I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, some do it every year but somehow I never get round to it. Maybe it’s because January is a time for being in the hills or maybe it’s because I actually find it incredibly hard to single out 10 best shots from a whole year. It’s easy to pick out the 10 best shots that the ‘average’ person will like; but photography is about more than just capturing the staged epic shots, it’s about capturing the feeling and emotion of a climb, and often that doesnt mean it’s the most eye catching shot. So what is the perfect shot? I guess I dont know and I’ll probably always be searching for it, but I do know roughly, for me, what it looks like.
You have to capture the following three factors: the climbers’ emotion, the mountain landscape / situation, and the climb. To do that is hard because the latter two require you to take in a lot in the picture such as the background and the dizzying exposure, but to capture the human side into this is the crux. The human face is great for conveying feeling and emotion- if you want to shoot the facial features of a climber as well as get the exposure and mountain backdrop in then you’re going to have to shoot on a wide angle for the latter two and get as close as possible due to the wide angle for the former. And yet this creates a problem, it destroys the ‘climb’ part of the image. Look closely and you’ll probably see a piece of gear very near to the climber that he sat on whilst the photographer got in place and made him repeat the moves a few times. Look at the climbers face- does he look like he’s calm and a bit of a hero throwing some cool shapes and poses? Do we really look like that when we’re shitting ourselves on a lead? I know I dont. (NB: I’ve shot like this more times than I can remember). The mere fact that there is a photographer there on a rope is also a great help- at such a close distance he could easily throw down a line to the climber; it’ll make a cool shot for sure but its lost the magic of climbing; the sharp end isnt as sharp when there’s a life raft sitting above you.
Somehow you have to get far enough away so that you can’t help the climber at all- the sharp end becomes true again. Everything changes in the shot- there’s no big open poses, no cool smiles, just that rather terrifying fear in the eyes and a few really awkward shapes that you throw when you’re at your limit. You have to chose your shot- the climber heads off and he climbs the pitch without stopping. This is not to say that I only take these shots- I’m just saying what I think makes the perfect shot. I’ve taken far more of the posed shots than I have of the latter ones, but its the latter ones that really work for me. The key is for the photographer to be completely fly on the wall. Sometimes you can shoot pretty close but be yourself in such an awkward position (ie to the side) that you cant do anything to help the climber either; and it is also totally possible to capture human emotion as well by body position from far away. It isnt always about the face. But for me body position has to be real as well- it’s climbers hunched over, tired bodies, crawling at times, clumsy moves- its not a climber standing on the top of a ridge with a coil of rope in his hand looking like he’s from the Victorian days. The mountains are meant to be tough; we’re meant to find our physical and mental limits there- we’re not meant to look like proud Scottish Stags perched on top of a ridge with the sunrise around us and the Ride of the Valkyries humming in our ears. They say a picture captures a thousand words and to me the following do just that, there’s a real story behind every one of them. They may not be the best in terms of eye catching viewing but the point of my favourite 20 shots I’ve ever taken is that they capture something else than just eye popping imagery; they capture the real feeling of Alpine climbing- and that is something that I still find so hard to capture even to this day.
So in no particular order here are the first 10…
Will Sim just below the summit of Cerro Standhart in Patagonia. It was our first Patagonian summit and climb and we’d had an amazingly calm weather day on Exocet. As you top out on to the ridge here you get your first full view of the vast Patagonian ice cap on the left and start to get a true sense of scale for the place. Over on the right is the Fitz Roy massif. An amazing route and one of my most memorable days in the mountains
Jesse Huey pulling out of the super steep and sustained crux of the Dru Couloir Direct. This was an amazing lead and has a super thin exit- hacking up in to poor ice with monos stuck in tiny vertical seams it made for quite the tenuous lead. The exposure is just incredible, you can just make out two climbers at the very base of the Direct far below. A good friend of mine told me that this was the best shot I’ve ever taken and I like to agree with him on that one. I was mainly terrified at this point of pinging off the rock (huge tension traverse on a half rope) and smacking in to him…
Full moon rising over the Charakusa Valley, Pakistan I love shooting under a full moon and this huge stitched pano is one of my favourites. Over on the far left lies K7 and the immense K6 massif glistening in the distance. You can just make out the Milky Way ‘pluming’ from the top of Kapura in the middle. Our little base camp sits perfectly at the base of these giants on a nice grassy plain. I thought I’d get myself in the shot as well for once…
The Grandes Jorasses is an amazing mountain. Its North Face has so many incredible lines that life out here seems to be focused solely upon getting on them. Last winter I climbed an early repeat of Manitua with Geoff Unger and Will Sim; it’s a 4 day route up the steepest and blankest bit of rock on the face. Will and I had never jumared before so it was an interesting place to learn.
Link-ups were the theme of summer 2012 for me. I did a lot of climbing with Jeff Mercier who came up with the plan of traversing the Chamonix Aiguilles in two days but in reverse (far longer and techincal) and by its harder route up the Charmoz. On our first day we left from Montenvers train station and got as far as the bivy before the Blatiere. There had been a ton of fresh snow but it had been an amazing day out covering endless ground. Here Jeff and Frederic Souchon look for a bivy spot whilst the sun sets on the Blatiere and Mont Blanc in the distance.
The Cretier Route on Mont Maudit had been on Ally Swinton’s mind for a while it seemed. I’d never heard about it but we’d climbed a lot of my projects that summer so it was time we did one of his. On paper it looked pretty doable, a bivy at the Fourche hut, a nice route up Mont Blanc’s wild side, and then back in town for beers. The reality was very different finding some very hard pitched climbing and incredibly sketchy mixed, coupled with having to traverse Dom whilst it collapsed in spectacular fashion above us. Huge boulders bouncing and flying over head and gigantic sheets of ice plying away from the rock. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Tired, we eventually made it up to the final snow slope with this incredible view of Mont Blanc behind us, not a day to repeat!
The Supercouloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul is one of ‘those’ lines; you’ve just got to do it. For some reason I had a nagging obsession with shooting the mixed crux- probably because it was a steep, hard classic, and it actually catches the light for about 45 mins at a certain time in winter (most winter routes being in the shade). Shooting Ueli Steck is great fun, he climbs fluidly and he will climb literally anything you point him at- I mean check the run out between his pro here.
I guess almost everyone has seen this shot but it doesnt change the fact that it’s one of my favourites. The Innominata Spur on the South Side of Mont Blanc was one of those routes that I knew would produce some exceptional photographs and it really didnt disappoint. The sun rises perfectly on this route and the photo opportunities and angles are just endless. Nevertheless this is still the shot for me of the day. A delicate balancing act with a knife edge ridge leading the eye to the famous Peuterey Integral in the background.
This is the final and crux pitch of a new route called Full Love…for Dry and Ice; a real 5 star ephemeral line on the Peigne North Face. Here Julien Desecures scratches around on some incredibly brittle and loose rock with sparse, poor, and minimal protection. His face kind of says it all, the feet were poor, the axe placements required huge concentration and care not to rip out; this is the crux move and it was pretty touch and go. The route drops away directly to his feet to the last of the sun far below. Jeff Mercier belaying.
No matter how many hard climbing shots you can take you’ve always got to appreciate the end of a climb- those final few easy steps to the summit as the sun sets on yet another amazing day in your climbing life. Here Andy Houseman trudges up to tag the summit of the Grandes Jorasses after climbing the Shroud on its north face. The sun was just setting over the Mont Blanc massif, and Italy had just had its first dusting of winter snow. A stunning evening.