Specks of Humanity

One of the difficulties I face as a photographer, who also skis, is how to portray the vastness of the mountain-scape through which we travel.

One of the answers is to include fellow adventurers in the image. When fellow skiers or mountaineers are reduced to mere specks in the vastness of the ‘scape then the viewer gets some idea of scale.

This was taken from Gornergrat, the top station of the Gornergrat cog railway, high above Zermatt, and from where one get one of the greatest panoramas in the Alps. The mountains are spectacular, but once I have scanned the 360 degree view my gaze always shifts down onto the Gorner glacier – a white ribbon of snow, 2,100ft below. There are always images to find looking down.

To my astonishment, through the long lens (375 mms), I picked up this line of figures, on the far side of the glacier. A rough calculation suggests they must be about a third of a mile distant from me – invisible to the naked eye, unless you look extremely carefully. Who are they, where have they been, and where are they going? They are clearly ski tourers. On the big screen back home I can just make out their skis. They are heading from left to right down the glacier (although at this point their path suggests a slight incline) and my guess is that they must have been somewhere up very high near Monte Rosa.

I’ve visited this place many times and scanned this glacier many times but I have never before seen people on the edge of that glacier. And this is one of the joys of being a photographer in this majestic Alpine mountain-scape: there is always something new to find. Something special that makes the heart skip a beat.

 

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Half buried but alive

Winter is tough when for several months you are half buried in snow, but the coniferous trees of the Alps are used to it and they do indeed survive.

This image was taken within a minute or two of the image in my previous post featuring the North Face of the Matterhorn, click here to see that post. This image caught my eye because of its simple minimalism. One small tree, with an even smaller one balancing the composition with ski trails providing a link.

The main pistes around Zermatt can often be crowded and when they are it is safest to keep going at a steady pace just like one tends to do when driving on busy roads. School holidays, particularly the half-term holiday weeks in February, can result in over-crowding and lengthy queues for uphill lifts. We always avoid those weeks, and on our most recent trip I never had to queue for more than a couple of minutes.

The quietest pistes at Zermatt tend to be the ones from Schwarzsee down towards Stafelalp or Furi. The Hirli lift has now been extended and provides a way to get back up above Schwarzsee, but if you ignore that, then you are on the long way down to Zermatt, and in the middle of the day not many people are wanting to do that. At times it can feel like you are the only person on the mountain – in total silence.

This image was shot on the last day when I had decided to head down for lunch and then a quiet afternoon back in the village. The piste was almost empty. Under those conditions it’s nice to dawdle, pause, and admire the view and take a few pictures.

The Nikon is around my neck, the chest strap on my slim-line rucsac secures the camera to my chest so it doesn’t flap around. The lens cap is off (yes, off), the camera is ready to use. You may be shocked by that! Skiing with a thousand pounds worth of camera exposed to the elements! Am I crazy? Well, I don’t think so, but my wife might disagree! When the Nikon is out, I ski a little slower than normal and take care. The bonus is that I am primed to take a picture, and therefore pictures get taken. If the camera is in the rucsac, then its a hassle to unstrap the rucsac, get the camera out, and remove the lens cap without dropping/losing it (very easy to do that while wearing gloves). And if the camera is hidden away, then images get missed. Life is always a compromise and for each of us we have to weigh up the risks and benefits of a given situation and make our decisions accordingly.

A lot of the images I take in the Alps – summer and winter – are the result of being in a position to shoot immediately. Having your camera in hand sends a signal to your brain that says: I’m looking for pictures. Your eye is switched on, you are hyper-aware.

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Matterhorn North Face

Skiing is the fastest way to move around the mountains, and it can get you to places that would take two or three hours to walk to.

This is one of my favourite places in the Zermatt valley – Stafelalp, a good two hour walk from Zermatt. Reached in just a few minutes from Schwarzsee on a piste that is always quiet. And the view is magnificent, you see the mighty Matterhorn from an entirely different angle and in winter it is particularly spectacular. It stands in complete isolation, a stark monolith of ice and rock. There is very little colour in the view from this standpoint and removing those traces of colour accentuates the coldness of the situation.

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Turn and turn again

I’ve just back from a week’s skiing with a new clutch of images that I am slowly working through. However, this panel of four was taken in a previous year.

Skiing is a very dynamic sport – athletic, fast-paced, aggressive in the way a slope is attacked, but also graceful. Watching a skier execute turns with the sun behind him demonstrates something of the skill that we have to learn to be competent skiers. Each turn kicks up snow that hangs in the air, backlit by the sun.

The series of four images above spans two seconds during which the skier changes direction twice. Using continuous focus, capture was not too difficult. Processing was harder. You would think that four images taken in a narrow arc so rapidly would all have exactly the same exposure and could easily be batch processed. Not so: there were subtle differences that needed correcting and I’m still not entirely happy with the results. But they do show the athletic, just-in-control, attacking style of this skier.

Click on the image for an enlarged view.

 

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Alpine monochromes

When I first started visiting the Alps fifty-five years ago, much of the photography that was on view in shop windows and on postcards was in black and white. The images had a starkness about them, the absence of colour suggested cold, and monochrome simplified the MountainScape above the snow line into blacks and white. Colour often seemed an intrusion. I never lost that love of Monochrome, and although I always shoot in colour these days, there is always a thrill in converting images to monochrome.

The image above is of the classic Aiguille du Midi arête featuring skiers descending it before stepping into skis and embarking on the Vallee Blanche ski-run, reckoned to be the greatest off-piste ski-run in the Alps. A few minutes later I was descending that arête. To view my blog entry about skiing the Vallee Blanche click here.

I am not a great lover of including people in landscapes: they are often an unwelcome intrusion, but when it comes to photography  in the high Alps, then the inclusion of fellow skiers or mountaineers adds information. Their presence gives a sense of scale, an awareness of the hostility of the environment, or sometimes simply what we – as mountaineers – look like when we set out on a high climb in the early hours of daylight. Climbers in this image are setting out to climb the Breithorn, an easy 4,000 metre peak: roped up and well prepared, as we always should be when we set out on a climb.

 

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Seven Sisters from Seaford Head

A couple of days after Christmas I re-visited this classic view of the Seven Sisters cliffs with my son. This must be the third or fourth year in a row that we have used a fine day just after Christmas day to have a good walk together. This view has been photographed, painted, and published as a Postcard, Poster or Illustration countless times and still it grabs my attention. In the foreground are the old Coastguard cottages, the beach (extreme left) is Cuckmere Haven, and from there the Seven Sisters stretch into the distance. The furthest dip in the line of the cliffs is Birling Gap.

This headline image doesn’t scream ‘nice day’. It’s all a bit grey, but for once we got the weather spot-on. As usual we were late setting off for the one-hour drive to the parking area on Seaford Head, where we munched our way through sandwiches. By then it was already 2.30pm with about an hour and a half of daylight left. But what a glorious ninety minutes of light we had ahead of us.

The sun made an appearance, and the views out to sea were superb. The soft light of a wintry sun really does result in some glorious images. We walked along the cliffs away from Seven Sisters towards the town of Seaford – a walk I’ve never done before. The compressed view of the cliffs from the classic site doesn’t really give a good impression of the length of this particular piece of coastline; but as we walked the views back to the cliffs really opened out and we started to get a far better impression.

The sky was magnificent too.

The light started to change all too soon and as we turned round just on the edge of the drop into Seaford, the light warmed up and what I would call an Alpine Glow slowly turned the white cliffs to gold. The Alpine Glow, as it’s known, is a familiar sight in the Alps when the snow-capped peaks are lit up by the setting sun, but I’ve never experienced that effect on an English landscape quite as good as this.

This was a special day. January is not a month renowned for special days, and since then the sun has been conspicuous by its absence. The days have been dull and grey. It’s the season when we want to hibernate. I took a two week break from WordPress which seems to have stretched into a whole month. Once you stop blogging, it isn’t easy to get started again! I’ve not achieved a great deal this month apart from printing a lot of B&W images and preparing entries into club competitions and for a forthcoming club exhibition.

 

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A Blanket of snow

Snow softens the Alpine landscape, smoothing out the wrinkles, concealing the ugliness of bare ground. In the alps, the deeper the snow the more is concealed.

This is the last few yards of the Fee glacier above Saas Fee in the Valais Alps in winter. In summer the ice is bereft of snow, the bare skeleton of the glacier revealed: stark, jagged shards, collapsed ice towers. In a word – chaos.

Now, as the snows of winter re-accumulate, the outlines of the glacial remains are softened and the spaces filled in. Ultimately the cavernous space may be completely snowed-over. Unrecognisable. And with each freeze/thaw cycle the surface becomes a carapace: rock hard. When spring arrives, for a time the carapace will remain; in places forming snow bridges that will bear the weight of a skier or mountaineer. But beware, as the air warms and the snow softens, the snow bridges will begin to melt. Early summer is the most dangerous time of year to cross a glacier. Crevasses lurk, unseen. So easy to step on what you consider to be safe ground and suddenly sink through the surface to waist height.

Enough of that! Don’t want to give you all nightmares. The Holiday season is about to start. So – my best wishes to all of you reading this, whether you are people of faith or not. Enjoy the break. A time to be with family and friends, and to welcome in another year. A year that feels more uncertain than any I can remember over here in the UK. Parliament has paused, the papers for the first time in months are without the daily carnage that is Brexit. It will start all over again far too soon.

See you next year!

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