The cool blue tones of ice combined with otherworldly features, shapes and light can result in some portfolio-worthy shots. However, how to find and photograph remote ice caves safely is often the most difficult aspect of ice cave photography.
Photographer Stanley Aryanto wasn’t always obsessed with ice caves, and PetaPixel readers may recognize him as the photographer who managed to capture a comet, an aurora and the Milky Way in a single photo. His philosophy of photography, however, made researching and finding ice caves for photographing an addiction.
“I launched my photography brand, The Wicked Hunt, with the spirit of going through unconventional means to live and capture unique moments. For me, it’s not about chasing the perfect shot, it’s about the experience of travel. The photo was never the goal. It’s simply the trophy you earn for your hard work and dedication,” says Aryanto.
Having spent most of his life living in Western Australia and Indonesia, Aryanto didn’t have many opportunities to photograph in cold environments, let alone ice caves. While on a photography trip to Morocco, he met a group of Australians who had obtained Canadian work visas and were planning to move to the Canadian Rockies.
“The idea intrigued me right away, so as soon as I got home, I applied for a Canadian work visa. To my surprise, I was approved pretty quickly and started packing for my new temporary home. During my research, I discovered the photograph of Paul Zizka, and my mind was blown. I really wanted to visit the places that Paul documented so well, but thought they were probably outside my skill level. In my mind, I thought you had to be an expert mountaineer to get to some of these places that Paul documented so well,” Aryanto describes.
After arriving in Canada, Aryanto was trying his hand at astrophotography at Mount Assiniboine when he met a fellow photographer Ludovic Labbe-Doucet. After chatting all night, Aryanto learned that Labbé-Doucet had taken many courses on how to properly navigate the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies. They immediately agreed to start exploring together, with the eventual goal of finding newly revealed ice caves. In preparation, Aryanto also began taking extensive backcountry courses, including the study of avalanches. The duo began to feel confident that they would be able to navigate the glacial landscapes safely, and they embarked on their first ice cave adventure.
“Believe it or not, many of the ice caves in this area aren’t very crowded. Often you will be the only ones exploring them,” he says.
“There are several reasons for this. These caves are not easy to access, nor easy to find. And to find them, you need to have certain skills, like glacier and backcountry navigation.
As Aryanto had begun to learn these skills, he says it was extremely valuable to have a more experienced friend like Labbé-Doucet in the field with him to teach him first-hand.
“When I post pictures of ice caves, I often get a lot of direct messages asking me where they are. I don’t like giving places, because I’ve seen vandalized ice caves before. I still think that if you really have to work to find these amazing places, you have a much better chance of leaving no trace,” he says.
“Also, I don’t know the skill level of the people who want to go there. These ice caves can be difficult to find and you must have the knowledge and skills to explore them safely. The same philosophy applies. If you are willing to learn the necessary skills, it shows your commitment to navigating glaciers and ice caves in a safe and responsible way,” adds Aryanto.
“It’s important to understand all of the outside factors that go into researching and exploring ice caves,” Aryanto continues.
“The weather is a very important thing to study and understand before you go. Often you will need cross-country skis, snowshoes, or a split board to access these places, even in the fall or spring. And the most important lesson to learn before you even get on board is knowing when to turn around if conditions change. You must have a humble personality and recognize that you can come back another day. No picture is worth your life.
The first cave
“The first cave I explored with Ludo was in Banff National Park. We walked about 10 kilometers before seeing what was left of the entrance, which had largely collapsed. describes Aryanto.
“Ice caves can change wildly from year to year, even month to month or week to week,” Aryanto continues. “Once the temperature exceeds zero degrees Celsius, the ice can move. If you want to limit your chances of getting into a dangerous position of moving the ice while you’re in the cave, I recommend going early in the morning. This will allow you to get out and back safely before the air starts to heat up as the sun rises in the sky.
“With the small opening, we decided to only go in one at a time, so one of us would always be outside, just in case something went wrong. We were really surprised to see a bubble of methane in the ground, which gave me my favorite photo of this cave.
The second cave
“The second ice cave we found was another one that was about 20km of snow hiking, out and back, with a very small entrance. But for me, the most exciting part of this expedition was at the ‘outside the cave. Often times I enjoy the journey to get to my destination even more than the destination itself, and this trek was amazing. It was the first time I saw the huge wall of ice on the glacier “says Aryanto.
“This place was a good example of how to play it safe,” says Aryanto. “We could have gone further, to the next glacier, but we didn’t feel as confident with the layout, so we made the decision to play it safe and go back to our car.”
The third cave
“If you only saw the pictures from inside this ice cave, you would think the entrance was much bigger than it actually was, because we could barely see the crack in the ice then. as we get closer,” Aryanto says.
“Once inside, however, we realized just how vast this cave was. With the larger cave and the rounded ceiling, I knew this cave was perfect for a panoramic photo. For me, creating the dome effect with panning is much closer to what I was seeing with the naked eye, as opposed to a single photo,” says Aryanto.
“While I loved the panoramic photos, my favorite image of this cave is easily this perspective shot of Ludo as the light outside cascades over the cool blue ice,” says Aryanto.
The fourth cave
“This cave had a really crazy, gigantic opening, as opposed to the small openings we had found. While it was on the same glacier as the previous cave, it was on the opposite side, miles away. It was perhaps the most ‘epic’ of all the caves we had explored, as the openings were massive,” says Aryanto.
“This cave turned out to be a perfect example of how quickly these caves can change due to the elements,” Aryanto continues. “When we returned as winter gave way to spring, the entrances had completely collapsed. Looking at the wall of ice that now blocked the entrance to this special place, I was reminded of how lucky I was to to experience these natural wonders before they are gone forever.
Picture credits: All pictures of Stanley Aryanto