This summer, I took part in an alpinism course in the French Alps organised by Mountain Network, and photographed our days in the mountains at the same time. Combining my roles as a student and a photographer was a challenging but inspiring and rewarding experience.
In this post, I’ll try to recapture some moments and mostly just share a boatload of photos. The text provides some context and my thoughts on photographing this experience, but feel free to just scroll through the article and enjoy the visuals.
Day 1: Mer de Glace
Our basecamp was in the absolutely amazing French mountain town of Chamonix. On our first day, we took a very steep train ride to the famous Mer de Glace glacier. Literally this means ‘sea of ice’, but as the photo below shows not a whole lot of sea is left. The glacier actually used to be about 200-400 meters high in the very place this photo was taken only a few decades ago. If you need any proof of climate change, just google ‘mer de glace evolution‘.
The goal for this day was to get accustomed to moving through rocky terrain and wearing our crampons, walking the ice and snow and navigating somewhat steeper terrain. In order to get down to the glacier from the railway station, we had to take a pretty long climb down a via ferrata, which proved especially gruesome on the way back up, with our guide trying to see what we were made of.
While shooting lifestyle photos on the glacier, I tried my very best to be extremely quick in gearing up myself, to have some spare time to shoot photos. This means putting on my harness and crampons as fast as I could and being the first to finish packing my bag. I’d also tried my very best to be in good shape for the course. In the months prior to this week, I’d done a lot of running, climbing and taking long hikes with a heavy pack. In addition, I’d been doing some power exercises for my legs and knees. This really paid of every single day, I felt like I had a lot of energy to spare and made my way up and down easily.
During the second part of our stay on the glacier, we went to a huge gully carved out of the glacier by molten water from higher up on the glacier. We would be practicing walking on steep terrain using crampons here, which proved to be quite challenging but exciting. I was amazed by the steepness of slopes one can conquer using crampons. Let’s not talk about how ridiculous it makes you look though, suffice it to say the cowboy walk our guides advised us to adopt pretty much covered what it looked like.
The icing on the cake (pun intended) this day was our short experience with ice climbing. Our two guides Simon and Guy (aka Master G) rigged two anchors in the ice and dropped each of us down into the gully. We then had to climb our way back up using our ice axe, which was an insanely awesome experience. Of course I’m used to climbing steep faces of rock, but seeing this wall of ice and being able to make my way up it pretty easily felt quite liberating. This part of the program also offered me with some excellent opportunities to shoot photos.
Though this should’ve been an easy day, I had a rather unfortunate little accident. When jumping over a crevasse, which should’ve been an easy 1 meter wide crossing, I landed with my legs still stretched out entirely. It was a stupid accident, causing one of my ankles sufficient pain. I was able to continue but come supper could hardly walk any more. All kinds of thoughts crossed my mind and I was more or less expecting the course and assignment to be over for me. I put ice on my ankle for as long as I could manage that afternoon and evening and hoped for the best. Luckily enough, I could continue without any problems for the rest of the week!
Day 2: rock climbing on Aiguille Rouge
Aiguille Rouge offers some rough and rocky peaks perfect to practice moving through difficult terrain quickly. Through my experience in rock climbing, this was an easy day for me, but some of the other participants had to really learn to trust their feet and climbing skills. Our guides were great in helping them get through this though.
In addition to doing some exercises that helped us keep a steady pace on difficult terrain, we climbing a multi-pitch route, which proved to be a great practice run for our next two days. The sheer liberation of climbing this high ridge while enjoying the phenomenal views can hardly be captured in words, good thing I took some pictures.
At this point, our little group had started to bond pretty well. Half of our group consisted of four friends, while the other half consisted of three individual participants and myself. The guides had by now started to mix the team up a little bit, which really helped in creating a great group dynamic. For me as a photographer, it is essential to be able to connect with people quickly, meaning I always make it a priority to get to know the people I work with. Sharing a rope with a person is always a sure way to start to trust each other, while sharing meals and showing some genuine interest in them never hurt either.
Day 3 and 4: glaciers, crevasses and climbing around Rifugio Torino
The previous two days had been day trips to rather hospitable areas, but on day three we took our first real trip into somewhat rougher terrain. After crossing the Mont Blanc massif through the tunnel and leaving our car on the Italian side, we took a hilarious lift up to the Rigufio Torino. The lift was built for tourists mostly and rotated throughout our ride up, offering people less comfortable with alpinism a chance to enjoy the full view. After arriving at the lift station at 3375m high, we dropped some of our gear at the Rifugio Torino, where we’d be spending the night, and set out onto the glacier.
Interestingly, the first part of our trek we found ourselves accompanied by a host of tourists. The area beyond the safe grounds around the Torino hut is fenced off and huge signs warn visitors not to tread onto the glacier without wearing proper gear and crampons, but we saw numerous tourists wearing sneakers while we were there! Our guides were extremely worried by this trend, as a single slip could very well lead to a huge fall into the abyss below.
At this point, we formed two rope teams consisting of four climbers and a guide each. I had arranged with the guides to be in the back of the first group, so I could shoot both the climbers in front of me and the climbers following us. My goal here was to shoot some images that would make people want to think: I want to be in that very position, in that rope team, climbing that mountain.
After walking the glacier and its surrounding snow fields for some time, we continued towards an enormous ridge and prepared to climb it. The photo above shows the left third or so of the ridge. At this point, I had to work hard to ensure I could shoot the photos I wanted to capture. I was on a rope with one other climber, who was leading most of the time. This meant I had to focus on shooting the climbers trailing us, requiring clear communication with my leader to make sure he didn’t pull me off the ridge when I stopped to take a photo. Our guides wanted to keep a steady pace as some bad weather was approaching, but in the end I managed to make it all work out nicely.
By this point, I was having some issues with the altitude. We then had to make a very quick abseil of the ridge with some seriously menacing clouds approaching. The terrain would get very dangerous if it started snowing, while lightning is a huge risk when exposed on a ridge like this. Battling the headache resulting from the altitude, I managed to make it down okay and still shoot some photos. After drinking quite a bit of water back at the hut and taking a quick nap, I was feeling far better. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough not to have had any more issues with the altitude, not in the hut nor when we were climbing Gran Paradiso. It’s quite a relief to know that I may not be too susceptible to altitude sickness, granted than I drink enough water and rest properly.
After an early start we set out onto the glacier once more, with the goal of getting some practice crossing traverses, steep terrain and stopping any potential falls. The early morning sun offered a perfect opportunity to capture some dramatic shots of our team preparing their gear. I simply love this style of light, if I had it my way I’d never be shooting at any other time of the day.
On our way to the ridge we would be climbing, some more clouds rolled in and our guides changed our plan for the day slightly. Though I was bummed we wouldn’t be climbing a bigger ridge, the clouds did offer some absolutely dramatic vistas of the Mont Blanc massif.
A major part of our walk on the glacier was dealing with crevasses. I’m going to be totally honest here and just come out and say it: I don’t think I was really scared during any part of this course, but crevasses were a pretty freaky thing to see and deal with. The thought of these crevices being anywhere from a couple of meters to a hundred meters deep is pretty intimidating. Of course we were walking in rope teams, still accidents do happen. At multiple occasions, we traversed crevasses on snow bridges one a a meter or less thick. With the rising temperatures in the afternoon, these bridges can become unstable and collapse. Photographing these crevasses, I have to constantly make a decision on how muck risk I’m prepared to take to shoot the photos I picture in my mind.
Now let me address a thing about dressing up for alpinism: I wish everyone would buy bright clothing like the guys in the picture below. Photos of alpinists wearing black just look so different from climbers wearing bright jackets and pants. It doesn’t really matter which color they are, anything bright will contrast beautifully with the snow.
On our way back to the hut, some more clouds rolled in, making for another dramatic vista. I love how small the alpinists look in the photo below, they’re just so insignificant in that vast and untameable landscape. Or is it? Notice the tiny carriages in the top right. There’s an actual cable car running right over this vast valley full of glaciers, running from the Rifugio Torino in Italy all the way to the Aiguille du Midi station on the French side. It’s quite an impressive feat of engineering, but part of me would rather have this valley remain desolate and pure nature instead of tamed in this way.
Just before moving back to our hut to get the packs we left behind and driving back to Chamonix in France for the night, our guides had a bit of a funny exercise lined up for us. First, they tasked each participant with sliding down a fairly steep and long slope, to get a feel for what it’s like falling and not being able to stop.
Next, our guide Simon showed us how to use our ice axes to stop a fall. It turned out to be quite a feat to slide down backwards, turn around, stabilise and then use an ice axe and the crampons to stop falling. Our guides recounted some of their stories, detailing what it’s like to keep falling and stopping a potential leap into the abyss at the last moment.
Day 5 and 6: climbing Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain
The grand finale of this course consisted of climbing Gran Paradiso, the highest mountain in Italy. That is, not counting Mont Blanc, which is technically right on the border between France and Italy. At 4061 meters high, Gran Paradiso is generally considered a pretty easy climb and good practice and acclimatisation for climbing Mont Blanc or other peaks in the Alps. For us though, it’d be the perfect test to see what we’d learned in the past couple of days and also see what our bodies were capable of. After driving through the Mont Blanc tunnel again and driving another hour or so, we arrived at the car park where we’d start on a trail to the mountain hut.
This trail would take us from 1500 meters or so to 2500 and take about two hours, making this a pretty relaxed day. It gave us a chance for some small talk, to see how fit we were, tend to any lingering injuries and take some rest. Interestingly, our guide Master G wore sandals going up, while the rest of us wore D-grade mountain climbing shoes…
From the hut, one can enjoy a perfect view of the Gran Paradiso peak, although the actual rocky peak isn’t quite visible. Our climb the next day would take us up about 1600 meters and require some four hours up and another five or so back down to our car. The first part of this climb consisted of hiking on pretty steep and rough rocky terrain, which turned out to require quite a bit of energy. Consequently, we’d be stepping onto the glacier. From here, we traverse across the glacier to avoid some nasty crevasses and ascend a col. Finally, we go up another steep slope, cross a snow field and climb across the rocky peak to finish the ascent.
Our hut didn’t offer WiFi, which for some of our fellowship was quite liberating, while others longed for some internet. Reception for 4G internet wasn’t that great at the hut either, but there was one small area at the edge of the hill the hut was on that had some half decent reception, which drew a pretty steady crowd. I dubbed it the 4G hill.
At this point, one member of our group had to make the hard choice not to attempt to summit the next day. Due to training just a bit too hard just before the course, her knee had been giving her some issues. The first couple of days it was fine, but on the fourth day it was giving her too much trouble and she had to spend the day in the hut. Come day five, she did walk up the trail with us, but in the end she decided it’d be best to give her knee some rest. Choices like these are extremely hard to make, but in the end it turned out to be the right choice, since she still has to take it a bit easy now that she’s back home. A major factor in these decisions is that a team is interdependent. If she had attempted the summit with us but couldn’t make it, all members of her rope team would have been forced to abort the attempt. In fact, a Dutch team that was doing the same program the week before us had been forced to abort their attempt only one third of the way up, because one participant had been experiencing altitude sickness.
On the morning of our back day, we woke up at three and tried to eat a little. Breakfast in these huts isn’t terrific and it’s hard to eat anything in the middle of the night. I’d brought some dried biscuits and muesli bars to eat on the way up and was planning on eating a great Italian lunch once I was back down. I opted to take only one liter of tea, which should be plenty of water.
Carrying our headlamps, we made our way across the rocky terrain and onto the glacier. At one point the moon was actually still visible in the sky, with some of our team providing some foreground interest. Shooting in these conditions is hard, with virtually no light at all to work with, but the moon and headlamps offered me at least some opportunity to capture any light at all.
One of the things I cherish most about the climb is the view of the Mont Blanc massif from the glacier. When we first started out onto the glacier, it was still pitch black, but slowly the sun started illuminating the clouds in the sky and then the mountain range itself. It was as if a light was very slowly being turned on over the world. Seeing the massif gradually lighting up like this I something I will remember for a long time.
The actual climb can very easily be summarised: a whole lot of ploughing through snow and ice and stepping over some crevasses. I think the most important thing I learned from this is to not think too much and not look ahead any further than you have to. Telling yourself you’re almost there or counting anything is plain useless. You have to just suck it up and keep going. Our guide Guy was strict in leading us up to the summit. We tried to stop as little as possible, meaning we had to make the most of every short break we got: eat a bit, drink some tea that by now has turned cold, and find some privacy that isn’t anywhere to be found if you have to take a leak.
When we got to the summit, the other team was already there and exploring an alternative summit. The exposure on the whole summit, which was more like a rocky ridge, was incredible. I was fortunate enough to have put on my down jacket in time, but one of our other team members was pretty much freezing to death. With exposure come great views though. We were actually in luck, it appears to have been a pretty overcast day, making for an insane ‘above the world’ view. Just a few peaks were sticking out from the whipped cream surface, a view you normally only see when on an airplane.
On the way back down, I was allowed to lead our rope team, which was a great experience. Guy did insist I point my feet outward, guess if I practice walking like a cowboy I can become a true leader one day. In the end I think we climbed about 1500m from the hut to the summit and then descended about 2500 back down to the car. After this, I probably would’ve bought replacement knees if they’d been on offer at the local store.
Other than this though, I think my body coped with the entire week and the final climb really well. Other than my silly little incident where I injured my ankle and the one afternoon of minor altitude sickness, I didn’t experience any discomfort and actually felt like I could’ve gone up way faster and longer. What’s more, the combination of endurance and rock climbing, the diversity of alpinism and the insane vistas really started to grow on me. Climbing big mountains is something I’d definitely like to do more often, and though I don’t feel I’d ever want to climb a peak like Mount Everest, I’ll definitely be looking for my next step to build my experience and skills in this unique sport.