What’s So Good About Chamonix? Part 2

If you haven’t read the first installment of this ‘season highlights’ blog, you can find it here. I did some really thorough moaning in it, so it’s a good read if you like that sort of thing. There was a whiff of positivity too, and some pretty pictures. Even for a grump like me, it’s difficult not to love Chamonix – for all the frustration, bureaucracy and the rest, as soon as you get on the mountain there is nowhere like it. And all that opportunity and variety I mentioned last time, that’s down to the incredible people that live there. Here are some of them.

But first a brief moan; the parks in Chamonix are awful so I didn’t get to shoot as much freestyle as I’d hoped to. Then again, why go to Chamonix for man-made obstacles when the natural terrain is the best in the world? Case in point:

Kenny Jenkins following his in-built kicker radar

Kenny Jenkins following his in-built kicker radar

It wasn’t until halfway through the season that I got the chance to really start exploring what Chamonix has to offer the off piste skier. The Vallee Blanche – and Gros Rognon variant – may not be off the beaten track, but when your first experience of it is with three sponsored skiers, it’s a different proposition!

Ben Briggs launching off the Midi Arete

Ben Briggs launching off the Midi Arete

Whitedot Skis sent me off with Ben Briggs, Tom Coney and John Luckhurst, and we found a crazy amount of untouched powder for such a world renowned route, and though the snow was wind affected these guys made light work of it.

Tom Coney dodging crevasses

Tom Coney dodging crevasses

I thought Sophie and Charley Radcliffe would be at the other end of the skiing spectrum when we hooked up again for the second of Sidetracked’s Challenge Series. It was their first ‘proper’ ski tour and they’d barely skied any off piste.

They killed it. Here’s a quote from Sophie; “Some day I won’t be able to do this. Today is not that day.” I genuinely believe this attitude it what makes these guys excel in the mountains and in life. There’s even a danger their positivity might reduce some of my moaning.

You can read the Sidetracked piece here (with lots more photos of course).

Does this look like a woman who has barely skied off piste?

Does this look like a woman who has barely skied off piste?

And here’s another shot of Geoff on his 9:Zero:7 fatbike. I’ll say no more as I’m writing articles on this as we speak. Metaphorically.

Fully loaded. Geoff and the trees.

Fully loaded (Geoff and the trees).

This one I’ll explain – it wasn’t part of the Tour du Mont Blanc route, but it’s a location I’ve seen photographed with ice climbers, and I wanted to give it a try. Tricky to get to with a bike, and once again eyebrows were raised and the Compagnie du Mont Blanc gave us a big helping hand by allowing Geoff and his bike to use their facilities. But what a place to ride a bike!

Geoff Harper emerges from the bowels of a glacier.

Geoff Harper emerges from the bowels of a glacier.

Is there anything cooler than abseiling with skis on your back? If there is I don’t know about it. For Ben Briggs it’s an almost daily routine, but then he skis routes that most people couldn’t climb! Final shoot for Whitedot Skis led us to Cosmiques Couloir and stupidly good snow.

Ben Briggs rappelling into Cosmiques Couloir

Ben Briggs rappelling into Cosmiques Couloir

Here’s another shot of Geoff Harper that I can’t say too much about….

Winter bivvy on the Tour Du Mont Blanc

Winter bivvy on the Tour Du Mont Blanc

My final shoot of the season was another Wildey/Radcliffe/Sidetracked/Salomon collaboration. I hadn’t managed as much climbing/mountaineering as I’d expected from the season, but this particular day out completed what I’m pretentiously calling the Cosmiques Trinity. In December I’d climbed (most of) the Cosmiques icefall before retreating for various reasons – one being a huge chunk of ice smashing my face in… I’d also skied the Cosmiques Couloir, so the Cosmiques Arete seemed a nice conclusion to a fantastic season.

Sophie Radcliffe on the magical Cosmiques Arete

Sophie Radcliffe on the magical Cosmiques Arete

It has been my absolute honour and pleasure to work with these inspiring athletes for a whole season. Looking back through a seasons’ work – and it was a challenge to whittle down thousands of shots to this small selection! – I think it’s obvious that calling Chamonix a ski resort does it a huge disservice. When I was a child we had things called adventure playgrounds. This is the grown-ups’ version.

Sophie Radcliffe on top of the world

Sophie Radcliffe on top of the world

The Revelation of Scottish Winter Climbing

Nobody told me the A82 was so beautiful.  So after a full day of work, four and a half hours driving, including an hour stuck in Glasgow traffic, I wasn’t expecting to be suddenly excited.  I’ve never really understood the whole fascination with ‘the road’ despite being a travel photographer, I’ve never clamoured to visit Highway 61, never mind revisit it, like Bob Dylan did. But this quaint and quiet little road in Scotland has turned me around on the subjectRannoch Mor

It’s not the road itself of course, but the landscape, the promise, the unknown, the experience that draws people down it.  For me it was, as ever, the mountains.  I was on my way to photograph a couple of climbers sponsored by new British company Jottnar, and it was my first time in the West Highlands.

I admit I’ve become a little blasé about UK mountains after living in the Alps, and I think a part of everyone doubts that their own country can impress them.  Maybe it was the evening light, or the excitement of the upcoming photoshoot, the deliriousness of such a long drive or the prospect of imminently getting into bed.  But only half an hour short of Fort William, my ultimate destination, I had to pull up and bask in the tranquillity of the glens.  Far from the strung out traveller, I was that floaty tourist from the Visit Scotland adverts, who absurdly seems to have the whole of the Highlands to themselves….

Buachaille Etive MorThere was barely a car on the road, but there was snow on the mountain-tops and sun on my face, so I waited there as the sun went down.

What a start to my Scottish climbing adventure; the journey was supposed to be the hard part.  I arrived a little late, but unusually refreshed for a visitor from England, and ventured out to meet my client, Tommy Kelly.  Like many people nowadays we’d worked together quite closely for a long time without actually meeting.  And Tommy was not exactly what I’d expected.

What does it take to start an outdoor clothing brand in the middle of a recession, surrounded by global giants such as Berghaus, Mammut, Patagonia….?  Most of us will never come close to understanding that, but these were my assumptions:  On the phone Tommy had a considered self-assurance in his voice, a measured rhythm which instilled confidence and allowed you to buy into his vision without a doubt.  This was backed up by an obvious passion for what he does.  How do you take on the industry giants?  By knowing the mountains, and knowing what the competition is missing.  So I pictured a man with years of experience to draw on, and the associated knowledge to provide a strong basis of self-belief.

But better than that, I found a young man, mid to late thirties, waiting in his VW campervan full of climbing gear!  Over a pint I found a very unassuming and personable man who only wants to make the best clothing for his mountain adventures.  He has very little industry experience, but bags of mountain experience; no preconceptions, but perfect clarity of vision.  And no ego.

This was a daunting job for me; visually describing a brand that plans to take on the likes of Arc’teryx requires an assured eye, and as a mountain lover I just want this brand to succeed.  An hour with Tommy put me right at ease, and suddenly the only thing I had to worry about was my 4am alarm clock.

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Approaching Minus Three GullyNobody told me that Ben Nevis involved such a walk-in.  We were with Mike Pescod of Abacus Mountain Guides, so luckily had the key to the gate above the North Face car park.  Less lucky was a fallen tree blocking the track 100 metres on, so we walked.  And walked.  I’m prone to moaning about walk-ins at the best of times, but as a photographer I think I’m entitled to.  I was carrying two mid-sized DSLR bodies, three lenses and two flashes, with the usual accessories.  I’d say about 5kg of camera kit, and that’s on top of the standard Scottish winter climbing gear.  There was also the incalculable weight of trying to keep up with a professional mountain guide and a former Royal Marine…High on Minus Three Gully

But there’s always something that pushes you onwards and that morning I had many of those things; perfect winter conditions, two expert mountaineers for company, an exciting photographic brief, and my first Scottish winter route coming into view.

As the night sky turned into a perfectly cloudless blue, Mike accusingly told me “you haven’t even earned your spurs…”  People have probably climbed in Scotland for years without ever seeing the elusive blue above their heads, and the insinuation was that I should feel extremely lucky.  Any other day I would, and on most other photoshoots I’d be praying for sunshine, but not today.  We’d been hoping for brooding, dark clouds and atmosphere.  And I felt terribly ungrateful…

From the start of the walk Ben Nevis didn’t look very big.  But that’s because I didn’t realise how far away it was!  Gearing up at the CIC hut, the scale becomes very apparent.  And scale was what I needed; “man against mountain” were Tommy’s words.

Climbing photography, and especially ice climbing photography, is a question of balance and compromise.  As we stood at the bottom of the route – Minus Three Gully – I realised I’d better not try to carry everything.  The short, thin, diagonal crack we’d seen from below, was now a long, steep, long, cold, and erm, long gully.  I sacrificed the flashes and some clothing, and climbed with two SLRs slung around my neck like a Mexican bandito in totally the wrong setting!

Pulling out of the cave on Minus Three GullyI made the right choice; at the top of the first pitch is a cave, offering views over seemingly  all of Scotland, with some magnificent ice formations to be negotiated as you climb back onto the face.  It would have been good with flash in the cave – but it would have been nothing without an ultra-wide lens, which is why I’d brought the second body.  I got some of my favourite shots of the day, and then managed some of my favourite winter moves of all time as I wrapped my arms around a pillar of ice, axes hooked in opposing directions, and lunged off balance out of the cave and back above thin air, grateful I wasn’t on lead.  It was one of those moves you don’t have much choice about, no working out to do, just a matter of commitment.  Since I was focussed on the photography and looking cool in front of great climbers, the fear had no time to collect and I made the move clean and managed a smile.

Looking for an abseilThe rest of Minus Three Gully was sustained but relatively easy with a short, tasty sequence of moves on each pitch – but the cave was definitely the highlight.  For imagery, the next great scene came as we descended, walking out on top of a huge buttress to find an abseil, with the great glen spread out below.  If ever you want to make a man appear small, stand him on Ben Nevis in winter; even on a blue sky day you can feel that your existence is fleeting and the wind could flick you away on a whim.

High above Glen NevisWe got what we came for; a humbling experience in a beautifully inhospitable place.

Because They’re There?

My first blog entry.  Well I’ve been blogging for other people for so long, I thought it was about time I did so for myself; but I’m going to start with a piece I wrote for Jottnar as it seems an appropriate place to begin.

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Why climb mountains?  That’s a tough one.  I was asked why I photograph mountains, and maybe the same answer applies to both questions.  To conquer giants or to capture giants?

Artistically and elementally, there are no better colours and shapes than those found on a jagged summit ridge, a sandstone tower or a meadow of alpine wildflowers.  No better interplay of light and shadow than when the peaks cast their forms far down into the valleys or when rock catches fire at sunset.  No better sense of bewildering scale than the tiny piton holding lives above the chasm.

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But photography is best when it captures and evokes emotion.  From tranquil solitude to tempests and terror, the mountains provide a varied diet of soul food for a healthy mind.  Some climb to test their limits, to understand their own reactions to fear, isolation, beauty, adrenaline, autonomy and vulnerability.  After years of discovering my own limitations I really began to notice adventure photography and it was this self-awareness that heightened my reactions – the realisation that the limits of others are way beyond my own.  This makes an image inspirational.

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This is only part of the story.  I love mountains.  If you’re reading this I imagine you do too.  Climbing – in rock boots or hiking boots, crampons or skis – can be a way of involving yourself with beauty and nature and getting intimate with the landscape.  Photography can be the same, but maybe it’s also an attempt to hang on to that intimacy for a later date.  For me it’s an attempt to share that intimacy.

Whether I’m capturing adrenaline, wonder or pure beauty, for commercial reasons or not, I think my unconscious aim is always to evoke desire: Desire to be there, to have what it takes to get there, or even to own the gear to enable you to get there.  I guess this is why you should always photograph things you love.

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