On mountain adventures, learning new skills, and finding a very special person.
The sun shines across a clear blue sky, on an early fall morning in Bellingham, Washington. From the home of Gabe Rogel, perched atop a hill of lush, green landscape 1/2 mile from the Pacific Ocean, large windows offer panoramic views of Bellingham Bay, the San Juan Islands, and the snowcapped mountains of the Coast Range across the nearby Canadian border. In front of the home, the street bustles with activity as students bike and skateboard to Western Washington University.
Inside the kitchen, where paintings and projects from school are proudly displayed on the walls, Gabe and his nearly 8 year old son, Ever, talk animatedly while drinking berry and almond milk smoothies. Both seem filled with energy as they discuss mountain biking, math equations from school, and upcoming outdoor adventures.
Gabe rises and walks to the counter, looking relaxed in jeans, a flannel button down, and crocs he favors as house slippers. His thick, tousled, hair is chestnut brown, with a generous amount of salt and pepper.
“I sold my first photo to a climbing magazine for 400 dollars, which, at that point in my life, was a fortune! It would fund another climbing road trip,” he says, as he retrieves two plates from a cabinet. “Things snowballed. Good energy gets going, and leads to new opportunities. I knew photography was the path I wanted to take, and I was focused on making it happen.”
Gabe begins spreading peanut butter on toast for the pair. “I’ve always been a firm believer in following your passions. The evolution of my career has been due to following my interests.”
He surveys the room, his son, and the view, and smiles a boyish grin. “Although it’s taken a ton of work getting here, I feel pretty damn fortunate.”
Gabe, what is your job?
Adventure sport and outdoor lifestyle photographer.
Adventure photography sounds like a dream job!
This is definitely my dream job. I love working in the outdoor industry, and traveling the world with friends and professional athletes.
How did you get into photography?
After high school, I went to Nepal by myself for 2 months. I had to see the Himalayas.
I bought my first camera before that trip. I wasn’t thinking about a career in photography - I wasn’t aware the career existed.
I came back from Nepal with all these slides, and people were really complimentary. I mean, it’s hard to take a bad picture over there!
So that started everything.
The following year I found a photography program at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. I also started mountain guiding during the summers. That’s when it all started to come together.
I worked for the American Alpine institute in Bellingham, Washington. I was guiding in Alaska, South America, the Cascades, and Montana, and bringing my camera everywhere.
Those are clearly great memories for you.
Those early years were super fun.
I was guiding around the world, starting to sell my photos. I remember missing graduation because I was guiding in Alaska!
Any favorite trips or projects?
Every trip has highlights for different reasons. There have been a lot of adventuresome, wild, raw, big mountain experiences.
Ethiopia has a special place in my heart, because my son is from Ethiopia.
Africa is a wild, beautiful continent, and culturally incredible.
I bet you’ve had so many great adventures! What are some that come to mind?
Once I won a grant to climb in Kazakhstan, a 7000 meter peak called Khan Tengri. We flew in on this giant, old Russian helicopter. It was a loosely organized exchange program. I was supposed to climb with a well-equipped Kazakh team, but when I got to base camp, the team was non-existent. I ended up soloing the mountain, poaching tents and stoves at various camps higher on the mountain. Kind of a wild, but incredibly rewarding trip!
I remember two back-to-back projects, trekking in the Indian Himalayas with a Marmot team, and immediately afterwards, flying from Delhi to Kathmandu to meet up with another Marmot expedition, to climb and ski Shishapangma, an 8000 meter (ed. note: 26,289 ft) peak in Tibet. 3 of us were lucky enough to summit, I was with Mark Newcomb and Kent McBride, guys from Jackson. We skied a line that had never been skied before on Shishapangma.
That was a really special trip. I’ve climbed at altitude quite a bit, and guided at altitude, but never an 8000 meter peak, and we didn’t have oxygen, so that was physically a big feat.
What do you think would surprise people about your career?
People think I’m in the mountains playing all the time! But, like many folks, I spend a ton of time in my office, in front of the computer.
It seems like you’ve worked with some great companies.
I’ve been fortunate to work with great brands - Marmot was one of my first and most consistent big clients. Recently, I’m on Sony’s team and they’ve been awesome to work with on some really cool, creative projects.
Is it hard to find balance with being creative and running the business side?
That’s what makes or breaks someone in this career.
It’s a fine line, or tightrope that you walk… haha, or probably more like a slack line!
How did you develop the outdoor skills for guiding, and the expeditions you’ve been on for photography?
I grew up in Spokane, WA. It’s located between a bunch of mountain ranges, so you can easily get into the Canadian ranges, Idaho, and the Cascades.
As a kid, I’d spend time at my parents cabin at Priest lake in northern Idaho, we’d go fishing, camping, and skiing. I got into backpacking with my uncle, in the nearby Selkirk mountains.
My best friend in high school got me into climbing. Chimney rock, in the Selkirks, was where I cut my teeth climbing, and it started taking over my life. I was super obsessed.
These things really formed who I am today.
So climbing led to the Nepal trip. How was it, the trip after high school?
It was a wild experience.
I first hiked the Annapurna circuit, then tried to go climb Island Peak in the Khumbu, but there was a huge storm in the Himalayas. It was 1995, and it killed something like 50 people. I was up in the mountains, pretty deep in the Khumbu, caught in this huge storm, 19 and essentially by myself.
That sounds intense. Have you had many close calls? Or lost friends?
Unfortunately, yes to both. I’ve lost a lot of friends in the mountains. Again unfortunately, it comes with the territory.
My friend I mentioned, who got me into climbing, he was my best friend. We shared a lot of adventures, and he showed me a lifestyle, climbing, which completely changed my life.
He was killed in a car accident, while we were still in high school. That was a really big event in my life.
The risks I’m willing to take have changed since becoming a dad. However, you can get killed driving your car, or unbelievably, going to school or a shopping mall these days. I’d rather take my chances in the mountains.
Have you ever been in a situation that didn’t feel right, when you turned back?
Oh yes… many times. One of the more memorable was in Alaska on a gnarly expedition, deep in Glacier bay.
We were sea kayaking, loaded down with skis and pulling expedition sleds, to skin up to an Alaskan peak planning to do a first descent. We got to the dock in the bay, and I could not do it. I turned back.
The guys I was with were supportive. They still went, they made it to base camp before a storm pinned them down for about 4 days and after that they bailed themselves.
It was after Doug Coombs died. I had spent a lot of time with Doug, I was in La Grave skiing with him just a week before he died. This trip to Glacier Bay was a month after that.
Do you know yourself well?
Yes and no.
Hiking, climbing, and skiing have been consistent paths in my life and career since I was young.
That said… I just wrapped up a divorce. It’s a transitional period in my life. Definitely midlife crisis-ing right now!
There’s always room for change and evolution, so I am looking forward to the next chapters. It’s an interesting, but rewarding, time.
How long were you together?
We were married for 15 years, together over 17. We shared a lot of history, but we’re better being friends.
We came out of the relationship with an amazing son.
You light up mentioning your son.
I love being a dad. It’s such an incredible thing.
You and Ever seem close.
He’s my little adventure buddy, I love taking him into the mountains.
We’ve had some of the most memorable times of my life, together.
When he was 5 or 6, we hiked up a mountain and camped on top of this peak.
We were in the Selkirks, the place where I learned to climb, to do all of this stuff. We were in our mesh top summer tent, laying on our backs looking up at the sky, and there was an owl hovering over us in the wind for a minute or two, while we watched the stars come out. I will never forget that moment, nor the million other similar ones we’ve created and shared together.
You mentioned Ever is from Ethiopia?
Ever was 4 months old when we adopted him. One moment we weren’t parents, the next we were! It was a pretty wild experience! I can only imagine what he was experiencing on the trip home.
We actually just found Ever’s birth mother, and are going to meet her next spring, which I am so excited about!
Wow! How did you find her?
I reached out to acquaintances in Ethiopia, at the orphanage, trying to get information to find his mom.
I worked my butt off trying to find her, but I didn’t get anywhere for a long time.
Out of the blue, a guy I had reached out to a year prior, who I never heard back from, wrote me and said, “I’m sorry it’s taken me a year to respond, but I think we can find her, she was here 3 months ago hoping to get information about Ever.”
Within 48 hours we had contact with her. It was amazing. I was practically in tears. It will be so incredible to get Ever and his birth mother connected!
How do you see your work evolving in the future? You’ve been doing quite a bit of video work, haven’t you?
Yes! I love photography, but it’s so fun to mix it up and learn a new skill set.
I’ve started a video production company with another shooter, John Mancuso, which I’m really excited about.
We are focused on adventure sports and lifestyle, and we’d also like to do more documentary work based around land conservation and social issues.
My dream is to do more documentary style work. Where I can hopefully make a ripple in land conservation, and feel like I’m giving back to something that has had such a huge influence on my life.
What would you be doing if not this?
Hmmm… I enjoy real estate stuff, so building houses or owning an architecture firm…. It’s different, but also creative.
Or being a rockstar!
Did not see that coming!
Hahahahahahaha it would be awesome to write and perform music! That would most definitely supersede architecture!
For more on Gabe, visit https://www.rogelmedia.com