March 05, 2021
An Ultralight Approach to Surviving Hostile Work Environments
Words & Photos by Matt Wordell and Zach Voss
Our names are Matt Wordell (@mhwordell) and Zach Voss (@retroscope). We’re based in Boise, Idaho. We travel to remote areas around the world with leading Volcanologists to assist research projects, capture photos and video, and produce short films and other content for use by Universities, research groups, National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation, and other organizations.
We just completed an expedition in Guatemala and have another approaching in May that will take us to several remote volcanos in Papua New Guinea in support of a research team from the Deep Carbon Observatory. In addition, this work will be displayed during an international volcanological conference held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC as part of a film showcase and photo exhibition.
We both launched our careers in media during college. Zach had dabbled in video production for years but took the full plunge into self-employment when he started Retroscope Media just before finishing college. He went on to win a bunch of local film competitions which quickly set him apart in the local film scene. Similarly, I fell into a graphic design internship during college that allowed me to develop my photo game on the side, eventually inspiring me to start a design and photography business in order to pay for college without working a restaurant job. I got a degree in Anthropology, but the business took off, so I decided to stick with it.
Since then, Zach has gone from shooting cruise line commercials in the Caribbean to camera product videos in Japan. He once worked on a feature film in Bulgaria that shot in the crumbling former communist party headquarters.
I’ve loved the remote potential of graphic design and have really tried to use the freedom by backpacking Europe for several months, sailing the coast of Mexico for six weeks, and taking various sabbaticals from reality with just a laptop and change of clothes.
We still have to find the balance between adventure documentary work and commercial projects back home in Boise to make it all add up at the end of the year. However, our time at volcanoes continues to be the most dynamic, challenging and rewarding of anything we do.
Our pack list for work is heavily dependent on the work laid out ahead of us. Does the job involve long periods camping in the field? Unpredictable conditions? High elevation? All of the above?
During our work in Guatemala, we decided to use the 3400 Southwest – the most important piece of the packing puzzle. True, its ability to expand endlessly, carry tons of gear, and be comfortable for hours on end is great. But the fact that this pack is waterproof is a total game changer! Knowing you have somewhere safe to stash a camera and lenses when the weather gets rough provides a peace of mind you can’t put a price on. On top of that, the hardline outside pockets were able to stand up to brutal abrasion in scoria fields and jungle hiking while carrying ample amounts of water, a climbing helmet, and snacks for days.
Inside the pack, we both bring the full range of layers to work in all weather conditions. An inflatable pad and 15º Katabatic Flex Quilt nestled inside a Hyperlite UltaMid 2 with the half mesh insert ensures a comfortable, puncture-free sleep no matter the weather or bug situation.
Our decision to use the UltaMid 2 came down to gear storage and safety over everything. Unlike other tent designs, the UltaMid allows us to store and stage camera equipment well away from the perimeter of the vestibule area, providing shelter from rain, precipitation, and harsh winds. The vestibule is even big enough that you can get a recovery yoga session in while it’s storming outside. During a previous trip to Ecuador, we used an ultralight option from a popular REI brand, and during torrential downpours, we were forced to sleep with almost all of our camera gear inside the tent with us. It was a tight fit, to say the least.
We used Pods and Stuff Sacks to organize cook kits, food, clothing, sleep system, and camera accessories such as batteries, cards, lapel microphones, and an unruly bunch of wires to connect everything together.
Some things we couldn’t live without in Guatemala were - tortillas, canned tuna, black bean paste, sriracha, a clean buff, wool socks, heavy boots, and Chapstick to battle the wind’s drying effects. Also, our camera gear. More things we were grateful the packs had room for.
While each volcano is unique, they all share the ability to be somewhat unpredictable and very uncooperative. A hike that starts in a hot, humid and shady jungle may end up ice cold on a windy, rocky scarp at high altitude. We’re always sure to bring clothing and equipment that allows us to be comfortable, because dealing with the elements is the means to the actual work of documenting volcanologists and their research.
The first win of any international trip is that moment when you emerge from the air terminal, and your baggage actually comes out of that mysterious hole in the wall. The feeling of relief is so massive, all you’re thinking is - “Great! All of the gear I need is here, this trip won’t be a total suffer fest.”
Once in Guatemala, we spend about three days preparing, gathering items such as batteries, cooking gas, and other odds and ends while team members from Germany and England trickle in. We pile into a van and head to Xela, our central base city for the next week we’re camping at Santiaguito and Santa Maria volcanos.
Hiking into these volcanos, no matter our expectation, is somehow always more challenging than we thought it would be. During past volcano work, it was the hellish weather conditions and how the weather impacts the environment we were in - dry moss covered rock fields becoming complete death traps during heavy rain, dry riverbeds flooding in a matter of minutes, etc.
The hike into the Santiaguito dome complex is what some people might call challenging. Others might find it nearly impossible. Zach and I are both in agreement, it’s easily one of the hardest we’ve ever done. Razor-sharp grasses and incredibly steep trails leading straight down the mountain for hours left many of our crew with bloody, cut-up arms and blister covered feet. No switchbacks here, we all discovered a new level of soreness in our quads the next day.
Once camp was made, the calm jungle provides a perfect place to rest. Moderate day hikes get us up to the plione beneath the active dome, aptly named Caliente. This area is where researchers are installing extremely sensitive devices engineered to monitor minute movements in the Earth’s tilt or inaudible infrasound emissions occurring around the active dome. After several days of digging holes, flying drones, and hiding in the shade, we had finished our time in the low-lying Santiaguito area, and it was time to push onto the next location atop Santa Maria Volcano.
Topping out at around 12,500’, Santa Maria offers an incredible early morning birds-eye-view down into Caliente as it erupts. We camped here for two nights documenting researchers as they filmed the active dome and deployed sensor arrays across the mountain side.
Once the research portion of our trip was wrapped up, the second half of our trip was spent working on a commercial shoot for DP Review and Nikon, which took us to Acatenango, Fuego, and Pacaya Volcanoes. This was the portion of the trip with the most challenging weather and where our gear really provided the security we needed. Luckily, the weather was balanced out by the stunning visuals of erupting volcanoes and mind-blowing views at high altitude.
Our most trying experience of the entire trip was atop Pacaya. We had made camp on a prominent ridge with a view, consumed a warm meal, and decided to summit the volcano while the sun dipped below the horizon. When we arrived at the top, winds were so powerful that sitting or crawling was our only option. Thick cloud cover and small razor-sharp scoria particles blew into our eyes and blinded us, while the wind made it nearly impossible to communicate with each other. We lasted about 15 minutes before collectively agreeing that our situation was unsafe. Following a GPS track back to camp, our tents were laid flat against the ground in the destructive wind. We hurriedly tore stakes from the ground and gathered everything in our arms, sprinting for the cover of trees just below the ridge. Luckily, there were no major losses to report! Other than that, we’re still not sure what it was, but at one point on our hike out of Sanitaguito, Zach ate something that gave him the worst gas ever, relegating him to the back of the line for more than one reason.
Having an assignment to produce films from these hard-to-access places, we definitely appreciate the light-weight and packability of our Hyperlite Mountain Gear equipment as it afforded us the extra capacity to carry more stuff like camera batteries. That allowed us to confidently run our cameras longer in the field while waiting for those special moments, and in the end, giving us the power to produce a better overall product.
Additionally, reducing our overall pack weight ultimately led to increased stamina, shortened recovery time, and caused less strain on our bodies. All of this combined to give us the energy to push ourselves for 16 days straight and feel great while we were at it.