On his first trip to the Sierra Nevada, in June of 1916, Ansel Adams went armed with a camera—a Kodak No. 1 Brownie—and started shooting. "I expect to be broke if I keep up the rate I am taking pictures," the budding 14-year-old photographer wrote to his Aunt Mary in San Francisco that summer. "I have taken 30 already."
He kept shooting for almost seven decades, until his death at age 82 in 1984, by which time he had become a world-famous photographer and a powerful voice for wilderness. Although he traveled far and wide, he returned again and again to the Sierra—"a noble gesture of the earth," in his phrase—for the adventure, artistic inspiration, friendship, and solace he found among its jagged granite peaks, snow-swept passes, and brooding skies. His uncompromising portrayal of these subjects still draws pilgrims to the wilderness that bears his name, deep in the heart of the High Sierra, in hopes of seeing what Ansel Adams saw there.
On a bright August morning, a group of Adams admirers emerged from the trees on horseback, making a cloud of dust as they came into view of Thousand Island Lake, at 9,833 feet a splendid prospect in the strong, slanting sunlight. The boulder-strewn lake, surrounded by lush alpine meadows, glittered under a flawless blue sky, with the black hulks of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter anchoring the scene. The horsemen picketed their mounts in a stand of pines, and one of them explained the object of this journey. "We're looking for Ansel's tripod holes," said Michael, at age 77 an ebullient internist from Fresno, now retired. He was joking about the tripod holes but not about his hope of finding the exact spot where Adams had made a memorable early image of the lake and Banner Peak—and surprised himself in the process.