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OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO • F8 • 1/100s • ISO 200
I had been exploring the streets of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan for a week already, all excited about a newly discovered interest in street photography and the Soviet architecture this amazing city has to offer. Occasionally however, I’d get a glimpse of what was lying beyond the noise and dust: golden, rolling hills topped with snow-capped mountains. The desire to climb one of these grew stronger and stronger. Then before I knew it, I was researching my options. “How about a 6,000-metre mountain?” I thought to myself. But, the best I could come across was this mountain that they called "the easiest 7000er on the planet."
Lenin Peak is a 7,134-metre tall mountain in the South of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It’s on the border with Tajikistan and, believe it or not, you need documents that allow you to traverse into Tajikistan just in case you fall off the wrong side of the mountain. True story! While not technically difficult, as it’s basically a hike to the top, it’s still a 7,000-metre mountain and should be taken seriously by anyone thinking of attempting it. The traditional route to the top involves the ascent of the Lenin Glacier and an almost nine-hour summit day, with an altitude difference of almost 1,200 metres between the last camp, Camp 3 and the summit. Not exactly a stroll in the park, but anyway, I decided I was going to do it.
OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO • F6.3 • 1/60s • ISO 200
The camera gear:
I put myself on assignment to test how well the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II would hold up at extreme altitude. Having successfully used the camera in +40ºC in Namibia and -15ºC snow storms in the Faroe Islands, I was fairly confident it was the right tool for the job. But there was only one proper way of finding out!
In my opinion, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II is the perfect expedition camera. It’s super solid, weather-resistant, small, and light. In a place where weight is crucial, this camera ticks all the boxes. My thinking was that I wasn’t going to change lenses while in the extreme conditions in order to keep the camera as weather sealed as possible. With the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO mounted to two bodies, I had two permanently sealed cameras with me that covered the range I was going to need. I set up the cameras to write all the captured data to both cards in the two slots (= instant back-up!).
OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F8 • 1/800s • ISO 200
Capturing photos at 6,000 metres:
The programme was pretty well setup and our two Russian-speaking guides were competent and experienced. We gradually climbed our way up to Camp 3, with ample day hikes and acclimatisation walks to get our heads and bodies to adapt to the lack of oxygen. I suffered the occasional light headache, but nothing to seriously worry about. Our group had shrunk down from seven to three members already. People had to give up. That wasn’t going to stop me. I felt great and was ready for the summit push.
At four in the night, we set off again, and by the time we reached 6,400 metres, I was empty – totally and completely drained from energy. Each step took five breaths out of me. Every five steps required a break. With wind blasting frozen snow straight into our faces and discouraging 30–35km/h wind gusts, it was also pitch dark. The only thing I could see was the circle of light my headlamp was casting onto the seemingly vertical ice wall practically in arm’s reach in front of me. I knew we had to climb a long face before it would "flatten out" for a while. By now the group had shrunk to two. A French guy and myself, plus one guide.
OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F2.8 • 25sec. • ISO 6400
Finally, at around 6,500 metres, we turned back, but not before experiencing the most amazing sunrise I’ve ever witnessed. I gathered all my strength and captured a few shots and some video footage. Pre-visualising the composition, then getting out the camera, taking off one glove, adjusting the settings, and getting the shot was the only way to take photos at that altitude. The viewfinder froze in seconds, the screen became useless (too difficult to see with level 4 sunglasses), and my fingers were numb and actually getting frostbite within seconds.
Not exactly a joke, but a scenario where the camera just has to work.
The E-M1 Mark II did an amazing job! I had control over the basics (shutter and aperture) at any time without problems. Relying heavily on the light meter (strong sunglasses are terrible for photography), I was able to instantly read and adjust my settings all while in Manual Mode (C3). Then, with a flick, I could switch over to Movie Mode and use the Variable Circular Polariser to film some scenes.
Some would argue that covering the camera up, or trying to protect it would be best in this environment, but I think it's best to have the lenses and body at "room" temperature to avoid fogging up. There is nothing like trying to flick out the lens wipe and cleaning a lens with two gloves over your hand. Here you need to just be tough – darn tough!
OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO • F5 • 1/60s • ISO 200
I expect it to handle the environment I'm in without additional care. I did, however, keep the spare batteries close to my body to maintain as much charge as possible at -30ºC. But even on summit day, I ended up draining no more than one battery between 3:00 and 10:00 in the morning. Not bad!
The last thing I thought of was that I'd be way more challenged than the camera equipment. Sure, I knew it was going to be tough, but you have no idea what it's like to try and boil snow outside of your tent with 40 km/h winds at -30ºC at that altitude just to stay hydrated, or living off frozen Snickers and questionable Russian chocolate for multiple days. Now I know and I can tell you: the camera was the least of my worries, which in retrospect is a good thing! The other surprise, again, were the BLH-1 batteries. Honestly, I have no clue what magic lies inside those black cubes, but they last forever, even in extremely cold conditions. Of course, a six hour hike from 6,100 to 6,500 metres at -30ºC drained a battery. But in general at lower altitudes, I had enough with one battery per day! That included shooting, filming and reviewing.
OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO • F6.3 • 1/2000s • ISO 200
All I can say is: One hell of an adventure!
Although we didn’t make it to the summit, I’m still proud and feel accomplished about what I did and I think it’s safe to say that the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is a solid contender for a real expedition camera.
Alongside the photos, I also created two episodes for my YouTube channel:
OM-D E-M1 Mark II M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PROM.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO
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