Sketching the Alpine Lake Wilderness

Earlier in the summer a Feathered Friends staff member embarked on a five day backpacking trip through one of the most spectacular regions of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Her goal was to document the trip through daily sketches of the scenery she encountered. Here is an account of what it takes to paint and draw while exploring the backcoutnry. Pictures, paintings, and words by Claire Giordano.

little annapurna sketch giordano

The light shifts continually, playing across the face of the massive andesite rock walls rising from the crystalline lake at my feet. I work quickly, my paintbrush dancing between my sketchbook and the watercolor palette. Between strokes, I swat at the mosquitoes that hound my ears and bite my hands. It is just after dawn, and the alpenglow of sunrise has already changed from the palest of pinks to brilliant yellow. Soon, the light show will be over, and I hurriedly try to capture it’s colors before they are gone.

In July I had the lucky fortune to be invited on a backpacking trip to one of the most beautiful and highly regulated areas of wilderness: the Enchantments. Thousands of permit applications are sent in each year to visit this zone of alpine lakes, towering peaks, and fragile meadows. With so few chances to visit this area, I wanted to make the most of my experience and immerse myself in the landscape. My strategy was to bring a sketchbook, pens, and watercolor paper to record the things I saw each day that inspired me.

Ink sketch of Dragontail Ridge from the top of Little Annapurna. Ink sketch of Dragontail Ridge from the top of Little Annapurna.

I have been sketching for most of my life, but wasn’t introduced to field sketching until 2010 when I spent eleven days on Mount Baker with a mountaineering, science, and women’s leadership program called Girls on Ice. On that trip, I was handed a small sketchbook and a pen and let loose to explore the landscape through art. Since then, I have continued this practice on almost every backpacking trip and roadtrip. In sketching I found a means to connect to the world around me in a meaningful and lasting way.

skechbook in the alpine lakes wilderness Some of the essential gear, and my art kit (sketchbook, watercolor set, and water brushes)

Painting while backpacking is a unique experience for many reasons, from using my own two feet to access and sketch remote areas to giving me more time to hike farther and paint longer in beautiful places. One of my favorite things is knowing that I have everything I need to be content on my back. For this five day trip, my pack fully loaded clocked in at 40 lbs. Heavier than I would like, but I had plenty of food (10 lbs worth, and I ate almost everything) and a good assortment of art supplies: a sketchbook of watercolor paper, paints, a re-usable shop towel, and two special water brushes that hold water in the handle and dispense without the need for a jar of water. My whole art kit added less than two pounds to my bag; heavy by lightweight gear standards but worth it in my mind to have quality paper and a wide variety of colors.

Sketching in camp at sunrise. Sketching in camp at sunrise. Once the sun rose the fluffy Eos jacket came off, leaving only a light fleece. Weather in alpine environments requires versatile and light layers.

To do art in the backcountry, you need more determination than supplies. The art kit is the easy part. The hard thing is finding the time and courage to use the tools.

Time is our most precious resource, and there are endless things to occupy our time when backpacking in spectacular places.  This led me to carefully choose subjects and locations based on what I wanted to paint and what time constrictions allowed. On days I want to paint, I have to add in extra time in my trip planning to allow me to stop at the top of a peak or beside a lake for at least a half hour. Then, once at a break spot, I begin the juggling act of food, brushes, paper, and palette, trying to snack and paint at the same time (which has definitely resulted in some candy-bar smudges on paintings before).

Prusik peak. The mosquitoes were particularly bad at this lake. Prusik peak. The mosquitoes were particularly bad at this lake.

It is just as important to also think about the rest of my party, and make sure that they are content to explore or rest for a little longer than usual wile I paint. On this trip I was incredibly lucky to hike with partners who were very supportive of long breaks to paint and admire climbing lines on the rock walls all around us.

In alpine environments staying warm when not in motion is also a consideration. At every painting stop, my Eos Jacket was handy to throw on if the sun went away or the wind picked up.

Beginning a painting can also be overwhelming. Sometimes I look at a landscape and know exactly what element I want to paint. Other times, I look around and cant decide, captivated by the jagged edges of a ridgeline, the delicate petals of a wildflower, the hazy blue silhouettes of peaks rising like waves to the horizon… the possibilities are endless. What I eventually end up drawing is a balance of time and resources with whatever my heart becomes set on.

Quick sketch of many of the peaks seen from the summit of Little Annapurna. Quick sketch of many of the peaks seen from the summit of Little Annapurna.

If you want to create art outside, you also have to be prepared for it to be a public event. On weekdays I am usually alone, but on weekends I am always ready for other hikers to arrive and began to watch me work. I don’t mind when people watch, as I see it as a unique opportunity to show them something I think is extra special about where we are. I will talk with them and answer questions and show the art tools I carry. Art not only connects me to the landscape, but is also an invitation for others to connect to the landscape themselves. I believe that art has the special ability to open our eyes to new ways of seeing and allows us to step into the perspectives of someone else.

Prusik Peak and the Temple, sketched shortly before dark clouds rolled over and dropped a little rain. Prusik Peak and the Temple, sketched shortly before dark clouds rolled over and dropped a little rain.

One of my favorite moments of this trip was a quick sketch at sunrise. I woke up at 4:45 AM to catch the light, as I am amazed by the color gradients you can see from high alpine skies. While working quickly (the light changed so rapidly), I heard a scuffle behind me. Dropping my painting and scampering off my rock perch I turn around to see a mother and baby mountain goat. Less than five feet away, they stare at me with their goaty black eyes and such an expression of surprise, curiosity, and sheepishness that I cant help but laugh. I try not to anthropomorphize animals too much, but they seemed so abashed at being caught watching!

It is this unpredictability and a desire to understand a landscape that keep inspiring me to go back to the mountains, rivers, and deserts. I want to remember a place and to get under the skin of what I see at first to understand the forms and lines beneath through the movement of my pens and brushes across the pages of my sketchbook.

If you want to follow along on more of Claire's adventures, she shares her trips and art on instagram: @claireswanderings.

To learn more about the my Eos Jacket, click here.

The two mountain goats that watched me paint for a while. The two mountain goats that watched me paint for a while.