Jon Griffith: Photographer-slash-alpinist

Jon Griffith has carved out an icy niche: he’s the alpinist-slash-photographer who brings back beautiful, scary shots of alpine climbs for us to enjoy from the warmth of our armchairs.

When Jon was growing up in London, sport wasn’t part of his world: he was groomed in economics and accountancy for a city job. But his mother dying sparked a year out in Chamonix, and his life took a completely different route. Now he’s leading the way in hard alpine climbing photography, and is Ueli Steck’s go-to photographer and climbing partner.

Jon lives in Chamonix with his fiancée Sandra, where he’s currently working on his first book: 250 pages of five-star shots and the stories behind them.

Jon Griffith Interview

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JG: Alpinism destroys your life. You can walk aimlessly about in the mountains for days at a time. When you do a big route you’re knackered for days, then all you want to do is get going again. It’s antisocial. I can’t wait to stop.

I was a terrible photographer at first. I got into photography so I could show my dad what sunrise and sunset was like at 4,000m, but I’d never heard of the ‘rule of thirds’, exposure was a nightmare and there would always be specks of dust on the slides.

I spent a sabbatical year in Chamonix working as a transfer driver. Being flexible and having free time was so awesome, I didn’t see a point in ever going home. In Chamonix, it’s Saturday every day.

On my first photography job, within two days I’d made what I earned in a month of transfer driving. I did everything right out of luck and got an iconic shot of the Kuffner Arete at sunrise with a sea of clouds below. I went on holiday straight away with my girlfriend and spent it all.

Ten years ago I couldn’t have been Ueli Steck’s photographer. There’s no way he’d have even tied on to a rope with me. Mountain photography is pretty easy: it’s just about clever timing. The hardest thing is becoming a good enough climber so you can get to cool places, move faster and get more shots.

Ueli is the ultimate rope gun, it’s unreal. You feel chilled, no matter what condition a route is in. You don’t want to always give your partner the crux lead but with Ueli you totally can, without feeling the slightest guilt. He won’t even notice it.

I move quickly to take photos because I want to catch climbers bent over their axes looking like crap. That’s what alpine climbing is like. When people realise they have a camera on them suddenly their helmet is straight and they look like a proud stag on a mountain.

When I climbed the Peuterey Integral in a single push with Jeff Mercier, a rock split my helmet in two. He doesn’t speak any English, but I became convinced he was an American tourist. When he didn’t understand me I tried an American accent. It was interesting to keep pushing on.

The scariest moment of my life was that ‘altercation’ on Everest. A few guides intervened and that saved us. But all the clients were on this moraine ridge just taking videos. We were like: can’t you just help us? The flip-side is that some guiding companies tried to downplay what happened, then these videos of Sherpas throwing big rocks at us and beating us to the ground came out.

Everest really opened my eyes to the horrible side of climbing. There’s no climbing on Everest. There’s 10km of fixed highway to the top. You could run up through the ice fall to 6,500m in trainers. I don’t think you can climb an 8,000er with oxygen these days and claim the ascent.

There aren’t many 7,000ers left unclimbed, but there’s Link Sar in the Charakusa Valley of Pakistan. I’ve tried to climb it three times. Last time was like pushing the boat out then hacking it apart with an axe. We got caught in a storm for three days and sat on a rock in an open bivi on a north face, getting drenched while it kept avalanching. Then we kept going. It felt really out there.

The Karakoram is the greatest mountain range on Earth. Imagine the same steep, cool mountains as Chamonix but on a much bigger scale and with no-one there. Pakistan feels gnarly before you even get to the mountains, too; even getting a visa is a gruelling process.

I don’t believe in this ‘He died doing what he loved bullshit.’ I don’t want to die. Slipping stupidly while soloing easy terrain; an ice axe slipping out of a crack; falling into a crevasse unroped and having no phone reception; a rock falling silently on your head. These things could eventually kill me, but I’m absolutely not OK with that.

Most people leave Chamonix after three or four years because they need a work drive in life. Even with even the most obsessed climbers, after a while you can see they are thinking: I’m wasting my professional life away, I should get a proper job.

There’s never a good time for climbers to have kids, but I’m definitely going to have them soon. I think it makes people better socially. I wouldn’t want my kids to climb as much as I do though. My Dad thinks I spend my time walking up easy 4,000m peaks. He’ll be terrified when he sees my new book.

Interview: Sarah Stirling. Photo: Jon Griffith at the very sharp end: shooting a new route on the Grande Jorasses this September. Bleeding eye thanks to a chunk of ice; photo thanks to Bertrand Delapierre. Find out more at www.alpineexposures.com.