Art & Photography

The Climb: Mont Blanc Photo Essay

We preview images from photographer Samuel Bradley’s father-son climb through the Alps with the Royal Marines

4a Samuel Bradley, Mont Blanc, PORT edit
It was a few years ago that my parents started climbing mountains. I use the word climbing quite loosely – it’s more like hiking than anything. When bad weather meant they couldn’t complete their planned charity climb to Everest Base Camp, they did Annapurna and the Thorong La pass instead, which are about 5,500 metres above sea level. They’ve also summited Kilimanjaro, which at 5,895 metres is the highest freestanding mountain in the world.Though tough, Kilimanjaro consists mostly of walking and scrambling – there’s very little actual climbing. Afterwards, an opportunity to climb Mont Blanc came up. My mum, who’s not great with heights – Mont Blanc requires ice climbing and involves a lot of narrow ledges – dropped out. I took her place, and it became a father-son expedition.

14 Samuel Bradley, Mont Blanc, PORT edit
7b Samuel Bradley, Mont Blanc, PORT edit
My dad’s always been the person I call whenever I get a good commission, or need financial advice or practical information. We get on really well, so I knew the trip would be a laugh, a bonding session of sorts with plenty of opportunities for backslapping hugs. Mum always finds it funny when we do that on the driveway, saying goodbye before I go back to London, but a hug with static hands feels too soft, too gentle, too revealing.Dad and I climbed Mont Blanc with a group of Royal Marines – on the trip, I’d sometimes stop and see Dad sat there in the middle of these tough, hard men. In one shot I took, he’s there, dead centre, head slightly bowed, detached from what’s going on around him. I wonder what he was thinking in that moment, looking down at his hands. He was probably nervous: we were holed up in a hut, snow swirling outside, preparing for a night of high altitude insomnia before a 2am start in the darkness, roped up with axes and crampons.

17 Samuel Bradley, Mont Blanc, PORT edit
There was a lot of downtime on the expedition spent looking up at a mountain in a valley in Switzerland called Lauterbrunnen. It wasn’t even the mountain we’d end up climbing, but it may as well have been. It was the kind of place you’d stop and stare a lot. Everything was beautiful: a sparkling river, a snowy peak, and a low mist above the tree tops.

When we went up to the hut over the French border, we stopped and stared some more at the clouds beneath us; an icy cave; jagged crevasses; snow so blindingly white it hurt.

Then the rope would jerk, and you’d plod on, smashing your crampons down into the print of the marine in front, maintaining a constant pace and maybe taking a break at the next flat…The whole experience was very contemplative: up on the mountain, you thought about life, mortality, avalanches, weather and ropes. How tiny you were in the face of these jagged leviathans, their features hard, but softened by a festive white deceptively welcoming.

We never actually summited Mont Blanc.

The weather came in, the mountain changed and a new crevasse opened making it impossible. Actually, there were many reasons why we didn’t make it up. Instead, we summited Monch, and it never really made a difference to me until I came back to the UK. I’d felt right there at the time, in the thick of it, and as inexperienced as I was, looking down from a snowy ridge at the clouds was as wonderful and humbling from any mountainside. 8  Samuel Bradley, Mont Blanc, PORT edit
16a Samuel Bradley, Mont Blanc, PORT edit
And the fervent, backslapping hug Dad and I shared felt as familiar at 4,000 metres as any back home on the gravel driveway of my parent’s home.

Sam undertook the expedition as part of a longer term project photographing the Royal Marines. See more images from this part of the series on Facebook, andkeep up to date on Instagram @samuelbradley

“As inexperienced as I was, looking down from a snowy ridge at the clouds was as wonderful and humbling from any mountainside”