The cool, blue tones of the ice combined with otherworldly features, shapes, and light can lead to portfolio-worthy photos. How to find and photograph remote ice caves safely, however, is often the most challenging aspect of ice cave photography.
Photographer Stanley Aryanto didn’t always have an obsession with ice caves, and PetaPixel readers may recognize him as the photographer who managed to capture a comet, aurora, and the Milky Way in one photo. His photography philosophy, however, made searching for and finding ice caves to photograph an addiction.
“I started my photography brand, The Wicked Hunt, with the mindset of going through unconventional ways to experience and capture unique moments. For me, it isn’t about hunting for the perfect photo, rather it is about the experience that the journey provides. The photo was never the goal. It’s simply the trophy that you earn for your hard work and dedication,” Aryanto says.
Having spent most of his life living in Western Australia and Indonesia, Aryanto did not have many opportunities to photograph in cold environments, let alone ice caves. On a photography trip to Morocco, he met a group of Australians who had been approved work visas in Canada and were planning on moving to the Canadian Rockies.
“The idea immediately intrigued me, so as soon as I got home I applied for a Canadian work visa. To my surprise, I was approved pretty quickly and began packing for my new, temporary, home. In the course of my research, I discovered the photography of Paul Zizka, and my mind was blown. I really wanted to visit the places that Paul documented so beautifully, but I thought they were most likely outside of my skill level. In my mind, I thought you needed to be a mountaineering expert to get to some of these places that Paul so beautifully documented,” Aryanto describes.
After arriving in Canada, Aryanto was trying out his hand in astrophotography at Mount Assiniboine when he met fellow photographer Ludovic Labbé-Doucet. After conversing all night, Aryanto learned that Labbé-Doucet had taken many courses on how to properly navigate over the glaciers in the Canadian Rockies. They immediately agreed to start exploring together, with the eventual goal of finding newly revealed ice caves. In preparation, Aryanto began taking extensive backcountry courses as well, including avalanche study. The duo began feeling confident that they would be able to navigate the glacier landscapes safely, and they embarked on their first ice cave adventure.
“Believe it or not, many of the ice caves in this region aren’t very busy. Often, you will be the only ones exploring them,” he says.
“There are a few reasons for that. These caves are not easy to get to, nor are they easy to find. And in order to find them, you do need to have certain skills, such as glacier and backcountry navigation.”
While Aryanto had begun to acquire 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 firsthand.
“When I post photos from ice caves, I often get a lot of direct messages asking where they are. I don’t like to give locations, as I have actually seen ice caves vandalized before. I always think that if you really have to work to find these incredible locations, you are much more likely to leave no trace,” he says.
“Also, I don’t know the skill levels of the people who want to go. These ice caves can be tricky to find, and you need to have the necessary knowledge and skills in order to explore them safely. The same philosophy applies. If you are willing to learn the skills needed, it shows your commitment to navigating the glaciers and ice caves in a safe and responsible manner,” Aryanto adds.
“It’s important to understand all of the outside factors that go into finding and exploring ice caves,” Aryanto continues.
“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 locations, even in the autumn or spring. And the most important lesson to learn before you even embark is to know when to turn around if the conditions change. You need to have a humble personality and recognize it’s ok to go back another day. No photo is worth your life.”
The First Cave
“The first cave I explored with Ludo was located in Banff National Park. We hiked about 10 kilometers before we saw what was left of the entrance, which had mostly collapsed.” Aryanto describes.
“Ice caves can change wildly from one year to the next, or even month to month or week to week,” Aryanto continues. “Once the temperature gets above zero degrees celsius, the ice can move. If you want to limit your chances of putting yourself in a dangerous position of having the ice move while you are in the cave, I would recommend going in the early morning. This will have you out and back to safety before the air starts to heat up as the sun gets higher 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 anything went wrong. We were really surprised to see a methane bubble in the ground, which gave me my favorite photo from this cave.”
The Second Cave
“The second ice cave that we found was yet another one that was about a 20km snow hike, round trip, with a very small entrance. But for me, the most exciting part of this expedition was outside of the cave. Often, I enjoy the journey to get to the destination even more than the destination itself, and this trek was incredible. It was the first time I had seen the massive wall of ice at the glacier,” Aryanto says.
“This location was a good example of how to play it safe,” Aryanto explains. “We could have gone deeper, to the next glacier, but we didn’t feel as confident with the layout, so we made the decision to play it safe and return to our car.”
The Third Cave
“If you only saw the photos from inside of this ice cave, you would think the entrance was much bigger than it actually was, as we could barely see the slit in the ice as we trekked close to it,” Aryanto describes.
“Once inside, however, we realized how expansive this cave was. With the bigger cave and the rounded ceiling, I knew this cave was perfect for a panoramic photo. To me, creating the dome effect with the panoramic is much closer to what I was seeing with my naked eye, as opposed to a single photo,” Aryanto explains.
“As much as I loved the panoramic photos, my favorite image from this cave is easily this perspective shot of Ludo as the outside light cascaded in over the cool blue ice,” Aryanto says.
The Fourth Cave
“This cave had a really crazy looking, gigantic opening, as opposed to the small openings that we had been finding. While it was on the same glacier as the previous cave, it was on the opposite side, kilometers away. This was maybe the most ‘epic’ out of all of the caves that we had explored, as the openings were massive,” Aryanto says.
“This cave wound up being a perfect example of how quickly these caves can change due to the elements,” Aryanto continues. “When we returned as the winter gave way to spring, the entrances were completely collapsed. Looking at the wall of ice that now blocked the entrance to this special place, I was reminded about how lucky I was to be able to experience these natural wonders before they disappear forever.”
Image credits: All photos by Stanley Aryanto