A Photographer Remembers Galen and Barbara Rowell

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Galen returned with pictures that were so astonishing that the editors put one on the magazine's cover. Later, he photographed nine other features for the magazine—ranging from the Sierra Nevadas to Alaska to the wildest corners of China. His career wielding a torque wrench was finished.

Over the ensuing decades, Galen went on to publish numerous books, many of which will long be regarded as the standard-bearers of their genre: Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, a revealing, soul-searching account of an unsuccessful American expedition to K2; Mountain Light, a bible of his photographic vision; My Tibet, a magnificent portrait of this vanishing culture, co-written with the Dalai Lama, Poles Apart, about the lonely polar regions; and many others.

Galen was a popular lecturer and every year counseled hundreds of budding photographers in personalized photography seminars, including one in Alaska he had just completed with fellow National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting when he and Barbara were killed in the plane crash.

My biggest memory of Galen was his personal power. It exuded from everything he did, wrote, or spoke—every image he photographed.

I guess it started with just being darned tough. He always leaped out of his sleeping bag before the morning star had risen and could lope up a 20,000-foot mountain like the stairs to his den.

For years he lived on top of the Berkeley Hills in California, and many days would run from bottom to top. My own fuel-efficient automobile could barely make it without stalling.

Barbara Was Vital to Galen's Success

Nevertheless, Galen did have a mischievous and humble streak and might have stumbled in the race towards success in a very competitive world if he had not teamed up with Barbara Cushman more than 20 years ago.

Barbara had worked as marketing director for The North Face, one of the world's leading outdoor equipment and clothing manufacturers. After she married Galen, she devoted her tireless energy to building a business they would call Mountain Light. In her own way, she was Galen's equal and she was vital in his later successes in publishing, lecturing, exhibits, and other endeavors that helped to establish him as arguably the most famous outdoor photographer since Ansel Adams.

Barbara had a mind of her own. On one assignment, the editors at National Geographic said that they liked some of her pictures of Islamic women better than the ones Galen had taken!

Barbara was also flamboyant. At various times she drove a pink Porsche, rode well-bred horses, and became a master pilot, flying a small plane from California to the tip of South America—a journey about which she had written a book due to be published next fall. She was not, however, at the controls of the chartered plane that inexplicably crashed so short of the runway in the place that Galen, Barbara, and I all loved so much.

I can only imagine the thoughts and joy that Galen and Barbara were feeling as they descended back into the Owens Valley, headed for their favorite home. What a tragedy that they will reach it only in spirit.

After a career of superlatives, Galen's last big assignment was for National Geographic magazine, documenting a grueling overland journey through western Tibet in search of the calving grounds for the rare chiru antelope.

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