Introducing - Jon Griffithby Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor Sep/2010
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Jon Griffith is based in Chamonix. He's a professional outdoor photographer and is part of the UKC gear review team. He's our 'man on the ground' in the Alps, and is not only a superb photographer, but also a superb Alpinist. Jon is going to be providing UKC with more Alpine news and reports over the coming months, as this is an area of climbing we are keen to increase coverage of on UKClimbing.com.
Jon's photos regularly win 'photo of the week' on UKC, and his gallery is the highest ranking on the site.
Jon has previously written countless gear reviews for UKC and also the very well received article, Mountain Photography. In it, Jon briefly describes his first days behind a lens:
"I started out by borrowing my dad's camera (a Nikon FM2); unfortunately I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. The on-line manual only served to further confuse me so I came back from my first trip to the Alps armed with photos that seemed to prove that I had spent my time in a constant white out rather than the perfect blue skies that had prevailed above Zermatt at the time..."
Jon is half Belgian and is a fluent French speaker. He's lived in Chamonix for around four years, having moved to the mountain paradise just two weeks after he finished university. His photography has moved on quite a bit since those days with the Nikon FM2 and he now runs the successful mountain photography company Alpine Exposures.
Jon began climbing in the Avon Gorge, Bristol and has since climbed many of the classic hard routes throughout the European Alps and beyond. In this interview Jon talks about his first steps on rock and ice, his development as a photographer and his current work and play.
On starting climbing:
"I saw a picture of some guy climbing and thought that it 'looked like fun' but I didn't know anyone who climbed. So I bought a £100 worth of second hand kit off the UKC forums and taught myself down at the Avon Gorge. It didn't amount to much to be honest, but the following summer I headed off to do the high route of the Pyrenees with a couple of mates. They ended up bailing out after day one, so I did the rest on my own - it was good fun but I had no idea what I was doing and ended up carrying far too much kit.
I met a French guide whilst on the traverse who said that the Pyrenees was like the queen of the European alps - you could do everything in a day form the valley. Chamonix was the king - it all took more than one day... there were glaciers and mad things like that, that I'd never really heard of. So naturally I was curious and headed over for two weeks that winter to Chamonix to see what it was all about.
Rock never really appealed to me so I didn't progress the traditional way. I started snow plodding up stuff and worked my way up from that - learning all the techniques as I went along. I spent a few seasons after my first one in Chamonix over in the Valais and slowly ticked off most of the 4000ers from the valley without huts or lifts. Then I wanted to try some harder stuff and came back to Chamonix. I moved out here about two weeks after my last university exam, four years ago and haven't really looked back since."
Dragging a huge camera up even huger routes:
"I'm still not a hot shot climber in any way but I've done a lot of hard alpine routes and many of them in super fast single push style. Shedding every gram counts, but I still insists on carrying up my SLR which weighs 1.8kg; much to the annoyance of my partner! We keep our packs to a weight of about 4 kgs on the north faces so when you add the extra 1.8kg of the camera - suddenly you've added an extra 50% weight. I am trying to capture real alpinism- light and fast and single push. People rarely even get their cameras out when they are attempting stuff in this style as the onus is on moving fast and getting on with it."
Starting as a photographer:
"I went to see an Ian Parnell lecture on Annapurna III in Bristol and I was amazed by how good the photos were and I think that instilled the original idea to become a photographer- more to the point it made me realise that you could actually make a living from taking climbing photos. When I first came to Chamonix I hardly climbed at all as I spent all my time building myself up as a photographer. Two years later and I got my first major shoot (co-incidentally via Mr Parnell) with Berghaus and since then the work has rolled in from all over the world."
Day to day work life:
"My average day at work could be anything from organizing a catalogue shoot in some part of Europe that I've barely heard of before to rapping down the Grandes Jorasses north face shooting Ueli Steck in action...then there are those rare but amazing helicopter photography days too. Having said that every single time I head out climbing I bring my SLR with me- so every route that I have ever done out here I've got a library of shots of. But in reality most of my work is sat behind a computer like everyone else so its not all that romantic a job!"
“It's bad enough falling into a crevasse unroped but falling into one unroped with a few tons of snow coming in after you is a real pain..”
"My scariest moments on photoshoots are when shooting skiers from below on big powder days. I'm quite obsessed with the idea of getting as close to your subject as possible which can be a bit disastrous at times. Not only do you have to contend with someone flying down towards you with sharp planks attached to their feet and only passing a foot away from you, but you've also got the avalanche risk. I tend to just stick my BD Avalung piece in my mouth and hope for the best because being hit by an avalanche when you are stationary is a disaster. I got hit by one on a Berghaus shoot but funnily enough not from one of my model skiers but a French guide far above. I was just below a small couloir putting my skis on and it just hit me like a train and carried me down a fair way down the glacier. The worst part was that there was a huge crevasse below me and each time I did a full tumble I could see the hole getting closer and closer. It's bad enough falling into a crevasse unroped but falling into one unroped with a few tons of snow coming in after you is a real pain. Amazingly I stopped just short of the crevasse and went into full blown high pitched screaming mode at the guide - not my proudest moment! I was out for quite a while after that as I ripped my tendons in my shoulder- the guide has since apologized and said that if it was any consolation he had had a terrible day thinking about what he had done....it wasn't."
"My best photoshoot was probably my first one with Ueli Steck. He asked me to come and take shots of him on a re-enactment of his speed solo of the classic Colton Macintyre on the Grandes Jorasses north face. At first we couldn't get helicopter permission to land on the summit so we ski toured up to the base ready to climb it the next day. I was terrified. Climbing something that big and serious with the world's best Alpinist was a bit daunting. Not because I was afraid of the climbing but because I was going to get literally dragged up the thing trying to keep some kind of pace with him - and it's a pretty big route. Thankfully we got a last minute call at the bivy site saying we had permission so we skied back down to town and left the next morning at dawn in the heli. Landing on the summit of the Mont Blanc range's most famous north face was pretty surreal - it was January so everything was very wintery and access to the summit of the Jorasses in winter is reserved for only the strongest climbers. So to just jump out of a heli and watch the sunrise over Mont Blanc from this vantage point was very surreal. Having said that its not quite as surreal as making that first rap into the depths of the Jorasses north face and committing yourself to 1200m of abseiling! We had some other pretty funny moments too on that shoot...."
"My worst photoshoot was my first one for Mountain Hardware. Everything went wrong. The weather was horrible, the route choice by me was terrible when taking into account everyone's abilities, and I got too stressed and acted like an idiot. I learnt a lot from that shoot, never again. Thankfully MHW were happy to give me another shot so not all was lost!"
And of course - climbing:
"I try to get out as much as I can but it's never enough. My focus is on big Alpine climbs, but as these tend to be multi day events, when I get back down I find myself having to catch up on work and not having time to go rock climbing. That's my excuse anyway. Last summer I climbed almost every day but this summer I've focused a bit more on the work. Winter tends to be my favourite time though and I think I get out on the hills nearly every day of the week for the whole season."
"It's hard to single-out one route as as 'The One' to tick near Chamonix - there are soooo many! I think in summer I'd rate the Peuterey Integral very high up there. There really is no other route like it in the European Alps. It's never hard but the length and commitment is pretty full on - plus it was the first time that I'd actually summited Mont Blanc. As for winter there are so many amazing classics to do. I couldn't pick one in particular but anything on the Grandes Jorasses north face or the Brouillard face of the Mont Blanc would be the one for me."
"My favorite winter climb is a toss up between the Colton Macintyre on the Grandes Jorasses or the Cechicnel nomine on the Grand Pilier D'angle. The Grand Pilier D'Angle is such an amazing feature in the range and such a huge route to the summit of Mont Blanc. It was a perfect day and we were the first ones on the mountain that season. We both felt strong and climbed really well together and summited the route after only 4.40hrs. Good company and fun climbing. The Colton Macintyre is much harder but was a tick we had both been wanting to do for years. I had been up 3 times to do it previously and not gotten on it, and Will had dreamed of this route since he first started thinking about Alpine climbing. So to both top out feeling fresh and with plenty of day light left for the descent was an amazing feeling."
"It makes me tingle to even think about how many routes I can climb in a season. If the autumn is good then five or six big lines would be good going for me. I've already done two so far this autumn so the numbers are looking good. The problem out here is that if we get a bad autumn then the winter is a bit of a write-off for the big alpine faces. This year is looking to be pretty good though so fingers crossed."
Jon is currently raising funds for a trip to Patagonia - "we are trying for the first British ascent of the Ferrari route" - and to get some cash together for his venture he's now running a 3 for 2 offer on his stunning photographs. Jon is searching for a sponsor for the trip too - "we're also looking for some corporate funding if anyone has some ideas?"
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