“There is a blurred line as to whether I’m a photographer that caves, or a caver that photographs.” – Brent McGregor
In 2005, Brent McGregor’s life was a world apart from the underground caves where he finds himself these days.
Back then, McGregor was busy summiting every cascade peak in Oregon, seduced by what he describes as the “stunning beauty and inspiring light” of the alpine environment.
“I returned home with these magical scenes embedded in my memory,” McGregor says.
But memory alone wouldn’t do.
McGregor bought his first DSLR camera and took to photography with a zeal once reserved for mountaineering.
McGregor can add photography to a kitchen-sink life that includes stints as logger, artisan furniture maker, builder, mountaineer, caver, adventurer and author.
But it’s caves and photography that hold McGregor’s attention these days.
“There is a blurred line as to whether I’m a photographer that caves or a caver that photographs,” McGregor says.
Considering the environment — cold, damp, unstable and largely devoid of natural light — caves make a difficult subject for photography. Add to that the fact that many of the caves McGregor visits have never been explored and require him to haul enormous loads of safety, climbing and mountaineering gear.
“My caving experience is different from most of my partners. It is twice as difficult to move through the caves with my gear, especially through tight passages. Often cavers help pass my gear through tight sections.”
McGregor is now at work on a book documenting caves throughout Oregon. On a recent photo shoot inside the coolly lit entrance to the newly discovered Snow Dragon glacier cave on Mount Hood, McGregor’s partner Kara Mickaelson says he makes an ideal caving companion.
“I love having a reason to slow down,” she says. “When you go in a cave with a photographer … you slow down. You look at what life is there. You look at what formations are there.”
McGregor’s pursuits of new caves often means he has to make judgment calls about when to push on to explore the next passage and when to stop, slow down and capture the moment.
It’s not always easy.
On a recent adventure McGregor watched as his partner, Eddy Cartaya, explored a new potential passage inside a glacier cave. The light bathed the surrounding ice in shimmering blues and whites, but McGregor had to stay focused on the ropework that ensured Cartaya would stay safe. Still, photography was never far from McGregor’s mind.
“Why aren’t I the guy shooting this? Because looking at it artistically it was magnificent … the axes hanging off him, the crampons …. lighting in the big open cave, everything combining was beautiful.”
Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya recently identified what may be the largest glacier cave system in the lower 48 states. To learn more about their story, visit Thin Ice: Exploring Mount Hood’s Glacier Caves.