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Extreme Scotland: The Uncertainty Principle by nadir khan

As a climbing and outdoor adventure photographer based in Scotland, Nadir Khan knows a thing or two about weather. In the winter of 2015, Nadir Khan shot world-renowned German climber Ines Papert as she made the first female ascent - and only 6th ever - of one of Scotland's hardest winter climbs, suitably named 'The Hurting'. In this feature we take a look back behind the scenes with Nadir at the challenges of capturing adventure in the midst of wild winter weather, shooting the first ascent of a fearsome Scottish winter climb while the wind howls at 100kmh!

Words and photos by Nadir Khan:


The wind is gusting up to 100 mph and blowing us off our feet as we crawl up the ridge in terrible conditions. I'm hoping that Ines is going to say that conditions are to bad to climb the route and we can all go down to the cafe and get off this mountain.

I weigh up in my numbed mind what the chances are that she will be able to climb, and if she does, what are the chances that I will get anything usable from this shoot in these conditions.

Fuck, if she gets the first female ascent and all I get are a load of crap pics that's going to be pretty bad.

These were the thoughts running through my mind as Ines, and I got to the bottom of the Fiaccail Buttress, home to ‘ The Hurting ‘- one of the hardest mixed trad climbs in the world.

Ascending The Hurting

Our ascent began at 6 am in the morning. The strong Scottish winds were already rocking the camper van and ferociously blowing around the snow. It was a sign that the bad weather we had hoped to avoid had arrived earlier than expected.

Despite my serious doubts about being able to climb in these conditions, let alone get any usable photos, we left the car park and walked to the base of the route to see if there was any shelter from the wind.

There wasn't.

The small doubts in the back of mind started to take a firmer hold in my mind. While photographers are known for doing ANYTHING to get that perfect shot, in reality, is not always possible. We are human, we are flawed , we make mistakes and we cant always get the killer shot. So when you are shooting in conditions as brutal as these, I was having to draw on all my reserves of grit and man the fuck up !

There are rarely “good condition” days in Scotland. The horrible weather is what makes climbing as well as capturing it on film so much more dramatic. As Ali and myself set up the abseil photo rope, I attached my jumars and got ready for another day at the office

The Battle of Capturing Ines' Ascent

The climb is in every sense of the word, intense. The gusts of wind spiral around, smothering us in pillows of spindrift and covering all my Canon 5D mark iii and  24-70 mark ii in seconds. 

I'm struggling to keep my lenses and camera free of the snow and ice, and counting my lucky stars that the OPTIFOG solution I used on my lenses is working and preventing any snow from leaving behind any residue.

As much as I would have loved to use two lines for this climb for different angles, the conditions would not have allowed it. There was no way I could ask Ines to just "hang on a minute" in 100 mph gusts while I jugged up and down on different lines.

Instead, I had to make the best with what I had - a climber at the top of her game about to achieve an enormous personal feat and a growing storm that came with textures both brutal and beautiful , balancing the soft lines of snow all while trying to balance the harsh reality of Scottish mixed climbing. I struggled again and again with keeping the image sharp and the camera's AF from focusing on the particles whipping around us instead of the main subject.

There were times during the ascent that I could barely see Ines even though she was only about 20 feet away. As much as I tried to use horizontal breaks and lead in lines where I could or go wide to give a sense of the surroundings, visibility remained extremely poor. There is a sense when photographing that a fleeting moment , maybe a body position or facial expression or a coming together of a brief change in weather all combine to make something special. It’s a feeling I get in my gut when I know something has come together.

Summiting The Hurting

The closer Ines climbed to the roof, the stronger the winds became. There were more times than I cared to count where I found myself holding my breath as the wind physically pushed her from side to side.

For an hour, I photographed the long powerful reaches as Ines became lost in the growing maelstrom until finally, I heard a whoop. Ines had made it to the top. There she was standing proudly on top of The Hurting - one of the hardest trad mixed routes in the world!

I put my camera away and prepared for a tough descent as the storm somehow managed to pick up even more steam.

Back down in Aviemore, we huddled safe and sound in the café eating fish and chips. The back of my camera is slowly defrosting from the ice on the back screen. I slowly scroll through the images hoping there would be something that I was happy with and that would do justice to the route. I small sense of relief starts to flow through me: ‘Yeah, I think we got a couple of shots’ I say smiling to Ines.

 

See more of Nadir's adventure photography here, and read about his exploits in Scotland and beyond on this blog.

 

EXPLORE THE GEAR USED IN THIS STORY:

Nadir uses the 37L Loka UL camera pack, combined with Medium Shallow ICU to keep his gear safe and accessible during the climb