Ever since a British officer in 1903 captured what is believed to be the first image of Mount Everest, photographers have been striving to take iconic pictures of the world’s highest mountain. Everest’s enormity makes it nearly impossible to make a single photograph that highlights both its scale and position within the Himalayan landscape.
This year, Renan Ozturk, a 39-year-old professional mountaineer and filmmaker on assignment for National Geographic, set out to make just such a photograph. His plan was to use a specially modified drone to create a 360-degree panorama that would portray Everest in its full grandeur but also reveal its commanding position in one of the planet’s most colossal landscapes.
And that is how Ozturk found himself shivering in the subfreezing chill atop the mountain’s North Col, laboring to breathe the thin air at 23,000 feet, roughly a mile below the summit. He’d spent eight months planning for the moment but calculated that he’d only have 15 minutes to capture an image before his drone’s battery died in the brutal cold. With numb hands, he launched the device into the sky, its propellers emitting a high-pitched whine as it struggled to gain altitude into the diminished atmosphere.
This wasn’t Ozturk’s first attempt to fly a drone on Everest. He and his team had tried and failed many times during the same trip. “If winds are too heavy, you can lose the drone immediately,” he said recently by phone. “Sometimes when you’re full throttle going down, [the drone] is still going up, or vice versa, because of updrafts and downdrafts. You’re at the mercy of the wind.”
But Ozturk was prepared for the extremes. Before reaching the Himalaya, he’d tested his drone in a hyperbaric chamber in California to see how it would handle the mountain’s thin air. He also worked with the drone manufacturer, DJI, to unlock certain safety functions, allowing it to descend quickly and operate farther from the pilot. Even with those measures, he expected difficulties. “When we were first doing these flights, you don’t know if it’s going to work,” he said. “There is always a sense of discovery and a sense of fear.”
With the sun setting and temperatures dropping, Ozturk sent the drone out over the mountain. He figured that there was just enough battery power to fly 6,000 feet away, spend one minute hovering and capturing a 360-degree shot, and speed back. He was right.
Retrieving the drone from the sky, he looked at the rough “in camera” image it had created. “I was super excited, because it seemed like a very rarely seen bird’s-eye perspective. It looked like a satellite photo, except not as mechanical and plastic-like.”
Ozturk’s image is the next step in a decades-long chronicle of photography and mapping on the mountain. Pioneering aerial photographer and cartographer Bradford Washburn shot some aerial photos in the 1950s for National Geographic for the original Everest map, Ozturk noted. “But he wasn’t able to get that close and detailed.”
“He would be so excited about this new technology,” said Ozturk, who is quick to credit the science behind his own photograph. “Honestly, it’s a triumph of technology. We just took it to its full potential.”