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What it’s like to be in an avalanche

A giant avalanche coming down Sketchy Fossen.

You may already have heard about it if you follow me on twitter or facebook, but I was caught in a big avalanche last Saturday, while on the approach to an ice climb in Norway. We were both very lucky to emerge (relatively) unscathed, but to say it was a scary experience would be quite an understatement. I just wrote a small text on what it was like, which you can find over there: The fifteen most terrifying seconds of my life.

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The fifteen most terrifying seconds of my life

Swimming more than walking, Kristoffer was making steady progress in the fresh snow. The unclimbed ice wall was only a few meters away now. As the rope came taut, I put the camera away and started coming up, sinking a meter with each step. It was very hard work and I was entirely focused on the effort when I suddenly heard Kristoffer shout “COMING DOWN!“. There was urgency in his voice, but my first thought was that it didn’t make much sense. There couldn’t be ice coming down yet, and the angle of the slope was too low for anything to do real damage anyway. I looked up and everything seemed normal. Then I saw it. The whole slope was moving, coming straight toward me.

Sketchy Fossen in terrible nick.

Sketchy Fossen, our initial objective, in terrible nick.

* * *

This trip was a gamble on weather and conditions from the start. Over the past two days, we had driven 12 hours from Denmark to the heart of Norway, not far from Bergen. We only had one potential climbing day before having to drive back home if we wanted to be at work on Monday morning. Kristoffer had his eyes on some of the lines first climbed by Will Gadd and Andreas Spak last winter, and in particular the aptly named Sketchy Fossen, probably one of the steepest and longest ice falls in the world, with over 400 meters of vertical ice. This would be way too hard for me to have a chance of leading, but I was happy to belay Kristoffer on what would be the second ascent.

On climbing day, things had gone wrong from the very beginning. Despite a cheerful forecast, heavy snow had fallen all night, depositing at least 20 fresh centimeters on the roads. We started the approach well before sunrise, and our minimal scouting the previous day made us miss the correct turn by a mere hundred meters, forcing us to an exhausting climb of a buttress on the wrong side of the gully. We realized our mistake later and had to negotiate a series of tricky abseils to get back on track, only to discover that while the upper part of Sketchy Fossen looked good, the bottom wasn’t quite frozen and the first two pitches had collapsed recently. It was clearly impossible to climb. After the initial disappointment, we settled on another ice fall at the back of the canyon which looked in better nick. On the way over there, we also discovered a hidden gully on the left and decided to climb it right away, since it would likely be a first ascent.

The approach gully was very wide, probably 100 meters across, an angle varying between 30 and 40 degrees and with at least two meters of snow cover. Halfway up, a gigantic avalanche came down Sketchy Fossen. Being a couple hundred meters away from the base, we were out of harm’s way but still felt the wind with amazing strength when tons of snow hit the ground. If the icefall had been in better conditions, we would have been straight under it. I don’t even want to think about what that would have meant. Stupidly, we kept walking toward the cliffs and their promises of steep, clean vertical ice.

A giant avalanche coming down Sketchy Fossen.

A giant avalanche coming down Sketchy Fossen. This is not the one we were caught in, ours was much smaller and came a few minutes later.

* * *

There was no time to run and nowhere to go, the whole slope was going. I remembered tales of small Scottish slides where people had managed to stay standing and, hoping I could do the same, I braced for impact, less than a second away. As the wave hit me, I was instantly knocked over with tremendous strength and before I could realize what had happened, I was going at a terrible speed, head first, on my back. I then made my biggest mistake yet and opened my mouth (to scream or breathe, I have no idea) and it instantly filled with snow, pushing its way down my throat and blocking my airway. I was suffocating already.

Somehow, I had imagined being caught in an avalanche like being on a very fast toboggan slide, but the reality was a lot scarier. It was pure chaos, a maelstrom if there ever was one. None of my senses were working. I was in darkness most of the time, with the occasional bright light telling me I was getting close to the surface, only to be pulled back down an instant later. All I could hear was the deafening roar of the tons of snow coming down the slope. Shaken hopelessly, the only direction I could be certain of was where downhill was, though I had a vague idea I was still sliding head first. All I could taste was the combination of the snow filling my mouth with my terrible fear.

As soon as the slide had started, I got convinced I was about to die. It didn’t mean much, though, it was too abstract in a universe which had been reduced to tons of snow tumbling down a mountainside. What I could understand, though, was that I couldn’t breathe at all, and that I was likely to end up buried alive. This was the purest, most abject terror I could ever have imagined, and it focused on a single thing. It went on like a mantra in my head: “Let me end up near the surface, please let me end up near the surface“. This was all I could think about. The animal fear of these few minutes I believed I would have to spend in a snow coffin, slowly asphyxiating, knowing my predicament to be hopeless, was the most terrible part of the whole experience.

I vaguely tried swimming, as I remember being advised to, but the ropes had wrapped themselves tight around my whole body, forbidding any movement. From the moment the slope had started sliding, I had lost all control over my fate, now at the mercy of forces infinitely more powerful than me. Nothing I could do would make any difference over the outcome, it all depended on the depth of the avalanche, the exact angle, the stability of the snowpack and a thousand other parameters. And yet, flapping desperately my arms and trying to dislodge the snow from my throat, I was keenly aware that, in a very primordial way, I was fighting with all my strength to survive.

The end of the avalanche on Sketchy Fossen.

The end of the avalanche on Sketchy Fossen.

* * *

Writing this, two days later, I keep remembering details I had been careful to not think about in the immediate aftermath. First to come back was the very beginning, when the strength of the slide made me realize that this wasn’t just yet another incident in an unlucky day, it was big trouble, the kind people don’t walk away from. And then that other moment, after a second or two, when I realized the slide was picking up speed instead of slowing down, and I thought that this was it. I was going to die today.

The latest memory to come back is the soundtrack. Not of the avalanche, but of myself. Unable to breathe, I kept trying to scream, to expel those foreign objects from my body, and I can now hear my muffled, pathetic and desperate cries.

Kristoffer about to head into the left gully, a few seconds before the slide started.

Kristoffer about to head into the left gully, a few seconds before the slide started.

* * *

The slide lasted ten to fifteen seconds in total, though adrenaline helping, it felt like hours. It was strangely similar to a long lead fall, where you have enough time to keep asking yourself “shit, why haven’t I stopped yet?”. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it came to a halt as the angle kicked back a little. Miraculously, my face was right near the surface and I managed to get my upper body out. I immediately coughed out all the snow that was blocking my lungs. I took a deep breath in and screamed twice. It wasn’t fear or relief, but the animal in me expressing his frustration of having been deprived of the basic need to breath for so long.

I heard a laugh a couple of meters to my right. Kristoffer was also sitting on top of the snowpack, as uninjured as myself. The laugh turned to swearing, however, when he realized that having let go of his ice tools during the slide, they were both buried below tons of snow. The final assessment left me with a sore elbow and Kristoffer with a big bruise on his thigh, along with lost Nomics and three ice screws, an incredibly lucky outcome given what we had just been through.

We later estimated the slide had gone at least 200 meters before stopping. It was between half a meter and a meter deep, and at least 50 meters across. We also agreed that all the signs pointed to high avalanche danger and that we had been really stupid to go there in the first place. The real issue wasn’t that we miscalculated the risk, it was that we did not calculate it, a combination of many factors (tiredness from the approach, disappointment at the condition of our initial objective, the long drive, the fact we only had a single day to climb, the deceptive “non-seriousness” of a fjord compared to big mountain environment, and probably some others), and it could have cost us very dearly had we not been so lucky.

Kristoffer, smiling after we both survived.

Kristoffer, smiling after we both survived.

Today I am sure of only one thing. Mountains kill, even small ones, especially when you least expect it. Today, I am not invincible anymore.

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Packing for an ice climbing trip to Norway

Ice climbing gearlist

With a few friends, we are driving to far away Norway this weekend, hoping to get some long ice climbs done in Eidfjord, near Bergen, location of last year’s epic new route by Will Gadd and Andreas Spak. Following my alpine gear list blog post from a few months ago, here is what I am actually packing.

From top to bottom, left to right:

  • Patagonia DAS jacket, for cold and wet belays, which should be common.
  • Black Diamond Half Dome helmet, mandatory on ice climbs.
  • Petzl Tikka XP2 headtorch, since the climbs are very long and we may have to abseil in the dark.
  • Simond Makalu crampons, standard mountaineering crampons which work fine on steep ice.
  • Black Diamond Cobra ice tools, light and awesome.
  • Black Diamond spinner leash, to avoid dropping my leashless tools from the top of pitch 7.
  • 1L nalgene bottle. To be honest, I’d be surprised if I even drink that much during the day.
  • DMM Supercouloir harness, one of the lightest on the market, really excellent as long as I don’t have to hang in it for too long.
  • A couple of locking carabiners, prusik loops, a sling – enough to ascend the rope in an emergency.
  • Petzl Reverso 3 belay device, great with skinny ropes and with the autolock mode for bringing seconds up.
  • Western Mountaineering AlpinLite sleeping bag, a summer down bag since we’ll sleep in huts.
  • La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX, as I am betting on conditions not being too brutally cold and not taking the Spantiks.
  • Panasonic GH1, as I’ll spend most of my time belaying or climbing, not hanging on a rope taking pictures, so bringing the D90 would be overkill.
  • Sennheiser MKE-200, small microphone to use when filming with the GH1.
  • Thinktank Skin Wide, the smallest pouch in the Skin system, more than enough for the GH1.
  • A pair of Millet three finger mitts, for warmth at belays. I also know I can take pictures with them. If they get wet, I will really suffer.
  • Thin leather Marmot gloves, for the climbing itself. They will probably get wet quickly, but there’s not much I can do about it.
  • A big pair of merino wool socks (no, that’s not a fluffy for the mic).
  • Arc’teryx Alpha LT bibs, light and very sturdy gore-tex pants. Below them, a couple of long underpants for insulation.
  • Arc’teryx Alpha LT jacket, in case things are wet (which is quite likely).
  • Rab Vapour Rise jacket, for its excellent warmth and breathability.

Add to the list a backpack (the Osprey Mutant 38), a fleece, a book and a music player, and you have my weekend. Excited I am!

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Blog redesign, improved readability

Malangphulang from Lobuje Base Camp, Khumbu, Nepal.

Though it seems people have been fairly happy with the website and its associated blog in their current form (launched in late 2009), one complaint kept coming back: the text was difficult to read, especially in white over a black background. After spending some time on the issue and asking the excellent reddit people over on /r/webdesign, here comes a new, redesigned version. The most obvious change is the background colour, now a light grey, but there were actually lots of small changes in font and spacing which should hopefully contribute toward a better reading experience.

As usual, bugs and glitches may persist for a while, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment here or send me an email if you see anything that needs fixing. Thanks!

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10 ways to improve your mountain climbing photography

Some time ago, I wrote a short piece on ways to improve your rock climbing photography. As promised there, here comes another article, of the same format, with ways to get better mountain climbing images. This is a much more difficult task, as you can’t afford to focus on photography alone – you also need to climb the mountain! There are no silver bullets that will magically make your images stunning, but here is a short list of things you should probably be doing if you want the best results.

1. Keep your camera handy

A climber at sunrise on the Midi-Plan traverse, Chamonix, France

If this article had been called “1 way to improve your mountain climbing photography“, this point would still be there. This is by far the most crucial thing – if you put your camera in your backpack, you won’t take pictures, period. It doesn’t really matter which camera you are using, but make sure it is always stored outside of your pack, readily accessible, without having to take any gear/rope/pack on and off. The bag you are using will of course be the most important element, and my recommendation goes to a belt system, in particular the Thinktank skin (review coming up). The less hassle there is in taking a picture, the more and the better ones you will bring back home.

2. Keep asking yourself “would this make a good picture?

Climbers and skiers waiting for the first cablecar up Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix, France

Alpine climbing is such a difficult and risky activity that it almost always requires your full attention, and makes it all too easy to just forget about photography entirely. If image making really matters to you, you should have a little guy living in your head constantly looking around and asking “Would this make a good picture? Would this make a good picture? What about this?”. You will want to shut him up when things get really hard, but you should listen to the voice (hem…) whenever possible. The best photo opportunities often happen at the worst times, it is up to you to keep thinking about photography in those moments.

3. Shoot in bad weather

A climber belaying at the end of Arete des Cosmiques, Chamonix, France

Though we always prefer to climb in good weather, we don’t always have that luxury and changes can be very sudden. Whenever that happens, and as long as it is safe to do so (if you are trying to get down before a storm hits, don’t be stupid enough to stop and take pictures), keep shooting. The beautiful vistas may be gone, but you have an opportunity to create very striking moods and stories. You can also focus on the reaction of your party (including yourself) to the change in conditions. In short: don’t put the camera away just because you are in a whiteout.

4. Shoot another party

Climbers on the final summit mushroom of Nevado Chopicalqui, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

As we discussed in the rock climbing article, the best way to shoot climbers is from above while they are leading. Unfortunately, that is rarely an option with mountaineering since you will almost never lead a pitch twice just to fix a rope for the photographer, as it would be far too slow. But instead of just shooting your leader from below or your second from above, a better solution is to shoot another party. Ideally, you would climb in two teams of two and would ask to be the second of the first team, so that you can shoot the leader of the second team at your leisure. Another solution is to shoot other parties in the distance with longer focals, though it requires to carry bigger lenses.

5. Make the mountain environment a subject

Arete des Cosmiques in front of Mont Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix, France

Don’t forget where you are! The mountains are what make your photos extraordinary, always try to emphasize them, include the cool snow features, show the crevasse, put a big north face in the background. Mountaineering photography is not about the climbers or the mountains alone, but about how they relate to each other.

6. Don’t sweat the technical stuff

Headlamp trails on the way to the summit of mont-blanc, chamonix, france

Repeat after me: content trumps technical quality. Always. We have to work in some of the most hostile and dangerous environments on the planet, so it’s ok if the images you get are not quite perfect, as long as the content is there. So stop pixel-peeping and bump that ISO to 12,800 before the sun rises, use that plastic kit lens or even leave your DSLR home and climb with a point and shoot. As long as you get the shot, this is all that matters.

7. Keep your equipment lean

A climber descending Aiguille du Plan after a Midi-Plan traverse, Chamonix, France

Photographers love gear, they can never get enough lenses or big enough cameras. It’s all fine at sea level when the hardest obstacle is a flight of stairs, but things are very different in the mountains. More equipment slows you down, leaves you exposed to objective danger for longer and makes shooting more of a hassle. Take a cue from the rest of your equipment choices (hopefully): fast and light. You have to find the right balance between convenience, image quality and weight. As a rule of thumb, if you pack a piece of gear thinking “you never know, it might come handy”, leave it home. Only bring the bare essentials that will allow you to get the images, and nothing more.

8. Don’t pamper your gear. It’s designed to be used.

The northwest ridge of Nevado Chopicalqui, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

After having spent so much money on gear, it is natural to want to protect it. This is fine, of course, but be careful not to take things too far – unless you are a collector, the gear is designed to be used, not pampered. Yes, there is a chance you will break a lens or drop the camera on your climbs, but guess what: there is also a chance you will break a leg or drop yourself. Climbing is risky and even when things go well, our bodies and climbing equipment take a beating. You can’t expect your photo equipment not to. So be careful, but learn to distinguish between what is really dangerous (torrential rain or dropping your camera to the bottom of the mountain, for instance) and what isn’t (snow, fog, condensation, bumping your lens hood in a rock…)

9. Train operating your camera with bulky gloves

Descending Chopicalqui in bad weather, Chamonix, France

This is a bit of a technicality, but too many people have lost fingers to frostbite because they took their gloves off for a couple of photos. It’s just not worth it, and most DSLRs are perfectly operational with bulky gloves, sometimes even mitts. It simply takes training, just as learning how to tie knots and operate the rest of your climbing equipment. So start when things are easy (say a day of ice cragging) and start taking pictures with your mitts, see which controls you miss, which ones you need to check you haven’t accidentally changed, etc. It is time very well spent.

10. Practice, practice and practice some more

Climbers on arete du midi, above vallee blanche, Chamonix, France

Yes, as usual, the most useful advice I can possibly give is: work hard (and it applies to me too, of course). This kind of top 10 lists tends to promote the idea that there is some secret you can learn from more experienced people and start magically taking better photos. There is none (either that or the other photographers are very good at hiding it), the best and only way to get better is to keep on doing what you have already been doing: go climbing, pack a camera, make the effort to use it, review the photos back home, see what worked and what didn’t, rinse and repeat. Oh, and of course:

11. Have fun!

James Monypenny on top of the Cosmiques Spur, Chamonix, France

Getting good photos is awesome, of course, but remember why you want to go suffer on a mountain in the first place – remember to enjoy the climb first and foremost!

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New “Motion Work” video section

khumbu-vid-thumb.jpg

You may have noticed already if you checked the galleries since yesterday, but I have added a new section for my video work. It was about time, as their number has grown to a hefty three :) More seriously, though it is a lot more time-consuming than still photography, motion is an area which I think I will keep exploring in the future, as I enjoy it as a different form of storytelling which can be a perfect complement to a set of photographs. You can see all the videos over there.

In other quite exciting news, I have received word that the layout of Remote Exposure has been finalized and that it is ready to be printed. It is of course not the production run yet, as we need to check the proofs first, but the day where it will hit the shelves is getting ever closer!

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