Manoeuvring through the Munros: Hamish Frost

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Scotland isn’t necessarily the first place you’d think of when you think of winter sports. But for Hamish Frost, it has an irresistible pull. We spoke to Hamish to hear more about his story, Manoeuvring through the Munros, to hear more about mountaineering in the Highlands and his experience quitting his job to become an adventure sports photographer.

I grew up in Cambridge – far south of the border! But I moved to Glasgow for university when I was 18. While I was at uni, I got really into exploring the Highlands, anything from hiking, scrambling and fell running, to more technical sports like climbing, mountaineering and ski touring. Basically, I got involved in anything that allowed me to be out in the hills!

After graduating, I started a job in the energy sector. Around the same I started properly ski touring and quickly got totally hooked, spending almost all of my spare time exploring the Highlands on skis. During the spring, when days got longer and there was still snow on the mountains, I’d regularly find myself racing over to Glen Coe after work, just making it over in time to climb to the top of a Munro and ski one line before sunset.

I started taking my camera out with me every time I went and posting on social media. Before long I was getting offers for photography work and it wasn’t long before I started entertaining ideas that it was something I could actually make a living out of. Six months later, I took the decision to leave a good, stable job with a regular income and good prospects, to follow an uncertain career path, working from job-to-job as a mountain photographer. It was the biggest decision I’d ever made. Yet, at the same time it was an easy one to make. I’ve been a professional photographer for three years now.

I find the creative process of trying to produce exciting images in tough and inhospitable environments really appealing. If it’s a particularly cold or wet day, then you’re fighting the conditions trying to look after yourself and keep your camera kit working. If the best position for a shot is halfway up a cliff face, then you’ve got to work through the logistics of getting to that position. I also love the physical challenge – being fit enough to lug lots of camera gear around and stay motivated to keep pushing the shutter button even when you’re exhausted – maybe also a little scared – and overall would probably rather be anywhere but there. I think the combination of all these aspects is what draws me to this genre of photography over anything else.

Photographing people, I generally have some sort of company on the mountain for most of the day. But I also have to do a fair amount of mountaineering by myself in order to get in position to get the shots that I – and my clients – want. But I do really enjoy those parts of the day. In contrast to the increasingly chaotic world we live in, the mountains are quite a simple place to be. You’re just focussed on looking after yourself and achieving whatever objective you’ve set out for yourself during the day. There are consequential decisions to be made out on the mountain, but no red tape to govern what you do. It can be very therapeutic.

That being said, if you’re out on your own, you do have to reign in your risk level slightly. If you get into trouble or something goes wrong, then you’re on your own and you haven’t got anyone to help you out of that situation, so you obviously have to take more care and be more cautious. I feel as though – as an adventure sports photographer – there is a fair amount of chat around what we do and whether athletes take more risks when they’re performing for the camera. That’s something I think about a lot. I think it’s an impossible thing to get away from, as generally when you point a camera at someone there’s a reasonable chance that it’ll have some impact on their behaviour. But I’m pretty clear with any athletes I go out with that I don’t want them taking unnecessary risks just to make a good shot, and this is why I usually prefer working with people who I have a relationship with and trust to stay within their own acceptable risk levels. I make a point of regularly reminding people whilst out on shoots to not go doing anything they might end up regretting!

I think that the best shots are the photos that make you want to be there – or be anywhere but there. Expeditions, they seem to offer the best storytelling opportunities. And so when Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson asked me to photograph their expedition climbing Bidean nam Bian – describing it as ‘unfinished business’ – I knew I had to accept. Guy and Greg had invited me along to get some photos of them trying a new winter route on Bidean nam Bian. They’d been casually vague about their objectives for the day just asking me to get to the car park at 5.30am. It’s nice to be able to do a bit of planning before photographing a climb, however I also enjoy the challenge of having to improvise on the hill. Reaching the foot of the imposing Church Door Buttress just before first light, their ‘unfinished business’ became apparent. The summer line ‘Lost Arrow Direct’ – an impossibly steep looking series of cracks and roofs leading up the cliff.

The weather that day had been poor for photos, however I knew that if the clouds were to clear slightly, then the west face of Stob Coire nan Lochan might come into view in the background. I waited patiently for a few hours and sure enough, just as Guy was making good progress on the third pitch, the clouds broke momentarily and I was able to get the shot I’d hoped for. Four hours later, Guy completed a sequence of grade 10 moves (in the dark!) to pull through a final roof section and top out on the route. The photo ended up being nominated for the Red Bull Illume Awards and getting shortlisted into the top 60! So was a pretty incredible experience all round.

For me, Scotland is always going to have a hold. As I said, a good adventure photo should make you, as the viewer, either want to be there, or want to be anywhere but there. During the winter months, the Scottish Highlands provide ample opportunities to capture both of those sentiments in an image. Although the mountains in the Highlands aren’t nearly as big as in other parts of the world, what they lack in size, they certainly make up for in wildness and seriousness. The scenery in Scotland is quite unique and the mountains dramatic and wild. It’s got a special charm that other places don’t have. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it!

To read more about Hamish’s experiences in the Scottish Highlands, click here.