The photography and outdoor ethos of Steven Gnam
Story by Tristan ScottEmploying a wildcard question to open a magazine profile violates so many of writing’s cardinal rules, but esteemed outdoor photographer and mountain athlete Steven Gnam’s response is too perfect not to enlist here.
What is your favorite animal?
Of course it is.
It’s no help either when Gnam’s answer to the next stock question falls into equally befitting magazine profile territory.
But so it goes.
What is your favorite tree?
The whitebark pine.
Both tropes unequivocally personify the gorgeous complexion of Gnam’s craft, athleticism and demeanor.
The wolverine and the whitebark pine – two of the most adaptive, tenacious, starkly beautiful and precious species on the planet, whose endurance and ability to thrive in hostile mountain environments is second to none. A pair of endangered, high-elevation ecological plums, sanctified by those few intrepid souls who possess the physical means to venture into their rarefied habitat, study them and, in Gnam’s case, capture their beauty in photographs.
The species have figured prominently into Gnam’s impressive canon of work, and in the years that he has been photographing wild wolverines in Montana’s Rocky Mountains he estimates he’s spent 200 hours ambling through the high-alpine backcountry per sighting.
To Gnam, 31, who’s racked up a staggering 20 wolverine-sightings in the past five years, and once spent an entire summer scouring the mountains in search of the vaunted creature without ever encountering one, the investment has been worth it.
After all, Gnam and the wolverine both thrive in the same scarce habitat.
“Years ago they caught my attention, and I can’t help but admire their endurance and courage,” Gnam said of the wolverine, or Gulo gulo in Latin. “They move through terrain that humans struggle in, at speeds we cannot maintain. It’s very humbling to have a creature like that out in the mountains.”
The traits he shares with the wolverine, both as a talented mountain athlete and as a conservationist, are fleshed out even further by the inspiration he draws from the whitebark pine, a tree whose properties speak volumes about his verve as a world-class outdoors photographer.
“You find them growing in the harshest parts of the mountains, tethered to cliff faces, gnarled and shaped by wind and avalanches. They are persistent and patient. They are generous,” Gnam said of the ghostly tree. “When healthy, the whitebark gives food to many through its pine nuts, stabilizes soil on erosion-prone slopes, and allows other plants to find a home in the subalpine. Many good lessons to learn from this tree.”
And then there’s Steven Gnam. The scrawny, asthmatic kid from Whitefish who grew up trekking through the mountains of Glacier National Park, alone in the dead of winter, wearing bread bags over his sneakers, carrying only a leaky one-man tent and a few meager provisions, skis lashed to his bike or backpack, a Pentax camera or a Nikon N80 dangling from his neck.
There’s Steven as a teenager, shivering in a scabbed-together ghost blind for hours on a marshy wetland during one of his early efforts to capture images of birds. There’s Gnam, having applied the photographer’s blind to a float tube, perched buoyantly on the tiny vessel, waiting beside a beaver dam, trying to capture an image of the semiaquatic rodent in underwater action.
There’s Gnam, fumbling the camera and watching it splash into the slippery surface and sink to the bottom of the beaver pond.
“It was a film camera, and those cameras were less finicky when wet, not like today’s digital cameras, so after setting it in the sun on the dashboard of my car it dried out and worked again,” Gnam recalls. “I share that story because that was, and has been, my process with photography. I’m constantly experimenting and finding new ways of documenting the world around me – often to the demise of equipment. I see the camera as a tool, like a paintbrush or keyboard. You have to learn how to use it, then you can make it do what you want.”
He’s made it do what he wants in some of the most remote corners of the region, running, climbing and skiing over technical landscapes while capturing their ephemeral beauty. He’s also experimented with his body, which now bears the exclamation point of an endurance runner’s physique, but at one time he never believed it was capable of carrying him so lithely, efficiently and quickly over such inhospitable mountain terrain.
“A few years ago I ran 50 miles through Glacier National Park with a group of friends. Growing up with asthma, I never imagined I’d ever run without having an asthma attack, let alone run 50 miles in the mountains,” he said, adding that asthma attacks only befall him now in certain situations, usually involving mold or rodents. “In the past few years running has grown to be a big part of my life, but I’m not fast enough to have any pride about it. I just enjoy it.”
He’s being characteristically modest. In September, Gnam placed 10th in the competitive vertical kilometer at The Rut in Big Sky, a race that drew one of the most competitive fields of ultrarunners in the world.
A week later, he joined North Face-sponsored ultrarunners Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe, of Missoula, to embark on an epic 600-mile traverse of the Crown of the Continent, traveling by foot from Missoula to Banff, British Columbia, Canada, over the course of 24 days.
More than just a running expedition, the trio divined the trip to raise awareness of the Crown of the Continent, which forms one of only two intact ecosystems remaining in the lower-48 in which grizzlies, elk, moose, wolverines, and wolves all thrive.
The Crown is formed by the Rocky Mountains, a range that runs high and unbroken between the Blackfoot River drainage and Elk Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia, and the crest of which is the Continental Divide. The headwaters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Hudson Bay begin in the Crown, which encompasses Glacier Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Gnam, Wolfe and Foote tracked along high mountain ridgelines whenever possible, packing light and carrying only enough water, food and layers to complete their day, while a one-man support crew met them at points along the way to replenish supplies, transport shelter and assist with logistics.
Gnam conceived of the idea for the trip during a run with Foote in Missoula while promoting his book,
“Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” which showcases the wild beauty of the Crown through photographs, and attaches conservation and economic value to the region through a series of essays.
Having gone to college at the University of Montana in Missoula, Gnam was intrigued by the proximity to the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area, and often thought about connecting a long backpacking trip from the college town to Glacier National Park, trekking along the enchained peaks and ridges and experiencing the wilderness corridors more intimately, more naturally. More like a wolverine.
Foote harbored similar fantasies, and along with Wolfe they composed a running route that took them along jagged, knife-edge ridges, through impenetrable thickets of alder and devil’s club, and over stunning peak-studded mountain-scapes.
Foote and Wolfe are top-level athletes who have compiled among the most impressive resumes in the sport of ultrarunning, and Gnam’s inclusion on the expedition struck some as unlikely.
But not Foote and Wolfe.
“Nobody knows how to place him in that context because Mike and I both are these competitive runners,” Foote said. “We have the same sponsor, we live in the same town, we have the same damn name. And then they look at Steven and call him ‘the photographer.’ But we considered him a teammate. His role was to experience and finish the Crown trip. His secondary duty was to take photographs. He wasn’t some hired photographer. He shared a similar desire and value to share the experience of the trip.”
Gnam was briefly sidelined from the journey due to a debilitating shin injury, but he rejoined the runners after rehabbing his leg for a week, covering between 35-40 miles a day in lockstep with the North Face athletes.
“When he decides to do something he kind of goes all in,” Foote said. “As a photographer he’s such an incredible visual storyteller, and when you match that with his athleticism and his ability to move through really complex mountain systems few other photographers are physically able to get to or willing to endure the suffering required, it gives him the ability to tell these unique stories while also engaging in the experience.”
It’s this brand of participatory photography that best summarizes Gnam’s philosophy – he considers the landscape part of the adventure and the adventure part of the landscape, and both merge seamlessly, with seemingly inexplicable ease, into his images.
Of course, anyone who’s watched Gnam work knows it’s not such a simple task.
“I have no idea what Steven Gnam sees when he looks into the back of a camera because the things that come out of it are so different than anything I could imagine when I’m looking at the same landscape or setting,” said David Steele, a fellow writer and photographer, and a regular companion to Gnam on his mountain adventures, who provided ground support on the Crown traverse.
In a spectacular shot taken by Gnam atop 9,356-foot Holland Peak in the Swan Mountain Range, Steele is pictured standing on the precipitous edge of a snow cornice, his silhouette illuminated by a bright mantle of stars and the technicolor spray of the northern lights.
“It was pitch black and I had no idea where the cornice even was,” Steele says. “I’m trying to stand perfectly still while Gnam is shooting these six-second exposures of the northern lights.
“He has such a good eye, and his understanding of mountain environments is so intimate, but his determination and willingness to work hard is what sets him apart,” Steele continues. “He will go months without capturing the image he wants, and that level of perseverance is pretty incredible. Especially for photographers here, on this landscape, because in Glacier Park photographers shoot from the road 99.9 percent of the time. And Gnam is the guy that goes to these wild, remote corners and returns with these images that don’t even look like Glacier because they are so far removed it’s like being on another planet. And he is willing to go there to capture that whole other aspect. I think the mountain runner in Steven just enables him to move through big landscapes more like the animals do, faster and lighter.”
Doug Chadwick, an acclaimed author, photographer and wildlife biologist who lives in Whitefish, has worked with Gnam on numerous projects, including the “Crown of the Continent” book and a wolverine project for National Geographic.
But Chadwick, who demystified the wolverine and promoted its conservation in his book “The Wolverine Way,” also knew Gnam as a boy growing up in Whitefish, tramping through the woods and embarking on adventures with his own son.
“They were the premier frog catchers and creek explorers in the Whitefish area,” Chadwick said. “Steven has had a passion for nature for as long as I can remember.”
When Gnam began combining his passion for nature with his emerging interest in photography, Chadwick encouraged him at every turn, helping him land jobs, advance his career and congeal his devotion to the conservation movement.
Gnam has built a successful commercial career, shooting for Patagonia, North Face and other outdoor outfits, and his photography has appeared as editorial content in popular magazines like National Geographic, Outside, Climbing, and Runner’s World.
Still, his proudest accomplishments were born of his various roles in conservation achievements, particularly his work on the park expansion adjacent to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, protecting the North Fork Flathead River from oil and gas development, adding designated wilderness protections along the Rocky Mountain Front, and highlighting the threat of hydraulic oil fracking adjacent to Glacier National Park.
“I’m really happy that I’ve been part of almost every conservation movement around Glacier National Park and the Crown of the Continent in the past five years,” Gnam said. “As someone who grew up here, and makes a living from the outdoors, it’s really nice to give back by working on these stories.”
Chadwick, who has worked with scores of professional photographers through the years, said it’s clear that the most important thing for Gnam is to be present “in the place, on the landscape,” a priority evinced by his eager willingness to pursue projects the “dirt bag way,” often sleeping in his car on assignments and pushing his physical limits to capture an image.
“I think it’s a passion for him, I think it’s inside him and I don’t think he distinguishes between the experience of being in wild places, taking photos and the joys of sharing the landscape with the people and animals he cherishes,” Chadwick said. “It’s all of a piece with him. His challenge is trying to figure out how to express all of that.”