Mountains in Focus

Ben Nevis – The North Face

In 1981 I moved to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, at the very foot of Ben Nevis, and I lived there for six years. During this time I came to know the mountain’s many moods and frequently climbed it by a variety of routes. Like so many other climbers before me, it was the north face of Ben Nevis which held the greatest fascination. Extending for over two kilometres, it contains some of the country’s finest rock architecture and supports many of its most challenging mountaineering routes.

Over the next twenty years I took numerous separate photographs of individual features and sections of the face in both 35mm and 645 format, but none ever conveyed the sheer power, grandeur and enormity of the mountain. But when I started to work with the Fuji GX617 in 1999 I soon realised its potential with a view to capturing the entire north face of Ben Nevis in one complete shot. Here at last was a format which would do the mountain justice and produce a print large and detailed enough for climbers and walkers to be able to identify almost all the best known and most popular routes upon it. 

I carefully planned the shoot using as much technology as was available to me at the time; remember, in those days the internet was still in its infancy. Trignometrical data helped me to identify the very specific and perfect viewpoint without physically having to wander up and down the slopes of neighbouring peaks in advance. Sun altitude and azimuth tables provided information on sunlight and shadow on the face. Mid summer was obviously the optimal time in which to take the shot; during the month of June the rising sun not only illuminates every ridge and gully of the face but also much of the Allt a’Mhuillin glen beneath as well.

The one parameter beyond my control was the weather. Excellent visibility was essential – so I enlisted the help of local meteorologists to provide me with an up-to-date and reliable forecast of the conditions on the summit of the mountain. This was no easy task for them either, as the mountain has a reputation for attracting bad weather and is clear less than 30 days per year.

The meteorologists finally gave me the ‘all clear’ on the evening of 20th June 2001. The following dawn – the longest day of the year and perfect for my shot – was expected to be calm and see the mountain clear of all mist and cloud. 

I set off, alone, at 3.15 am heavily laden with camera gear and tripod. By 6.45 am, using my large scale map, compass and GPS, I had established my position at the planned location, twenty metres below the adjacent summit of Carn Dearg Meadhonach. I set the camera up on the tripod, fitted a centre-spot neutral density and a skylight filter, and charged it with Fuji Velvia Professional ISO 50 film. I had some refreshment, then watched, and waited for the sun to rise high enough to light up the Coire Leis, at the foot of the North Face of Ben Nevis.

Over a 10-minute period commencing at 7.25am BST, I shot 36 images – using a range of different exposure settings – capturing 4 images to each roll of 120 film. Towards the end of the shoot, light cloud was already begining to drift into the corrie of the Allt a’Mhuillin even at this early hour, and shortly after this shot was taken the mountain disappeared from view.

Examination of the developed film would subsequently reveal that the best results were obtained on the image exposed at 1/8th of a second with an aperture setting of f32. The image measured 56mm x 168mm – a transparency with a surface area ten times the size of its 35mm equivalent. 

The final image captures all the main features of the mountain. It includes, the North East Buttress, Observatory Ridge, Observatory Buttress, Tower Ridge, Coire na Ciste, Carn Dearg Buttress, The Castle and the major gullies. The summit cairn and trig point can just be seen above the ascending line of Observatory Buttress.

The first commercially available print of the entire North Face of Ben Nevis in a single image was published just four weeks later.

Date : 21st June (Mid Summer’s Day)
Location Map Reference : NN 17555 72686 : Carn Dearg Meadhonach.
Time : 0635 GMT