Ben Tibbetts, adventure photographer and IFMGA mountain guide, has become the second British climber to summit all 82 of the UIAA recognised 4,000m peaks in the Alps. Climbing all these mountains, however, was just part of a six year project to create his book: 'ALPENGLOW' that is now available on his website.
This project, ALPENGLOW, began with an idea and quickly developed into an obsession. The idea was simple – I wanted a project to inspire me to discover more of what the Alps had to offer. The idea of climbing all the 4000m peaks was a sensible starting point, as it includes a beautiful selection of mountains. From a photographer's point of view, these are the first mountains to catch the sunrise, and they have an incredible selection of routes on which to make interesting images. I thought it would be a compelling project to try to climb and photograph each route.
I realise now, six years later, why this book didn't exist before. To climb and photograph every route, to write up the stories, edit the images and make the drawings has required well over 700 days of work.
The 'normal' routes on many of these peaks are already popular and busy outings, but they are not always the most interesting or beautiful route on the mountain. After months of research with other guides and climbers, I narrowed down a shortlist of what I thought might be the 'finest' route on each peak. This is totally subjective, and the list reflects my taste for variety and for wild and esoteric routes. Having climbed all these routes I would happily do any of them again. I think the best routes are reasonably safe from objective danger, have interesting and varied climbing and a natural line in impressive surroundings.
In the Alps there are about 50 major 4000m mountains and an additional 30 other minor peaks and pinnacles. Some of the routes I chose enchained lots of summits -- like the Nadelgrat or the Jorasses traverse. Alternatively, some summits like Mont Blanc are represented here by several routes, as it seemed impossible to decide on only one 'finest route' on such a varied mountain.
I have to admit I am not that interested in the various merits different 4000m lists. Throughout the project I was focussed on climbing and photographing these fantastic routes rather than actually ticking a particular 'list' of summits. When Valentine and I did the Diables ridge on Mont Blanc du Tacul we passed straight by L'Isolée as there was a massive queue of climbers. It was only this summer that I realised I only had a couple of odd summits remaining to complete the 82 peaks on the UIAA list (this has become the authoritative or 'standard' list), so we went back to 'collect' L'Isolée by descending the ridge from the summit… admittedly a bit ridiculous. I also didn't realise until I finished that I was apparently only the second Brit to climb all the 82 peaks, after Steve Hartland in 2016. (This is not to forget that several other Brits have finished shorter lists of the 'major' summits, most notably the incredible non-stop traverse of the 4000m peaks in 52 days by Martin Moran and Simon Jenkins in 1993.)
Once I had decided on a provisional list, the challenge was how to climb and shoot such a heterogeneous selection of routes in the best conditions possible. My aim was to climb and describe routes of a wide range of difficulties, styles and seasons to reflect the diversity of our sport and provide inspiring ideas for a variety of tastes. I laid out a timetable of when each route might be in condition. Some were to be completed on skis - the Lauteraarhorn south face required very precise conditions that only occur in spring time. Others such as the Colton-MacIntyre on the Jorasses usually only form in Autumn, and some of the rock routes are best climbed in high summer.
To climb and photograph such a variety of routes nevertheless required me to be constantly hunting for information on conditions across the Alps and to be ready to go at a moments notice all year round. My aim was to capture at least one strong, memorable photograph for each route, a task that proved to be surprisingly challenging. To start my research I would try and find as much information as possible about the route. I then used 3D mapping such as FATMAP to work out where I wanted to be to catch sunrise. Almost without fail this would necessitate leaving the hut or bivouac at 2am or earlier.
In addition to working as a photographer, I work as an artist. Since I finished art school I have been working on a slow, small and detailed series of drawings. Each one is postcard sized or smaller. Some have taken six months to finish. It wasn't until half way through the ALPENGLOW project that I realised I could perhaps include a few drawings to illustrate some of the mountains. I had barely shown anyone this work before, and I was surprised by people's reactions. Many were more interested in the drawings than the photography. Little by little the collection of drawings has grown, and though some of them are as small as a postage stamp, there are now over 25 drawings in the book.
One of the biggest challenges has been managing the weight of equipment. These days it is quite easy to become obsessed with weight. I will happily use a crampon made half of aluminium and strapped together with Kevlar cord to save a few hundred grams (and yes, they do work). I refill my suntan lotion with just as much as I will need for the trip (saving at most 20 grams). On my camera case I have cut off the pockets, the straps and labels; however I still carry 2.5 kg of full frame camera and lenses up almost every route I climb. This material is heavy, bulky and awkward to carry and I often get asked – "why do you bother?". Surely there is something small and lighter that would do the job well and be better to climb with?
Unfortunately as yet I still don't think there is. I've tried almost every iteration and format of digital camera, and, especially for the low light shooting, there is nothing yet that can match the performance of chunky piece of glass and a full frame sensor (Nikon D850 if you are wondering). I need very 'bright' lenses, auto-focus that still works when it is almost dark, controls that are big enough to use with gloves on, a body that is tough enough to resist a few drops, batteries that don't run out every 20 minutes and a sensor that can see in the dark. Unfortunately all that doesn't yet come in a light-weight format. The solution, I have concluded, is just to stay fit.
Although my life revolves around spending as much time in the mountains as possible, since taking up photography I am almost incapable of standing and watching a beautiful sunrise. I will be hunched down in the snow, looking through a viewfinder at a little square of the scene, holding my breath to release the shutter again and again until my eyes water with the strain. Do I actually see the sunrise? Is it fun? Not always. Thankfully this is just a tiny part of the beautiful, fascinating and inspiring challenge that the mountains provide. We don't just climb a mountain 'because it's there', we climb to feel human, to feel our limits, to feel creative and to come home nourished having overcome difficulty. These mountains have taken me on an incredible journey and I hope in turn ALPENGLOW can inspire you.
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps - Grand Pilier D'Angle North Face 5 Dec, 2016
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps - Grandes Jorasses 18 Oct, 2016
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps - Lenzspitze 19 Sep, 2016
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps - Aiguille Verte 12 Aug, 2016
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps - Rimpfischhorn 1 Jul, 2016
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps: Mont Blanc 25 May, 2016
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps - Grand Combin 6 May, 2016
- DIGITAL FEATURE: The Finest Routes in the Alps: Gran Paradiso 29 Feb, 2016
- 20 Top Tips for Mountain Photography Part 2: Refining Techniques 6 Nov, 2015
- 20 Top Tips for Mountain Photography: Part 1 - The Essentials 20 Jul, 2015