully capture the formation of rime ice at night in heavy freezing fog on the summit of Mount Washington. And I nailed it on the first night I was embedded up there!
One thing I found interesting was the fact that the 5dmk2 was a picture taking beast in the crazy cold temperatures. The shutter kept clicking in both my hands and while enclosed in the protective Pelican cases. But the newer, Canon 5dmk3 DSLR refused to work in the -30F temperatures. I took the camera outside and within minutes, the shutter refused to snap and the LCD viewfinder did not power up. All of my timelapses for this project were taken with 5dmk2s and I stopped pulling out the 5dmk3 because it was too unreliable.
I used GoPro Hero2 cameras for POV shots when I could get them to work. I had a heck of a time keeping them from frosting over while attached to an observer’s head while they preformed their outdoor mountain work. Also, for some reason, the cameras sometimes only recorded for about two minutes and shut off. The batteries were fully charged and I was using class 10 SDHC cards freshly formatted. I am guessing that the cold effected the lithium battery life and the camera when into shutdown mode because the voltage dropped. In the future, I will try to wrap the cameras up in styrofoam so that they retain a bit of heat and perhaps they will work properly. I have not figured out how to keep glaze ice from encrusting the lens, other than repeated scraping.
I want to thank MWObs staff and interns Becca, Roger, Mike D, Steve L, Brian F, E-man, and Ryan K, for their cooperation with mounting the GoPros to their googles. Some of these first person shots really give the viewer the sensation that they are working on the summit.
For all the eye candy slow motion work, I used a Fastec Imaging TS3 Cine portable high speed camera. The TS3 only shoots 720p HD but it can capture up to 719 frames per second that that resolution. The other amazing feature of this camera is that it is truly a portable high speed solution. I have worked with much more expensive Phantom cameras and they require a lot of set up time. The Fastec TS3 was like a point and shoot. I was able to quickly and efficiently get super slow motion footage in the harsh summit environment that would have been impossible with any other high frame rate camera.
I got some great super slowmo footage of Becca de-icing the tower. She was wailing on the metal railings with a broken crowbar and the hand-held TS3 captured all of it.
I needed to shoot the first person Snow Cat simulator exhibit in 4k because the projection screen demanded the large resolution for an in-your-face realistic experience. I used my Red One MX camera with the Birger Canon mount and a Canon 15mm super wide angle lens. I wanted to capture the point of view of the driver in the Snow Cat as it ascends/descends the Auto Road in the dead of winter. I had a RedRock Micro matte box on the front with 1.2 ND and circular polarizing filter. I mounted the Red camera body using a FilmTools Car Suction Mount System. This mount was rock solid and even took the vibrations from the Snow Cat as the spiked tracks dug into the snow pack. Slim, the Cat operator, was great to work on this part of the project. The only issue I had was vibration from the machine dropping frames on the 256GB Red spinning hard drives. I solved this problem by removing the drives from the camera and hand holding them while the camera was in record.
Finally I used the Sony F3 to capture all the sitdown interviews. I love this camera for this sole purpose because it looks amazing with Zeiss CP2 prime lenses. I am able to get great audio because it has XLR inputs with proper controls. Sometimes I found the CP2 lenses to be too sharp and had to soften some of the interviews with pro-mist or soft effect filters in a Vocas MB-255 matte box for a more flattering look. I lit all the interviews with Kino Flo Diva 400 lights and small Arri 150 fresnels to edge/rim the subject and add light to background element.
I brought up my trusty Vinten Vision 100 tripod system and found it to hold up very well in the cold conditions. The Vision 100 is my all time favorite ENG style head and when paired up with my Sony F800, it does not get any better. I was surprised that the fluid inside the head did not gel up as much as I thought it would. I would dial down the friction to compensate for the cold, but I was always able to get super smooth buttery pans and tilts with perfect balance and control. And the carbon fiber legs were tough, even in 100 MPH winds I was able to keep the system steady.
All other camera movement was made possible by Kessler products. I used the Kessler Pocket Dolly Traveller two footer to get a lot of the DSLR real time beauty b-roll. I attached an ElektraDRIVE 500:1 motor to the Pocket Dolly and used the Basic Controller to assist my movement and I added a slight “back-pan” to achieve the parallax effect.
For the longer time-lapse moves, I used the durable Kessler CineSlider five footer mounted to Bogen carbon fiber 536 sticks. I ran the water pipe heater wire down the sides of the CineSlider to keep it from icing up. The excess wire was wrapped around the ElektraDRIVE motor assembly and that was all covered up with plastic bags. I placed the Pelican 1300 camera enclosure on the CineSlider carriage and used the Basic Controlled (sealed in another Pelican case) to drive the motion controlled time-lapse over night. The system worked great in light icing, but failed in heavy icing. I was not surprised. The heated wire could only do so much and the rime and glaze icing that occurs up there could bring down a Boeing 747!
One of my locked down outdoor time-lapse setups was supported by the Kessler K-Pod tripod. I called the K-Pod “the tripod tank”. It was solid, durable and able to handle 117 MPH winds and extreme icing. Mounted on the K-Pod was a Kessler Hercules 2 pan/tilt head. Removing the case from the tripod was quick and easy using the Kessler Kwik Release plate system. I loved these plates and I was able to get in and out of them even using heavy gloves.
I did have the system tied down, because after one night at over 120 MPH, the highest I had ever experienced, the K-Pod, Pelican case and 5dmk2 inside was launched off the deck. I had the camera isolated inside with foam and moisture-eating Pelican Desiccant Silica Gel. Nothing was damaged except a few small scratches on the K-Pod tripod legs and a chunk of plastic taken off the corner of the indestructible Peli case.
I later added eye hooks on all corners of the battery containers. I used the heavy batteries as anchors and tied rope from the K-pod to the eye hooks. I will talk about how I powered everything a little bit later.
Everyday was breezy on the summit and audio was a big challenge. Obviously with great wind comes lots of annoying wind noise in the microphones while trying to capture dialogue. I used four sets of Sony UWP wireless radio mics. These systems were frequency agile which means I could change the freq based on external interference. The summit of Mt. Washington had many high power transmitting antennas, including one that was pumping out tens of thousands of watts. All four microphones worked flawlessly once I found clean channels. In addition to running clean frequencies, I was extremely concerned about the wind noise. I solved this problem by purchasing larger than required foam windscreens and fur. I used back electrical tape to hold the foam to the base of the microphone lav head, and also taped the mic clip. When placing the mic on a staff member, I was carful not to bury it to deep inside their jacket. I learned that these mics and oversized windscreens worked best clipped to the outside of a jacket collar, taking the full brunt of the winds.
Meteorologist Ryan K had to deal with retakes and replacement voice recordings while working with me on the summit. Thanks to his understanding of television production (he is a talented photographer and shoots great summit vids), he made these tasks easy. There was a learning curve on capturing clean audio up there and placing ear buds or headphones on my head while shooting did not guarantee anything. I could barely hear my own thoughts in those howling winds. Remember, I didn’t have a sound guy on this job, it was just me.
One major obstacle that I had to overcome was power. About three weeks before I left for my December session, I realized that there would be no access to electrical outlets on the summit outside the buildings. I could not run an extension cord out a window or door. Not with the 100 MPH winds and blizzards that frequently race across the peak. So I had to use batteries. I ran to Walmart (a place I tend to go when I need to solve a specific problem) and bought two Igloo 28-quart Island Breeze party coolers, two EverStart MAXX deep cycle 114 amp hour marine lead-acid batteries, two 410 watt inverters and some “Great Stuff” foam in a can. I dropped each battery into the insulated cooler and placed the inverter on top. I foamed the entire battery into place and used 12 volt car battery chargers to juice up the cells. I drilled a small hole in the side of the cooler and ran an extension cord out of it. Keep in mind that these types of batteries release explosive gasses when charged or put on a load, so please vent them and use at your own risk.
Before I left for the mountain, I did a few battery endurance tests. I put a fully charged 114 amp/hr EverStart marine battery under load using the inverter and plugged in a 60 watt light bulb. The lamp burned for 13 hours! This confirmed that these two batteries could power the near 70 watts each required to keep the camera, lights, and multiple heaters fully functional throughout a 12 hour night on the summit.
On the summit, I would keep the cooler closed, plug into the extension cord pig-tail and power the camera, heat tape and lights so that I could capture rime ice at night. I would also use this system far from the summit building to capture time lapses of cloud movement during the day.
The deep cycle marine batteries were very heavy and hard to carry and I want to thank Steve L. for helping me hike them around the summit cone in terrible conditions. The handles on the party coolers did not give fingertips much purchase and the kit was very awkward to move around!
I knew that running traditional lighting fixtures in the heavy winds and icy conditions was out of the question. I called a good friend of mine, Jeff Hamel for advice. Jeff is an experienced gaffer and he also worked for Zylight, a company who was making innovative LED instruments. Jeff suggested the not yet released Zylight F8. The F8 was weather proof, less than 100 watts and dimmable. It has extremely durable and Jeff was confident that LED lighting would work best in the extreme conditions on Mt. Washington. He was right and the F8 preformed flawlessly to help me capture the first ever nighttime rime ice time-lapse.
I used the Zylight z90 “sun gun” style on board ENG camera light for all my indoor run-and-gun documentary work. This LED light was a great solution for me because of its low power draw off the camera battery and the fact that with the press of a button, I could change the color temperature from tungsten to daylight (or anywhere in between). I was constantly walking into rooms that had multiple color temperatures and the z90 helped me fill in the shadows on my subjects faces. The z90’s claim to fame is that an explorer took it up Everest. I took the z90 up Mt. Washington and when using it outside, simply taped a ziplock bag around it. It worked great at night and put out a lot of light even though the plastic bag was covered in rime ice after only a few minutes.
I really enjoyed working on this job. It forced me to change the way I think about documentary storytelling techniques. It also opened my mind to creative adaptation to just make stuff work. I was all alone shooting the documentary and elements for the museum. All I had was a wish list of shots and a small script to work off. I made all the decisions and directed the observatory staff so that I could get the images I needed. I would then edit short “dailies” on my Mac Book Pro Retina, encode them, and microwave them back down to the valley.
This project is on going. Most of my job was completed in 2012, but I did a few pickup shots in early 2013. One of the hardest shots on paper to get, the rime ice time-lapse, was the easiest for me. And on the other side of that, one of the easiest shots to get, the POV of the Snow Cat headed up the auto road has been the most difficult. We are finding out that getting the clouds, visibility and light just right for that interactive exhibit is a big challenge. It is extremely hard to pick a perfect weather day to drive the machine up the road because of the constant environmental changes at different elevations, the threat of huge snow drifts, unexpected frozen fog and heavy blowing snow. We had to remove the windsheild wipers for the camera, but we realized that we needed them to keep snow out of the shot!
It has been a pleasure working with the passionate and professional people who work in the MWObs and at the State Park. While in the valley, I worked with Scot Henley, Michelle Cruz and Cyrena-Marie Briedé very closely to make sure that I stayed on task. They knew exactly what was needed for this project, let me run wild, and that vision/freedom helped make my job easier.
Jeff Kennedy at Jeff Kennedy Associates also deserves a mention. His firm is full of very talented and creative people. They are taking on a very ambition task of building these museum exhibits and I can’t wait to see how they turn out. I will be at the ribbon cutting ceremony for sure.
I will be headed back up the mountain again this winter to get a few more pieces for the museum and I am looking forward to it. Three things attract me to the summit of Mt. Washington: The passionate few people who work up there, the challenge to get the shot and the amazing show that Mother Nature puts on for all of us who are lucky enough to experience her raw power in the home of the world’s worst weather.
Special thanks to: Kessler Crane, Zylight, Vinten, Rule Boston Camera, Fastec Imaging, The Mount Washington Observatory, New Hampshire State Parks, Jeff Kennedy Associates and the Hand family.
Check out more at the Extreme Mount Washington website and donate today to help make this museum possible.