2018 - A look back

2018 felt a bit mad. Good mad, but mad all the same. For one it’s been the first year where I’ve started to realise that this slightly crazy, speculative career gamble might actually fly in the long run. Mostly however, it’s been a year of amazing trips with even more amazing people. As such I wanted to put together an end of year review piece, partly to share an insight into what goes on behind the scenes in my work, partly to share some photos I haven’t previously published, but also partly for my own benefit to have a record of what’s been a really fun year. Now traditionally most photographers will put out an end of year review piece soon after New Years, not mid-February, however despite starting this with the best of intentions well over a month ago, other commitments gradually got in the way and the whole thing sort of grew arms and legs. Voilà, we’re now midway through February and I’ve only just found time to finish this (and it’s still arguably slightly too long). Anyway, I tend to find I really enjoy reading these sort of pieces by other photographers, usually finding I can learn a lot from them, so hopefully at least a few people might appreciate this one!

My work tends to operate on a seasonal basis, so I’m going to start from the beginning of winter 2017/18 and a day out shooting Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson climbing a hard new mixed line on Bidean nam Bian’s Church Door Buttress. As perhaps one of the strongest winter climbing partnerships in the business at the moment, it’s always a real privilege to get to photograph these two doing what they do best. The flip side of this is that I always feel I have to raise my game a bit to capture photos which do justice to their exploits.

Conditions weren’t what most would consider ideal for photography, with flat light and poor visibility through most of the day. I’ve come to learn however that these are often the best conditions for taking good winter climbing photos, as more often than not you’re photographing subjects who’re climbing on shaded north facing crags, and as such high contrast lighting isn’t your friend. Still, I can remember walking off the hill that day and not being sure whether I had anything decent at all (although this is often the case when you’re so cold you can’t hold the camera still and trying to judge whether you’ve actually taken anything good on a tiny fogged up LCD screen). Fortunately I did get a few keepers, one of which ended up winning its category in the Kendal Mountain Festival photo competition later on in the year. Below is the photo in question, plus a few others from the day which I’ve not previously shared.

Next up was a week out in the Alps working for NUCO Travel, a big player in the student snowsports holiday industry. I was shooting a mixture of some of the events they were running across a few different resorts, alongside getting some skiing shots they could use for marketing and on their social channels. The week coincided with some great early season snow conditions in the Alps, so it was all about the pow shots!

After a short break over Christmas and New Years it was back up to the Highlands, which were experiencing some fairly special snow conditions. One weekend in particular will live long in the memory for anyone who was lucky enough to be out…

In February I joined up with the talented folk at Coldhouse to spend two weeks shooting a Scottish Skiing film for Pertex. In almost an exact microcosm of a full Scottish Ski season, the vast majority of the two weeks was actually spent inside, pouring over weather forecasts, watching storm cycles develop, and trying to anticipate where we might find good snow conditions. In amongst all that I had some of the most memorable days I’ve spent on skis in Scotland and we got just about enough footage to make a short ten minute film. As director, Matt Pycroft put it “If you like skiing, or Scotland, or smiley, psyched children, or stormy weather, or strangely dedicated chartered accountants who moonlight as steep skiers, then you’ll bloody love this little movie.”

In addition to taking some photos and working as an assistant producer on the film, I also somehow ended up being persuaded to feature in it. Here’s a few photos I took during shooting and also a copy of the film in case you haven’t seen it already.

Next up, I was back out to the Alps for another week working for NUCO. This time round I was out for their Academy week, where they put on a load of coaching for a few talented UK student riders. One of the highlights of the week was seeing the encouragement that everyone in the group gave each other and the progression that everyone made. For me it was basically a dream job - six days of skiing around the Les Arcs backcountry, photographing a talented group of skiers and boarders sending it off big cliffs and kickers. Here’s a few of my favourite shots I’ve picked out from the week.

Next it was back to Scotland and another shoot with Coldhouse. This time we were doing the first of two shoots for Rab to mark the tenth anniversary of their iconic Microlight Jacket, which is one of their bestselling products. Rab were re-designing and re-releasing the jacket to mark the occasion and were looking for a series of photos and short films to celebrate the different people who used them. The first shoot focussed on Corin Smith, a fly-fishing guide and prominent critic of certain aspects of the salmon farming industry in Scotland. For the shoot, we explored the adventurous side of Corin’s fishing, seeking out remote lochs, accessing them by foot or on skis, and making use of Scotland’s bothies for the some of the more far flung spots.

In amongst the various commercial shoots I worked on during the winter, I also enjoyed some quality days out on skis with friends. Special mentions must go to Dave Anderson, Scott Muir, Matt Pavitt and Philip Ebert who formed a formidable midweek team for highly successful missions on Stob Ghabhar, Sgòr Gaoith, and the backcountry around Glenshee. Not to mention a brilliant consecutive few days skiing in the Northwest Highlands, on which I managed to fill an entire separate blog post.

The tail end of winter brought something a bit different - Cut Media were producing some new content for GoApe and wanted a photographer to tag along and capture some stills to supplement the video. It definitely wasn’t my usual sort of work, but I always enjoy the challenge of shooting something slightly different, and it was undeniably a fun few days running around on their high ropes courses, zip-line treks, and offroad segways with a camera in my hand!

In Mid-May we rounded off the winter with a big group of us descending on the CIC Hut to ski the north facing gullies on Ben Nevis (in the rain). Despite some pretty dreich conditions, I was pleased to get to ski both of the Castle Gullies, neither of which I’d skied before, in addition to another descent of the classic Tower Gully. I’ve taken plenty of skiing photos on the Ben before, so this time I opted instead to shoot a film of some of the action from the weekend. For anyone who hasn’t skied on the north face of the Ben before, hopefully it gives a bit of a feel for what it’s all about (some years the weather isn’t totally b*llocks too!).

At the start of January I’d taken a phone call from Matt Pycroft at Coldhouse, whilst standing at the side of a busy ski slope in the 3 Valleys in France. “Hi Matt, what’s up?”, “Hi mate, okay so long story short we need a photographer/cameraman to join a six week long climbing expedition in the Himalayas. Only slight issue is we need to start booking VISA’s and permits today, so you need to let me know in the next half an hour if you can make it...”

Four months later, I found myself at the check-in desks of Manchester Airport , a good 10kg of camera equipment over the baggage limit, (having tried and hopelessly failed to blag my overweight bag onto the flight), indulging the rest of the team in some early expedition bonding through an age-old game of ‘who can fit five extra drone batteries in their hand luggage?’. After a bit of sleight of hand with the bags on the check-in scales, we were on our way to India.

I was to spend the next six weeks with Malcolm Bass, Paul Figg and Guy Buckingham in a remote region of the Garwhal Himalayas documenting their attempt to make the first ascent of Janhukot (6805m). I won’t go into too many specifics of what happened during the trip as it’s all in the film which you can watch below, but in short I couldn’t have asked for a better first expedition job. Brilliant company from Malcolm, Paul and Guy, great support from Matt and the team at Coldhouse through the whole process, and just a great all round experience.

Things I found challenging included taking photos/video at altitude (I’m usually okay with altitude, however my standard approach of running ahead of the group if I see a potential shot, as opposed to getting everyone to stop so I can set up is completely unsustainable in thin air and would more often than not leave me completely burst for the next hour or so). Things I enjoyed included being completely cut off from the digital world for over four weeks - an initial tough withdrawal period is quickly replaced by a realisation that life is way nicer and simpler without having to know what everyone else is up to all the time. I was incredibly grateful to both Pertex and the team at Coldhouse for having the faith in me to send me off on my own to both photograph and film the expedition - hopefully there will be plenty more to come!

A quick turnaround after the Himalayas (this was the stage of the year where I felt like I was constantly living out of duffel bags) and I was driving out to the Alps for a month or so. The trip began with the second part of the Rab Microlight shoot. This time we would be focussing on Julia Virat, a mountain guide based in Chamonix. We followed her during a days guiding on the Aiguilles d'Entrèves, getting a good mix of night time shots and also some nice sunrise shots high on the ridge itself. For the night shots I made use of headtorches to provide some low key atmospheric lighting (I’ve toyed with using big strobes for lighting before, but I generally find they’re too heavy and a bit of a faff, so not ideal for the fast and light style of shooting I try to employ).

My second big job in the Alps this summer was for Jöttnar and easily ended up being the craziest shoot I’ve worked on to date. The idea started fairly simply. We were to go out and climb a route with two of their athletes, Tim Howell and Willis Morris, capturing some gritty alpine imagery along the way. The whole thing grew arms and legs when Tim, a basejumper, suggested that he might be able to jump off a point half way up the route. In turn, Willis, a speed flyer, decided he would bring along a speedwing to fly down from the top. Then to top it all off, Jake Holland, a filmmaker and paraglider, joined the shoot and brought along a tandem wing, so it looked like we were all flying down! This shoot was definitely one of the hardest I’ve worked on, but also one of the most rewarding. Traversing the Arête du Diables is a fairly long day in itself. If you add in having to capture photos and video along the way (and set up the odd basejump), you really need to make sure you’re moving fast and not faffing at all. This style of shooting, where you’re having to balance moving quickly and safely alongside taking photos, is exactly the kind I get a kick off though, and I was chuffed that it all went as good as it possibly could have, both from a safety perspective and with regards to the shots I came away with. You can read the full story of the day and watch Jake’s film here.

In September, after a month of climbing and working in the Chamonix area, I returned to the UK , where I had two more shoots with Coldhouse for Rab. Although these photos haven’t been used yet, Rab have very kindly given me permission to share a few of them in this post. The first was a running shoot around Glencoe with Greg Boswell, showcasing a few products being used in a fast and light scenario, moving across scrambly exposed terrain. Now Greg obviously isn’t best known as a runner, but fell running is an important component of his training for climbing hard winter routes, and his competency at this discipline really showed as he had no hesitation at moving fast over technical, exposed terrain.

The second shoot was down in Wales with Calum and Gabby Muskett. Rab were looking to get some product focussed imagery showcasing their Kinetic Plus jacket functioning well in damp conditions. We had two days set aside for the shoot so all we had to do was pray for some wet weather... Day one ended up being hopelessly dry, however fortunately enough, not long into day two the heavens opened and we ended up with some of the wettest conditions I think I’ve ever worked in, with points during the day where I genuinely couldn’t clear the water off my lens quick enough between firing off salvos of shots. For anyone wondering about the weatherproofing on the Sony A7III cameras, it survived this, which was about as good a field test as you could design. I guess some people might find these sort of conditions a pain to work in, but I seem to almost enjoy it more when the weather gets a bit mental. You invariably end up with more dramatic photos and you feel like you’ve been put through the ringer to get them, which adds to the overall reward factor (I think!?).

My last shoot in the UK for the year was up in Tiree with a few of the team at Tiso. It was more of a lifestyle kind of shoot than anything else, exploring the island in a campervan and taking a few shots of various jackets and pieces of kit along the way.

My final job of the year was out in Antarctica, shooting photos and video for both Jenny Davis and Richard Parks, who were both going through final preparations before setting off on separate expeditions to ski solo and unsupported from the coast to the south pole. It really was one of those once in a lifetime trips, so I’m incredibly grateful to both of them for bringing me along. I’ll probably do a separate post on this at some point, however in the meantime here are a few teaser shots from the trip.

To round off the year I headed back to Scotland, where Winter was making a brief early appearance. One of my aims for this year is to resist the lure of the easy type-one fun you get from ski days and instead spend more time in the type-two fun zone, working on trying to get my winter climbing up to a higher standard. I made a decent start of this with three days up on Ben Nevis with my mate Luke, who’s currently working towards his prerequisites for the guides scheme. Whilst we were halfway up the classic ‘Gargoyle Wall’, Jamie Skelton and Matt Glen were also climbing the intimidating looking ‘Darth Vader’ on the other side of the gully. Although I wasn’t really out to take photos that day, I’d fortunately brought my camera with me and was in the right place at the right time to get a few shots of Jamie leading the crux.

I’m learning that an incredibly important part of progressing and improving as a photographer, is learning to be your own biggest self-critic. It’s generally the case that if you share work on social media you only really ever get positive feedback, be it through ‘likes’ or the odd positive comment. It’s very rare that you’ll get any sort of constructive criticism or critique. As such it’s very easy to take all the positive feedback, rest on your laurels, and not work on improving at all. For me personally, this would be a surefire path to losing interest in my work and burning out. I’ve therefore found it increasingly important to try and recognise where my weaknesses are and work hard at improving them. I find the process of doing this adds to the challenge and should in theory help to make me a better all-round photographer.

Coming into 2018, I knew that my strengths lay with what I’ll refer to as the ‘hero’ type photos. These being the shots of a stunning sunrise, perhaps with a skier blasting through untracked pow, or alternatively a climber making a hard move with some scary exposure below them. I find these sort of shots are usually easy enough to get with a bit of good planning, good athletes, and an eye for composing a shot. At the start of the year I set out to try and improve both my storytelling and product photography. A great storytelling photo doesn’t necessarily have the same wow factor as a ‘hero’ shot, however in the world of social media, which seems to be an endlessly perpetuating stream of ‘hero’ shots, I find a good storytelling photo often stands out from the crowd. They can be much more interesting to look at, and often demonstrate a far better skill level from the photographer than yet another golden sunset shot. Although most ‘hero’ shots usually come easily with good planning, storytelling photos take a slightly different skillset. Constantly being aware and switched on, anticipation of what might be about to happen next, and fast reactions to capture the decisive moment, are all important skills that contribute to taking good storytelling photos. Storytelling photos are often slightly rough around the edges, perhaps not properly in focus or slightly blurred, however this often adds to their charm!

Whenever I’m trying to improve on a certain area of my photography, I always find it useful to look at other photographers work who are really strong in that area. In this case a great example of someone in the adventure sports field who does storytelling very well is Kelvin Trautman, whose photos excel at capturing the emotions of athletes when pushing themselves beyond their limits. I’ve also recently been introduced to the work of Ragnar Axelsson, whose work documenting the lives of people living in arctic regions is both beautiful and fascinating to look at, giving an insight into the harshness of living in an arctic environment.

The product photography overlaps slightly with both the hero shots and the storytelling photos, and is of course very important for much of the commercial work I do. Here I’m ultimately trying to show off a particular product and its features with some exciting or visually interesting imagery of the product being used in a real life situation. This can sometimes require a bit of direction of the athletes you’re working with to get them in the right place, however I try to be as light on instructions as possible (preferring to shoot in a mainly reportage style) as I tend to find it’s often easy to spot staged photos a mile off.

As I said, I’ve made a concerted effort to try and improve both these areas in my photography and hopefully some of that has come across in the images I’ve shared in this post. Looking back over the photos I’ve taken in last year, I realise that I’ve perhaps gone too far the other way and taken too few hero shots, so this year I perhaps need to aim to redress the balance a bit! Anyway I’d like to finish by showing my appreciation to everyone I’ve had the pleasure of either working with or spending time in the mountains with over the course of last year - without all of you I wouldn’t be lucky enough to be doing what I firmly believe is the best job in the world, so a big thanks to all of you!

'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..