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Spring skiing in Chamonix

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After the Vallée Blanche variant the other day, it was clear that skiing was in the air! I soon managed to hook up with UIAGM guide Francis Kelsey, after talking of accompanying him in the mountains for months. When he realized I had never been on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, he decided this needed immediate action, and we got two amazing ski descents in these much wilder parts of the massif – first, the classic glacier de Toule, a moderate but very fun glacier descent, then the main dish: Couloir Marbré, below Dent du Géant and Aiguille de Rochefort, deservedly considered one of the best in the entire range!

It was also an opportunity for me to practice my off-piste skiing photography skills, especially since Francis has a close relationship with Black Diamond. As always, hard work to get the right angle, light and composition but I am really happy with the final results, especially since I find they translate the awesome experience of those two days very well.

Then, on Saturday, I teamed up with David Garnier for an attempt on the Migot Spur of Aiguille du Chardonnet. To access the Albert 1er hut, we opted for the longer but way more fun 3 cols ski tour, which took us over Col du Chardonnet, Fenêtre de Saleina and Col Supérieur du Tour. The skiing wasn’t quite as fun with our massive packs and the warm weather made the 1000+m skins up true sweat fests, but we were compensated with crossing no less than six glaciers and discovering some gorgeous parts of the massif.

Unfortunately, and despite (or perhaps because) a 4am start, we messed up the approach to the Migot Spur and went up the wrong snow slope. By the time we realized our mistake, it was getting too late to start the climb, especially since there was so much snow on the spur it would have been spelunking as much as climbing. Disappointed, we could only ski down Glacier du Tour, on terribly refrozen tracked out spring snow. Oh well. What the mountain giveth, the mountain taketh away…

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Vraie Vallée Blanche

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I have now been back in Chamonix for slightly over a week, and before starting on the next round of big projects (skiing the Haute Route, big walls in Verdon…), I have been making good use of the current warm spell in the Alps to get some early rock climbs. Of special note was the Contamine on the South Face of Aiguille du Midi, a 200m pillar of perfect granite I had been eyeing for years. Despite being at an altitude of 3800m, the temperatures were so hot that we could climb in T-shirts!

But last weekend changed things with a sizable snow dump. It won’t last long, but I jumped on the opportunity and headed up Aiguille du Midi this morning to ski Vallée Blanche – for the third time this week. Like most people, we ended up on the steeper “True Vallée Blanche” variation, as the classic route would have involved a lot of stalling in deep snow. Conditions were perfect high up, with deep, untracked, light powder and a crazy glaciated environment.

And since I don’t like doing things halfway, I also packed the D700 and 70-200 f/2.8. This proved especially interesting when I faceplanted in deep snow early in the descent, but this is after all why I pay a premium for pro equipment, and the camera performed flawlessly despite being caked in snow most of the time. Good light, interesting features and lots of skiers making new tracks made for some great photography, and I had (almost) as much fun shooting as I had skiing down. The different choice of lens also allowed me some experimentation with compositions and atmospheres, and I really like some of the results.

Here, then, are my favorite shots from the day.

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2012 Patagonian Expedition Race: The Shots

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As you probably already know, I spent the past month wandering through the southern tip of South America, in beautiful Patagonia. The main reason for coming down there was to be one of the mobile photographers covering one of the most extreme adventure races on the planet, the Patagonian Expedition Race, a roughly 500km, 8 to 10 days suffer fest which combines kayaking, mountain biking and trekking deep in the Patagonian wilderness, in teams of four self-sufficient racers. Basically, it’s very badass.

Here’s the map for the 2012 edition:

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As a photographer, I was lucky to cover large sections of the race. First, from the 2:30am start in Punta Arenas down to PC1 on bikes and the kayak transition, setting off across the Magellan strait. Bad wind conditions prevented us from crossing with the teams, however, and we instead drove back to Punta Arenas and spent the whole night getting to PC6, where after a few shots of penguins on a nearby island, I arrived just in time to latch onto one of the teams heading into the first 90km trekking section. I initially followed Team Norcal (US) up a long river, then switched to Team Dancing Pandas (CA-US-NZ) in the evening, spending a frigid night in the out and then a navigation nightmare through turbal fields and old growth forests. After 32 hours on the move (minus 3 hours of “sleep”) and about 100 actual km, I was pretty wasted when we reached PC8, the end of the trek. But when I could get 8 hours of sleep in a warm sleeping bag with hot food being served to me, most of the teams instead had to bike through the night, and keep going for another week!

I managed to get to PC9 by truck and do some trekking with teams Ad Natura (HZ) and Alcatel-Adidas (CL-CO), before retreating to Punta Arenas again, and this time boarding an incredibly luxurious 2 days cruise down to the Beagle Channel and the end of the race. I got to PC19 in time to see teams Cyanosis (SA) and Gearjunkie/Yogaslackers (US) finish the very long and very tough second trekking section, before setting off into the mountains to try to photograph other teams coming in. Hours of scrambling and waiting in insane winds finally paid off when I happened upon team CUVA (DK) and their final half hour down the hills.

The weather was still too bad for teams to paddle in the last section of the Beagle channel to the gorgeous finish line, by the hanging Pia glacier. Only one team was still missing, the Dancing Pandas with whom I had spent so much time earlier in the week. As all hope of them finishing in time had nearly been given up, and PC19 was all but dismantled, they showed up an incredible 12 minutes before the final cut-off time, thus completing the race just in time. Like other racers, their feet had been infected by a nasty bacteria strain, in some cases so bad they could barely walk, and they were beyond exhaustion.

With the final paddle cancelled, we all boarded a ferry back to Punta Arenas, which took two cramped and smelly days to reach its destination. And a formidable adventure it has also been for me!

In no particular order, here are my favourite shots from the race. Enjoy!

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