“I want to see mountains again. Mountains, Gandalf!”
Many share Bilbo Baggins’ obsession with mountains, photographer Thomas (Weimin) Chu included. Mother Nature has grown on Chu, who was born and raised in mountainous Chongqing; however, it was not until after hiking the scenic Bavarian Alps during one of his college years abroad in Germany that his passion for sharing alpine beauty through photography was ignited.
After graduation, Chu became a software engineer for three years; at around the three-year mark, he decided to become a professional photographer, with a focus on polar landscapes and high mountains. And thus began his story as a photographer and outdoor aficionado.
One year prior to graduating, Chu posed a challenge for himself: capture a photograph of the top 10 highest mountain peaks on earth. His personal goal was finally realized last year, at just 28 years old, when Chu faced up to northern Pakistan’s Chhogori, better known as K2 – the world’s second highest mountain.
K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
Trango Towers, a family of 6,000-meter-tall-plus granite mountains on the Pakistani border with China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Image courtesy of Thomas ChuTrango Towers rising from a shroud of mist amid showers. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
A cluster of Kashmir larkspurs grow on the Baltoro Glacier in northern Pakistan. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
A desert dune stretching toward a mountain range in Pakistan. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
It was not, however, with masterly composed photos of mysterious, majestic mountain peaks that he managed to captivate this year’s judges at one of the world’s most prestigious photography competitions.
The National Geographic Travel Photo Contest annually supplies the world’s photography lovers with out-of-this-world photos of natural scenery, wildlife, festivities and portraits. This year, Chu’s quintessential wintertime photograph in Upernavik – a fishing village in northwestern Greenland – garnered both the Grand Prize and First Prize in the ‘Cities’ category at the reputable photo contest in June.
Upernavik, home to approximately 1,000 residents, is dotted with colorful wooden houses, which form the shape of a Christmas tree. These are the only vivid colors visible when the vast area is blanketed in a sea of snow.
The winning photo (cover image) was composed during Chu’s third expedition to Greenland in March of this year, when monthly temperatures reached an average of minus 23 degrees Celsius in the northwest of the Arctic country. Keen on Greenland’s solitude, he had deliberately chosen to visit during the most difficult time of the year to see how life goes on.
His initial composition – a village street lit up against the backdrop of a dark, frozen sea on a wintry evening – lacked life, before a local family of three entered the frame. In demandingly dark conditions, his skills were put to the test. He had to capture the ideal moment before the family vanished. The ISO setting (a camera setting that adjusts an image’s brightness) was pumped up to compensate for the lack of light, risking the loss of details in the photo. The result is travel photography at its finest, however, which National Geographic recognized with top honors.
Photography is a practice characterized by the element of surprise. Originally planning to spend two days at Upernavik before heading further north, Chu was forced to stay in the small village for as long as a week due to the lack of flights leaving the area. On the sixth day, after exploring every corner of the small town, he came across a “dreamy” composition that would make all the difference in his photographic journey.
March is the coldest month in Upernavik, in northwestern Greenland, with an average temperature of minus 23 degrees Celsius. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
The small fishing village resembles a Christmas tree from a bird's eye view. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
Swaying aurora borealis illuminates the sky after days of rain, during a two-month exploration of Greenland. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
Mountains in the orange wash of the first sunlight in southern Greenland. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
The future looks bright for the young photographer. But, most importantly for Chu, he is doing what may sound like a luxury in our time – a job he loves. His work has taken him to some of the most captivating spots on earth, such as Patagonia and Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest known underground cave.
Warm light shining through thick clouds on the famous Fitz-Roy in Patagonia. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
A cloud inversion appearing in Yangshuo, Guangxi after a week of rainfall. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
Hang Son Doong, located near the Laos-Vietnam border, boasts the largest known cave passage. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
View from a Hang Son Doong doline 150 meters underground. Image courtesy of Thomas Chu
At this moment, the Chongqing native is likely spending time on some faraway mountain, where he feels a sense of belonging: Looking for his ideal composition, setting up a tripod, slicing in a polarizer and a six-stop ND filter in front of his brand new Sony A7R4, before hitting the shutter and capturing that awe-inspiring moment when the first ray of sunlight casts a rosy-pink hue on a mountain peak.
Simply by doing what he loves, Chu’s adventures indicate he is living his best life. To quote American literary iconoclast Jack Kerouac: “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing the lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
[Cover image courtesy of Thomas Chu]