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Ice-photography by Albert Russ

Ice is one of my favorite subjects for photography. If anyone told me this a couple of years ago, I would likely have thought they were crazy. I don’t mean any ice but peculiar ice formations developing in abandoned mines in Schemnitz region. Among several spots I decided to select my favorite spot, which I focused on over several winters. The adventure started on a very cold Christmas day, 25th of December in 2007. Me and a friend of mine left for Schemnitz to seek adventure rather than staying at home doing nothing in particular. In the evening we were invited to a friend’s house in the area and had a long chat about mines. A lot of interesting stories were exchanged and the conversation continued until late evening. During our chat we flipped a book with one very important inspirational photo. It was a photo of an old adit resembling a cave, littered with dozens of ice stalagmites. I demanded to know immediately where this adit was and became pretty thrilled about it. I was so impatient by the time we left that I suggested to look for the adit right away. We drove late at night based on given instructions and found the right location but couldn’t find the adit. It was too dark and dense fog made it impossible to orient. After a while and well after midnight we gave up and returned the next day. Daylight didn’t really help much because the fog became extremely dense but eventually we located the mine entrance after almost giving up- frustrated and exhausted from hiking in deep snow. The cave-like entrance was overwhelming and incredibly beautiful. After previous days of subzero temperature the adit floor was littered with dozens of ice stalagmites up to 1 m tall.

The entrance to the adit in Baniste is located just below the summit of Baniste hill (737 m) above Hodruša valley with a 360 degree view of Schemnitz Mountains. The mine entrance has one of the best views of the surrounding mountains and is a dominating feature of the summit. The entrance is very wide with a diameter of several meters. It leads to a spacious moist chamber almost 10 m high and wide which is characteristic with almost constant dripping of water. In winter when temperature falls well below 0°C, cold air starts flowing inside and cools down the chamber. However, ice starts forming after at least several days of freezing temperatures because of high thermal inertia. The lower the temperature drops, the faster the ice stalagmites grow near the entrance and the deeper the ice tends to occur. However, it takes at least two to three weeks for ice to become spectacular. At the same time, it is important that the low temperature remains because warmer air drifting out of the interior creates an equilibrium which is lost quickly after sudden warming. Therefore it is somewhat tricky to plan a successful trip so usually I visit the spot several times in a row. 

After a long cold spell, there is usually an entire spectrum of ice stalagmites inside the adit. We observed four distinct sections where water condenses and ice forms. The outermost section consists of small, usually dry and flawless ice where water droplets no longer falls once temperature drops too much. This is the only part where classical hanging icicles (ice stalactites) also occur. Deeper inside just before is an area of the longest ice stalagmites, sometimes reaching as high as 1.5 m. They are cloudy due to fast growth and typically grow into bizarre shapes. If it is indeed very cold these ice features grow very quickly but become much more unstable even during the slightest thaw. The third section consists of smaller but well defined ice stalagmites which usually grow to about 50 cm and are spread out over a large area inside the main chamber. These stalagmites tend to be much wider and drop in height the farther they are from the entrance. Often they resemble statutes or human figurines. The last section consists of small and fat ice stalagmites up to about 10 cm in both width and height. They form randomly on a steep incline of dirt and mud, somewhat resembling mushrooms. Because these features grow extremely slowly, they tend to be internally flawless except for an occasional sand/rock fragment trapped in ice. Near-ground temperature in this area has to be around 0°C regardless of the outside temperature because no ice is ever observed further inside. Of course these features are the most vulnerable to temperature changes and tend to melt away very quickly. 

In the very beginning my entire effort focused on complete ice features either as single objects or groups. I never noticed any interesting details before one evening. It was a warm and sunny “spring-like” afternoon and snow on southern slopes of lower hills melted away almost entirely. I visited a mine in Pukanec and found no ice there so I figured there will be nothing in Baniste adit. However while driving to Schemnitz I noticed much more snow in higher elevation and became curious if there was still some ice inside the adit. At 10pm I went to the adit with a friend who was ok with going up in a steep slope of wet snow. We went inside and were surprised to find giant and well-formed ice stalagmites which were only starting to thaw. When I inspected a few of these, I noted weird patterns all over the partially melted surface never seen before. When I reached the smallest ice “mushrooms” further below, I was amazed at the etching patterns these ice formations had. Some resembled the famous Volodarsk heliodor etching, some looked like fingerprints or spider webs but many were surprisingly regular. These surface structures were rather small and definitely required the use of macro lens which I was lucky to have along. After 4 hours of “extreme macro” photography, we gave up and left. We were anxious to return the following morning. However there was a great disappointment when we rushed back because all the etching structures disappeared. We realized that temperature dropped so low overnight that new ice started to form on top of the structures, which vanished completely. A few of the images from the previous night ranked among my best ever and some of the patterns were never repeated again. I became so fascinated about these structures that I continued to hunt them down over the next two winters and was overwhelmed with the results. Once I invited my friend Robert Brandstetter who barely believed that those ice structures were real. When set up our equipment inside the adit and I put on my macro lens, I asked Robert to look at my viewfinder and see the structure before I take a photo. It is always funny to remember how surprised he was. Etched ice definitely became my most important subject for photography and if not the best, definitely the images were the most original ones I ever produced. As a serious mineral collector I would find it ironic that ice became the most important mineral photographed in this mineral-rich and famous region.

As climate changes become more apparent, it is easy to see how vulnerable this mine is becoming. Since the summer of 2011 it was unusually dry in the region and there was barely any groundwater. During an extreme temperature drop (up to -27°C) in early February 2012 there was almost no ice growing. Because the temperature was so low and there was very little moisture, there were virtually no ice stalagmites growing. Instead, fantastic ice crystals formed on the ceiling. This was the first time I had to use the “stacking” technique inside a mine to make the subject of interest sharp across the entire range. 

Photographing details of ice is a very tedious process, especially in an environment like this. Careful use of expensive macro lens in steep mud, trial and error approach with tricky light and constant fight with my tripod makes this kind of photography one of the hardest I have ever experienced. It is worth it if the results turn out fine though. My usual session lasts about 3-5 hours and I decide to leave only when I become too cold or frustrated. Or occasionally, when anyone making me company looses their temper and decides to leave. 

Every winter I focus my attention on the weather forecast and try to monitor any developing cold periods. The excitement during favorable conditions never seems to fade away. Every visit is a surprise- it is impossible to predict exactly how it will look like the next time.  

Contact: Albert Russ

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