ADVENTURE WEDDING, MT. EVEREST BASE CAMP
JAMES AND ASHLEY ELOPEMENT, MARCH 16, 2017
ADVENTURE WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER: CHARLETON CHURCHILL
WE DID IT.
James and Ashley married at Mt. Everest Base Camp (EBC) and became the first couple to exchange vows in a wedding dress and tux. And I, as an adventure wedding photographer, have been wanting to photograph a real wedding (with a wedding dress and suit) at Everest base camp since 2011. It’s one of the most epic and beautiful locations in the world that’s difficult to get to, and nobody’s done it before. Certainly, we are all thrilled to have finally pulled it off.
We trained for the year and planned to be on the mountain for 2-3 weeks in order to acclimatize our way up to base camp so James and Ashley can get married and get a few photos. The actual hike to base camp after landing on the mountain from Kathmandu took nine hiking days, but you plan for three weeks from the time you take off from your home airport to return home.
I’ve trained much of my life in the outdoors, climbing many mountains, training in high altitude mountaineering, leading teams, photographing, even to the summit of the highest peak in north America, Alaska’s Denali, Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 ft., in colder and harsher conditions. I have even fallen in a crevasse; fortunately, I was roped in and rescued.
Furthermore, I attempted base camp with another couple in 2015, but the devastating earthquake of Nepal including the massive avalanche that swept EBC, turned everyone around off the mountain. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I would find another couple to get married on Everest anytime soon.
How my Couple Found me
Last year, our bride Ashley, who was following me on Instagram, reached out me. She said she wanted an adventure wedding and hadn’t chosen a destination, asking for my opinion. They were thinking tropical or some place enjoyable. I mentioned Mt. Everest base camp, and well…here we are now.
Both James and Ashley made for great trail partners. We were like family. Ashley is tough girl who crushed it on the mountain trail and maintained a great pace. James is a great man who took care of Ashley, always looking after her needs. Plus he’s a comedian who made us laugh often. It can be difficult after a few days on a long mountain trek with all the pressure and lack of resources to maintain a smile, but we did well.
Now saying this was an epic and amazing trip is true, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share it came with some suffering, doubt, fear, anxiety, and physical pain. Often times when striving for something great, there’s usually a cost. There’s no glory without suffering. We worked hard for these images with much less time to photograph a short wedding than we planned.
According to our Sherpa guide, it dumped more snow on us than it had all winter. The temperatures ranged from -8 degrees to 10 degrees Fahrenheit from 14,000 ft. camp and above, so your hands would quickly freeze if left out of the gloves, like when I tried to film and take photos. I actually had to turn a live Facebook filming off because my hands were burning cold. I had to start over and rewarm my hands. Also, James and Ashley married in the -5 degrees to 5 degrees Fahrenheit range, and in her wedding dress. We especially had to keep her warm, on top of keeping warm, downing soup, food, drinking hot liquids, and moving, all vital.
Besides enduring the frigid temps, food poisoning kept me up a few nights at high altitude, trying to get sick, but I just couldn’t get anything out. The first night I didn’t sleep at all. It was rough and made it difficult for me to hike for a few days, had to push through the wall I was experiencing. James had the Khumbu cough which became worse and deeper the higher we ascended.
The Possibility of ending the dream
The night before EBC at Gorak Shep, 16,942 feet, after we had hiked just below Kala Patar at 18,514 feet for acclimatization hike, James woke up catching his breath feeling like he was suffocating, tight chest. James and I searched for our guide around midnight, but the lodge where he was staying was locked. We threw small rocks at a number of windows whispering loudly. Also, James walked around the lodge trying to find a way to get in, and found a far back door into the kitchen that was open. Finally, we found him. Our guide and another Sherpa hooked up the oxygen mask/tank to James. He slept on oxygen for the remainder of the night. What didn’t help our situation were the stories of hikers getting medevaced out from our location. An Australian died of high altitude sickness a week prior to us arriving.
Ultimately, we decided to fly out in the morning to be safe, and not attempt base camp. After waking up and having a discussion with our guide, and James feeling better, he mentioned that we can get to base camp carrying oxygen, photograph a short wedding, then fly out on a helicopter.
Married at EBC
When we all arrived to base camp, we were told we have 1hr and 30 minutes to eat, get married, pack up, and get on a helicopter. So, we ate, drank, and got married in an hour. James and Ashley exchanged vows at Mt. Everest Base camp right in front of the famous Khumbu ice-fall where people use ladders to maneuver over crevasses, and with the beautifully carved Nuptse Face in the backdrop. All these famous mountains at Basecamp were surrounding us like celebrity wedding guests. It was beautiful, short, and we captured a few photos before packing and getting ready to leave.
When thirty minutes passed, and then an hour, and then losing cell service (because cell service runs off solar), more time passed, we realized the helicopter wasn’t going to make it and we would have to sleep overnight at base camp, which I thought was great, but bad for James. However, we would have him on oxygen the whole night, which was all good. The weather became worse, which was unsafe for the helicopter to arrive that evening. Our next chance would be the early morning, and that is exactly what happened.
Leaving on a Helicopter
After sleeping on the glacier hearing the cracking below us, on top of hearing the thundering avalanches all night,…the helicopter came, and early. The faint but ascending juddering sound of the helicopter in the distance was a beautiful sound. James and Ashley’s face said it all. Their expressions showed relief and we all were excited. The pilot, hooked up to oxygen, took James and Ashley first because the air was too thin at base camp to take all four of us and our bags. They dropped James and Ashley off at a lower altitude, and then returned to get me and Naga, our guide.
We headed to Lukla Aiport which is at the base of the mountain, the renowned and most dangerous airport in the world because of it’s short landing strip and cliff that follows. Within a few hours, we were back to Kathmandu on a bus, warmed up, and back to our hotel with some of the creature comforts we missed while on the mountain.
The images from the adventure wedding
Below these words are some of the images I photographed while documenting this adventure wedding. Originally, we tweaked the calendar to allow two nights at base camp to capture as many wedding photos as possible. I had many image ideas to massage with them, but because of the circumstances, we only had so much time to capture them in the freezing cold. However, even with the small amount of time we had to capture James and Ashley and their wedding, I think we nailed it.
Thank you everyone for following along, on Facebook, Facebook live, Instagram, the news, etc.. I will be posting more images behind the scenes on Instagram, so you can follow there. We just created a Youtube site where you can view video of behind the scenes as well. Also, please drop a comment at the bottom of this blog, I would love to hear from you, what country or state you followed from, what you enjoyed the most, and anything that moves you.
A Special Thanks
Lastly I would like thank the wonderful supporters and friends of this epic adventure who believed in our work and photography enough to invest their confidence in me.
Profoto – Profoto B2 Light
Nikon & Nikon NPS– All my Nikon Gear.
BHLDN – Stylish wedding Dress Attire
Sierra Mountain Outdoors – Sutter Creek, Ca.
Lacie Rugged Drives – These rugged drives get banged up and last me.
Black Rapid – Camera straps for my hiking weddings
Trillo & Leather Co. – My stylish leather straps for non-hiking weddings
Light and Motion – Headlamps and Stella lights
Borrowlenses – Camera and lens rental
Marmot – Clothing & camping needs
My amazing wife Kelly and three daughters who not only support me, but encourage me to live adventurously.
Here’s James and Ashley flying from Kathmandu to the base of the mountain to prepare for our wedding adventure. It’s a 35 minute flight with a view of the Himalayan mountain range if you get clear skies. Flying is great, unless the wind picks up. Then your small plane gets whipped around like ours did on the return flight.
Above: We didn’t waste anytime staying at Lukla airport. After the plane landed, we downed a cup of hot tea, negotiated some trekking gear, and we were gone. Ashley and James starting off in their hike through the villages of Lukla .
This is Namche Bazar where the devastating 2015 earthquake hit Nepal and Mt. Everest, with my other couple. This is where we had to turn around in 2015. This time it snowed more than it had all winter.
Our groom James got a clean shave at Namche Bazar. He thoroughly enjoyed it. His first.
Our first real view of Mt. Everest behind the other mountains with the spin-drift coming off it. When we woke up, it was bitter cold, hands were freezing trying to live facebook, but I was blown away to see this view from our little lodge.
Stories of hikers getting medevaced off the mountain due to altitude sickness were told as well as demonstrated before us.
Here we saw snow leopard tracks in the fresh snow. It warmed up a little on our way to the next camp, but it was still cold. You can see the famous Ama Dablam Mountain in the background
Beautiful sunset on the mountain.
Taking a break above Lobuche and enjoying the view behind us.
Spontaneous burst of love surrounded by epic mountains. This is an accurate and good photo of how tired, beat up, and cold we were, trying to recover at camp. Each day we hiked around 4-8 hours. We arrived here at Gorak Shep, 16,950 feet.
Okay, here we’re finally getting an opportunity to get dressed, hike up near Kala Pattar for the first look of the couple, Ashley getting in her wedding dress at just near 0 degrees Fahrenheit. We didn’t have much time, but we pulled it off. We were already beat up, tired and lacking oxygen. Our Sherpa Guide insisted on taking my camera bag because he saw how sick and beat up I was on the trail. Some of my camera gear wasn’t functioning because it was too cold, but we were able to get some photos. Our amazing Sherpas helped Ashley put her dress on in the freezing cold. It was bright and cold and they requested to wear a beanie and glasses, which I thought was unique and different. I wanted them to do their thing and wear what they wanted.
Here we go, the first reveal of Ashley in her wedding dress with Mt. Everest in the background (middle behind the mountains and darker). Yes that is a steep cliff/hill behind them where we just hiked up. One of my favorites here with real smiles, as James gets his first look. I’m glad my Nikon camera gear was functioning at full force here. A moment to enjoy the view of Mt. Everest together and where we have been. One of my favorites here above. Late night image after we had woken up to put oxygen on James. I saw that it was clear and retrieved my camera for a quick photo with the stars and Nuptse standing tall.
Panorama shot with 5 images stitched together.
Ashley signing the rock which is customary here after arriving to Mt. Everest base camp, but with their wedding date and wedding.
Arrived to base camp with our bags, getting ready to eat, drink, and get married, then fly out on a helicopter all within an hour and a half. Not much time, but we did it. Indie my important gear was an apple macbook pro and Lacie rugged drive to back up data. I left another rugged drive at the hotel in Kathmandu to send off separately in case photos got lost. There are backups for everything.
Since we didn’t have much time to shoot, I threw the dress on the tent and didn’t care about cleaning anything. I actually liked the image better all rugged, not cleaned up , and with the Sherpas chillin in the background. James getting ready with the Khumbu Ice-fall in the background.
Ashley got dressed inside the tent and the temperature was around -3 degrees to 6 degrees Fahrenheit on their wedding day.
And this is officially the ceremony. Since they were eloping far away from home, we had no minister, but they exchanged vows, exchanged rings, and shared from the heart how much they were going to pursue and love each other. It was truly a moment of awesomeness, knowing where we were at that time, and how hard we worked to get there, this moment was finally happening. James and Ashley were getting married surrounded by an orchestra of mountains. The Khumbu Ice-fall right behind them, the starting point in climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest. Truly unreal.
Hilarious here, Ashley’s lipstick smeared all over Jame’s face and lips after they kissed.
Our tents we were to sleep in for two nights originally, but because of altitude issues, we took a helicopter down much earlier than we wanted. We waited for the chopper to arrive, but bad weather held it off until the early morning. We slept overnight in these tents hearing the rumbling and crashing of avalanches all around us, as well as the crackling of the glacier below us; that was a little edgy. So, yes we were sleeping on one massive glacier, which is the entire Everest base camp area. Mind-blown at 17,600 ft.
Yes, they married in these boots. Hiking boots are probably my favorite. I love couples wearing them with their wedding attire and getting all rugged in them.
Our amazing Sherpas, cooks, and most hospitable hard workers on the mountain who were with us the whole time. We had a great team. These guys work their butts off and took care of us. This is a great moment after we got off the helicopter, then immediately flew down to Kathmandu on a plane, and got on the bus. It felt good to be warm again.
A God Moment
This is what I call a God moment. I capture an image and realize later I captured something bigger than myself, which I didn’t originally intend to shoot. I thank God for the beautiful meaningful moment, I take no credit because it was unintended. Two Hearts become one. March 16, 2017, we are on our way to base camp that very morning to get James and Ashley married and this happens,…there are two hearts in the sky, like a puzzle. One heart is full and the other empty; that day their hearts became one. Absolutely no Photoshop here, I didn’t touch the sky, this just happened on their wedding day.
Congratulations to our couple, James and Ashley. A truly epic and rare wedding that will go on the books as one of my favorite weddings of all time.
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