In almost a decade of writing about Scotland’s outdoors folk in this column, I’ve been on the receiving end of a perpetual avalanche of remarkable photography. It’s hard to think, though, of more than a handful of people who have captured the drama of extreme sports with the precision and panache of Nadir Khan. His new book, Extreme Scotland – A Photographic Journey Through Scottish Adventure Sports, features everything from mountain biking and trail running to kayaking and surfing. It’s the climbing and skiing images, though, which really stand out – moments of fleeting perfection snatched from the jaws of a notoriously unforgiving mountain environment.
Exhibit A: the book’s breathtaking opening sequence, which required Khan to dangle from a rope high up in Coire an t-Sneachda in the northern Cairngorms while the champion German climber Ines Papert repeated the intimidating-as-its-name-suggests trad mixed route, The Hurting (first scaled by Dave MacLeod in 2005). Thanks to snow and spindrift being hurled around by gale force winds, visibility was down to about 15 metres on the day of the shoot, and the temperature was -10C, not including windchill. In spite of all this, Khan somehow managed to capture a series of pin-sharp images of Papert’s ascent. In the foreground, the tiny, precariously shallow cracks in the rock into which she must place her crampons and ice axes are so real you feel you could reach out and touch them; in the middle distance we see Papert in a series of impossible positions as she inches her way up the almost sheer face; and in the background the vague outline of a nearby crag, barely visible through all the blowing snow, serves to emphasise the severity of the weather.
“I think that was possibly the closest I’ve ever come to thinking, ‘How on Earth can I work here?’” says Khan. “It was just horrendous. I could barely see out of the camera because it was getting covered in snow, my breath was freezing on the back screen of the camera and plus I was jumaring up a rope at the same time.
“People have said that if you can climb safely on Ben Nevis in winter you can probably climb anywhere in the world, and I think that probably applies to photography as well – if you can get useable images on the north face of Ben Nevis or in the Cairngorms you can probably work anywhere, because it’s at that level of harshness and unpredictability.
“I think some of my favourite images have been from when it’s really grim conditions, because if you can get a photograph that conveys that then it’s something people can feel – there’s a sort of visceral element to it that you don’t get when it’s blue skies and sunsets.”
Khan’s love affair with the mountains started early, although the first “mountain” he fell in love with wasn’t really a mountain at all.
“We first came to Scotland in 1967, when I was three years old,” he says. “My dad was a surgeon – my parents are Indian but he was working in Somalia. At the time the NHS was desperate for doctors, so we came first to Edinburgh and then moved to Carluke, to Law Hospital. We lived in the doctors’ flats there and there were all these old mine works round the back of the hospital. They had this bing, this slag heap, and when I saw it I just thought, ‘Wow, that looks amazing, I want to stand on the top of that.’ I guess I was about four years old then but I think I must’ve been about five when I finally climbed it.”
When Khan went to the University of Glasgow to study dentistry, he soon graduated to real mountains: “We used to pack up on Friday night or Saturday morning and just head for the hills; that was my weekend.”
It was also at around this time that his interest in photography took off. “I think I was about 18 when my dad gave me an old Canon SLR camera. It lasted two weeks before I had a fall and smashed it. I was out on my own, I think I was on the Black Mount, and I got a bit stuck on the side of this crag, lost a footing and took about a 40 foot fall, split my head, smashed the camera and ended up in Fort William Hospital. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my dad I’d smashed the camera.”
After a few years as a dentist, Khan decided to retrain as a maxillofacial surgeon. He worked in the field for a further 18 years before going part-time in 2011 so that he could devote more time to photography. Commissions soon followed for major players in the outdoors industry including North Face and Ellis Brigham, but the idea to make a photography book came first. “I can probably say that everything I’ve done career-wise has been branches that have come off that trunk,” he says.
I ask if he thinks there’s any crossover between his work as a surgeon and his work as a photographer.
“As a surgeon, you have to pre-visualise the whole operation before you start it,” he says, “you have to know exactly what the steps are and you have to do each step in sequence to get the thing to go the way you want it to go. In the book I talk about pre-visualising your images. I like to just take a bit of time and close my eyes and imagine the shot, imagine the way I want the climbers to be moving, how am I going to shoot this, what aperture, what shutter speed, what lens. Sometimes there’s almost a physical gut feeling you get when something passes through the eyepiece of the camera and you think, ‘Something just happened there.’ Then you go back and look at the image and you think, ‘That’s the one – that comes close to what I was wanting to see.’”
Extreme Scotland is published by Vertebrate, £25. Nadir Khan will discuss the book at Central Hall, Edinburgh, on 3 November as part of The Winter Opener. For tickets visit https://tinyurl.com/ychfjgyb