It’s been a while since I last ventured on a road trip to the photograph the Mountains in Europe but with the winter fast approaching, I decided to make the journey to the French Alps to capture some mountains I had previously photographed and explore some new climbs.
With all the planning done my route would take me through the Northern Alps of France down towards Briancon and on towards the Colle del Nivolet in Italy before winding back up towards Annecy and finally home. Preferring to drive through the night I caught an evening ferry from England and set off towards the south, finally reaching Borg D’Oisans at the base of Alpe d’Huez in the early morning. The plan was to photograph the Alpe again from the Col du Solude on the opposite side of the valley where you get a great view of the whole climb and it’s 21 hairpins to the top.
October is a great time of year to photograph the mountains when the colours are changing and the sun is lower in the sky which means the light is better for photography. Also photographers tend to prefer the light first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening and with shorter days this equates to more social hours – 8.oo sunrise, 6.30 sunset. What I hadn’t anticipated was the weather changing so dramatically. The previous week had temperatures over 25 degrees and bright sunny days in the Alps. By the time I arrived the weather had started to turn and low cloud and rain had descended on the Alps. The temperatures had also dropped dramatically.
For anyone that’s done it, it’s a crazy road up to the top of the Col du Solude with the various narrow twisting tunnels that turn 90 degrees mid-way and rocks strewn across the road which makes for a nervous drive through the sections of balcony road. You just pray nothing bigger is going to fall on you.
As I climbed higher over the section of unmade road I could sense the weather was coming in, so wasted no time getting set up once I reached the top. I’m no stranger to this scenario and totally aware landscape photography can be a combination of luck when everything comes together quickly or a long waiting game when nothing seems to happen. As I sat there waiting for a break in the clouds, I questioned whether I should have taken fewer breaks on the drive to Borg d’Oisans or even planned the trip for the previous week.
After a few hours I packed up and descended back down to the valley. This opening sortie set the tone for the rest of the trip which I found myself constantly studying various weather maps and trying to outfox where the bad weather would move next. This isn’t easy as the weather in the mountains is so local.
The next morning was a similar story. There were a few glimpses of light, but the final shot was no better than I had previously shot on another trip. This one would have to wait for another day.
As the day drew on the whole area descended into a low misty cloud. I can only describe this as looking at a landscape through a sheet of smoked Perspex where the highlights are suppressed and flat and the shadows are weak and pale. Normally this isn’t ideal but as I viewed the scene up the valley of the Col du Sarenne something ethereal and quite beautiful started to form. It’s these unexpected golden moments that offer opportunity and can produce unique light, which is essentially the heart of landscape photography.
From the top of the Sarenne you look over the Clavans-en-Haute Oisans, a series of rolling mountains that stretch far into the distance making the perfect backdrop to the road descending back into the valley.
With these shots in the bag, it was time to move on down the valley to the Col du Galibier, a mountain I’ve photographed and climbed on numerous occasions.
I hadn’t intended to photograph this climb but there was one view I photographed when I first worked on the Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs book. The scene was early spring and there was still snow on the ground which made for an interesting shot, but I now wanted to see it without snow and with the ochre colour palette of Autumn.
Making the hike up to the vantage point with 15kg of equipment is quite demanding but it’s all part of the process. The view overlooks the last 4km of the climb including the one-way tunnel the cars can take when the pass is closed. It had been raining that day, so the road was still wet and clouds were swirling around the summit. It was just a matter of time before a break in the clouds allowed the sun to pierce through highlighting the damp road and shale rock which make up the Galibier. These conditions are perfect for bringing out any textures in the landscape and really help to expose and make sense of the topography in a picture. Certainly, the resulting shot justified the hike up.
Next stop, Col du Granon. This was a new climb to me but one of the biggest climbs in the Alps and the backdrop to Tadej Pogačar collapse in the 2021 TDF. It’s a brute of a climb, hidden above Serre Chevalier on the opposite side of the valley to the ski runs. It’s quite a hard climb to photograph as there are few vantage points which overlook the road but after another hour long hike I found the right spot. Sheltering behind a tree from the wind and rain I snatched a shot. It wasn’t ideal but the weather wasn’t improving so I descended back down to the car. As I recovered with a flask of coffee the weather started to clear a little. Sods law. I put the coffee away, gathered my camera equipment and hiked back up to get a better shot. I’ve always said to myself, it’s better to make the effort whilst you’re there as it’s a much bigger effort to return to a place at a later date.
One of the goals for the trip was a revisit to the Col D’Izoard, an icon of the TDF and a climb which is as spectacular as it is hard. It was one of the first climbs I photographed about 10 years ago. It’s a climb that has everything, beautiful views from the summit, unique rock formations such as the Casse Déserte, (an area of rocky scree which falls away on a 45-degree slope to the road below) and incredible history in terms of the sport of cycling. It’s also a joy to photograph.
With the winter closing in day by day the full itinerary of my trip was starting to look into doubt. It was late afternoon when I arrived at the climb and any hope of the sun dipping below the cloud for last light evaporated as the cloud engulfed the summit. The next day didn’t fare any better, but I was determined. Hiking up to a saddle ridge which overlooks the summit I waited for the day to improve. When it started to snow, I huddled in the lee of some rocks, ever the optimist. Good sense finally prevailed, and I hiked back to the car where I contemplated my next move whilst the snow persisted. Maybe the Col d’Izoard would have to wait.
I had already decided the previous night that the trip to Italy and the Colle del Nivolet wasn’t going to be possible. Snow on the high ground had resulted in the local authorities taking action to close the passes for winter (the Galibier was now closed) and there was a realistic possibility that I would be stuck on the wrong side of the border with a mammoth detour ahead to get back home. With this in mind I headed south down the mountain towards the sun and the Col Agnel. I reasoned I could get images of this mountain which I had only ever photographed during the Giro d’Italia and then head home from there. The weather reports also indicated tomorrow would be sunny so with a bit of luck I could come back via the Col d’Izoard and get the shots I needed.
As I approached the Col Agnel, I read the electronic road sign – “Col Agnel Ferme”. My heart sank but I decided as I was this close, it was worth pressing on to see for myself. Fortune Favours the Brave!
The Col Agnel sits on the border between France and Italy and it’s a long drag up the of north slope of the French side to the summit. Previously I had only witnessed this in thick fog, so it was all new to me. Snow covered the last 2 km of the climb, and a barrier partially blocked the road with a sign “Route Barree”. Undeterred and encourage by other motorists ignoring the sign I headed up to the summit.
It was a beautiful afternoon and the road on the Italian side was blessed with sunshine. I wanted to venture further down but equally didn’t want to get caught out on the wrong side of the border if they really did close the road, so I stayed near the summit taking shots for the next few hours including the mountain behind the climb affectionately known as the “Sucre de Pain”.
My stay that night was in a local Gite, booked last minute online. The proprietors were a young French couple who also offered to provide an evening meal. On arrival I was shown to my room/dormitory – a series of bunk beds. Luckily, I had the place to myself that night. However, there was a large group of friends who had just made the trip for some end of season hiking. They were in high spirits and at dinner I was duly given a seat at the head of the table. My French isn’t great but luckily their English was slightly better so with a mixture of broken English and guesswork we slowly got to know one another and shared quite a few laughs along the way as we muddled through. By the end of the evening, we were best friends. I gave them a copy of the Mountains book and we hatched a plan to rendezvous in the Voges mountains where they have promised to show me around their local mountains. It’s one of the pleasures of travel – the unplanned, chance meetings you have.
I awoke the next morning to clear skies, bright sunshine and a hard frost. No time to lose, I set off back to the Col d’Izoard.
On arrival, I packed the bag for a full day on the mountain. Working fast I climbed the ridge overlooking the summit getting shots of both the northern slopes and southern slopes. The ground was frosty, suppressing the autumn colours and making the shots look almost black and white. It’s important to realise what the sun is doing in these situations as you can easily end up with the view which has hard sunlight and areas with deep shadow – a difficult scenario to work with compositionally. Invariably these conditions also give rise to bright blue skies, something I’m not particularly a fan of in a picture (milky skies are always more appealing).
Next location was the Casse Déserte– the rocky scree, a few kms down the climb. I had seen a vantage point I wanted to shoot from which is high up on the side of the scree but involved a hike up a 45-degree slope for 45 mins. It was super tough with all the equipment but once I reached the vantage point, I soon realised the shot wasn’t going to work. I always prefer to shoot with the sun in front of the lens or to the side. The sun was on my back here which exposes the scene perfectly but kills any drama or intrigue. The interest is invariably in the shadow and I had hoped there would be enough shadow areas to hold interest but my instinct was wrong. So, it was back down to the car and a new vantage point on the opposite side of the scree, looking back into the sun. To get a view past two protruding rocks, it was necessary to venture out on the scree. It’s not a place you want to hang around as there are rocks skipping down the slopes at regular intervals. With the shot in the bag, it was time to move on to the last location and one last hike.
I’m often asked if I use drones, the answer is no. It’s not that I’m against them, but I prefer to compose and refine the shot whilst looking through the viewfinder. It’s also why I shoot directly into a laptop so I can really see what I’m capturing. Much of the drone shots I’ve seen tend to be too high, looking down which loses a sense of place as the horizon is invariably out of frame. I’ve come to the conclusion that drones work best for moving image.
The last vantage point gave a very different impression of the mountain. Shot on a 240mm lens it has the appearance of being shot from a drone because of the distance and height but the long lens helps to layer the shot with the summit in the foreground, the pine trees into the middle distance and the snow-capped mountains on the horizon. It creates a very textural shot.
With the sun starting to fade it was time to put away the camera and head home. France was closing too. The seasonal hotel, chalets and restaurants were all taking a break before the start of the ski season. With no restaurant or take-away open in Borg d’Oisans (where I had opted to stay on my last night) I was decided to eat in the hotel. Unfortunately, the chef decided he needed a break too, so I ended up cooking my own meal in the kitchen of the hotel. That’s a first for me but all part of the adventure!
Hopefully this will be the start of a new body of work and maybe book….I will also be posting some of the images up on the website shop to buy as limited edition prints. Go to www.michaelblann.com/shop