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.

 

Adventuring on The Ben (from an original blog post for '30 Second Exposure')

It’s deep-winter and I’m standing on a tiny ledge, half-way up an ice-choked gully on the north face of Ben Nevis, a vertical abyss falling away below. There’s a biting wind swirling around and spindrift pouring down from above, I’m stomping up and down, attempting to get some warmth flowing back into my body. In the meantime my climbing partner, is making slow but steady progress up the gully above me. I’m using my left hand to belay him whilst my right is clutching my camera trying to focus and get a decent shot.

DSC_9523.jpg

It’s hardly the ideal conditions for getting technically brilliant photos, and much of the time in adventure sports photography, getting a perfect photo just isn’t feasible. Exposure and composition both play second fiddle to climbing well, staying safe and ensuring you get home in one piece. Fortunately enough camera bodies and equipment have progressed to a point where you have a huge amount of flexibility to correct photos in post-processing, either cropping, correcting colour or adjusting exposure. It gives me plenty of room to make mistakes on the hill.

Reaching the exit ramp of the gully, the clouds finally open. Bright sunshine starts pouring through, lighting up the top of the route. Spotting the opportunity, I race to the top in time to get a photo of our second climbing team who’re finishing the climb in the now magnificent light below us. Being based in Scotland (where invariably the weather is pretty terrible) you have to put yourself in the right place and at least give yourself a chance of getting a good photo. It means going out sometimes in less-than-ideal conditions, and having the patience to wait for the right moment to start shooting. When you get lucky and the light does come good, it can produce some incredibly dramatic and pleasing results.

Blair Aitken negotiating Tower Gap during a successful attempt on the Tower Double - one of the top UK ski mountaineering prizes

Blair Aitken negotiating Tower Gap during a successful attempt on the Tower Double - one of the top UK ski mountaineering prizes

Cameras have also made great leaps forwards in weatherproofing and durability. Many people still go to great lengths to keep their equipment out of harm’s way. I was much the same when I first started out, keeping my camera safely tucked away in my rucksack except when I wanted to stop and get photos. Problem with this was, I quickly realised that I was missing 90% of the best shots. When you’re knackered and cold, slogging it up a mountain, it’s a lot of effort and faff to stop and take your camera out to capture a maybe half-decent moment. I’ve since changed my tact and now climb and ski with my camera on a shoulder sling at my side at all times. The camera is completely exposed to the elements and yes that’s a risk, but it’s worth it to have it at the ready at all times. Occasionally if conditions turn really mental then I’ll stick a dry-bag over it. It has taken a few knocks here and there, but you’d be amazed how much abuse modern bodies and lenses can take. I do also make sure it’s well insured in case the very worst does happen!

After both teams have reached the top, we stash away our ice-axes, take our skis off our backs, clip in, and ski an exhilarating steep line back down the face to the mountain hut we started from five hours beforehand. It’s been a classic Scottish ski-mountaineering day and I can’t wait to get home and review the photos.

Blair with a bold entry into Number 5 Gully

Blair with a bold entry into Number 5 Gully

I learnt the basics of photography on a fully manual Nikon FM3a when I was younger, however during my time at university photography fell to the wayside. It’s only recently that I’ve rediscovered a passion for it through adventure photography. Combining taking photos with mountaineering and skiing, gives me extra drive in all three pursuits. It’s encouraged me to raise the level of my skiing and climbing, so that I can go out with others and not worry about my own abilities so much, allowing me to concentrate more on taking photos. It also gives me the impetus to get out in the hills on days where the weather is maybe not brilliant, or perhaps I’m lacking in motivation. I think that comes down to something that a lot of photographers can relate to – the desire to go the extra mile to get a great photo.

Watching skiers descend Tower Gully from high on Tower Ridge

Watching skiers descend Tower Gully from high on Tower Ridge

Since I found a passion for adventure photography, it’s given me some unforgettable experiences. During the last year I’ve ice-climbed under a full moon on the Cobbler; ski-mountaineered in Arctic Norway; slept alone under the stars on the infamous Aonach Eagach ridge;  climbed rock routes in Glencoe as the sun’s risen before work, and skied steep gullies after work as the sun’s been setting over the highlands.

Photography has been a big driver behind these adventures and as such has made a real impact on my life. I feel privileged to have had these experiences, and hope that through my photos I can share them, maybe inspiring others to push outside their comfort zone and do something adventurous that they might remember for rest of their lives.

Number 3 Gully in particularly sporty condition

Number 3 Gully in particularly sporty condition