Hamish Frost credits the Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2016 as having a huge influence on his decision to take photography more seriously. Three years on, his shot of Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell trying a new winter route on Bidean nam Bian, Scotland, was voted as June winner of the Best of Instagram by SanDisk Category, securing his place as a finalist of the Image Quest 2019.
We knew a little bit about winter climbing in Scotland, and we had heard it was special, but we thought who better to take us deeper into the subject than Hamish himself! So, check out our interview below, with introductory quotes from Hamish and Greg.
“There’s something about the ephemeral nature of the winter conditions in Scotland which makes it all quite exciting. Our winters are often quite marginal, with temperatures generally hovering just above or just below freezing. The freeze-thaw cycles that we get can result in some brilliant mixed climbing conditions, but it can be a bit of a hit and miss game trying to work out where the best conditions are.
“You’ll spend most of the winter pouring over weather forecasts in different parts of the Highlands, trying to work out a picture of what’s going on and building your climbing plans around that. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you can get it spectacularly wrong!
“I think this ultimately makes it all the more rewarding when you do get a good day though, particularly if you’ve gambled slightly and gone somewhere a bit more out there, that others might not have considered.”
“If you’re looking for adventure and a challenge, Scotland is the place to be during the winter months, especially in regards to the climbing. You have to battle the fickle conditions, the long approaches and when you eventually get to the route and find it in condition, they are usually hard won and take a long time to unveil the secrets needed to ascend.
“I suppose there is a lot of uncertainty and challenge involved in Scottish winter climbing, but with the amazing landscapes and abundance of world class cliffs, the rewards are made so much sweeter and are usually well worth the effort.”
What makes winter ascents in Scotland attractive for a photographer?
Although our mountains aren’t the biggest, they more than make up for it in character! The scenery we have is stunning, with remote, rolling glens and big, gnarly cliff faces. There’s also an attitude in Scottish winter climbing that you go out even on the bad weather days (otherwise you probably wouldn’t get much done!).
I’ve actually taken some of my favorite winter climbing photos on days where the weather hasn’t been amazing. All the wind and snow blowing around can add a lot of drama to a photo and make it look like quite an unpleasant place to be, which I guess it is, but it’s that type two fun which anyone who does stuff in the mountains can probably relate to.
Where does your personal motivation for extreme undertakings like these come from?
Initially I started taking photos in the mountains to try show off how good the mountains were in Scotland and hopefully inspire friends and others to get out and explore them. It was only around 5 or 6 years ago that I actually made the effort to get out of the city and started to explore the Scottish Highlands myself and my mind was blown by how good the local hills were. I wanted to try and encourage others to get out and have the same sort of experiences I was having. My way of doing that was to take photos of my days out and post them online, and it worked!
As I’ve started climbing and skiing more, I’d say my motivations have evolved slightly. It’s now the buzz you get from challenging yourself, pushing your limits and scaring yourself a little in mountainous environments. My favorite shoots to do nowadays are the ones where I get to actually ski or climb some objective whilst trying to take decent photos. I love the challenge of trying to be creative whilst you’re dealing with a whole load of other factors, like staying warm and dry, making sound mountain decisions and trying to get yourself up a route.
How does the snow, ice and sheer coldness affect your photography?
My Sony cameras are pretty hardy and will keep firing even when it gets really cold and wet. There are simple tricks that help like keeping spare batteries in pockets close to your body so they keep warm, having a drybag to hand in case it gets really wet and you want to keep your camera out of the worst of it, and also bringing a spare compact camera on a shoot (if you can afford the weight), in case something does happen!
How heavy is the photography gear you’re carrying up the mountain?
I try and keep the kit I’m using relatively light. I’m already carrying a load of climbing kit and extra clothing to keep warm and if you weigh yourself down with lots of kit during the walk-in then you won’t have much energy to run around taking photos.
I tend to use one full frame Sony mirrorless body with a wide-angle zoom lens on it (I reckon I use this lens for about 80-90% of my shots) and then maybe a Sony APS-C mirrorless body with a telephoto lens as well if I reckon I can afford the weight. This gives me a bit of redundancy and avoids having to change lenses if the weather’s bad (which is a quick route to getting a tonne of snow in your camera).
Do you have to be a decent (mixed) climber yourself to shoot in these conditions or do you consider abseiling from the top?
It certainly helps, as it opens up options to shoot bigger routes where you can climb as two pairs and photograph the second pair on the route as they climb behind you. Most of the time I’ll just work independently though and either photograph the climb from a distance with a long lens, or set up a static rope at the top of the cliff and rappel into a position to shoot from. If you’re doing this then it definitely pays to be good with the cold!
Bad or even no views due to weather puts more focus on the climber and the wall right in front of you. What are the challenges and techniques to overcome this and get good shots?
For sure, the bad weather days can make it a bit more challenging and you have to be a bit more creative about getting a shot. If the visibility is bad, then you need to think about getting close to the action, otherwise your photos aren’t gonna have much in them! Sometimes you just need to have a little patience too. Even on the total white-out days, you will get patches where the visibility improves, and you might be able to get something from further away, you just need to be very aware of what’s going on, even checking updated forecasts out on the hill, and then reacting quickly when the weather does change.
I would say that some of the most challenging weather conditions to work in are actually the sunny days. This is because the routes being climbed are often on north faces, which don’t catch much sun during the winter. As such you can end up with your subject climbing in the shade against a brightly lit up background, which is a hard shot to edit well as it’s got far too much contrast in it. My favorite days are the slightly overcast days, where the clouds almost act like a giant softbox and you get this really nice soft, diffused light coming through.
Check out more of Hamish on Instagram!