El Alto International Airport in La Paz, Bolivia, is the highest in the world at an elevation of over 13,300 feet. Stepping out onto the tarmac, the lack of oxygen is an immediate, and harsh reality. For this high-altitude adventure I knew I would need to assemble a small group of multi-talented, durable, and hard-working team players.
Ben Roif came down from NYC to join local Bolivian Hans Rojas and we all met up in the airport. We crammed our six maxed-out duffles into a beat-up mid-1990s Toyota Corolla and traversed the sprawling city of El Alto to the nearest bus station. Waiting in the cold mid-winter air, we sipped hot drinks from a street vendor and locked up our duffles with small padlocks while waiting for the bus to arrive. Soon we were traveling across the high desert plains known as the Altiplano.
Out the right window of our bus we snapped photos of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real. Our bus was bombing toward the town of Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca (12,500’ above sea level) where we would spend a few days adjusting to the altitude. Arriving on the lake shore we prepared our new one-handed gimbal with the Canon C100 and 5Dmk4 and conducted some initial drone flights with the DJI Phantom 4 Pro.
After catching our breath for a few days in Copacabana, we loaded our gear onto a boat and headed out to explore the Isla del Sol. The slow two-hour boat ride offered us an opportunity to film some water sequences as well as take in the fantastic landscape surrounding the highest navigable lake in the world. Hitting the beach of the beautiful and rugged island in the middle of the lake, we began ferrying our equipment up to the ridge line where we set up camp for a few days.
This carry was one of the toughest on the trip, as we had over 150 kg of food, camping gear and filming equipment, and we weren’t fully adjusted to the altitude. From the top of our ridge line campsite, we had fantastic views of the sunrise and sunset which we filmed diligently. During the crystal-clear nights of the new moon we captured time-lapse sequences of the stars, looking across the massive lake towards Peru. After a few days, it was time to switch gears and head out to main mission which was nearly 5,000 feet higher up in the Bolivian Andes.
The primary goal of this film project was to explore the Cordillera Real while simultaneously telling my personal story, one that incorporates threads of learning and discovery. I wanted the visual treatment to combine aerial footage as well as starlit time-lapse sequences and gimbal-based tracking shots. The project was self-supported and demanded a lightweight filming kit to allow access truly remote areas. We knew we would have to carry all our camping and filming equipment for hours over uneven terrain, breathing less than half the oxygen that we were used to at home. We wanted an aerial platform that could capture 4K footage with a good bitrate and a log profile to match the footage from our other cameras. For this we decided on the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, with an assortment of PolarPro filters, which I’ve been using with all of the compatible camera lenses since 2015. Although none of us had flown drones at these altitudes, I was super motivated to make this film and willing to take the risk.
Over the course of two weeks, our days flowed predictably. We would wake up before dawn in below-zero temperatures near a beautiful alpine lake. After warming up a bit with some jumping jacks and sit-ups, Ben and Hans would begin capturing ground-based sequences while I flew the drone. Then we would cook breakfast over our camp stove and pack up camp while looking over our topographic maps and planning the day’s destination. After tying our gear to the roof rack, we would head out and spend much of the day navigating progressively deteriorating dirt roads. In the early afternoons we usually decided that hiking was more efficient than bumping along in the jeep. We then shouldered our heavy bags and hiked general towards another spectacular alpine lake. After arriving at camp, we would consider the changing positions of the sun and the galaxy before setting up camp and filming.
Most of the drone flights at those altitudes were super sketchy, especially when we camped on ridge-tops, where the afternoon updrafts from the valleys below would cause unpredictable turbulence. Ben and I share a total of 300+ hours of stick time, and we both agreed this project was the most stressful piloting we’ve ever done. Taking the risks paid off though, as a few those sequences were some of my all-time favorites in my experience piloting drones. Aside from the aerial footage, we captured timelapse sequences almost every night in sub-zero temperatures and created an awesome collection of gimbal shots. Working in the field like this demands a strong work ethic and near constant attention to detail. The early mornings, late evenings and multiple battery changes in the middle of the night was exhausting, but I couldn’t have asked for a better team to work with. These types of projects are a labor of love for sure.
The trip was full of surprises from start to finish. We tried to keep an open mind, constantly searching for ways to illustrate our story. On our last day on the trip, after we had packed everything up and were preparing to fly out, we crested a ridge on another bumpy 4WD track to see a huge red-colored lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks and an unexpected timeworn high-altitude cemetery.
Although we were short on time, we all agreed without hesitation to capture the last sequence of the trip. I set up the drone while Hans and Ben grabbed the Canon cameras and we rallied to capture the beauty. I sent the drone high up into the sky, again to nearly 18,000 feet above sea level. The flight was a bit sketchy, but we were able to capture both still and motion of this one last scene.