Jonathan Griffith Photography Blog
This winter has been titty-deep, shred-gnar, high-5in' for skiers, but not so much for any alpine climbing antics. Deep snow, strong winds, and poor conditions have left even the keenest climbers valley based, itching to get up high. Thankfully 10 days ago the first sign of good weather finally arrived on the horizon sending everyone deep underground to sharpen their tools, dust off their cams, and pack away outdated route food. Everyone had different ideas on what to do but none of them were really great options- having very little idea of what might actually be climbable (given that it is still winter here) myself Ally and Steve headed up the day after it stopped snowing for a recce up the Leschaux basin. We wanted to climb anything on the Petites Jorasses with the greater goal to getting a good look at the main event of the area: the Grandes Jorasses.
Ally tours in to the Leschaux Glacier, the Petites Jorasses in the background
Amazingly two other teams had decided to head in to the basin that day as well. I think it's great when I see teams giving a big middle finger to conventional wisdom and just trying their best to get something done- if they fail then so be it but at least they got in there and gave it a go. I have a lot of respect for that- it's always easy following someone else's tracks but a whole different game being the first to 'open' a route for the season. Any excuse is a good excuse in winter, especially this winter. As it turned out they were both heading in for the Grandes Jorasses itself and I was dying to know what they were up to.
Ally arrives at the Leschaux hut with the Grandes Jorasses in the background
We ended up in the Leschaux Hut as our objective was laughable by comparison so we could afford the luxury of sleeping well- but I kept a constant eye out for those mystery climbers and which part of the wall they were going for. With the Jorasses in one of the worst conditions I've seen it in I couldn't help but think that they were heading for one of the hard 4 or 5 day suffer fests that snake their way up improbable parts of the wall. Now, after all, would be the time to get a winter tick of lines such as Manitua etc.
Safely nestled away in the hut, I'd grossly underestimated how much gas to bring for three of us so spent a good while melting snow under some left over tea candles late in to the night (FYI it works, but only just; gas is so the way to go). Nevertheless, nice and early we toured off in to the darkness and tracked our way up to the Petites Jorasses. We had expected some heavy trail breaking and we got it- but I could see the lights of the first climbing team high up on the central icefield of the Jorasses. They were moving fast up the Colton Macintyre and I was impressed with their tenacity trying it in such dry conditions.
Melting snow over some tea candles....not ideal
Sunrise on the approach
Ally and the Grandes Jorasses
The main event...
The wall above us revealed itself in the light of the day and it was obvious which line to take- none of the others had any ice in them. As it turned out this was the NW Gully of the Petite Febrouze / Petites Jorasses. It's a long way to come for such a route but I've never actually climbed anything on this wall before, and given my poor success rate this winter anything is good right now. A heart in mouth shrund crossing saw us at the base of some perfect Chamonix ice which weaved its way to the top- from close up this had looked like verglassed rock but we were lucky to find it just thick enough to make fast and easy progress. The route is never hard and it was great fun to run up an alpine route again; even better to see the Grandes Jorasses from the top and take in the Hirondelles ridge and East face from this angle. That mountain just keeps drawing me in...
Ally heads up the first pitches of stellar ice
Steve on the lower pitches
Steve on the lower pitches with the Dru and Verte in the background
Ally cruising on
Cant complain about the views
Woohoo alpine ice!
Myself on the short steep narrowing before it all kicks back for a while, © Ally Swinton
Steve and Ally on the final pitch
An angle of the Jorasses I hadn't seen before
Happy Alpine smiles
Hmmm...miles of untracked powder to get home
It has been a long time in the planning (!) but I've put together two courses this summer which will teach you all the skills that I use to shoot in the mountains. We'll be covering real climbs on 4000m peaks as well as shooting in all lighting conditions from Full Moon to sunrises. There are only 4 places per course for a more personal feel, and two guides will be on hand to lead you up the climbs. Check out the brief below and email me by clicking here for further information.
Ueli on Beinn Eighe
As odd as it might sound, one of the biggest joys of living in a mountain town like Chamonix is actually getting away from it- whether that be on expedition or just a week somewhere else in the world. When you're constantly focused on the mountains towering above your home it can get a bit stagnant. With that in mind myself and Ueli had decided to head over to Scotland at some point this winter- nothing special, just for a week of fun. I wasn't even going to bring my SLR with me...shock horror. The priority was to climb some great routes, no matter what the grade, and focus on eating as much cake, fish and chips, and real ale as possible.
The trip started off on the right foot with a weekend of shots, late night dancing, and general Chamonix party antics with plenty of folks for the Annapurna 'charity' night. Feeling delicate and extremely hungover we tried our best to pack within the measly Easyjet allowances and flew out snoring like pigs on the plane to Edinburgh. After a pit stop for the Mountain Film Festival we headed north the following morning to the North West. I've always wanted to head to the North West, partly because it's meant the be one of the remotest areas to climb, and partly because it's got some amazing looking routes. The GPS showed the way and I struggled to remember to drive on the correct side of the road whilst Ueli caught up on his sending sleep from the weekend.
The other side of the Swiss Machine
True to Scotland we arrived at our bunkhouse in Kinlochewe in driving rain. Above us the peaks looked white which was a good sign. The bunkhouse was sparse to say the least, and the damp that is so key to a Scottish suffer week was already starting to seep in to us. I instantly came down with a sinus infection and we sat in the cold kitchen whilst I sniffled and ate cake and drank tea. A perfect start to the trip.
The following day I managed to set the fire alarm off by turning on the gas stove to heat up the kitchen area...so we did the mature thing and legged it. The 'mute' button on the fire alarm panel had all but been punched through the wall to the other side with an ice axe so I don't think we were the first ones to have set it off inadvertently.
The mountain of choice for the trip was Beinn Eighe, and the route of choice was Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. Leaving the car park we opted to walk around the whole mountain rather than go up and over- it was raining hard and thick cloud was hanging above us. Still this is what Gore-Tex was apparently made for; I never know how they get away with the slogan of 'Guaranteed to keep you dry' - obviously their version of what dry constitutes must include your boxers being so wet you could fill a pint glass at the end of the day. Maybe i'll do that one day and send it over to them.
The Triple Buttress of Beinn Eighe
Contouring round Beinn Eighe and arriving at the base of the Triple Buttress we bumped in to an old friend from chamonix, Tom Grant. Small world. They had gone up to retrieve some kit but had been put off by the avalanche risk- we had naively concluded that the slopes around us were too small to be a threat so we pressed on up. Finding the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears was almost impossible in the whiteout and so we ended up on something else by accident. I'm not sure what real Scottish conditions are but essentially if it's in really sh*t conditions by European standards then that seems to mean really good conditions by Scottish rules. So we inched our way up a heavily buried route which was great fun for the leader and heinous for the belayer given that it was sleeting hard most of the day. As I tied in for the third pitch I felt we were not doing too badly- the route hadn't really matched the description but then actually following any features with this much snow was impossible. But the final pitch stung- I spent hours cleaning before feeling I was going to commit myself in to a dead end. I couldn't really see which way was going to lead me out- wet snow covered everything and by now I was on a series of slabs rather than following an obvious crack. I was a bit sick of having to clean this thick wet snow and gave the sharp end over to Ueli who wasn't too keen either. A few meters above my high point and it was Ueli who was coming back down to the belay- we were getting a good old Schooling in Scotland. Excellent. So we bailed.
Heading up West Central Gully
Approaching the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears area
Ueli arriving at the top of the first pitch of something...Maelstrom(?)
On the second pitch of something....Maelstrom (?)
Ueli walks back out in the rain
The great thing about having no expectations is that you're always happy with whatever you get. Even though we had no idea what we'd tried we'd still had a great day and in its buried condition it definitely proved pretty challenging both for climbing and for pro. Our prior two leads had been fully run out at the top, we tried and failed, we'd donated a centimetre of axe tip to the route, and we'd both gotten 100% soaked. Cant complain.
The next day we tried again. This time it was clear on the approach but the freezing level was way above the summit- 5 degrees at the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. Mindful of courting any winter ethics wrath in our direction by climbing when nothing is frozen we kept heading up to West Central Gully where we could see some ice. Finding a good belay cave Ueli headed on upwards without any screws- thankfully a man who has soloed numerous multipitch WI6s around the world doesn't need any pro on ice. But yet again we found our match- the ice was pouring water from behind and completely detached from the rock. These temps were getting a little annoying now.
Heading back in under brighter skies
Back up WCG
Cave Gremlin on West Central Gully
Our plan B (or was it C by now?) was to just go have fun on one of the Buttress routes and so we did just that. Starting up the first pitch of Piggots route on Central Buttress we bumped in to Tom again and Paul Swail. Deciding that there was plenty of buttress for everyone we took a line to the side and then directly up the top 'headwall' (left of Piggots route) that actually proved pretty spicy. I cleverly managed to drop an axe on the last pitch which thankfully landed on a ledge next to the belay and after a lot more digging we eventually broke out on to the summit. Bum sliding back down was maybe the highlight of the trip.
Somewhere up on Central Buttress
The sun does occasionally shine in Scotland
Making our own way up Central Buttress
The top part of Central Buttress
What turned out to be the crux...glad it was Ueli's lead
Tom Grant and Paul Swail eye up the rest of Piggot's Route
Summit of Beinn Eighe
The forecast had been getting worse and worse- rain, high temps, and gale force winds. It was mainly the high temps that worried us and so the following morning saw us driving over to Lochcarron to check out a dry tooling venue there. The drive was scenic but the crag was dripping wet- this was no Le Zoo. But it did provide us with some good afternoon exercise and whilst driving back the weather did actually clear up offering us some really great vistas of what the NW costal region is all about. I'm sure when it stops raining its pretty stunning up there.
The drytooling crag at Lochcarron
We found ourselves at a bit of a loss for what to do by now. The weather for the last two days of our trip together was really bad, or maybe just very 'typical'- 100mph winds, rain, freezing level above the summit. Bit of an all round pain. We'd decided to leave the NW and head towards the Cairngorms- smaller, easier access, and generally faster than anything in the NW- it was worth a poke about. Ian Parnel arrived that evening though and threw a spanner in the works by wanting to head in to Beinn Eighe....what did he know that we didn't about this weather? After umming and eering for most of the evening we stuck with plan A- abandon ship- and drove over to the Ski Car Park in the morning. After overshooting the Cairngorms entirely after nattering away incessantly about life and the future, we back tracked and arrived at a very blustery Ski Car Park. Firstly we needed a coffee- it had been a long drive. I could see Ueli wasn't hugely keen to head in to the maelstrom but I'd just dried my gore-tex out and it was looking like it needed a little soaking. Tom and Paul arrived at the cafe just as we sat down and advised us not to go out- a millisecond later and Ueli had bolted to his feet and was getting us all more coffee and bacon sandwiches. I could see that we weren't going to get the Gore-Tex wet today! Instead Tom and Paul convinced us to drive to Newtyle Quarry. After all this it was starting to look like we were going to be having a dry tooling holiday- after a total of 7 hours in the car we arrived at Newtyle. Local beast Greg Boswell arrived and showed us how it's done, whilst I showed us how it's not done. And so we headed back to Aviemore for the night where fish and chips and plenty of good ale flowed. It was a good night.
Bright, early and a little hungover Ueli left for Edinburgh airport leaving me a couple of days to catch up with local 'Rain Man' Will Sim. I haven't seen much of Will since he wisely decided to leave the alps and pursue his guides training, and after a day of catching up we headed in to the Cairngorms with nothing in mind apart from just go have a play. Which was exactly what we did soloing up Doctor's Choice, Pygmy Ridge, and quickly roping up for the easiest ascent of The Genie in history.
Will on Doctor's Choice
Heading over towards Pygmy Ridge
Crag booty galore
All in all a really fun week. Yes we didn't do much but we did get ourselves a pretty fine holiday in and met some really fantastic people in the bunkhouse and Aviemore. Getting down and dirty and wet in the highlands was a great motivation for the Alps again and now that the first sign of good weather has arrived since 2013 it's time to get the softshells out, the suncream on, the skis deployed, and the alpine suffering to take over.
Thanks to all who we met, shared beers with, discussed at length about Scottish independence, and generally made the trip for us.
2013 was pretty wild; I completed some big climbing projects, but I also lost a lot of friends to the mountains and was thrown in to the deep end when Everest kicked off. Luckily though I've been surrounded by some great people in the last 6 months and looking back over the last 365 days I'm lucky to have climbed, lived, and laughed so much. So here is a round up of my year through my camera lens...
A few days after New Years my climbing year kicked off with an attempt of Metanoia on the North Face of the Eiger. I think the Harlin and Metanoia vie for the spot of hardest route on this face so whilst it was disappointing to have to retreat it wasn't a huge surprise; but it was a good chance to catch up with someone I would spend a lot of the coming year with- Ueli Steck.
Ueli Steck questing about on Metanoia, Eiger North Face
A few days after Metanoia I headed off on a quick simul solo up the Couturier Couloir on the Aiguille Verte to stretch my legs. Ben Briggs joined me and skied down the thing- steep skiing is really quite terrifying and I was glad just to down climb. But the Verte brought back an old link up of mine that would come together a couple of months later
Ben Briggs skiing the Couturier Couloir, Aiguille Verte
Conditions in the high mountain weren't great and so I found myself climbing a lot in an area I'd never visited before- the Requin in the Envers. The snow was bountiful during January and February making the climbing somewhat Scottish at times.
Greg on the Sorenson-Eastman, Envers du Requin
Tom Grant rapping back down Ice is Nice in some spicy weather
An Adidas Outdoor photoshoot took me back on to the Supercouloir Direct on Mont Blanc du Tacul in -25 degree temperatures and heavy spindrift. A tough shoot for all but the shots were awesome.
Stephanie Maureau on the crux of Supercouloir Direct, Mont Blanc du Tacul
I started focusing quite a bit on ice-climbing having not done a huge amount and culminated in doing Dame du Lac followed by Shiva Lingham the next day (and Dame du Lac again the following day!). Shiva is without a doubt the hardest ice lead I've done but I was psyched to get a timer release shot of me on it at the top.
Caroline George on the first pitch of Dame du Lac
Myself on Shiva Lingham, Argentiere
On the 3rd March I set off to solo the North Face of the Verte, NE Face of the Droites, and N Face of the Courtes in a day. I was a little nervous to say the least and the Droites was tenuous and buried in sugar snow but it was just one of those days that felt good and in the end it all went to plan.
Sunrise on the Aiguille Verte...one down, two to go!
My fitness training had been good and I felt strong enough and confident to head off to Everest with Ueli Steck and Simone Moro to film and photograph what would have been a cutting edge Himalayan ascent. Unfortunately that wasn't to be, but I learned alot about altitude, people, and the media; and that will all prove a very important life lesson.
Mt Everest and its sprawling Base Camp
Acclimatising by myself on Pumori looking over Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse
Load carrying beneath Nuptse
The Western Cwm
Ueli Steck escaping via an untracked glacier after we were almost killed at Camp 2
Coming back from Everest was very tough because of the hounding we received from around the world. We were made to look like villains and I was broke having invested alot in the trip. Such is life. I ended up soloing the Monch N Face from Grindewald town with Ueli late one night after a few days of interviews for Sender Films just to get out and do something. Leaving at midnight we had a really important climb for the both of us allowing us climb side by side and talk things over about what had happened on Everest and the Media aftermath.
Ueli Steck soloing the Monch N Face
I did a really fun and cool Petzl shoot with Jeff Mercier and Ally Swinton that took us over on a huge traverse of the Chardonnet, Argentiere, and Tour Noir. This is the kind of shoot I love- I get to 'solo' around the two athletes and the shots are genuine and real. I also got to see the three north faces that I'd linked up in March in their entirety and I think it finally sunk in how big a day that was.
Jeff Mercier and a spectacular sunrise- sometimes you just get lucky
Ally and Jeff on the Tour Noire
I had to remain fit for another expedition so I managed to solo a big traverse of the Mont Blanc massif starting in Les Contamines and ending up at the Aiguille du Midi. It was something I'd tried twice before but always been thwarted by the weather. Arriving at the Midi I felt strong and ran up the arete- 5000m of ascent and 42km or horizontal. I felt ready for Pakistan.
Myself on another big enchainment- just beneath the Bionassay on my way to the Mont Blanc and Aiguille Midi
In August left for my second trip to the Charakusa Valley in Pakistan with Andy Houseman. The Nanga Parbat massacre a month earlier had been a major concern but we felt far enough away that it was safe. Unfortunately we didn't get to climb our main objective as Andy was ill but third time's a charm as they say....next year insha'Allah!
The K6 and Kapura Massif under a full moon
Andy Houseman on the N Ridge of Drifika. K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrums in the background
Andy taking in the sunset on Drifika
Andy on the North Ridge of Drifika
Coming back from Pakistan with two failed expeditions in the same year it was starting to feel like a bad one. The weather was pretty poor in Chamonix but we managed to do a really great shoot for Berghaus in winter temps on the Diables Arete where everyone worked their asses off- the shots are some of the best I've ever taken...so that's always nice.
Ben Briggs on the Diables Arete, Mont Blanc du Tacul
A shoot with Millet on Beyond Good and Evil allowed me to climb it the day before to see the shots I wanted and check out conditions. Some really great climbing and I was psyched that we managed to free it. It's super thin compared to the previous year to add to the fun of it.
Very techie and thin climbing on the crux A1 corner from master climber Seb Ratel and Marion Poitevin
Melissa Arnot (of Everest heroine fame) came to visit and we shot a climb for her sponsor First Ascent. The conditions weren't great but we managed a fun little route called Chippendale on the Petit Capucin nevertheless....where there's a will there's a way.
Melissa Arnot on the alternative approach to Chippendale on Petit Capucin
Straight after the First Ascent shoot I headed up to climb the Grandes Charmoz North Face from town with Ally Swinton. The climb was super fast and easy but the round trip from town in deep snow made for a really long and fun day out.
Ally Swinton on the Grandes Charmoz North Face
The weather this autumn and winter has not been conducive to anything high mountain, so I've set my sights on the ice again doing numerous laps on Nuit Blanche and other ice climbs in the area. I thought I was going to die on this pitch when the whole pillar fractured and started cracking around me for 20 seconds, the scariest moment of my climbing life so far.
Myself on Nuit Blanche just before it started cracking all around me...scary times
2014.....with two Greater Ranges trips already scheduled am feeling good about this one!