Ben Tibbetts, adventure photographer and IFMGA mountain guide, has now become the second British climber to summit all 82 of the 4,000m Alpine peaks recognised by the UIAA. However, the accolades to the achievement were only secondary to his goal to finish off his long-term project, the beautiful photo guidebook Alpenglow.
Adventure photographer, artist, and IFMGA mountain guide, Ben Tibbetts has all the talents needed to capture remote mountain peaks at their best. Some of you may already be familiar with his work, as he’s been providing readers of Summit with deeply immersive features already. His articles combine all his skills: fantastic photography, technical details, and historical background on the best routes up a number of peaks over 4,000m in the Alps.
After years of struggle, tough climbs, and gruelling hours in the office, Ben has completed his mission to climb all of the 82 recognised 4,000m Alpine peaks in the UIAA list and become the second Brit to do so. However, it turns out the driving force behind it all was not the challenge or game, but merely to document his journeys up beautiful Alpine peaks to create a large-format photo guidebook called ALPENGLOW, which is now available for preorder on Kickstarter.
It’s an incredible achievement to climb all these mountains and produce such an amazing book, so we caught up with Ben to find out where his inspiration came from, and why.
Tell us about Alpenglow, did the idea for the book or the challenge come first?
Six years ago I wanted to commit myself to a long-term photography project to focus my ideas and work practice. It started off as a vague notion of making a book of routes all across the Alps. From the outset I was much more focussed on the journey though and the quality of the routes than reaching certain summits. The shift to focus onto just the 4,000m peaks was actually the idea of a fellow guide, Rob Collister. The 4,000s provided a much more defined objective to focus on, the challenge then was to choose a selection of routes that steered away from the busiest and easiest routes. The 4,000s also lend themselves to photography as they are the highest peaks in each area and catch the sunrise first!
When did you decide to climb specifically the UIAA list of 82 x 4,000m?
I’m really not that interested in the specific details of each list. I was so focussed on climbing and photographing the routes rather than reaching a ‘list’ of summits that when we did the Diables ridge on Mont Blanc du Tacul last year we passed straight by L’Isolée as there was a queue of climbers. It was only this summer that I realised I only had a couple of odd summits remaining to complete the UIAA list, that has become the ‘standard’ list, so we went back to ‘collect’ L’Isolée by descending the ridge from the summit… which was a bit ridiculous. I didn’t realise until I finished that I was only the second Brit to climb all the 82 peaks, after Steve Hartland in 2016. That is not to forget however the outstanding non-stop traverse in 52 days of a slightly different list by Martin Moran and Simon Jenkins in 1993.
Diables ridge on the Mont Blanc du Tacul. Photo: Ben Tibbetts
Does the book cover the easiest route on each peak?
From the outset the project was about trying to find the best route up each peak. I was looking not for the easiest or hardest routes, but often avoiding the best known routes in favour of hidden gems. I asked a lot of climbers and guides from different regions to help me come up with a list that represents a broad cross section of styles and difficulty.
How long has it taken?
Six years from the earliest ideas of the book, but four years really full on.
Who did you find your inspiration from?
Gaston Rebuffat’s 100 Finest Routes in the Mont Blanc Massif was an obvious inspiration, but also Ken Wilson’s Classic, Hard and Extreme Rock. I like the format of combining guidebook information with stories and photos to create something that really inspires people to dream big.
What were the technical complications in regards to photographing your ascents?
I get a lot of satisfaction from getting interesting photos at dawn and sunrise, (or on longer routes sunset and dusk!). Even in the last six years the development of camera sensors has been remarkable and I can now shoot clean images with just a glimmer of light – something that was barely possible even a decade ago. Because these images still require careful control and a steady hand they remain tricky and therefore both unusual and exciting. Even at the beginning of this project this was barely possible so I’ve been fortunate to shoot so much of this book with such new and powerful tools.
The Dent Blanche in just a glimmer of light. Photo: Ben Tibbetts
And what were the logistical complications?
Obviously carrying a massive camera and a couple of lenses adds a fair bit of weight. Also to get good shots at dawn you need to be somewhere interesting at that time, which means getting up even earlier than everyone else so you aren’t just plodding across a glacier at sunrise! My partners and I have literally lost a lot of sleep over this project!
What peak was the hardest? The easiest? And the most fun?
Physically the hardest was a long traverse of the whole Mont Blanc massif I did with Colin Haley earlier this year. We started in Champex in the north and skied and climbed non-stop to Contamines in the south, passing over Mont Blanc and Bionnassay and covering 6,800m height gain. The easiest is probably Pollux as one would be struggling to find a hard way up, though we came down a fun way by skiing the south-west face at sunset. To decide which was the most fun is tricky as loads of them are really good fun. Though I have done it a bunch of times the Kuffner Arete still stands out for me as good honest fun… and we got the cover image there!
Which ascent was the most memorable?
That’s a tricky question as many are burnt onto my memory as big unforgettable experiences. Three days with Victor Saunders and Mick Fowler on the Mönch and Jungfrau was pretty amusing though.
Did you have to turn back from an ascent at any point?
Oh, wow… yeah… lots. I was already very conservative when deciding to set out for a route, but even then I think a fifth of the routes required more than one attempt.
Any close calls along the way?
Hmm… yeah, quite a few unfortunately. Better read the book to find out!
Best climbing partner?
My partner Valentine and I climbed 25 of the 50 routes together (and several more that got axed from the list). I can’t thank her enough for the support and willingness to get up early and then climb each route with the staccato rhythm of a photo shoot! And she’s translating the whole thing into French which is an unenviable task…!
In hindsight, would you do it all again? And if you did, what would you change?
Yes! For me that's the yardstick of an excellent route – I would happily climb any of these routes again. Some more than others for sure, but there are already many of them that I have done twice! I'm glad I didn't try to set myself some barmy challenge like doing them all in a year as the mountains are quite dangerous enough without adding external pressure. If I did it again I think I would probably take even longer over it so I could recover properly after each climb and savour each route. And who knows perhaps I would carry a lighter camera!
Ben Tibbetts works as an adventure photographer, artist and IFMGA mountain guide, specialising in remote and cold environments. Having studied Fine Art to a postgraduate level, he is obsessed with image making in wild places. Find out more about Ben on his website: www.bentibbetts.com
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