From Alaska to the Alps and beyond – Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker

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Whymper and his conquest of the Matterhorn, Mallory and his love story with Everest, J.M.W. Turner and his stunning watercolours, are but a few examples of the fascination of the British people with the Alps.   Nowadays, 10% of the population of Chamonix is made up by UK citizens.   Alongside many tourists who flock to this resort from all over the world, this contributes to the creation of a truly international environment.

The reason why I decided to catch up with Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker, however, was not to hear why they chose Chamonix as their base – an obvious choice to most people – but rather to discover the interesting story of two passionate mountain aficionados, who decided to follow their dreams and set up a mountain guide company, Vertigo Guides (www.vertigoguides.com)

While in Sheffield for the cool festival Shaff (www.shaff.co.uk), I discovered Moonflower http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3k7iE_ZD1Os   and http://www.posingproductions.com/product.php?form_action=detail&product_id=248  a stunning film about their adventure on Mount Hunter’s north buttress, Moonflower, in Alaska.   I was intrigued and met them at the Ice Climbing Opening in Cogne last December.

How did Vertigo guides come about? Did you meet in Chamonix?

Matt: We are both from the UK, but we didn’t even meet there. We had mutual friends and the first time we were both tied to a rope together was on an expedition to Alaska. We hadn’t climbed on rock and neither ice together, before then.

Jon: Eight years ago I qualified as a mountain guide, then Matt did the same. We had been on many expeditions together, we had a similar vision of what we wanted to do as guides, which is to attract people who are passionate about the mountains, and want to have fun in an environment they cherish, as opposed to accompany people on, say, Mont Blanc,  and then say goodbye to them. You develop a relationship with your clients, you may go climbing with them in one season, then go skiing in the other, so a bond is created.

Are most of your clients UK based?

Matt: No, not really. We certainly work with many English people, but also Scandinavian ones, especially as far as skiing is concerned. Our client pool is not very big, but it’s made up by people who enjoyed themselves with us and decided to come back.  If you want to be busy all year round, you don’t necessarily need large numbers of clients, if these keep coming back. And this is what is happening with us.

Jon: We also decided not to employ other people. If somebody calls us and we are both too busy, we’ll just have to turn down the offer and tell the clients to wait. We develop a very personal relationship with our clients, so telling them to go with somebody else wouldn’t be very fair as we would have no way of controlling the level of service, which we know we can offer.

Matt: It also takes some time to build a client relationship, and it is vital for us to have a sort of personal touch with our clients. Wherever they come from, we have to make sure they feel comfortable with us, and that can only happen if we maintain this personal approach. This is something the big agencies rarely offer. There, you end up paying lots of money without even knowing who you are going to be with; you meet your guide on the first day, and are not even sure that you are going to get on with him. It is something different from what we offer, which seems to work for us quite well.

Jon: We also work on a one-to-one or maximum one-to-two approach as far as climbing is concerned, no more than that, and that guarantees a professional attitude. With skiing, you may take up to four people, but certainly not eight like we see happening elsewhere.   We are also lucky in that we can follow what we want to do, as well. Not simply ski the Vallée Blanche and stop for a pic-nic or a photo shoot. We want to be with people who love skiing and enjoy the experience in its entirety.

Do you find the time to develop your own projects?

Matt: Yes, we are lucky in that we are always able to do that. Guiding is of course very important to us, but our own personal climbing is relevant just as well.

Jon: We are so passionate about our activities, but you have to keep going to maintain the passion alive. We don’t want our mountain guiding to become just an ordinary job, where even clients detect a loss of interest in the guide they are with. We want to enjoy what we do and share our enthusiasm. We guide to live and live to guide.

Matt: A very nice slogan I would say!

Yes, it is indeed! Can you tell me about the Moonflower project?

Jon:  A very good friend of mine, sadly now passed away, was keen on pushing standards; he had this idea of new line on the north buttress of Mount Hunter in Alaska and he shared this idea with me. We tried the line once, then I got Matt to come with me. The quality of the climbing there ranks among the best in the world, so it was a superb adventure.   Alastair Lee, a film-maker from the UK (www.posingproductions.com) wanted to get involved in the project, he sent a cameraman with us and did some filming. This added a new dimension to the whole thing, and although that meant a lot of extra work, the end result was excellent.

Did the filming of your adventure pose some issues?

Jon: Well, with the film, we were able to develop marketing projects, which a mere selection of photos wouldn’t allow you to do.  We could capture the emotions and a viewer can experience the vibe, the atmosphere surrounding the actions, so we were satisfied with the film.

Matt: There are obviously different forms of climbing, and trying to capture two people climbing on a face is really hard.   Sometimes you are in such remote locations, that even getting a cameraman is a big issue, so filming two people climbing a delicate single pitch of ice-climbing, for instance, is extremely challenging.   And of course if it’s just the two us and have to do the filming ourselves, that poses quite a few problems.  You have to belay and are focused on the climbing itself, you don’t necessarily want to think about the best viewpoint, the light conditions, the perfect shot which will give you the finest results.

Jon: We are lucky in that we have sponsors who allow us to develop our own projects, but we also have an obligation towards them and have to deliver specific reports. Sometimes, however, it is good to go climbing without any camera and just think about the climbing itself, just enjoy its beauty.

Matt: During an expedition, you often have to create blogs and update them regularly. That’s an added conundrum, an added stress on top of the climbing itself.

Jon: Before the internet became so widespread, going on an expedition really meant cutting yourself off from the rest of the world for a few months with no form of contact, making the experience quite wild. You can’t avoid the internet these days, of course, and it’s certainly an excellent way of promoting what you do, so you have to learn to accept these types of changes.

Do you find your idea of mountaineering and your values are always portrayed in the correct way?

Jon: Well, sometimes it is frustrating because trying to put down in words what mountaineering means to you is very difficult. You may see that the general concept of mountaineering is not akin to what you think.  There may be people with set ideas and they think that alpinism is just about Mount Everest, considered the pinnacle of achievements. We don’t share this view.

Matt: It is surely the highest mountain in the world, but it does not play such a big role for us, especially when one sees what a big show goes along with it, one we feel we don’t want to be part of. We love technical climbing, that’s where our passion lies.

Jon: For this reason, capturing our emotions on film gives us an excellent opportunity to educate the public towards our own ideas.

What about your future projects?

Matt: We are going to the Nepal next September to pursue two different projects. In the Himalayas, you are never too sure of being able to tail your ideas, perhaps the face is not in condition, or your permit is not valid if you change your plans and want to move to a different area, so having two projects should give us more of a chance of success.

Jon: The peak is over 7.000 m. and the face is 2.000 m, so a big Alpine Project.

We will also have a film crew with us. We would like to have a rather different approach and they will film with drones, which have become more and more widespread and are certainly effective.

Excellent. When can we expect to see the film?

Matt: Ideally for the festival in Kendal, but we’ll see! As we are going in September and the festival is in November, there will be a lot of hard work for the film-makers, but they are young, motivated and like to push themselves!

Jon: Thanks to them, we will be able to focus on the climbing, which is what we enjoy the most.

Jon and Matt are sponsored by Patagonia, Black Diamond, Adidas-Eyewear, Osprey, Scarpa, Maximuscle, K2.

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J.M.W. Turner, From Sarre looking towards Aymaville, Val d’Aosta, 1836, Watercolour, bodycolour and scratching out on paper, Cop. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 2003

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