Local wilderness photographer and former aeronautical engineer Josh Cripps will present at ESIA’s Adventure Series
Josh Cripps probably isn’t the only rocket scientist-turned-adventure photographer in the world, but he might be the only one living in Mammoth Lakes.
Then again, considering the sort of people the Eastern Sierra attracts, he might not be.
“The people they’ve had at these [Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association (ESIA) Adventure Series presentations] are legitimate badasses,” says Cripps, who will be presenting on March 1. “And I’m not a legitimate badass.”
Cripps, who grew up on the westside in Sonora and went to college at the University of Southern California (he has a degree in aerospace engineering), specializes in landscape photography, particularly in the Sierra backcountry. And he finds himself lucky to be counted among the presenters of the ESIA series, which has featured acclaimed mountaineer Arlene Blum and ultra runner Tim Tollefson. In certain crowds, he says, he can pull the badass card, but it’s a tougher audience in Mammoth.
“I was in Florida presenting the other week and I’m talking to people who have literally never hiked before,” Cripps told The Sheet. “So the idea of hiking 12 miles into the backcountry and climbing 6,000 feet is insane. Here in Mammoth, people are like, ‘I did that before breakfast.’”
Cripps’ life trajectory does have a certain charm—he’s a guy who set himself up for a life making six figures but ended up dirt bagging it in order to make a living in an industry that’s almost become a parody for those trying to eke out an existence as an artist.
He initially wanted to be an astronaut. But he got the travel bug while studying abroad in Australia during his junior year. He took all engineering classes, in order to finish his degree on time. “So while everybody else was taking Australian partying 101… I was like, ‘Cool, I’m going to work on this space system design.”
When he returned to USC, he found that all his Australian engineering courses were only going to count for elective credits, so he spent a semester cramming all the courses he possibly could into his schedule, while working part time. “After that semester, ‘I said no more engineering!’” said Cripps, though he went on to work at Boeing (his speciality was micro thrusters for satellites) after graduation. But he was playing a long game—he wanted to travel around the world.
He bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand on January 1, 2004, and spent about 19 months abroad.
He said he struggled to convey the experience to others.
“People are like ‘How was your trip?’ and what do you say? Life changing? A formative experience? It was really frustrating to not be able to share that with the friends and family back home.”
So he bought a point and shoot. Then he upgraded to a digital SLR. He traveled to Alaska and came back with photos that were… just terrible. “For me, failure is so critical, because it’s a wake up call,” said Cripps. “The things that you sail through, you don’t think about…so as an engineer, I said, ‘This is a problem. How do I solve it?’”
He took a layoff from Boeing, where he’d been working on and off since graduation, and he went all-in.
“For the first four years I was like, ‘What am I doing?,’” Cripps said. “I quit my job so I would have more freedom, more time with friends, more time to travel, and I’m not doing any of those things… I have $60 in my bank account.”
Part of the secret to his success is that he has diversified his work—he teaches seminars and has a prominent YouTube presence. In 2015, he made the move to Mammoth Lakes.
“It’s a hard place to live, so the people that have made the choice to come here have made some sacrifice. And as a consequence, they’re so pumped about taking advantage of living here. Every single day of the week people are like, ‘Let’s go do something incredible.’”
Cripps said his talk will focus on the stories behind some of his favorite photos, a couple of near-death experiences, and a discussion of how to be good stewards of the wilderness.
“The down side of [the popularity of adventure photography] is that photographers have attracted a huge following of people that are into outdoor adventures… and a lot of people in that group are in the ‘me, me, me’ phase,” said Cripps, noting that people can sometimes be so focused on getting the perfect shot that they cause damage to the natural environment.
“I’m hopeful that people who have the platforms are going to step up and try to educate people about…stewardship and protection.”
Cripps will present on March 1 at the Mammoth Lakes Forest Service Welcome Center Auditorium. Doors open at 6 p.m., talk starts at 7 p.m.