Dylan and Kaleb had a last-minute idea to shoot the blood moon, but they had to move quick. This is what’s required to take a truly epic adventure photograph.

The Idea

Wednesday 26th May, 2021. The day of a total lunar eclipse visible from New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific, Asia, and parts of North America. A good chance to get creative. As the eclipse would reach totality at 11:11pm in New Zealand, it’d be high in the sky and difficult to get creative with.

As of Tuesday, neither Kaleb nor myself had plans to shoot this celestial phenomenon. But a split-second decision saw me making the five hour drive from Auckland to Tongariro National Park to attempt to see the lunar eclipse over Mt Ngauruhoe.

With winter getting into full swing and bone chilling temperatures overnight, we were gearing up to be freezing our fingers off while the moon glided into the shadow of the Earth.

That was the plan at least. Driving into Whakapapa in the fresh morning air, the one thing grasping at us was the low cloud sitting just on the Tama Saddle. That was where we’d intended to hike three hours to camp out for the night. We checked as many ski field webcams and weather forecasts as possible to try and make a call on what we should do for the night.

rapelling under a blood moon, dylan arthur, tongariro national park, sunset, alpenglow

The Scout

Making the hard call not to hike to where we wanted, after a good few hours of deliberation, Kaleb made the suggestion to scout out Mead’s Wall, a climbing wall at the base of the Whakapapa Ski Field. We utilised Photopills to the best of our ability and attempted to calculate the path of the moon for the timings of the lunar eclipse.

With multiple rappelling routes from the top, we had to be frugal with which line Kaleb would set up before it got dark, as there wouldn’t be any way to move once the moon was already overhead!

We spent a good few hours, with Kaleb atop the wall, and myself wandering about the base of the ski field, trying to line up a shot for both the moon rising and the totality of the eclipse.

After wandering around the volcanic rock of Ruapehu, we decided it was time for lunch to refuel our bodies and our minds before the big evening ahead of us. On our way back down the Bruce Road, we made a couple of stops to see if any other spots would line up well to accentuate the rising moon, but unfortunately no other spots were going to work out for us!

We boiled up some water and cooked ourselves some dehydrated food for lunch, had a coffee, then it was time to prep the cameras and the ropes for the night ahead of us. Geared up with four cameras between us, we knew we’d walk away with something at least, but there was really only one shot we had in mind.

Testing our lenses and making sure everything was as sharp as possible, the time rolled around for us to head back up to the ski field.

The Setup

The sun was setting over the western horizon, illuminating the rocks we stood on with a beautiful deep orange, and the snow-capped peaks above us with gorgeous hues of pink and red.

Kaleb began traversing the wall as I sat and watched the deepening colours fading through the sky. A luxury that as a photographer I don’t often slow down enough to truly appreciate.

Kaleb reached the anchors that we’d picked out in the day and began preparing his rappelling lines. We knew we wanted to get this done while it was still light, and the rocks of the wall weren’t yet freezing from the mountain air!

Double and triple checking the setup, Kaleb was certain his ropes were ready for when the eclipse was set to begin, I was sure of where I needed to be, and we were ready for action.

The Moonrise

Kaleb was atop the wall; I was down in the valley. The time was 6pm and the moon was set to pop over the ridgeline behind Kaleb in half an hour’s time.

Setting up the tripod with a super telephoto lens on the camera, I zoomed in right on Kaleb so he’d appear with the moon looking giant behind him. This was the one part I was unsure if we’d planned well enough.

The clock ticked closer and closer to moonrise. The sky began to brighten as the supermoon climber higher and higher. Towards the ridgeline. And suddenly we realised: our planning was well off.

The moon was rising far to the right of where we’d planned. Disheartened, we headed back to the cars for a nap before the main event. A warm dinner of soup, two-minute noodles and hot chocolates warmed our frozen bones before we wrapped up in thermals and sleeping bags, and waited for the eclipse to begin…

The Lunar Eclipse

We hopped groggily out of the cars at around 10:15pm. The temperature up the mountain had dropped to -5°C and the moon had already started to darken as it shifted into the shadow of the Earth.

We made our way back to the wall to set up the cameras. We had every intention of using all four, but in the end decided two would be plenty for our needs. One super telephoto honed in on the moon itself, and another ready for the eclipse over Kaleb’s rappelling route.

It wasn’t long before one side of the moon started to glow red, just as Kaleb was on his way across the top of the wall. Scrambling across the top of the ridge, Kaleb made it over to the anchors with freezing hands and got himself harnessed in. It was go time.

I finished off imaging the close ups of the moon and headed to the camera we had looking towards Kaleb’s rappel. It was 11:16pm and the moon was two minutes away from peak totality. So, I began shooting.

I knew this was going to be a difficult shot to nail. To get this looking right, we’d need to blend a shot of Kaleb (standing still for five seconds), a shot of the night sky, and a shot of the moon, to put together into a final image. I grabbed about 20 shots from our initial setup position. But I wasn’t satisfied. I moved in closer to the wall to the point that the camera was set up nearly vertically.

I couldn’t contain my excitement. On the back of my camera was exactly the vision I had in my head.

Yelling out instructions to Kaleb we nailed off as many different shots as possible to make sure we were happy before Kaleb committed to coming down the wall. 

Kaleb made his way down and I immediately showed him the shots. We were both ecstatic. We walked away frozen, exhausted, and completely stoked that we’d created something (probably) unlike anyone else last night.

It’s missions like these that completely fuel the fire in my soul.