Monday, 28 November 2011

Photography and reality (posted by James)

I've spent a while recently thinking about the often large gap between the reality and the appearance of mountain photos. It's a complicated discipline, serious mountaineering photography. It's a long haul to accumulate the skills and ability required but when you start "getting it right" it is immensely satisfying.

But it can also be very frustrating too. So often it is incredibly difficult to truly capture moods or a sense of scale. Especially in winter when I am often solo climbing in order to get to good positions for photos, the whole experience can be a barrage on the senses. So when you yourself view your photos, you are very aware that most of the experience can be inevitably missing. Fortunately, other people will simply see what is in the photo as they weren't actually there.

The above photo is a good example. A climber high on Italian Climb on Ben Nevis, dwarfed by the huge cliffs surrounding him. The photo gives an impression of loneliness almost, of a climber tiny amongst vast surroundings. I like it, but it puts across a very different mood to how things actually were. The Ben was the busiest I'd ever seen it that day, an arena echoing with climbing calls, the sound of clipping karibiners and swinging ice axes. Several climbers were watching the team on Italian Climb, and you could see figures silhouetted on all the ridges. So the mood of the photo is totally different to the mood on the day.

With the second photo I hope I've done my job successfully. Despite being photographically quite poor it actually gets across the whole winter thing quite well. Getting dark with the temperature dropping and still a long descent to safety. Maybe it works because you can see I haven't put in a huge amount of thought to composition or technique, it's been taken by someone with cold hands who is racing against fading light to get down safely.

We put so much effort into trying to capture the little details and unique moments. But so often it's the things we can't capture, the sounds and sensations that really make the moment. I suppose then the challenge is to know exactly when and how to take the photo, and in a way so that your audience almost can feel those crucial sensations.


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Winter again for a day (posted by James)

Bidean nam Bian yesterday

One of the things I find most exciting about this time of year is waking up in the morning, opening the curtain and seeing a fresh snow-fall on the mountains. So I started the day with a smile yesterday when I woke to find snow down to 500m in Glencoe.

Pinnacle Buttress, Coire nan Lochan

The freezing level wasn't as low as had been forecast, leaving options for climbing limited, but I definitely wanted to get out and take a look at the snow. I'd woken late and didn't get on the hill until 11am, so Ben Nevis was out of the question.

Instead I just did a quick blast up Stob Coire nan Lochan, climbing a direct start to Dorsal Arete at about Grade III on the way. Dorsal was lean but acceptably wintery - but the strong winds had meant snow was distributed very unevenly in the corrie, the west side seeing the most accumulation.

Starting up a direct start to Dorsal Arete

Conditions were very "Scottish" on the summit and ridges…i.e fairly brutal. I was knocked over by the wind on a few occasions and got caught in several sudden squalls and white-outs. But I was loving it…it felt good to be in the middle of some proper Scottish winter suffering again!

A squall breaking over the Aonach Eagach

Unfortunately I think all the snow is probably gone by now. Torrential rain and about 12 degrees in Lochaber today. So winter only for a day…but if the weather forecasts are correct, it'll soon be back.


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Photography on Skye (posted by James)

I've dedicated a lot of the last 6 years to teaching myself the intricate details of mountain photography, and I've learnt a lot of lessons especially during my time in Glencoe. Always, always look where you are putting your feet…. If you are setting off on the hill and it is light, you are probably already too late for great photos…Being tired, cold and sleep deprived means you are putting in about the right amount of effort….It doesn't have to be fun, to be fun.

But without a doubt the most important thing I've learnt is that the ability to be in the right place at the right time is far more important than technical ability with your camera. Daily studying of the weather, researching maps and precise knowledge of your own speed and ability over rough terrain will take you far further than owning an expensive new camera will.

Brief clear skies over Loch Brittle

When you get things just right, when all your preparation comes together and you are there at the right time, when you know it's about to happen and you have a few seconds to make the camera do precisely what you want… I don't think I know many things more exhilarating.

Early this morning I set off on an unexpected trip to Skye after having a shift swopped with the intention of taking early morning photos in the Southern Cuillin.

Loch Brittle from lower Coire a'Ghrunnda

Everything came together just how I wanted for my photos. I did the walk towards Coire a'Ghrunnda almost exactly as quickly as I thought I would, meaning the sun was just where I wanted it. I knew there would be fragments of cloud coming off the sea, and as I hoped the low, bright sunshine created the precise moody effect I was after.

The Spur and Bidean Druim na Rahm

A bank of fog and rain came in off the sea as I reached upper Coire a' Ghrunnda so I decided to keep it for a day with views from the ridge. So I didn't climb anything today. But I really don't care. I was buzzing.

My photography has improved this year, I think. Each improvement has come through less sleep, higher motivation and more risk-taking. I'm not trying to make it sound glamorous, as it is not…it is hard work, dedication and self-imposed loneliness.

It is a different world now, to five years ago. Everyone can take good photos with the cameras available at low prices nowadays. The pursuit of exceptional landscape photos is becoming a more challenging task than ever…and however successful you may be it becomes more fun with every hurdle.


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A warm November and controversy on Ben Nevis (posted by James)

Warm sunshine on the Aonach Eagach

This day last year, I was wading through deep snow on the Cairngorm plateau having just dug a trench through the drifts on Fiacaill Ridge. The winter had started in earnest a week before, and it turned into one of the coldest Novembers for years.

Today however, I was climbing Quiver Rib on Aonach Dubh…14 degrees in the Glen, the rivers running surprisingly dry and not a flake of snow to be seen. Yesterday morning on the Aonach Eagach I was quite comfortable in a t-shirt and could really feel the heat of the sun on my face.

However despite my love and preference of all things winter, I am not letting out so much as a whisper of complaint. The Aonach Eagach was an even more magical place than usual yesterday morning….a patchy cloud inversion billowing around the summits and a Brocken Spectre following me in the mist for half a mile along the ridge.

It's always a place I go when I'm happy or contemplative, if something good has happened or if I just want to gaze down on Glencoe for a couple of hours. I think it might be my favourite of all places.

On a different note, on thursday evening I had a bit of a surprise on Ben Nevis. I climbed Castle Ridge at dusk and on my way across the plateau I was struck by the absence of the Number 4 Gully abseil post. After writing a blog post about my thoughts on this, I ran into a solid wall of doubt on UKC about the veracity of my claim that the post was not there.

I was quite correct in what I said. The abseil post was not there…instead it was lying some way down Number 4 Gully itself, having presumably been thrown down there by someone. Whoever it was, it was not the John Muir Trust - they have quite rightly promised a consultation on the matter and the post above Coire Leis due next year, and were not responsible for this action.

So the post had been removed. Yesterday morning, Al Halewood went up the Ben and put it back. Good on him for making such a direct move, especially as the whole issue has instantly become a very touchy subject amongst the Scottish mountaineering community. The post should remain there at least until the John Muir Trust have considered the opposing arguments concerning its existence.

Crucially though, Al has stated on his blog that the post is now not stable enough to abseil from without a considerable depth of snow supporting it. Constructing your own snow anchors, downclimbing the gully or choosing an entirely different descent route are the most sensible option this winter unless the post is reinforced.

The existence of man-made objects on the hills is a highly controversial subject. If we all accept that opinions vary considerably and respect differing points of view then hopefully the climbing community can actually assist bodies like the JMT and the National Trust for Scotland in their work, rather than being the hindrance that we are sometimes guilty of being.


Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The difference two months can make (posted by James)

The last couple of weeks have been a serious eye-opener for me, in a good way. Yesterday was one of my longest days I've had on the hill, and I did it bouncing with energy with no fatigue….it was my 10th day on the hill in the last 11 days.

This got me thinking last night. At the end of this August I would have found such a continuous run of hill-days very physically challenging. More importantly though I just wouldn't have had the motivation.

So what did I change? It's all come down to giving more thought to the long-term rather than just day to day plans. In the previous two summers my activity has slowed and even stagnated as the season progressed, the grey and drizzle sapping away any motivation. My exercise would be hill-days and only hill-days, and as they became fewer and further between during the summer my fitness would always be at it's lowest come the autumn.

I place a huge amount of value on freedom of lifestyle, and I've always believed living each day as it comes and being spontaneous are essential parts of achieving it. But there are some goals and aims that you simply can't just pull off by a huge outburst of energy and willpower "on the night".

I suppose as you become more involved and talented in your hobbies, your goals inevitably become more ambitious. And this autumn has been a turning point for me, in that I've suddenly realised I need to start preparing more long-term if I'm going to achieve some of my ambitions for this winter and next spring.

With this in mind, this autumn has been one "tunnel vision" for me. As a result for the first time since starting my time in Glencoe I am starting the winter season at my fittest. Uphill running every other day has done wonders, and the improvement in my recovery time after exercise has been striking. I'm back to my (leaner) winter weight and my speed and precision whilst climbing have noticeably increased since August.

There's no point setting yourself a goal unless you really want it. And for it to be worth it, don't you need to have won it on merit? You never know what tomorrow or next week will bring, who you could meet and what could happen to make you measure yourself….isn't it always best to know you've given things your all?

It's only been two months since my change in attitude and direction, and some of my goals already feel a world closer.Who knows what next month will bring?

The possibility of achieving a dream is always more important than that extra hour in bed.


Monday, 7 November 2011

The Ben, the Buachaille and an amazing 9 hours (posted by James)

The Highlands have been well and truly showing off over the last few days, revealing their real splendour again after being shrouded for so long under a veil of cloud and rain.

This is one of the times of year that I study the weather forecasts particularly carefully, always looking out for signs and clues that will guide me as to where will be exactly the best place to be for climbing or photography on any given day. Yesterday's MWIS forecast was what I'd been waiting for since the end of last winter - frost in the glens but warm sunshine on the summits, a winning combination for photography as it usual means one thing. Cloud inversions.

Early morning mist starting to break over the North East Buttress of the Ben

With this in mind I did the familiar trudge from the Ben Nevis North face car park in the dark and headed towards the beautiful Carn Mor Dearg arete, one of the finest viewpoints in the Highlands.

Dawn light catches Castle Ridge

The East ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhonach

As the sky brightened and the first of the sunshine lit up Castle Ridge, I could tell it was going to be a special day. But I wasn't quite expecting the treat that I would get when I reached the summit of Carn Mor Dearg. Not a cloud inversion as such, but an incredible blue haze and layer of mist across the Southern Highlands, a scene of almost unreal beauty.

I spent a while on the summit of the Ben, perfectly warm enough in a t-shirt, just soaking in the perfection of the view in front of me. I looked at my watch…I wasn't starting work for another 7 hours or so….it would be a shame to simply go back down already…

The Buachaile tempts me to extent my plans for the day....

So with a smile on my face and a spring in my step I ran down Ben Nevis as quick as possible, drove back to Glencoe and started up the climber's track up Buachaille Etive Mor.

I climbed my old favourite North Buttress, randomly bumping into Mike Martin who filmed me climbing the crux chimneys for a climbing film he is making.

Shadows and colours on Rannoch Moor

And 4.5 hours after I'd been standing on the summit of the Ben I found myself on the summit of the Buachaille, watching the sun set. I hadn't felt a single moment of fatigue in the entire day, and time had flown past.

Where I'd been only a few hours before

Before I started the run down Coire na Tualach, I took a moment to look over my shoulder at Ben Nevis in the distance. A warm evening glow was starting to spread of its slopes.

Definitely a day to remember.


Sunday, 6 November 2011

A trip to Assynt and the return of the sunshine (posted by James)

At last! After weeks on end of grey skies, rain and galeforce winds, we've finally had an absolutely stunning weekend in the West Highlands.

With a bright moon shining and a clear sky on friday evening, I headed North towards Assynt with some friends to make the most of a seemingly impossibly good weather forecast. I was sceptical….

Ben More Assynt

After a misty start on the ridge between Conival and Ben More Assynt, the cloud lifted and we were rewarded with bright sunshine and views to die for. Crisp light, sharp shadows and a chill in the air…how I'd been longing for it during the last few months. A few hours on a high ridge in cold sunshine - something I'd been guilty of taking for granted during the last two legendary winters, but that has definitely changed. Nourishing for the soul.

A Brocken Spectre on Ben More Assynt

Bright sunshine on Conival

During the drive back my thoughts keep turning to next year. The huge towers of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh and Quinag kept appearing through gaps in the glens, tempting me. Wouldn't it be an incredible place to try and live in for a while?

Dubh Loch Mor

The Quinag

I'd been to Assynt before on a climbing trip to the sea cliffs at Reiff, so I suppose I did know what to expect. But even so, I was still slightly taken aback by the wild magnificence of the landscape. What an immense place.

I'm back at Clachaig now. As I'm writing this the last of the evening sunshine is just casting a glow on the Aonach Eagach…the buttresses of Aonach Dubh are being thrown into shadow and there's a frost on the way. I am still in awe of my adopted home.


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Some thoughts on soloing (posted by James)

Going solo....

The winter months are always the season in which I put myself the most at risk, so at this time of year I often find it an important exercise to take a look at my own motivations and mind-set when it comes to risk-taking.

I climb solo nowadays, almost without exception. The last 50 mountain routes I have climbed have been without a rope, and nearly all of them without any company. Soloing in winter is in general the riskiest type of climbing out there. So…why do it?

I first discovered soloing as a very effective coping mechanism for the mental repercussions of a severe personal trauma during 2008. I'd finally found something that totally focused my mind away from the things I couldn't block out of my head any other way.

It started with that, but then I started to enjoy the same sensation for its own sake. The feeling of total and utter concentration….living more intensely with every ice axe placement than you do in an entire week of ordinary life. Nothing else matters but your mental and physical ability to get yourself up a climb and down safely, and when you carry it off on a climb close to your limit the feeling of achievement is hard to surpass.

In the last year or so I have deliberately set about to transform myself entirely into a soloist. I wanted to make soloing the discipline at which I am most comfortable. But this is where it becomes complicated. I don't climb hard by modern standards - I prefer long mountain routes to short technical stuff. But I am soloing close to my current uppermost abilities, not with a safety margin of a few grades.

At first glance this seems irresponsible, to be climbing close to my limit with no rope or safety system at all. Perhaps it is…But I do it with a mind-set that I've developed over the last year or so which makes it justifiable to me.

I have very few challenges in my day to day working life. Living in Glencoe is a wonderfully simple existence. But I believe we must constantly challenge ourselves in order to live a fulfilling existence. If we don't have the rollercoaster of failure and success to ride then we just live a straight line.

So for me soloing routes I'll find hard is how I ride that rollercoaster. I train to make sure I'm fitter than I realistically actually need to be, and I've learned that "can't be arsed" moments are when it's most important to get out. If I were to give up easily when it comes to things involving no risk, how could I expect to perform when my mental strength could determine whether I top out of a route or not? Every time I set out on a route I know that I must be on my best form, and razor-sharp awareness of your own ability is just as important as actual talent. And if you aren't "feeling it", you don't set out.

It's a risky business, and I've become very aware of the risks and the rewards. I've been lucky enough to experience both extreme fear and incredible highs whilst soloing, and in the last year I've had some of the most intense moments of my life - good and bad.

It's a dangerous rollercoaster, but one for me which is worth riding.


A few photos from the last week (posted by James)

A stream in flood above Kinlochleven

The autumnal monsoon has been making photography very challenging for the last few weeks….and any climbing even more so.

However I've actually been out on the hill a great deal recently, mainly running and getting myself as fit and strong as possible before the winter season sets in properly. Added to that, a fun and extremely wet 24 hours was spent by a group of us at Culra Bothy celebrating Jamie B's last Munro. A landmark for me too, taking me to 150.

So here's my offering of recent photos, hopefully soon enough they will start to include snow again.


A rare bright evening in Glencoe

Pushing the bikes through rough ground near Culra Bothy

A moment of sunshine in Glen Lochay

Autumn colours in Glencoe