'The Game'

Scottish backcountry skiing is all about ‘the game’. Every winter, those that choose to play it will spend time almost every day poring over weather charts and trying to build a picture of where the best conditions might be. This picture is complicated by highly localised weather systems and ferocious winds which commonly strip the mountains of any new snow which has fallen. The line between finding a gully either full to the brim with powder, or choked with sheet ice is often a thin one.

With so many variables at play, even veterans of ‘the game’ regularly head into the mountains only 50% confident that their assertions about conditions are correct. The remaining 50% based on gambling on some sort of blind hope. This is what can make Scottish ski days so rewarding. Every day out is a full-on adventure, with the unknowns only adding to the excitement.

A couple of years back, we took a punt on some early season snowfall in the east and set off into the Cairngorms, reaching the plateau in time for sunrise. It was exactly one of those days where we had no idea what to expect. Conditions could easily either have been incredible or total crap. As it was, we had a bit of luck that day, resulting in one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had on a pair of skis.

Pete Mackenzie dropping into Diagonal Gully as the sun rises over the Cairngorms

Pete Mackenzie dropping into Diagonal Gully as the sun rises over the Cairngorms

Scoping out his line moments before dropping into an atmospheric, clag filled Pinnacle Gully

Scoping out his line moments before dropping into an atmospheric, clag filled Pinnacle Gully

2016 - A look back

At the end of the first full year in which I’ve really begun taking my photography seriously, I wanted to do some sort of review of the year including a selection of some of my highlight images from 2016. I also thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to reflect back on what has in many respects been a fairly mad year, with some notable big changes in my life. I hope this exercise of looking back and reviewing will help me prepare in some way for the big challenges I’m expecting 2017 to throw at me - so here we go!

After a slow start to the Scottish ski season before the New Year, the first weeks of January 2016 finally brought good snow conditions to the Highlands. This was particularly the case in the Cairngorms, where a pre-dawn start allowed myself and Pete Mackenzie to get above the Loch A’an Basin in time for sunrise. Westerly winds had filled in the gullies there well and we managed a descent of Diagonal Gully in clear conditions, before the weather closed in for our further descents of Pinnacle Gully and the classic Aladdin’s Couloir in Coire an t-Sneachda.

Within a few days, conditions were looking good in the west, so we headed to Nevis Range’s infamous ‘Back Corries’, where I came away with this shot of Pete jumping into the top of ‘Chancers’. Later on in the year, this photo was to gain me my first ever magazine cover in BMC’s Summit Magazine.

February brought both more snow and long periods of settled weather, providing plentiful opportunities to get out in the mountains. There were two particular days which stand out for me. The first, a cold summit camp on Aonach Mor, only yards from the top of Easy Gully, providing an ideal base from which to ski it at first light. The shot I came away with has its flaws. I’m not completely happy with my positioning or the composition, however I think it makes up for it with the atmosphere with the sun glowing off the fresh snow and highlighting the spindrift which was blowing up over the top of the gully.

The second was a day spent with local Fort William freerider, Dave Biggin, on a bluebird powder day at Nevis Range. Standout moments include him straight-lining the ludicrously steep Y-Gully and the mega air he took from a flat take-off into ‘Marian’s’ - a powder filled bowl situated near the summit of Aonach Mor. It was awe-inspiring to watch someone of Dave's skill level and confidence ripping around on his home turf.

Although I’ve always felt I’ve had a reasonable grasp of composition in a photo, use of light has never come so naturally to me. Inspired by the work of other skiing photographers such as Jordan Manley and Sverre Hjørnevik, who both have incredibly good grasp of lighting, I knew that in order to progress and develop as a photographer it was something I had to consciously work on. As such I was particularly happy to pull off this shot of Tom Southworth skiing on Aonach Mor towards the end of a day. The sun was low in the sky and I knew that if I positioned myself well before Tom dropped in, then it would provide a good backlighting, catching the powder as he skied the steep entry. I find these kind of shots, where you have an idea or concept in your head which you then execute competently, incredibly rewarding to pull off.

March brought warmer weather and spring skiing conditions to Scotland. On a day skiing on Bidean nam Bian above Glen Coe, I captured this opportunistic image of Balasz Turi standing at the top of his line, highlighted against the background of a cloud which was sitting in the glen below. For me this shot really shows what Scottish backcountry skiing is all about - an optimistic mindset of just getting out there and enjoying the Highlands on skis, regardless of the sometimes lean and marginal conditions we’re often up against. This is something that anyone who skis regularly in Scotland should be able to relate to!

In each of the last few years, I’ve always had a trip to the Lyngen Alps in Norway’s arctic circle. This year we decided to chance our arm and head to the Lofoten Islands instead - more of a gamble on snow conditions, however arguably more stunning scenery. The gamble only half paid off, as we ended up spending a lot of the trip chasing snow conditions round the islands. Despite this, I was able to capture some of my favourite images of the year. The first I've chosen shows Al Todd and Niall McPherson battling full on winter conditions on the way up a gully on Trolldalen. I have pushed the limits of this file in editing somewhat in order to achieve the look it has, however I've found this is often necessary when shooting in poor light conditions in order to make an image pop and to give it interest.

The second is perhaps my favourite photo that I’ve captured during my photographic career so far, and an image that was recently recognised with an award at the Kendal Mountain Festival. A combination of pouring over conflicting weather forecasts and gambling on a break in the weather just in time for sunset, along with Fabian's charging ability on a pair of skis, resulted in an image which probably best conveys the direction I want to take my photography in.  That being adventure photography which also possesses high visual impact and artistic qualities.

Another highlight image from Lofoten was of Fabian hucking in front of a moody Lofoten backdrop. Again it's not technically perfect, having realised later I should have shot at a slightly faster shutter speed to freeze the motion, however the shot is still passable and it's something I've learnt from going forwards.

The below image I didn't end up sharing online at the time, although I eventually entered in the Kendal Mountain Festival competition where it finished second in its category.  It's fairly minimalistic compared to many of my photos, but it also has a strong storytelling element to it - something I'd like to build into my photography more. We were half way to the summit of Kistbergtinden when the wind picked up greatly. Taking the decision to head back down the mountain, we encountered a group of Norwegian skiers who had decided do similarly and turn for home. They had taken their dog out for the day's touring, however the dog was now struggling to make headway in the high winds. The owner easily scooped up the dog and proceeded to ski down the mountain, cradling it neatly in her arms. The photo managed to capture the feeling of the weather conditions at the time and shows off a particularly unusual skiing scene. I guess I like it because it's something different.

My final shot from Lofoten is one which shows just how beautiful these islands can be on a good day. After a trip of mixed snow conditions, we were finally rewarded with a dream descent of the south face of Himmeltinden, skiing all the way from the summit to near sea level, with a view of the other islands stretched out in front of us. It was easily one of the most memorable ski descents I've had in my life.

Back home and it was time to make the most of the spring conditions in Scotland, although Ben Nevis still had its full winter coat on. Two weekends based in the CIC Hut on the mountain's North Face, and I came away with two sets of photos which both made various national papers at the time. One of the best received was probably the photo below of Niall skiing past the ice which was still formed on the narrows of Number 5 Gully.

My second choice from those weekends is a shot of Pete Mackenzie taking a rather bold entry into Tower Gully. It shows that it's still possible to go out in claggy conditions with poor light and come away with good photos. The main interest in this image comes from the dynamic feel given by Pete's wind-up into his next jump turn.

With the ski season concluded, my next trip was to the Alps in June, and an fantastic opportunity to spend a week learning from Jon Griffith, widely regarded as one of the best mountain sports photographers in the business. In addition to learning a vast amount during the course, it was a brilliant week of great weather and good company, taking in a lot of routes and being worked pretty damn hard. A huge amount of focus was given to shooting on the fly, so maintaining the fast alpine-style pace that's needed in the Alps, whilst also capturing images on the move. I was also able to spend time working on improving compositional elements and also product photography - something which should hopefully come in handy this year. I'm very grateful to Jon for putting on such a great course, which I'd highly recommend to anyone interested if he does run it again. The below image is one of my standout shots from the week - you can't really go too far wrong with a composition like that!

Following the course, I spent a further few days in the Alps climbing with a friend from home, Jordan Tiernan, which gave me a good opportunity to put into further practice what I'd learned. This particular shot, taken just minutes before dawn whilst climbing on the Aiguille d'Argentiere, I was particularly pleased with on account of the tricky lighting conditions. I think it goes some way to conveying the feeling of what it's like climbing a mountain in the cold and dark before the sun rises, and gives an insight into the alpine climbing experience.

The back end of the year brought further adventures up to Skye, where I ended up reaching the last fifteen in the UK interviews for a 'Director of Toughness' job (look it up - it's far too ridiculous to explain here) with Columbia Sportswear. Unfortunately I missed out on the position, although it was great to get that far from nearly a thousand UK applicants, and the interview turned out to be a pretty fun day out. It did however give me the opportunity to get out and explore The Cuillins for the first time. Making the most of the great weather, I went for a run up on the ridge, taking in the Inaccessible Pinnacle as part of my route. It was here that I captured this shot of Jamie Bankhead on the final climb to the summit. It goes some way to showing off the scale of the mountains there and the amount of technical terrain on offer, far beyond anywhere else in the UK.

In October, with the continued aim to find more sports in which I can potentially hurt myself, I got into mountain biking. After being initially terrified (falling onto snow at 30mph seems like it would hurt far less than onto a tree), I started to see the fun side of it and even took the camera out to get a few shots.

With the good late autumn/early winter weather, I also found time to venture into film-making, turning out this video of Ollie Barker running the Aonach Eagach ridge. Having run the ridge just recently as part of the Glencoe Skyline, I don't know why the hell I wanted to go back quite so soon (particularly carrying a tonne of camera gear), but hey-ho. I've learnt that making films is a lot more challenging and time-consuming than shooting stills, and I'm a fair way from being able to produce professional quality work, however this film was starting to get towards the level I'd like to eventually reach.

My final image, I took just last week whilst skiing at Glencoe. It's been another slow, frustrating start to the Scottish winter, with flurries of snow quickly followed by milder temperatures and thaw, however we were in much the same position last year and I'm holding out confidence things will improve. The lifts weren't open, however myself and Gordon Pearson were able to get a few laps in by skinning through the resort. I wanted to play around a bit with longer shutter speeds (1/50s - 1/100s) and skiing close behind Gordon on his telemark skis in order to try and add some dynamism to the shots (with Gordon's figure staying as sharp as possible, whilst the ground around him was blurred with the movement down the hill). It turned out to be a test of both my skiing and my photography skills, and 95% of the shots I came away with were completely unusable, however in this one I achieved something of the effect I'd set out for. Again, rewarding to go out with a more creative concept in mind and successfully pull it off.

To round off this review I’d like to talk about the changes I've initiated in my life this year. If you’d said to me just under two years ago, when I made my first forays into mountain sports photography, that it would soon become one of my greatest passions, I would have struggled to take you seriously. However it quickly did, to the point where I found it one of the most rewarding things I’d ever done in life. 

In August of last year I took the decision to leave a good, stable job in the energy sector, with a regular income and good prospects for the future, to follow an uncertain career path, working from job-to-job as a mountain sports photographer. It felt like easily the biggest decision I’d had to make in my life, and it took me at least three months to pluck up the courage to finally make it. Yet, at the same time it was an easy one to make. I was beginning to gain confidence that my photos were good enough, and I also knew that if I didn’t at least give it a proper, committed go, then I’d spend the rest of my life wondering 'what if'. 

The initial plan was to spend time building my portfolio and building contacts, in order that perhaps in twelve months time, I’d be in a position to start bringing in regular work, however things have moved along much faster than expected. I already have a decent number of exciting projects to get stuck into this winter, with some fairly big clients. Things are definitely looking promising for the future (all we need is some snow!).

If you’ve read to the end of this (apologies - it turned into more of an epic than expected), then I want to thank you all for your support, whether you're people that I've had the pleasure of spending time in the mountains with, or people who have shared, liked or commented on my photos on social media, or simply appreciated them. Without all your support, there’s no way I’d have got as far as I have on this exciting rollercoaster ride of a journey.

Glen Coe Skyline - the view from the middle of the pack

Just over two weeks ago, almost exactly one year after swearing I’d never run one of these races again, I once again found myself in the start area of the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline. The previous years race over the 50km mountainous course (including 4500m of ascent and an equivalent amount of leg punishing descent) had wrecked my knees, leaving me unable to run at all for a full month after the race.

An international field of runners gather in the start area ©iancorless.com

An international field of runners gather in the start area ©iancorless.com

For those that don’t know, Skyrunning is pitched as ‘a fusion between alpinism and mountain running’. It’s basically fell running (a sport many would consider the reserve of lunatics anyway) but with everything amped up a few notches. The distances are longer and the terrain is more serious. Instead of *just* running over hills, you’re clambering up rocky mountain ridges with bucket-loads of exposure. There’s no real room for error on this ground, a slip or fall easily resulting in serious injury or worse. Moving at speed only compounds the risks and it’s because of this that entries to the race are strictly vetted, with competitors having to demonstrate that they have extensive scrambling or rock climbing experience in order to even make it as far as the start line.

When I first saw the route before the first year’s race, I didn’t think twice before registering. A huge tour around majestic Glencoe, encompassing the highest summits in the area and two of the UK’s finest scrambling routes, Curved Ridge and the Aonach Eagach. Billed as the toughest mountain race in the UK, it looked utterly ridiculous and I had to have a go. 

Skyrunning World Champion, Emelie Forsberg clearly enjoying herself on route to winning the 2015 race ©iancorless.com

Skyrunning World Champion, Emelie Forsberg clearly enjoying herself on route to winning the 2015 race ©iancorless.com

As a part-time hill runner (at best) and fully aware of my limitations, my aim for the first year was simply to complete the race and not fall behind any of the strict cutoff times enforced at each of the checkpoints. I managed this relatively comfortably in the end, but it hurt, a lot. I usually take part in these races not to compete at the front of the pack, but instead for the experience; the buzz of running in a beautiful place; and for the feeling of achievement at the end. Because of this, it’s usually the case that once I’ve completed a race once, I’ve got little desire to go back and do the same race again. For me, repeating a race is never usually as gratifying an experience as the first time. It loses both the uniqueness that made it exciting the first time and the question-mark in your head as to whether you’ve got what it takes to reach the finish. 

Not long after completing the Glencoe Skyline, I realised that for this particular race I was prepared to make an exception. Although there had been low points and it had hurt, there had been innumerable highs as well. The feeling of moving fast over the type of ground the race covered is an amazing one. It requires total concentration. Whilst moving at breakneck speed you’re always anticipating a few paces ahead where your next strides are are going to land safely, always toeing a fine line between pushing your speed and just about keeping control. It triggers a sustained rush of adrenaline like no other.

As they always do, memories of the lows from the race quickly faded and I was left with a falsified recollection of how much fun this brutal race had been. By the time entries opened for the second year, I was ready to sign my knees away again.

Seven times winner of the Ben Nevis race, Finlay Wild during this years Skyline ©iancorless.com

Seven times winner of the Ben Nevis race, Finlay Wild during this years Skyline ©iancorless.com

In the weeks building up to this years race I seriously considered pulling out. Although my hill fitness was good off the back of regular participation in the midweek Scottish ‘Bog and Burn’ race series (highly recommended) I’d got very little long-distance training under my belt. To add to this I felt like I was carrying a couple of niggling groin and knee injuries, which although manageable over shorter runs, I knew would threaten to blow up over a full day race. I made the compromised decision to start the race, promising myself that if my injuries started to feel comfortable, I’d withdraw from the race before doing myself further damage.

I felt relaxed and clear-headed as I gathered in the start area with the other competitors, bagpipes playing in the background. This was an entire world away from how I’d felt the previous year, where the pressure I’d piled on myself had left me a nervous wreck. This year there was none of that pressure, I had nothing to prove to myself this time round. I knew I could just go out and enjoy the course, taking it at my own speed and retiring if I started to feel uncomfortable.

The race got underway, and soon we were running into the sun on the gentle climb out of Kinlochleven, making steady progress towards the the Devils Staircase and the descent into Glencoe itself. The start of the course had been changed this year, making it longer and adding more height gain. This was in order to space the runners out before the first technical section up Curved Ridge and avoid the bottlenecks and queues that had been encountered the first year. The course changes worked well and it was nice to be able to break into a bit of a rhythm and move quickly on the ridge. 

The author getting to grips with Curved Ridge ©iancorless.com

The author getting to grips with Curved Ridge ©iancorless.com

A few hours had passed in the race and the first couple of big ascents went by. I was feeling comfortable and knew I was moving faster than last year. Somewhat surprisingly, I felt like I was actually enjoying myself, taking in the atmosphere of the event as helicopters swooped dramatically overhead filming the race for the BBC. Taking part in the shorter hill races earlier in the summer had clearly boosted my strength and I was able to run uphill sections that I had walked the previous year, recover quicker at the top of big climbs and take the hair-raising descents at a faster speed. It was all positive at this early stage, the question was, how long would this last.

An hour later, on a gentle climb away from Glen Coe up towards the Bidean nam Bian massif, I felt a tightening in one of my hamstrings. It was unmistakable as cramp. With more than half the race still to cover, cramp at this stage was not good news. I stopped to stretch it out before trying to keep moving, managing only a few more paces before pulling up again. I repeated this several times to no improvement. During this time at least 10 other racers must have passed me, every single one of them taking the time to ask if I was okay and if I needed help at all. This illustrates something else that really makes the Glen Coe Skyline a brilliant race - the sense of spirit and camaraderie amongst the racers, and feeling that you’re all in it together. The eventual winner, Jonathan Albon, wrote a blog post soon after the race, describing how him and one of the other race leaders, Tom Owens, had banded together to help each other out when they encountered a minor navigational difficulty on the course. Primarily everyone was out there to complete the race themselves, but everyone was also out there to help each other do the same.

After forcing down a couple of litres of water and 20 odd minutes of stretching, the cramp finally began to clear and I was able to start moving again. Fortunately this was the last major drama I encountered during the race and neither was there any sign of the niggling injuries I’d been concerned about in the build-up. The next few hours went by in a blur of cowbells and cheering support at the checkpoints, even a wet and slippery Aonach Eagach (a usually treacherous proposition) failed to dent my enjoyment levels. With the last technical section out of the way, I was able to completely relax and enjoy the final 10km or so over rolling hills, chatting away in the company of other runners who were similarly relieved to be on the homeward stretch. After 55km and 4800m of vertical ascent and descent, I crossed the finish line back in Kinlochleven in 10h29m, a 45 minute improvement on last years time. More importantly though, this time round the highs had been even greater than the lows. It’s likely I’ll be looking out for some new and different challenges next year, but the Glencoe Skyline is a race I’m confident I’ll want to come back to in years to come.

This years winner, Jonathan Albon on his way to completing the race in an outstanding 06h33m ©iancorless.com

This years winner, Jonathan Albon on his way to completing the race in an outstanding 06h33m ©iancorless.com

A vast amount of respect and admiration must go to Shane Ohly and the organisers for having the ambition to bring such an incredible race to the UK, and for pulling it off quite so superbly. After the success of the first year, this years race attracted a world class field of athletes from around the world (perhaps the strongest field a mountain race in the UK has ever assembled!) and I’m sure the race will go from strength to strength in the future. Whether I'll be back next year to witness it, we'll have to see..

Chasing the last of the snow - Summer skiing in the Cairngorms

The question had been burning in the back of my mind for some time now. When was I going to get the opportunity to go for a combined skiing/biking/hiking trip in the morning before work, in the middle of July... Fortunately enough, yesterday morning I was finally able to put this question to bed.

With some reliable info that the snow in Great Gully, a deep cleft on the western headwall of Garbh Choire Mór on Braeriach, was still intact, Blair Aitken and I set off from Coylumbridge at 12am to cycle the six miles to Loch Einich. It took less than a hundred yards for me to realise that heading out on a new bike, whilst carrying skis, boots and camera gear on my back, and under the cover of darkness was probably not the smartest of ways to reintroduce myself to mountain biking, however despite a lot of frustration and colourful language vented off at both the bike, the track, and the rocks that decided to occasionally announce themselves out of nowhere by nearly sending me hurtling over the front of my handlebars, we still made decent pace onwards.

Reaching the Loch we ditched the bikes to continue on foot to the headwall above Garbh Choire Mór and the top of the gully. We'd planned our timings in order to reach this point in time for the spectacular sunrise that the weather forecast had promised. Of course being Scotland we instead arrived to thick clag engulfing the gully. "Shall we give it half an hour to see if it clears up?"... "Nah f*** it, let's just get on with it"...

The snow in the gully was solid. For whatever reason, we'd both had it in our heads that any snow holding on this late in the summer would be soft and forgiving. Not even close... Combined with narrow sections that banked out at around 50 degrees and, this felt like a committing, high-consequence ski, which you could never really relax and enjoy. If you'd treated the outing solely as a ski day, then I think you would have been relatively disappointed. However as a day out in the mountains combining multiple disciplines, it was well worth the effort.

Soon after climbing back out to of the gully (again a sketchy experience as we'd chosen to travel light without crampons and ice axe) we were finally rewarded for our efforts with the clouds finally breaking, allowing us to enjoy a downhill cycle back out to Coylumbridge in the morning sun (apparently cycling in the daylight when you can see is a hell of a lot easier - who knew). Jumping in the car, I raced back down the A9 to Perth and headed straight to the office, exhausted, but satisfied with the morning's work.