Category Archives: Event Coverage

Documenting a Descent of the Vallée Blanche

An April Vallée Blanche

April 2016 brought to Chamonix some beautiful late season snow and some brilliant sunshine as well. All resulting in a nice set of  photos which I posted over on Flickr of a recent Vallée Blanche descent with a group of friends.

Vallée Blanche 2016

Click on the photo to see the entire set.

Descent of the mythic Vallée Blanche

This famous off piste ski descent starts from the Aiguille du Midi high above the town of Chamonix and ends either at the Montenvers train station at the end of the season, or continues all the way down into Chamonix via climbing out of the glacier near the Montenvers train station, and then skiing down via the Mottets route to end at the bottom of the Planards ski area in town centre in mid season if there is good snow.

The Effects of Global Warming

Each year the climb out of the glacier gets longer and longer as thanks to global warming we are losing this fabulous glacier at an alarming rate. When you climb out of the glacier if you are taking the train down, several signs along the way show the level of the glacier in previous years. It’s absolutely appalling how much volume and height the glacier has lost since I arrived here in 2001. Be prepared for this climb – it is more taxing now for some people than the skiing !

Why to take a Guide

The route is normally best done with a mountain guide for the average person who visits Chamonix.  There are many variations of the route to take down, but all of them entail going down the narrow ridge from the Midi ice cave (best done in crampons) and onto an open glacier where you will then be faced with the objective dangers of crevasses, weak snow bridges, falling seracs and avalanches. Skiers should wear special safety gear whether or not you go with a guide.  Not only should you bring the typical avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, but also you need to wear a harness and crevasse rescue gear including a rope (and have the training to use it!) and have winter mountain and glacier navigational skills and plenty of avalanche safety training if you are going without a guide.

It is indeed the high mountains, and it is not patrolled in any way – your safety is your responsibility. Not for the faint of heart !

As you can see from the photos, we spotted several avalanches and negotiated quite a few crevasses on our way down. The avalanche risk was level 3 on the day we did the descent and we followed a route that was not overly steep to mitigate the danger.

Of course, we also had some amazing fresh tracks in the snow in the early part of the descent – and stunning views of the Alps. Another reason to take a guide – the guides will know where to find fresh powder if it can be had at all !

And why to take a Photographer !

And feel free to contact me if you’d like me to document your Valley Blanche descent or other ski adventure in or near Chamonix ! I will focus on taking the photos so that you can focus on your skiing and soaking in all the amazing views – and you will be actually skiing in your photos instead of showing friends pictures of your feet, only the views with no people – or the world on the end of a selfie stick !

Also posted in Photography, Ski Touring

Alpine Expedition Photography – DofE

Well, the year of 2014 has indeed been the rainiest in the Alps (in recorded history, according to recent news articles) – but on one of the few sunny days, I was lucky enough to have scheduled a full day’s photo shoot in the great alpine outdoors. I was hired by Alison Culshaw’s company – Gold Expeditions which works with Duke of Edinburgh Award candidates wanting to achieve their Gold level, to do some documentary expedition photography of their trek in the Alps.

They had chosen to complete most of the Tour du Mont Blanc walking tour. To achieve the award, they are required to camp during the tour, rather than using the refuges. They were responsible for plotting their own course through the week, and could not have outside assistance when hiking the route. They were monitored by their assessors at several points along their route and had check ins each evening.

Click on the arrows of any photo to see the rest of the set here, or click on the photo itself to head over to my Flickr page.

Gold Expeditions - Duke of Edinburgh Award

I met the students while they were planning their routes a week earlier to do introductions and make sure everyone was OK with being photographed.  Later in the week, I then caught up with them on their trek just as they crossed into the Italian Alps – as this was the best weather day, and which turned out to be the last day of their trek around Mont Blanc. The morning started out a bit cloudy on the hike down from the refuge, but soon cleared up as they ascended into the Courmayeur ski area (a beautiful rolling alpage in summer time) and to the Maison Veille refuge for lunch in the grass.

To reach them from Chamonix was very easy – I got up early and headed through the Tunnel du Mont Blanc, dropping off my car at the Dolonnes sports centre car park in Courmayeur, and met up with Alison. We drove up the road leading to Val Vény, just to the barrier at Lac Combal (Lago di Combal) where cars are not allowed any further, and she dropped me off, and then went off to assess a different group of students.

I am familiar with these trails and do a lot of hiking and trail running myself, so I was able to power hike the hills and run the flat bits (OK, more like jogged, as I had my camera gear on my back) to reach the Elisabetta hut a short while later, where I met up with a groups of students as they were packing up to head out for their hike from the Elisabetta hut to Courmayeur via the Tour du Mont Blanc walking route.

The views were stunning – and we got some great group photos with a fun bunch of students from The Albyn School in Aberdeen Scotland. I shot mostly documentary style photos of their day, along with a few fun shots of them leaping about with Mont Blanc in the background (one of which has been used on the Gold Expedition Facebook page as their header) – celebrating their last day of the expedition and completion of the hard work and dedication necessary to achieve the Gold level award.

To place the photos on a map, in case you are interested in doing the Tour du Mont Blanc yourself – the section of the hike where I intersected them to photograph the student’s expedition went from the Refugio Elisabetta (located just below the Col de la Seigne, which marks the French/Italian border) and along the valley floor past views of several glaciers in the Mont Blanc massif and the flat Lac Combal. Where the valley 4×4 road becomes tarmac, the walking trail then heads up a single track path using a short but steep climb and traverses above the Val Vény at around 2100m of altitude and then reaches the Maison Veille refuge in the heart of the Courmayeur ski area (alpine pastures in summer). The refuge serves up a great lunch in both summer and winter.

This whole climb and the traverse is set against a beautiful backdrop of the Italian side of the Mont Blanc range, the Miage glacier and Col de Miage – and several herds of dairy cows. Once in the ski area, they did allow themselves the luxury of taking the large cable car lift back down into Courmayeur town centre, where a final course debrief and a pizza dinner awaited all the award candidates.

Assignments like this for a day of photography are exactly why I love my job !

Also posted in Photography

Protest against high air pollution levels in Chamonix and the Arve Valley


When people think of Chamonix France, many people think of extreme skiing, big mountains, adventure, powder, couloirs, fabulous hiking, mountain running. What they may be surprised to learn is that Chamonix and the lower Arve valley have some of the worst air quality in all of France. We spend around 40+ (and going higher yearly it seems) days living well above the allowable (by EU standards) air pollution levels.

The local governments are supportive of trying to stop this pollution with a variety of measures, but the state and federal government are not supporting the local populations. Of course money is involved – Chamonix and the Arve valley is a giant trucking route for international transport of goods through the Mont Blanc tunnel. Recommendations from many studies show that limiting the number of trucks and eliminating the most polluting diesel engines should help reduce this pollution. But the state politicians refuse to take action. Add to this the fact that due to high electricity rates many more residents have to rely on wood fires for heat, and the fact that upgrading an inefficient open fireplace to a modern high efficiency burner is very costly (€2000-€8000 depending on choices) most of the population cannot afford to become more energy efficient. We can also add to this mix an influx of wealthy ex-pats who seem to prefer driving gas guzzling higher polluting 4x4s to smaller cars, biking or public transit and this has lead to an unhealthy soup we now breathe in far too many days a year.

Standing at the top of any ski area in the region, one can view a brown haze suffocating the valleys below. The type of pollutants involved are linked to higher rates of cancer, respiratory problems and sinus problems. It has gotten so bad in the past 2-3 years that now several weeks a year the children of the valley cannot go outside to play at recess because the air is too polluted to breathe. This in an area previously renowned as an extreme sports capital.

When will the Prefecture of the Haute Savoie take heed and action to protect our air and mountains and health (and in so-doing also protect our tourist trade that so many here rely on for making their living) instead of protecting the trucking industry lobbyists and private owners that control the ATMB and their own tax share of the very high fees per truck that crosses the Tunnel du Mont Blanc (upwards of €400 per truck with 1500-1800 trucks per day heading through the tunnel).

Groups such as the ARSMB and Inspire are working to pressure state politicians to take action. If you care about reducing air pollution in this pristine area, please sign this petition that Inspire has created, calling upon the state to implement a Plan for the Protection of the Atmosphere. This plan was written up in 2012 and passed by the Haute Savoie prefecture to placate the EU and avoid high fines EU for surpassing allowed air pollution levels – but now the state refuses to actually implement the measures called for in the plan.

Also posted in Photography

Mission WOW Women of Winter Ski Touring Weekend

Scott Mission WOW

Women of Winter Ski Touring Weekend in Italy

I had a fun weekend as the photographer for the Scott Sports sponsored Mission WOW Women of Winter introduction to ski touring and the back country event in the Val Ferret Italy on March 23rd and 24th. I worked the still camera, and Rachel of Seven Twenty Productions did the videos … the result of which you can find here on You Tube.

25 women joined in for the event, which aims to introduce women to ski touring and develop back country safety skills in a fun safe environment, accompanied by 3 IFMGA/UIAGM female mountain guides (Ulrika Asp, Caroline George and Isabelle Santoire ) and one ISIA ski instructor (Pia Palm).

The ski touring weekend attracted a range of ages, with most women falling somewhere in their 20s. Jo Guest from Mission WOW organised the event, and Scott Sports was happy to offer extensive sponsorship. The purpose of Mission WOW is to introduce women to activities they may not otherwise do on their own, promote more women to participate in sports, and create a great women-friendly environment for networking, friend making and skill building. They also run summer Women on Wheels and Women in Water WOW events.

The weekend started  at Ravanel Sports in Les Praz with ski and boot-fitting for women who wanted to try out the latest Scott Sports ski touring set up. Some women who were boarders were given split boards to try out for touring. Other women brought their own personal ski touring gear.

The guides and instructors came along to give advice and meet everyone. Scott provided skis from their Mountain and Freeride ranges (Crus’Air, Powd’Air and Pure models for example) fitted with Dynafit touring bindings, and climbing skins from Colltex. Ravanel provided ski touring boots to match the Dynafit bindings for those who needed them. The Ravanel ski techs made sure to set up the ski bindings’ release setting properly for the technical ability of each skier. The women who signed up included English, Swedish and French speaking women and the guides were all either bi or tri-lingual to give instruction in English, Swedish or French.

The next morning, we met up at the Montenvers car park in Chamonix. A Scott Sports car brought along the skis and boots from Ravanel, and the guides and instructor made sure everyone had the correct equipment before setting out, including avalanche safety gear (transciever, shovel and probe),  lending transceivers where required.

We car-pooled to go under Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in western Europe via the Tunnel du Mont Blanc and into Italy. From the car park at Entreves, we hopped a bus which shuttled us boldly up some steep switch back turns to Planpincieux and into the beautiful Val Ferret which is part of the town of Courmayeur Italy.


This small village at 1400m altitude is the start of cross-country track in a long wide hanging valley, and was also the start of our ski tour. A good general description of the many routes, hikes, climbs, snow shoe trails and ski tours you can find in that area, as well as a topo map is on Camp to Camp website.

The ski tour follows near the cross country trail and goes gradually 200m uphill over around 10km of distance until it reaches the small town of Lavachey. From Lavachey the trail goes steeply through the woods for another 200m to reach the Walter Bonatti hut at 2025m altitude. We did take a break along the way for some thick hot chocolate and great Italian coffee

Everyone reached the hut at their own pace, some guides taking the faster tourers, and others staying back with the slower groups. No one felt rushed. After a short break at the hut for lunch, it was time for the kick turn clinic back on the hill behind the hut.

Kick turns are the way that ski tourers get up steep hillsides, turning the skis quickly and efficiently around sharp corners when the hill is too steep to allow a “5 point” style gradual turn around a corner as one can do in flatter terrain. The first step of a kick turn involves nearly a ballet move, as your upper foot is brought quickly around in the opposite direction to your lower foot to rest above your current track. Then you move your poles uphill and shift the weight onto the upper foot, potentially kick the back foot out to release the toe (the heel of your foot is not attached to the ski when in touring mode) and turn the lower ski around your upper leg’s boot cuff to bring it into a parallel track. And off you go. These turns are known as “conversions” in French. Once the technique is firmly mastered, you do not need to even break stride to complete a conversion turn.

The day was completed with a lovely four course hot meal at the Bonatti hut (the salad included fresh pomegranate and apple !), as well as hot showers ! Climbing skins were hung up to dry and boot liners were pulled out to allow for drying overnight. The Bonatti hut is a rather cush example of a mountain hut compared to many – the beds and pillows are nice, with a decent amount of personal space (despite sleeping dormitory style) and most of us got a good sleep.

The weather forecast was not ideal to do a long ski tour on Sunday so the guides proposed doing many technical workshops or a smaller tour as a choice. So everyone was spared a super early alpine start as would have been required for a longer tour, meeting at 9am after a leisurely breakfast and many cups of tea and coffee. After a pep talk from Jo on positive thinking and learning something from every day you have, even challenging days, everyone split into groups.

Some chose to stay with one guide and learn more mountain skills such as crevasse rescue and other mountain safety techniques and others went on a short ski tour with the other three guides, up to the Tête Entre Deux Sauts above the Bonatti hut. The ski back down to the hut was challenging for most everyone, as the day was an entire white out with little way to tell how the hill was falling away from you. The snow was fresh, deep and heavy rather than light and powdery. But everyone had fun and the guides were sure everyone stayed in a sight line due to the fog. Once back at the hut, everyone did a transceiver search  workshop. The women learned to use their transceivers to find buried avalanche victims, and the proper technique to probe for someone buried under the snow and then dig them out.

At the hut we ate sack lunches (the hut packed lunches for those who did not carry their own) and put skis and packs back on to head through the woods and down the hill.  The snow became heavier still in the woods, and after a break for some play and group shots at Lavachey we headed in “skate ski” mode down the trail back the 10km towards Planpincieux. Some women had developed blisters during the ski tour, but more importantly everyone developed their back country mountain skills and their friendships.

Once back in Chamonix, we all headed to the MBC to enjoy a round of beers, nachos and the raffle that gave away some grab bag goodies from Swatch, Colltex and Scott. As a grand prize, Scott gave away a pair of freeride skis. Rather than simply picking a number out of the pot, the winner was decided via several rounds of very animated “rock, paper, scissors” ! A fun weekend for all.
Scott Mission WOW Women of Winter

Also posted in Photography, Ski Touring

Gemmi Triathlon 2012 – Leukerbad Switzerland

I had a great time shooting the tough, nearly all uphill Gemmi triathlon in the Swiss Valais this past weekend.

The course started at Lac de Géronde in the town of Sierre, and then bikers went uphill to the spa town of Loeche-Les-Bains (in German Leukerbad), and then runners gained 1km of height in the 4km of distance on the run (that is steep!!) up to the beautiful Gemmi Pass from Leukerbad. In other words, apart from the swimming, the rest of the triathlon is uphill. It has a small town feel, but attracts some amazing quality athletes due to the naturally tough nature of the event.

The photos in the Flickr set include some “atmosphere shots” as well as some shots of the top men and lots of the women athletes.

I would not have known of the event if not for my multi-sport friend Lyndsay Meyer who also participated in the triathlon.  There were some top Swiss world-class triathletes in the event, even though it is only small ! The Gemmi is run yearly in early September and for the moment you can still sign up within just a few days of the event.

Also posted in Photography

It was not to be … Patrouille des Glaciers 2012

Since the FFME Championnat de France épreuve de sprint race in Chamonix in January, I had not been able to arrange my schedule to photograph another ski mountaineering race all season. Finally, it seemed I would be able shoot the Patrouille des Glaciers, a race in the Swiss alps from Zermatt to Verbier via Arolla, held every 2 years. There are several courses (and some shorter versions from Zermatt to Arolla or Arolla to Verbier) and I wanted to photograph the long course with the national teams competing.

I left Chamonix by car at around 4am, but would still reach the La Chaux chairlift check-in station in plenty of time to catch my hard core skimo racing friends in team 2338, Lyndsay Meyer and Nina Silitch who hoped to be passing through with their teammate Sari Anderson just after the fastest men in the race.

The Patrouille des Glaciers is run in teams of 3 and much of the course has to be skied while roped together. The race is fully manned by the Swiss Army and places in this prestigious and historic race are hard to come by, so coveted by the ski mountaineer racing crowd. The start times for the teams are staggered. The earliest times for departure are given to teams expected to go slower, and later starting times are given to the fastest teams (such as Killian Jornet, the eventual winner this year).

This year’s US women’s team have competed in other skimo races previously and formed their team for the PDG with Sari flying out from Colorado especially for the race (Nina and Lyndsay are Alps-based Americans). They had a departure of midnight and hoped to get to the areas above Verbier by around 8am.

I checked their progress before I left Vallorcine to enter into Swiss phone territory using the PDG Android app that the organisers had been kind enough to invent for their race. They seemed to be moving along well, as did another team of women that I was following who included my friend and local awesome ski instructor and BASI Level 4 European Mountain Safety trainer Alison Culshaw, as part of a British women’s team doing her first PDG, having recently been bitten by the bug of ski mountaineer racing.


As I drove up the Swiss Val des Bagnes, there seemed to be an awful lot of traffic coming from the direction of Verbier … I hoped it was just traffic coming from the Grand St Bernard tunnel, but as I approached Le Chable below Verbier, the headlights kept coming in streams. The car park was still full when I pulled up, and loads of people were getting out of their cars and putting on their touring gear – so I did the same.

I went up to the cash desk to get a lift ticket but was told that the race had been cancelled due to an avalanche at Pas de Chat, a check point between Arolla and the Rosablanche at Verbier. They did not think anyone was hurt, but said the race was stopped. The decision to stop the race was the right one , but heartbreaking for the athletes who had trained so hard. We had two weeks of snow/rain in a rather cold April, followed by a sudden intense warming in the day before the race. The freezing point the night before the race was above 3000m. Also, very high winds were forecast – up to 90km/hr at the altitudes the racers would be going.

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Also posted in Photography, Ski Mountaineer Racing Tagged , |