Friday 18 September 2009

Shooting the Cap

Mont Blanc range from the Lac Cheserys

I've always found taking pictures a lot easier than selling them, so its only now with plenty of confirmed sales for my Capucin shots that I can relax a bit and consider it a successful shoot. I've got a little video clip of Caff reflecting on how lucky they'd been to get it done. Although typically modest with respect to his climbing contribution, what he's really acknowledging is not so much what went right, but what didn't go wrong. Small things can have big effects in these situations.

The place is massively photogenic but not without its challenges - altitude, harsh light, inability to move around freely. There's a limit to just how much camera gear you want to carry up such a route, particularly as we didn't set up any shots; all the climbing was being done for the route, not the camera. Plus there are Heinz Zak's images which have been widely published - inspiring stuff for photographers as for climbers, but meant I'd have to avoid similar shots without ignoring the most photogenic spots.

not travelling light...

Gearwise then I was limited and had to choose carefully. Almost all Heinz's shots were shot with a fisheye, so tempting though it was I figured not having one might just be a good thing. Other than that it was my standard minimal kit - D300 & 50-150mm/2.8, plus either 12-24mm/4 or 16-85mm. For this kind of work shooting on DX has big advantages over FX - not just a smaller body but smaller lenses and overall a much smaller kit.

The crucial piece of kit though was the bag. I've used various methods over the years - various Lowe photo bags or just putting the body in a BD Bullet wrapped in a fleece, with lens pouches strapped to the outside - and not been happy. So as a bit of a last minute impulse I bought a Lowe Inverse 100. Turned out to be perfect - bum-bag design but with decent padded waist strap and a shoulder strap. A good fit for the body and two main lenses, plus room for an extra lens and water bottle strapped on the outside. Having the shoulder strap really works at stabilising it, without giving the over-balancing effect you get from a rucsac, and I climbed up to E2 with it on no problems. Sitting low on the back means a Bullet can be worn comfortably as well, handy for swapping with the leader on the harder pitches.

Caff on his successful repoint of the crux 8b pitch

After three days as a three man team I took a bit of a gamble by withdrawing from the big push. I wasn't too bothered about missing out on the summit, given the style I would have made it in - all the more motivation to go back and do it properly - but it potentially meant no more photos. I rationalised the decision on a few counts: firstly, it'd give the boys the best chance of summitting. Of course I really wanted them to succeed as they deserved it, but ultimately it's the biggest factor affecting the saleability of the shots. Trips with summits and sales are the best, but usually its a compromise in favour of one. Secondly, I'd got some decent shots so far but as a team it was hard work getting anything other than bum shots. Caff failing on his first redpoint of the crux pitch was actually a massive stroke of luck for me as it gave me a chance to get above him for his second go. By splitting I had at least a chance of getting something different.

So on day 4, alone, I gingerly crossed a very ropey bergschrund and set off up the Petit Capucin. I deliberately chose a more direct line to avoid the objective dangers of the Voie Normale, which at this time of year had begun to disintegrate. The first twenty metres were a bit steeper than I'd hoped, and after laybacking a nice VS corner I ended up posting my camera bag and helmet into a squeeze chimney. Thankfully it widened at the back and, with considerably less exposure, I was able to chimney up and emerge on easier ground. In the end I didn't go to the summit, stopping in a notch between the main summit and a gendarme on the south face on which the rock routes finish. The gamble paid off; I got a grandstand view of the upper part of the route and some of my favourite shots of the trip, very different to the standard stuff. In the end I left early concerned about rockfall, and ended up shooting Caff's onsight of the crux pitch from lower down. Again, it was a little stroke of luck, although I thought the angle wasn't as good, turns out back in Lightroom its as good if not better.

Lac Blanc - Mamiya 645 & Hartblei TS, Velvia

Although I took my full medium format kit it didn't make it up the mountain. Since upgrading to the D300 I'm finding it ever harder to force myself to use it -there's no resolution gain over the Nikon and it requires much higher levels of effort and discipline. However there are advantages in terms of colour, (in skies particularly, in comparison Nikon's look green), a big clear viewfinder and I much prefer the 3:4 format for verticals. I also believe the slower, manual approach is conducive to more considered images. However I'm shooting less than I was last year, and I'm looking carefully at options - the combined effect of the credit crunch and consumer DSLRs breaking the 20MP mark has seen second-hand prices for MF backs tumble. Having the simplicity of a rugged manual body, prime lenses combined with the flexibility of digital capture is very appealing.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Voie Petit

The Grand Cap is the central pillar, the Voie Petit takes a line right of centre

As you may have already read elsewhere, our trip to The Grand Capucin was a big success. Ben And Caff managed the third free ascent of the Voie Petit, the route Alex Huber suggested 'may be the hardest route in the Alps'. Caff deserves a mention for being on blistering form. On day one, after a long journey and with barely a warm-up, he kicked off by onsighting a nasty bold slab graded 5.12b by Huber (~E6). Ben and I both needed the only bolt just to get up on second. After that he didn't look back, onsighting or flashing every pitch but the crux, some whilst seconding Ben's redpoints.

Ben fuels up on Jelly babies at the base of the crux pitch. Dent du Geant and Jorasses behind

In total we spent four days on the route. By day two we'd reached the crux pitch, a technical thirty metre corner capped by a roof and graded 8a+, when bad weather sent us back to the valley. After two days exploring the cragging delights of the Aosta valley (Caff was particularly excited by a hard sport venue called Il Cubo),

Ben on an 8a at Il Cubo

and being ripped off (76euro for two nights camping...) we returned to the glacier on the promise of a good forecast. Luckily it didn't disappoint; day three saw us back at the highpoint and Caff made short work of the crux pitch, only just missing getting it first redpoint. Ben got the next pitch ticked off and then we abbed down leaving ropes fixed to the base of the sixth pitch. The boys had a big job to do the next day, another eight pitches including an 8a and several hard 7s. Figuring I wasn't going to add much to the team but a handbrake, I elected not to join them and instead scrambled up the neighbouring spire and watched the action unfold.

pitch 11; 8a at 3700m and another McHaffie flash...

These pics are just a taster, I've saved the best and the full story for the mags: Climb should be running a full article whilst John Arran will be covering it in Climber's Alps and Beyond column. I'm really happy with the pics I got so it should be worth the wait...