Last summer I took a tiny step from comfortable bouldering and occasional lead climbing to mountaineering. One of the major parts of my preparation for this trip was training to be fit as hell. When shooting bouldering, the most physical part of the day is probably the walk from the parking lot to the crag, which rarely takes over 30 minutes. After having dealt with a painful knee as a result of an ankle twist during setting in my local gym a few years back, I made it my number one priority to be in the best shape possible. I focused on long and rather slow runs, long day trips with a heavy pack and power training for my legs. In the end my experience in bouldering came in pretty handy as well, as I could navigate the rocky terrain much more easily than many of my fellow companions. Training as hard as I did came in quite handy for taking photos too. Being creative and capturing the right moments is an exhaustive activity, both mentally and physically. Having a bit of energy to spare went a long way to shooting better photos.
As always though, no amount of training and preparation can prepare you for reality. On day one, when jumping over a three-foot-wide crevasse, I totally misjudged the height of solid ground at the other end of the jump. I landed with my legs still fully stretched and one of my ankles took the full force of that impact. I limped back down from the glacier and up to our train ride back to the chalet. Come evening, I couldn’t walk any more. I thought that was it; end of the trip. Hoping for the best I embraced the acronym RICE and went to sleep. Next day, with the help of my sturdy category D mountaineering shoes, I was doing a whole lot better. This was the most magical recovery I’ve ever personally experienced.
Mountaineering is a whole different game. It is hard work. It is suffering, pushing on and sucking it up. Even getting to the climb involves steep and sustained hiking up rocky terrain. Then when you finally do get up, danger is a bit closer than it is in the gentle forests of Fontainebleau or the magnificent cliffs of Margalef. There are treacherous glaciers, unpredictable weather and huge abysses. It’s cold, it’s windy, you’re shattered. One of the most amazing aspects of navigating the mountains for me personally was the trade-off between speed and safety. From sport climbing, I’ve learned to always be safe. You’d be a fool to take any risk with regards to belaying. In mountaineering, speed can be safety. When we were navigating a high, narrow and exposed ridge and dark clouds came rolling in, our guides told us not to stress about constantly fixing our rope on some rock, and instead just hurry up. It’s not that the terrain is that hard, it’s just that one mistake could have huge consequences. The chances of error are smaller than in sport climbing, but so is the margin for error. Strangely enough, I found this quite liberating, it forced me into a sort of hyper-focus state. I’ve actually experienced the same thing when leading a slabby sport climb. At times where you just absolutely do not want to fall, I became relaxed and in the zone. Now I’m not claiming to be the next Alex Honnold and my accomplishments on rock aren’t something I’d even register on 8a.nu, but it was quite a discovery to learn about this personal character trait.
One aspect of photographing mountaineering that I had to get used to was the pace of interesting moments to capture. 90% of the time, we’d be walking or climbing in rope teams, with hardly any opportunity for photos. Then when stopping for a quick rest or drink or changing into different clothes and gear, all of a sudden a ton of good photo opportunities would present themselves. When walking for a long time, it’s easy to get into a lull and not be present in the moment any more when a good shot appears. I had to get used to not shooting for a long time, then all of a sudden snap into focus and make the most of a moment. After a few days I learned to think ahead and anticipate the moments that would inevitably come around.
I had already made up my mind before the trip to keep my photography kit extremely simple. This was partly to not have to haul around a heavy bag, but also to keep my creative process simple. When you have two camera bodies and three different lenses to choose from, the gear can get in the way of the creative process. I opted to only take one body and a 50mm lens, which I used for the entirety of the trip. Gear wasn’t a choice or issue, which gave me the freedom to focus on anticipating and reacting to the moments.
Quite probably my biggest lesson learned during this trip was that I simply have so much to learn. Alpinism seemed to be something my body is quite suited for, but in terms of knowledge and skills I have quite a bit of catching up to do. During this particular trip, I had to learn the skills of alpinism and capture others doing so at the same time. My photos could probably have been better if I’d already had some experience in the high mountains. Full autonomy or a buddy to walk with me in a separate rope team would have given me far more freedom to capture the shots I wanted.
Mountaineering was an incredibly impressive experience, and some of the things I saw here will be with me for the rest of my life. Walking on the slopes surrounding Mont Blanc and just seeing a vast landscape of snow and crevasses was one of the most humbling sights I've ever experienced. This environment allows us to temporarily pass, but can throw us out at any time. We are guests here, not conquerors. I felt tiny, but in a beautiful way. One other experience I will cherish happened when we were on approach to Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain save for Mont Blanc. We started our approach in the middle of the night, and saw the sun come up slowly. At first, we couldn’t see a thing, but very slowly, the entire Mont Blanc massif was lit up by the sun in the distance, with the actual summit getting the best light. It was almost like someone was slowly turning up the light on a theater stage, with the Mont Blanc summit as the lead character in the spotlight. The immersive nature of these experiences was liberating. At that very moment, there was no place I’d rather have been than right there. There was nothing else on my mind, only sucking in the vistas spread out before me.
Photographer based in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, focused on capturing athletes’ lifestyles for brands.