Sierra Club High Country Trip: The Story of “Frozen Lake & Cliffs”

(The Ansel Insider)

In 1932, Ansel Adams set out with Sierra Club on their annual trip to Yosemite’s high country. Even in summertime, the high sierra can still be found rimmed with icy cliffs and snowy peaks. Equipped with lighter clothing for warm days and sturdy boots for slippery climbs, Ansel and crew scrambled over the vast high country, stopping at favorite spots along the way.

Ansel leading mule over snow in an annual Sierra Club High Trip. Photograph courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

As the Sierra Club was passing Precipice Lake, just before crossing the Kaweah Gap into the Kern River drainage, Ansel took several photographs of the lake with ice on its surface. It was here that he captured “Frozen Lake & Cliffs,” his favorite of a series of five iterations.

Ansel took the photograph while Virginia and girlfriends paddled about in the still waters of the lake, which was dotted with patches of melting ice. Cedric Wright, Ansel’s best friend, had set up his own camera quite near Ansel’s. He was later to exclaim that he was shocked to see Ansel’s image, so very different and much more beautiful from what he himself had seen.

Ansel Adams (left) and Cedric (far right, playing the violin) on Sierra Club trip. Photo courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

“Frozen Lake and Cliffs” is one of the earliest abstract photographs made directly from nature.

In Mary Alinder’s biography of Ansel Adams, she describes his composition:

“Mirrored ghostly upon the inky waters, a shattered black cliff descends into a partially frozen lake. The reflection is separated from its source by a band of white ice, a crumpled crust of grayed snow, and a tumble of scree.”

Visit Precipice Lake today and you’ll find it hard to visualize Ansel’s photograph in the surrounding landscape. He captured it with a keen eye, extracting his composition from an elegant nook in a sweeping scene. When Ansel’s daughter-in-law, Jeanne, asked him what he considered his most sophisticated image, Ansel replied, “Frozen Lake & Cliffs.”