I Went To Chamonix To Learn The Mountain Ways

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Credit: James Roe

Each morning sees a rush of coffee and energy-bar-consumers gravitating towards the very heart of Chamonix, and the preparation for the Alpine Academy clinics ahead. The clinics cover every aspect of mountain-enthusiasm, from more athletic climbing and trail running offerings to more mountaineering-focused and trail maintenance based endeavours. For a beginner, such as myself, it’s all very exciting. It’s clear to those around me that I can’t wait to get stuck into Le Brévent, the mountain massif of choice for my clinics.

As our team of budding photographers makes its way via the café to the upper reaches of Le Brévent, the Mountain Photography clinic ahead of us is explained in detail by guides Octavio Defazio and none other than our inaugural Shutter Life competition winner Julia Roger-Veyer. These were safe hands to be in (the safest, in fact), and everyone present knew it.

“I couldn’t get enough of connecting the lens of my Olympus XA2 to the world-bending scenery on offer here”

The peak of Le Brévent marks the start of our short hike to the first shooting location, where a rock pool forms the foreground of a scene backdropped by the occasional sighting of the Mont Blanc massif through the clouds. Arc’teryx athlete Martin Kerr models for our shots, running as close and as far away from the lens as we want. Having the opportunity to work with a model is exciting for everyone there, and a first time thing for me and my photographic career. I relish the chance to explore a completely new style of photography that isn’t just about reacting to the environment, but about capturing someone who’s moving through it and interacting with its ups and downs at speed.

I’d never been to the Alps before and immediately I couldn’t get enough of connecting the lens of my Olympus XA2 to the world-bending scenery on offer here. Suddenly, I had a sense of control and a confident urge to shoot environments I’d not explored before. I was hooked already.

Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe

The weather conditions are on shuffle, as clouds approach us from a distance and out of nowhere. The ever-changing scenery is ideal from a mountain photography clinic’s point of view, with natural light being softened and altered by clouds of every size and shape, but it also underlines the need to wear the correct attire. Kit wise, my Arc’teryx Beta Jacket forms a permanent outer layer that keeps those alpine winds out when I’m frozen to the spot for the shot. It also manages to be highly breathable when we’re on the move to our next spot.

Arc’teryx’s Cormac short sleeve maintains the breathability levels under the Beta, while on my feet the Norvan LD 3s could easily be mistaken for one of those alpine clouds we keep seeing (such is the nature of their comfy, floaty, feel). A lightweight shoe that propped me up comfortably on the terrain, the third instalment of the Norvan series meant few angles were out of reach for me and no shot I wanted to pursue was limited by my choice of footwear.

Credit: James Roe

Day two calls for a little more intensity. The Acclimatisation and Alpine Skills clinic is a known favourite amongst our guides, with Andy Perkins, a well-seasoned professional, leading my group in style. The clinic provides an unexpected opportunity to test my alpine abilities – something that, up until that morning, had extended as far as watching documentaries and thinking things like ‘You’ll never catch me in a situation where I have to cling to the face of a mountain for dear life.’

I soon find myself in the situation. My fear of heights gives way to a fear of falling, something far less psychological and seemingly far more realistic. The nerves really kick in when I’m straddling one of Le Brévent’s aiguilles. Pausing for a breath but also, maybe, freezing a little from fear, Andy spider-mans down to me and lends a hand; offering kind words that seem utterly at odds with the extremity of the mountains that surround us.

We’re on a tricky route, one where every ascent comes with a descent and, through a series of hops and carefully worked abseils, the group gets to the know the mountain well. The flora between my fingers smell of gin, the shining rocks have duller sides to them I find just as interesting visually-speaking, and the marmots’ call echoes through the valleys (they don’t, it turns out, shout “Alan!” or “Steve!”).

Credit: James Roe

I regularly find myself giving stern words to Le Brevent and, throughout the experience, I think it must be able to hear me as my face is often just an inch from the rock. I’m not fond of the look it keeps giving me. I couldn’t blame it though for being annoyed, my shoes consistently and rather aggressively graze its sides as I creep on upwards. The realisation that I’m not going to slip, when it finally comes, greatly enhances my confidence (I’ll thank the shoe’s impressive grip for this).

After a day of climbing, scrambling, and scraping against the mountain’s surface, I proudly look back at the summit of Le Brévent with a body of bruises, scratches, and a sense of achievement. My Beta Pants though? Unscathed. They look brand new and, you sense, probably feel slightly embarrassed by some of my dramatics on Le Brévent. I was sure I’d sent a rip down the left side of the Gore-Tex fabric after a slip on a snowy patch but the pants, of course, prevailed.

“I soon find myself in the situation. My fear of heights gives way to a fear of falling”

My last night in the French Alps is seen off with ‘The Scene’, a mega gig backdropped (unsurprisingly) by the Mont Blanc massif. The sound of catch-ups and the clinking of drinks is also, of course, a constant. An energetic performance of jazz and hip-hop from Toronto’s Badbadnotgood prepares us for the big headline act, immaculately covering the likes of MF DOOM and Litto Nebbia under the guise of “Just messin’ ’round, guys, just havin’ some fun!”

As the sun begins to set on our time in Chamonix, Giles Peterson rises; sending the crowd into euphoria as he mixes the likes of Steely Dan with the works of Bicep. These sorts of pairings roll on throughout the evening, with GP cooly sipping a glass of wine as he holds the aux for the Chamonix Valley.

Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe
Credit: James Roe

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The Arc’teryx Alpine Academy will return for 2023.

More of James Roe’s photography can be found on instagram at @brokenxa2.

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