Interview: Photographer Hamish Frost on shooting extreme skiing in Scotland

Blair Aitken skiing close to the edge on Ben Nevis PIC: Hamish Frost

Blair Aitken skiing close to the edge on Ben Nevis PIC: Hamish Frost

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Skiers will know those moments, when the Scottish mountains and Scottish weather work together and deliver clear vistas, stunning light and pristine snow. Most of us just hope to enjoy them. Hamish Frost has made it his job to capture them in photographs. Frost, a keen skier and climber, began to take photographs seriously just two years ago, but quickly found his work getting noticed. As this winter approached, he quit his job with a Perth-based energy company to concentrate full-time on ski and adventure photography, and says he has a near-full roster of work for the forthcoming season.

Frost is also a convert to Scottish skiing and is keen to promote the best the country has to offer through his work. “Since I started ski touring, I’ve skied in Argentina, Norway and the Alps, and Scotland, if you get it on a good day, can definitely be as good as any of them. There are more and more people getting interested in ski touring, and that’s a driving force behind my photography, to show people they don’t necessarily have to go out to the Alps to have a great skiing day, they can do it closer to home.”

Kev Neal on Aonach Mor PIC: Hamish Frost

Kev Neal on Aonach Mor PIC: Hamish Frost

Frost grew up in Cambridge – “not a place you associate with skiing” – and learned to ski on family holidays and school trips to the Alps. A taste for adventure began in the Scouts with whom he travelled to the Andes, and he honed his mountain skills on subsequent climbing trips in the Alps and Himalayas. But when he moved to Glasgow to study – civil engineering at Glasgow University followed by a masters degree in global energy management at Strathclyde – he didn’t take to the Scottish hills straight away. It was only in his final year of university when a neck injury kept him out of the rugby team that he started exploring the mountains.

“It was frustrating at the time, but it was a bit of a blessing in disguise because I started to get back into climbing and skiing. I was annoyed at myself, afterwards, that I didn’t use the free time I had at university to get out into the mountains. I hope my work can inspire others to get out there, even just to go up a Munro, because it can be incredibly rewarding.”

His first skiing and climbing photographs were taken on his mobile phone, but when he saw them being shared over and over on social media, he knew he wanted to take photography more seriously. “I started to realise that was the bit I was enjoying the most, and I was inspired by seeing what other adventure sports photographers could produce on serious pieces of kit.” The phone was replaced by a small compact camera, and soon afterwards by a Nikon D810 DSLR. He now alternates between this and a lighter Sony a7 mirrorless camera. “I knew it was a tough industry to make it in, but I really wanted to give it a go, otherwise it would always be a ‘what if’ at the back of my mind.”

Last winter, he hit the slopes with the prime objective of getting the best ski shots he could, particularly off-piste. “We’ve got some good resort skiing in Scotland, but I don’t think you’re covering half of it if you only do the resort skiing. We’ve got some incredible mountains here and if you can go on adventures and explore them on skis, it’s a whole different dimension.”

Peter Mackenzie in the Cairngorms PIC: Hamish Frost

Peter Mackenzie in the Cairngorms PIC: Hamish Frost

He was soon getting lots of attention in the online ski community for a shot of his friend Peter Mackenzie skiing down the gullies at the back of CairnGorm resort. “I’d never been up there before. It was Pete’s idea. The weather forecast wasn’t looking particularly good and I wasn’t feeling hopeful about it, but Pete had this idea that it would be clear for a few hours that morning. Sure enough, we got up there and there was this incredible glowing light spilling into the gully. I had a good vantage point above it, and asked Pete to ski across a patch of snow where the figure would stand out against the landscape. Happily, he did exactly as he was told.”

He admits that the weather presents him with some of his biggest challenges. “We’re constantly checking forecasts and snow conditions to see where there might be a combination of decent snow conditions and good light. A lot of the time you’re dealing with quite claggy conditions, so you have to be a bit inventive about how you make a good photo. Quite often you’ll go out in rubbish weather and gamble that you’ll get a bit of good light coming through. You might be disappointed, but it’s worth it for the one time when you do get something good.”

Some of the best moments for photography are at dawn or dusk. In the summer he and a friend Blair Aitken set off from Coylumbridge at midnight on a bike/hike/ski adventure to catch the last snow on the Cairngorms – Frost was in the office in Perth in time for the working day to begin. On another occasion in February, he and Kev Neal camped on the top of Nevis Range in order to ski down the back corries in the morning light. “We took our camping gear up on the last ski-lift of the day and camped on the edge of the plateau. The back corries are all east-facing, and first thing in the morning, the colour and light were just incredible. Skiing the gullies at dawn was one of the best Scottish skiing experiences I’ve had. You have to go the extra mile to get those experiences.”

As an adventure sports photographer, his work is a balancing act: staying safe while getting a great picture; deciding when to protect your camera from the elements and when to shoot on the hoof; enjoying the pleasures of skiing as well as taking pictures. “Although my friends and I are trying to get great shots, the focus for our group is still going out and enjoying skiing, not spending half the day stopping trying to take photos. I think that’s important, to portray the whole thing quite honestly.”

The man behind the lens

The man behind the lens

He says his desire to take better photographs has pushed his skiing ability forward, and vice versa. “I’ve got aspirations to ski more serious terrain in order to get photos, so that is driving me to improve my skiing ability. The first time I skied gullies, the thought of getting my camera out terrified me, I was just concentrating on my own survival rather than trying to get photos on the way down. By last winter I’d got more used to it, so I was comfortable about stopping midway, getting my camera out and getting photos.”

Adventure sports, particularly climbing, he says, is about facing fears. “I’m naturally a bit scared of heights, like most people, but one of the things I enjoy about the skiing, the climbing, is managing that fear, overcoming it, keeping it under control so that you can climb and ski. It can be quite rewarding if you go and climb or ski something that terrifies you and manage to do it.” ✱

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