Shooting for Heaven

Posted on May 1, 2017

Portrait by Fred Greaves; Wedding Photo by Charleton Churchill

In March, Northern California native Charleton Churchill, 42, became the first wedding photographer to shoot a wedding ceremony above Everest Base Camp. He spoke with Sacramento Magazine just weeks before leaving for Mount Everest to talk about his style of adventure wedding photography.

So what exactly is adventure wedding photography?
(When I was) growing up, my dad dragged me through the forest and woods, hunting and fishing, so I have an appreciation for nature. My photography explores the relationship between landscape and weddings, and combining those two to get something different.

When did you begin combining your passion for nature with photography?
In 2009, I was training to climb Mount Everest and bought a camera to learn landscape photography, to get photos. But I broke my tailbone and that messed things up. Later, I started photography with friends, and after that I began doing weddings professionally, and then got back to my passion: mountaineering, hiking and the outdoors.

When did you start shooting adventure weddings?
I was doing adventure stuff with couples by 2012, exploring the wilderness for photos. Then in 2015, I took a couple to an Alaskan shoot. We hiked 7 miles to an ice cave for some engagement photos. Mount Everest is going to be the pinnacle of what I’ve already been doing.

What kind of couple does it take to climb Mount Everest? Did they find you?
Well, I planned it in 2013. I went to a blog and said I want to do a wedding at Mount Everest Base Camp. I had people contact me to shoot their wedding, but a lot fell through—except the last couple, who ended up booking me. First thing I asked when we talked on the phone was if they ever hiked before, how high they had been and what was their athletic ability.

Obviously a shoot on Everest requires more preparation than a weekend wedding in Napa. What kind of planning goes into it?
At least a year of planning goes into it. I already had the gear to climb the mountain itself, but you have to plan your shots in advance because you don’t have much time with cloud cover, rain and snow, and for the bride, who won’t want to be cold too long. Planning my gear for a mountain trip is hard enough, but so is coordinating with leaders of our trekking group. I’ve also been training and eating properly.

And what about the cost? Most couples struggle to cover expenses of a normal wedding.
Most one-day weddings in Sacramento cost about $3,500 (for photography), and I’ll be gone three weeks. So I’m not benefiting in the short range financially, because no couple can afford $3,500 a day over three weeks. And to get a couple to pay more than $10,000 per person for the trekking outfit and gear, it’s quite expensive. So it’s more of a personal project for me, but this year I got a lot of sponsors, some big names in the climbing industry that want to support us.

Wedding on Mt. Everest
James Sissom and Ashley Schmieder

While you were trying to shoot your first wedding on Everest, you were caught in the April 2015 earthquake that left 9,000 people dead in Nepal. What was that experience like?
We were at about 12,000 feet. The ground had a roll to it and people started screaming. I ran out of the building, and people were running out in their underwear. A siren was going off, like something you’d hear in World War II.

Did you try to capture photos?
No. All I cared about was surviving. I left my camera inside the building when I ran out. I slept the next two nights with my bag attached to me, and my headlamp and boots on in case it happened again. The aftershocks were just as bad.

Was anybody in your expedition hurt?
About seven of our yak died, and all our Sherpas lost their homes. So we set up a GoFundMe account and raised $90,000 to rebuild their homes.

How did that experience influence your photography?
Now everybody I shoot is about their stories, their personalities, trying to find their soul. So when I document this wedding on Mount Everest, I’m not waiting till the destination to shoot—I’m going to document the whole story of the couple hiking up the hill.

Has there ever been a wedding like this on Mount Everest before?
There have been couples that have proposed or did their vows at base camp, but to have an official wedding photographer, and wedding dress, the whole thing—this will be the first ceremony of its kind. Base camp is at 17,000 feet, but we’re going a little higher than 18,000 because it’s more panoramic and beautiful.

Obviously you can’t shoot every wedding on Everest. Where else do you like to shoot?
I prefer mountain or wilderness areas, Patagonia or national parks. Something different. But if I could shoot someplace 10 times a year, I’d go to Yosemite. Tahoe is one of my favorites, too, because it’s close and easy to explore.

So you’d be willing to shoot a wedding on Mount Tallac?
Oh, heck yeah.

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