Sitting near the edge of Utah’s Blue John Canyon on Nov. 6, Jason Hummel pondered his next move.
Extend his five-week trip another few days to enjoy a little more Southern Utah sunshine, or point his 23-foot RV northwest and return home to Tacoma.
There was no wrong answer, really. He didn’t need to get home to go to work. The 37-year-old photographer was essentially already on the clock.
He spent the previous day canyoneering, scraping up his face and his camera as he squeezed through Blue John Canyon. It was a personal escape as he prepared for ski season, but he’d made plenty of stunning images of red rock against cobalt sky.
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Usually, he sells enough of these images to cover the cost of the trip. “And I’m happy with that,” he said. “… I never make a lot, but I always make enough.”
In 2009, Hummel walked away from the financial security of his job as a financial planner and found his passion for adventure photography.
He’s carved out a reputation for making images of athletes skiing challenging backcountry terrain, some of which is rarely or never skied. Hummel recently published a book, “Alpine State of Mind,” with some of his favorite images.
Even before Hummel left his job, he was no stranger to adventure. He and his twin brother, Josh, and his friend Ben Manfredi headed regularly into the mountains before Manfredi died during a rafting trip on the Olympic Peninsula in 2003.
I never make a lot, but I always make enough.
Jason Hummel, adventure photographer
Hummel learned to ski on Mount Rainier and in 1999, he, his brother and Manfredi decided to see how many consecutive months they could ski. Hummel recently pushed his streak to 205 months.
“Maybe every mountain has these eclectic characters who just live their lives at full volume,” said Kathleen Goyette, who hires Hummel to shoot images for White Pass Ski Area. “… The mountain attracts people who live life to the fullest and that’s what Jason does.”
He always seems to be on the go, but when we tracked him down in Utah he slowed down long enough to field a few questions:
Q. What was that decision like to leave your job?
A. I left my job in pure frustration and having that gnawing feeling that if I didn’t take time off then I’d never be able to. … I like to think I walked away from it thinking I would go back, but deep down I really didn’t want to. I found, six months to a year later, that I actually made money as a photographer. That first year I was living off money I’d accumulated saving since I was a kid and I found that I could live small and still be able to go out do the things I wanted to do.
Q. What was your big break as a photographer?
A. I did a trip into the Picket Range in February in 2010 and it was something that had never been done. Nobody had traversed the range fully in the winter. Magazines found my story on a couple of web forums and I had seven to eight magazines write me for the story. That was kinda, oddly enough, where things started picking up for me.
Q. What was it like getting started?
A. It was like learning a new career from the ground up. There’s no book to tell you how to do it. You figure it out on your own. It is kinda crazy, too, because you are competing against so many people. And so many awesome people who are doing incredible things. You don’t want to think of it like competing and I try not to. But with the explosion of imagery out there, it’s like how do you set yourself apart from the rest? And, I guess, I did that by skiing in the Cascades and going and doing what I wanted to do and telling the stories I wanted to tell.
Q. What are some things you had to give up?
A. Having that thing that you have when you grow up, a home that you are going to be at. Having consistency. When somebody says, “What are you doing next week or a month from now?” I’ll be, “I don’t know.” ... I would say I kind of miss that ability to have some consistency in my life. You want to have a girlfriend? Awesome girls don’t stay single. If you are a guy who’s not around next week, you’ve pretty much lost out. And here I am gone for six weeks. You don’t really win in those situations.
Being an adventure photographer is an awesome job. It is one of those dream jobs. And it’s one of those things you can make into anything you want it to be.
Q. What do you gain through your lifestyle?
A. I was kind of sheltered growing up (in Morton), but what I’ve gained mainly through brute force of reading a lot, and meeting people is getting some culture in my life. I still have some blind spots because I grew up in the country and I hardly talked to people. I was voted the quietest kid in class, which is funny because I’m talkative.
Q. Tell me about the streak?
A. Since we started keeping track at 13, we’ve missed 13 months. When we were 19 we started skiing every month of the year.
Q. Any close calls in terms of almost ending the streak?
A. There have been a lot of challenges. The big one was when Ben died. That was really close to ending the streak. I didn’t really have that passion any more. … There was a moment, when I thought, “I don’t really think this is a priority anymore.” But you can’t let your passion die. In a way, going back to the mountains reminded me of Ben. And it’s my home away from home.
Q. How challenging was last year in terms of the streak?
A. It was definitely challenging. It was one of the worst years. Trips you typically do in June, I was doing in February. That’s a pretty stark difference. February in the Cascades is usually pretty dangerous, but this year it was really easy going.
Q. What do you look for when you shoot?
A. I get asked a lot, when do you know when to pull out your camera? When you are cold. When you are hungry. When you are exhausted or scared. That’s when you take your best images. You have to have the will to pull out your camera in those moments. … That’s when the adventure happens. You want to capture those cool moments.
... When do you know when to pull out your camera? When you are cold. When you are hungry. When you are exhausted or scared. That’s when you take your best images. You have to have the will to pull out your camera in those moments.
Jason Hummel, adventure photographer
Q. What’s the next big project?
A. I want to ski all of the named glaciers in Washington. I’ve done about half, but that’s going to take me a few years. Looking at it, I think I have about 100 to 120 left. I want to do it before my body breaks down and says, “We’re not doing that anymore.”
Q. How long do you think you can do this?
A. I was the guy who taught people how to retire, but you need to do something your whole life. You can’t just be that guy who breaks down and sits in front of his television and wastes life away. I need a passion. I need something to do.