Blog

My alpine gear list

20100220-the_stuff_of_dreams.jpg

I am currently packing for a short trip (a long weekend, really) I am taking to Chamonix, hoping to get a little bit of alpine climbing done before the summer is over (and before going to Nepal in october). The goal is a long route with two or three nights at altitude and at least one a bivy on the route. I thought people might be interested in learning what gear I am taking for such an occasion. The actual climbing rack will depend on which route we decide on once we have assessed the conditions (possibilities include Traversee des Aiguilles de Chamonix, Frendo Spur, South Ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and a few other routes), but here’s about the rest:

Sleeping

  • Tent: The Black Diamond Bibbler i-tent: small footprint for narrow ledges, single wall but sturdier than the eVent versions and possibly more breathable, too. At 2kg, this is one of the big weight investments.

bibler-itent.jpg

  • Sleeping bag: Western Mountaineering Alpinlite: it’s only rated to -7C but that should be enough for summer climbs when sleeping fully clothed. The weight compromise makes it worth it.

alpinlite.jpg

  • Sleeping pad: I got one of the fancy new Thermarest NeoAir in small size. It’s only 120cm but a ridiculous 260g and packs tinily, for almost as much warmth as a normal inflatable pad.

neoair.jpg

Clothing

  • Baselayers: There is no question that now, it’s all about merino wool, the magic fabric. It is warm, it is comfortable, it breathes and it never smells. I use a Norwegian brand called Aclima, but will probably get some new ones from Icebreaker for Nepal.

aclima.jpg

  • Fleece: A small Arc’teryx microfleece. Any would do as long as it’s light.

fleece.jpg

  • Softshell: The amazing Rab vapour-rise. Again, warm, crazy-breathable and comfortable.

rab.jpg

  • Hardshell Arc’teryx Alpha LT, the rolls royce of gore-tex jackets, for the extra warmth if it’s windy or rainy. Before I won this jacket at the Sheffield festival last March, I was using 50€ Marmot precip for the same purpose.

alpha.jpg

  • Hat: A nice Patagonia woolen one with extra fleece around the ears. It’s crazy how a good hat will make a world of difference, and how difficult it was to find one that I liked.
  • Gloves: The Black Diamond pursuit have pretty nice liners and they dry relatively quickly. They are also very dexterous for hard mixed or even easy rock climbing. Given the low temps forecasted, I may decide to bring an extra pair of mitts for comfort.

gloves.jpg

  • Socks: One heavy duty woolen pair with liners to move the sweat away. I don’t bring spare but am careful to dry them at night.
  • Shoes: I will use the La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX instead of the Spantik, as they climb technical ground better and I shouldn’t need the extra warmth. This will actually be my first trip with them, but from trying them and from all my experiences with La Sportiva, I am sure they will perform beautifully. I also bring a pair of rock shoes, of course.

boots.jpg

Personal kit

  • Axes: I bought second hand Black Diamond cobras from kickass Danish climber Kristoffer Szilas and they are the best thing since sliced bread. The carbon fiber makes them light, they are perfectly balanced and swinging them is just an awesome feeling. I have the BD spinner leash to avoid dropping them.

axes.jpg

  • Harness: DMM Supercouloir. Super light, plenty of gear loops and screw holders, a real belay loop and a quick release of the leg loops which allows relieveing without untying.

dmm_super_couloir_harness.jpg

  • Crampons: Simond Makalu. Good all around alpine crampons, though on retrospect, I probably should have gotten them fully automatic instead of semi-auto, as they have come undone a few times on the huge Spantik.

crampons.jpg

  • Helmet: Black Diamond halfdome, simple but it does the job and is actually pretty comfortable. I forget I have it on until I see the photos, which is exactly what I am looking for.

helmet.jpg

Photography

  • Camera: Nikon D90 + Nikkor 16-35 f/4 VR. After the tent, this is the heaviest thing I carry, but it’s always worth it in the end. Since the focus is on adventure images rather than landscape (which I can work on when weight is less crucial), I only bring one good wide lens.

D90.jpg nikon-16-35.jpg

  • Bag: Thinktank skin belt with one single pouch. I put it on in the morning and keep it there until the day is over, which makes my camera accessible in an instant, the absolute key to bringing back good images.

skin.jpg

  • Consumables: 16GB of high performance cards, a spare battery, a lens cloth. That’s it.

Misc

  • Backpack: To carry all of this, the Osprey Mutant 38. I am pushing its capacity, but it can do it. This is the best bag I have ever used for climbing, as it somehow doesn’t change my centre of gravity too much.

mutant.jpg

  • Headlamp: Petzl tikka xp2, small, light and incredibly powerful, perfect for this kind of climb.

tikka.jpg

  • Cooking gear: Nic will take care of the stove and fuel, so I only bring one Nalgene bottle, a bowl, a knife and a plastic spork.
  • Glasses: Glacier glasses and contact lenses, my biggest pain in the morning (it can take up to half an hour to put them on…).
  • Really misc: some aspirin and paracetamol, self-adhesive patches for the mattress, a cellphone turned off for emergencies, an altimeter watch, a topo, a fighting spirit.

Add the ropes and the rack and you have an alpine gearlist for two climbers. Quite a lot of stuff but (except for the camera of course), not much that can be left out.

What do you think? Anything that you would change in that list?

Standard
Blog

A (Chinese) guide to mountain photography – Outside magazine

There is little doubt that Outside magazine is one of the best and most widely read adventury-outdoorsy-travel magazines out there, so I was very pleased when the editor of their Chinese version contacted me to publish my mountain photography guide. It has been translated into Chinese and will run on 8 pages in their September issue, which should hit the newsstands any day now. If anyone from China is reading this, be sure to get yourself a copy!

outside-1.jpg

outside-2.jpg

Standard
Blog

A free introduction to photography course for the social website reddit.com

20090605-mountain_kids.jpg

It seems everyone has a digital camera these days, and many people even own a fancy DSLR. However, the basic photography knowledge necessary to really master these formidable tools can be difficult to obtain. Sure, there are countless books, websites and forum threads dedicated to this task, but the relevant information is often scattered or incomplete.

I have also been participating to the social website reddit.com for a while now. When someone in the “/r/photography” community asked for an introduction to photography course, I thought it would be a good idea, and I gave it a go. We started last week and I will produce 5 lessons a week, along with relevant assignment. There is no prerequisite, and the target audience is people interested in getting the most out of their camera but who don’t have much previous knowledge (though I hope more advanced photographers will also find useful information in there).

You can find all the lessons on /r/photoclass and I will also mirror the lessons on this website. Don’t hesitate to take a look and join the course if you think it might be useful!

Standard
Blog

Wallpapers are here!

20100724-scafell_sunrise.jpg

This was long overdue, but I have finally put up a page with some wallpapers from my most popular images. At the moment, there are five images in three of the most common resolutions (1920×1200, 1680×1050 and 1280×800) but I plan on adding new images regularly, probably once a month.

Don’t hesitate to make requests or to share this page with your friends!

It’s all over there, in the new resources section: Wallpapers.

Standard
Blog

My 10 favourite British climbs

20100615003741_20100607-belay.jpg

Rune Bennike belaying on Millstone quarry, in front of the Hope valley

As you may know, I recently returned from a 6 months stay abroad in London. I moved there in February, just in time to participate in what many have described as the best Scottish Winter in years. As spring rolled and the weather warmed, I kept exploring the trad climbing crags of the country with multiple trips to North Wales, the Peak District, Dorset and other less famous places. According to my logbook, I climbed 68 British routes in those 6 months (though I suspect the actual figure is a bit higher than that).

Some of these routes were mind blowing. Some were amazing, many were good and surprisingly few sucked. Here is, then, my totally subjective list of the 10 best routes in the country. The only rule is that I must have attempted the climb (though not necessarily completed or got a clean ascent).

10. Comes the Dervish (E3 5c), LLanberis

20100730000234_20100716-long_way_down.jpg

Gareth Leah on the upper section of “Comes the Dervish”

Though I didn’t get to climb it as much as I would want to, my predilection for thin technical climbing made me fall in love with slate right away. Pull my Daisy, on Rainbow Slab, almost made this list but I backed off after a mere 6m (but the onsight is still valid!) so here comes this ultra-classic E3 instead. Unfortunately, Gareth, Adam and I arrived very late in the quarry, and by the time Gareth had grabbed the lead, night was falling, so Adam and I had to settle for (clean) seconding.

The route is long (35-40m), beautifully elegant, pretty sustained and well protected after the initial run-out. IMP/RPs are useful for the start, and afterward it’s only small cams and bomber nuts.

9. Flying Buttress Direct (E1 5b), Stanage

20100504222639_20100503-cutting_loose.jpg

Myself on the crux of “Flying Buttress Direct”, about to panic when I realize just how bad the gear is (photo by John Hopkins)

The main reason this route made the list is because the first time I saw it, I thought there had been a mistake in the guidebook. “There’s no way I can get up that!”.

It is a huge classic, and a crazy overhang/roof overcome by shrewd heel hooks instead of brute force. My first ascent was a true onsight: I evaluated from below the key gear to be a gold camalot. As I came to the crux section and tried to place the cam, I realized it was too big but didn’t have enough stamina to select a smaller piece, so just kept going. A fall would have been 3 to 5m on a big slab, and was a definite possibility, which perhaps explains why I managed to pull through :) I have climbed it a couple more times since and with the proper beta, it is a breeze. I would be happy soloing it.

8. Great Slab (E3 5b), Froggatt

20100316012413_20100314-hard_grit.jpg

Jon Fullwood bouldering in Curbar, a few yards away from “Great Slab”

My first (and to date only) hard solo. This is a classic Joe Brown route, and it doesn’t have a single piece of gear. The climbing is never desperate, but it has a few tricky moves and finesse is definitely required. I practiced it on top rope a couple of times and the decision of whether to try the solo was in the balance until the last second. I wanted to be sure I was doing it for the right reasons, and not just to impress others or out of a desire to prove something. When I finally went, it was one of my most amazing climbing experiences, a mixture of exhilaration and perfect focus. My movements were smooth and fluid, and there was no hesitation. I am no Alex Honnold, but I am starting to understand why he does what he does.

7. North East Buttress (IV,4), Ben Nevis

20100403-40ft_corner.jpg

Keith Alexander on the 40ft corner, one of the two cruxes of the route

I went there at the beginning of April, and the route was in perfect condition, with good ice on the 40ft corner and a dry mantrap. We used the approach through Glen Nevis and the CMD arete, which in retrospect was a mistake as approaching the Buttress from another angle made route finding on the bottom half fairly tricky. It was otherwise quite a straightforward climb, we simulclimbed all the way to the mantrap, which, much to my own surprise, I led easily, and Keith had no trouble either in the following corner. Both of these difficulties had been hyped to me as death traps and incredibly difficult obstacles, so I was almost disappointed that they didn’t give more of a fight. Still, NEB is a long, interesting and committing way to the summit of the Ben.

6. Vector (E2 5c), Tremadog

20100720110512_20100717-off_i_go.jpg

Myself at the start of the crux pitch of “Vector”, which goes to the left of the fin on the upper part of the image (photo by Gareth Leah)

My first E2 onsight, and certainly a big adventure. It has three pitches, and I got the crux middle one. Gear was good, climbing thin but doable and I soon found myself above the fin, at the top of the pitch, which is where trouble began: the previous party still wasn’t finished on the last pitch, and the belayer refused to let me come to the belay cave, even though, as we found out later, there was more than enough space for two climbers. He also refused to let me know how long he thought they would be. After a while, I decided to build a hanging belay from where I was, brought Gareth up and then belayed him on the last 2 meters (by then, the A-hole climber had gone). He then built another anchor, belayed me to the cave, then belayed Adam up the middle pitch. By the time Adam had arrived, gear had been exchanged and Gareth had led the remaining pitch, I had been sitting in the cramped cave for more than 2 hours, without warm clothes or shoes which didn’t cut circulation in the toes…

Still, it was good fun, and the route is amazing. Without traffic jams and climbing with only two persons on the rope, it would be much more straightforward!

5. Cuillin Traverse, Isle of Skye

20100527000044_20100509-oppressive.jpg

Ominous view of the Cuillin Ridge shortly before Sgurr Alasdair

This is a legend. 4000m of ascent and descent, an estimated 16 hours required, very exposed for most of the way, and the infamous Scottish weather, all in one package. I went for it in good style: solo, one day, ultra-light (no climbing gear, only 40 meters of 6mm cord, one sling and two carabiners for abseils). I had been monitoring the weather for a while, saw a decent window and hopped on an overnight train from London. I was up on the ridge after the gruesome approach up Ghars Bheinn (the worst scree slope I have ever seen) by first light and made very good time. Weather was good, except for a shower which made the decision to bypass the TD Gap easy. As expected, the real challenge was route finding, but I was having a great time. I soloed the Kings Chimney (easy, but bloody exposed!) and started to relax, thinking I had a third of the route and some of the hardest bits behind me, when disaster struck: I badly rolled my ankle and got myself a sprain. It is actually a recurring injury, and the third time in 18 months I got the same problem. I also knew I soon wouldn’t be able to walk at all, so left the ridge as fast as I could and headed straight down scree slopes back to the campsite, which I reached a couple of hours later. Back in London, I reflected that I had spent more than 45 hours in transit for less than 15 hours on Skye proper… Still, it was worth it and I would do it again (minus the ankle sprain) in a heartbeat!

The Cuillin ridge is in a class of its own and should really be classified as an alpine route. Technical proficiency is less useful than serious mountain skills, including route finding, hydration and most of all, keeping your head together for a long, nerve-wrecking day.

4. Astrid (HVS 5a), Swanage

An unlikely adventure in the Black Zawn, near the lighthouse, and a more serious route than the grade suggests. It is long (30+ meters) and severely overhanging, so much so that one needs to place gear on the abseil in to have a chance to reach the rock. It is then a hanging belay a few meters above the water, with only one way out: up! Since we only had one set of double ropes, we pulled in the abseil lines and were then truly committed! The crux comes early with some awkward moves on greasy rock, but gear is always good. After that, it’s big moves on big jugs with crazy exposure. I kept switching back and forth between terror and exhilaration during the lead.

3. Regent Street (E2 5c), Millstone

20100613235955_20100607-onsight.jpg

Rune Bennike below the crux of “Great North Road”, a few routes further than “Regent Street”

There is no doubt in my mind that this is the finest rock route I have climbed in the country. Though I sadly didn’t get it clean first go (and had no time to try it again), I still feel privileged to have been able to give it a go. It is a long pitch with good protection (the DMM offsets work wonders in the many peg scars), following two finger cracks to the top of the quarry. An initial crux section overcomes a jammed boulder via a hidden jug on the left side, then it’s delicate climbing to a rest ledge, halfway up. The real crux comes higher, with a splitter finger crack which wouldn’t be out of place in Indian Creek. As I can attest after trying everything I could think of, there is no other way than desperate jamming both hands and feet for 5 or 6 very blank meters.

An elegant line on a long pitch of beautiful rock, and a gorgeous view of the Hope valley from the top to boot, this is hard to beat.

2. Raeburn’s Route (IV,4), Stob Coire nan Lochan

20100514000812_20100404-harder_than_it_looks.jpg

Keith Alexander and Karin Helwig below the central buttress of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Raeburn’s route takes a direct line on the center-right of the buttress, then follows a broad ridge to the top.

This started pretty badly. I had had a bad night after an exhausting day up and down the Ben’s North East Buttress, it was pouring down and I wanted nothing more than coffee and dry clothes. Keith and Karin, however, were keen on doing a route, and I begrudgingly followed them to Stob Coire nan Lochan, in Glencoe. Within minutes, of course, the clouds opened and my bad mood subsided. Raeburn’s route has 4 pitches and I somehow ended up with the first one. It wasn’t supposed to be the hardest, but I somehow missed the exit in the initial chimney and kept going into harder and harder ground. The grass was not as frozen as it should have been and there was no ice, so it ended up being very delicate and very runout drytooling for 40 meters. At some point, the rope jammed in a crack and I had to downclimb a tricky section to free it. At another, I banged a piton upside down while hanging from a microscopic hook. It was the hardest, most terrifying and best pitch I have ever climbed.

The rest of the route felt ridiculously easy in comparison, though it was still very good fun. The top section in particular was a succession of exposed but easy boulder problems, with bomber gear just below each difficulty. It would be a perfect introductory pitch to what Scottish climbing is all about.

1. Tower Ridge (IV,3), Ben Nevis

20100212115253_20100206-moving_up.jpg

Dave Brown above the Douglas Boulder, on the lower part of Tower Ridge

In retrospect, it was perhaps a mistake for this to be the very first route I ever climbed in the country (and by extension, my first Scottish winter climb), as I knew right away I wouldn’t be able to top that out. It is everything a climb should be: long, committing, elegant, varied and finishing on a significant summit. I also climbed it with a good friend, which was perhaps the most important factor in it being such an amazing experience. I felt everything on this climb: terror, pain (hot aches, ewwww), tiredness, relief but most of all, joy.

You can read a full trip report of the Tower Ridge over there: Scottish Towers.

So this is it, that’s my list. If you have climbed any of these routes, do you agree with my assessment? Or do you have any other to add to my already incredibly long wishlist?

Standard
Blog

Sometimes, equipment does matter – or how I wasn’t a photographer until I owned a DSLR

world-of-ice.jpg

If you browse photography blogs and website for a while, you are bound to find articles defending that “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer”, and that equipment doesn’t matter, only personal vision does. Of course, they are completely right, and examples abound of good photographers making great art with crappy cameras, as well as rich amateurs spending a lot of money on the latest equipment and producing only mediocre snaps.

Unfortunately, however, this position is sometimes taken to absurd, almost religious extremes. A good example of this is offered whenever a beginner asks for advice on buying his first DSLR. All too often, someone will come and say “The camera doesn’t matter, you can take just as good images with a compact for a fraction of the price” or something to that extent. Well, I disagree with that. Sometimes, the camera does matter, and I believe that beginners are the ones who will benefit the most from upgrading to a DSLR.

Let’s take a small detour to my own photographic history. Back in 2005, I had never taken photos seriously (except for maybe a roll of black and white with my mom’s Minolta SLR) and never showed any particular enthusiasm in using the compact digital cameras that our family owned. I recently dug out the photos I made on a trip to Norway in 2003, and to say they sucked would be a spectacular understatement. So when I announced to my parents that I would very much like my 20th birthday gift to be a pricy DSLR, most people were surprised. To be honest, so was I. After all, why would I need such an expensive and powerful camera all of a sudden? Wouldn’t it be better to start with a smaller camera until I outgrew it? In other words, wasn’t it completely overkill? I somehow had the intuition that a DSLR would make me love creating images, and I turned out to be right after I got the D50.

sea-lion.jpg

There are multiple reasons for this, but here are the three most important features which helped me both become a better photographer and enjoy the process of taking pictures: no shutter lag, a proper viewfinder and manual controls.

  • Nothing drives me crazy like shutter lag (or any kind of lag, for that matter). If there is a discernible delay between operating a control and having the camera respond to it, then it dissociates both actions in my mind. More importantly, it creates frustration every single time (“when I press the button is when I want the photo to be taken, not 2 seconds later, goddammit!”). Having no shutter lag means that you can forget about the camera, almost making it an extension of your own body. With a DSLR, I know I can turn it on, frame, press the shutter and take my eye out of the viewfinder in one single seamless movement. I am also confident that the image I got on my card corresponds to what I saw in the viewfinder.
  • A viewfinder, especially an optical one, also makes a huge difference to me. It allows me to see the world as the camera does, and gives direct feedback as to what is going on. In a way, it separates me from the world and really makes me a picture taker. I hate framing with LCD screens, they are inconvenient, tiny and one is too easily distracted by the rest of the world. I also dislike how they must be held far away from my body, almost as if they were toxic.
  • Finally, though manual control can tend to be overrated (in particular, I find the advice often given to beginners to shoot entirely in manual mode to be retarded), by giving control rather than dumbing down the photographer with scene modes, the camera empowers the photographer. It is so much easier to gain a deep understanding of what shutter speed, ISO and aperture really do when you can modify each of the parameters at will. Shooting in Aperture or Shutter priority will give these three abstract parameters a concrete existence, and open the door to much experimentation, the key in reaching the next level in our photographic journey.

Sure, you can work around the lack of these features, for instance by reverse engineering what each scene mode does, but it will make you lose track of your real goal. The biggest difference between good and mediocre equipment is simple: the good stuff just gets out of the way and lets the photographer focus on what really matters: creating a powerful image. If you miss the best composition because you are trying to work out which scene mode to use, or because you can’t quite see the details properly on the LCD screen, then your equipment has failed you.

Except for some specific applications (like wildlife of sport photography), most pros could use basic consumer equipment and get nearly as good results, because they have this stuff all figured out, and they know how to make a good picture, regardless of the camera. This is where the whole “equipment doesn’t matter” discussion comes from. But pros use pro equipment, because it gives them convenience and greater guarantees of not missing out good image opportunities. It lets them forget the camera is there.

approach.jpg

This is why equipment is important, especially at the beginning of your photographic journey. If you are serious about creating images, consider investing in a DSLR. The cheapest consumer one with a kit lens (say the Nikon D3100 or the Canon 550D) will do just fine. I bet you will find that it does make a big difference.

If on the other hand you already own a DSLR and a couple of lenses, stop reading about gear and go take pictures. You already have all that you really need.

Standard