As a climber on The North Face team, it has always inspired me to attend these ultra races, and especially the ones in Chamonix, one of the most impressive meccas for mountain culture anywhere on Earth.
Shit, I’ve overshot the road again. I must have gone the wrong way down the creek … .
Finally I think I’m on the right track, jogging now through the drizzle. Then, something distracts me out of the corner of my eye: glowing orange god-beams of light protruding through the thick fog. These kind of things affect me like a moth to light, and I stop to follow the source to an ancient-looking stone building with deep inset windows that are like peering into a cave.
Inside the cave I see weathered, wooden walls adorned with whimsical mountain paintings and copper sculptures of all shapes and sizes. Then the mad artist himself, skinny, limping, frazzled, pacing back and forth in his lair. It took me a few seconds to come out of the trance of the moment, of the cultural experience, but then it all clicked: I know this guy, I know this place.
This is the studio of my friend Andy Parkin, the British climber and artist who has lived in the Chamonix valley for more than 30 years. I had read of his climbs and exploratory expeditions for years. He made early ascents of remote Himalayan giants and pushed the limits of hard alpinism in Chamonix in the early, formative days. His life was driven by climbing until a traumatic accident shifted his focus to art and he quickly became just as known for his mountain paintings and sculptures as his first ascents.
To this day Andy remains active in both art and climbing as a respected pillar of the community. This year he has been working for six months to create a starling body of work: 30 trophies to be awarded at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. For the materials for these sculptures, Andy heads up onto the Chamonix glaciers and reclaims metal from old cable cars, rock crystals, and gnarled glacial driftwood.
The next day I showed up back at the historic mill-house studio with Tim Malone, Head of Content at The North Face, so Tim could meet Andy and absorb his space. As it turned out, our chalet was serendipitously less than a five-minute walk from Andy’s studio.
“I haven’t slept for a week, excuse me. I’m prepping for the trophy exhibition tonight. I don’t think I can form a complete thought right now,” Andy slurred as he limped across the dusty room, his skinny sickly arms poking out of his T-shirt.
We let him have a moment, to space out and drift.
“How did that last expedition go?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Andy sprung to life and told us why he looks so f*cked up, gave us a gory description of breaking his back and sacrum in an avalanche last year on an expedition to climb one the highest unclimbed Himalayan peaks on Earth. Riveted, we left him to his devices in preparation for the show.
Later that night, after the party started, Brandon Baker (The North Face Photo and Video Producer) and Shane Dunne (The North Face Senior Graphic Designer, on the scene to provide art direction) headed back to the scene. Andy had cleaned up — looking ten years younger, he was entertaining everyone from climbing dirtbags to fellow artists. We wandered around, finding each stone room had more relics: giant canvases from Nepal, life-size copper sculptures, and the UTMB trophies on a suspended piece of glass lit from above. At 2 a.m., we stumbled home, inspired.
In the following week before the race, we visited Andy several more times, each time looking deeper into his world. The day we planned to shoot him working with fire and metal on a trophy was a torrential downpour, with the river beside the studio threatening the building.
As Andy worked on his outdoor anvil through the storm, molten metal steam peeled off in puffs around him. Tim Kemple, Blake Hendrix, and I moved around the space with our lenses bouncing between Andy and the rich textures of his shop. By the time he finished the copper figure, Andy was shivering and our cameras were borderline water-damaged. We retreated inside, where Andy stoked the fire and told an even richer version of his near-death epic from last year. We listened.
“Curiosity, I can’t live without it,” Andy confided, hugging the warmth from the stove. “It keeps me, as the French say, in a state of ‘déséquilibre, of imbalance, or on the edge of finding balance, like my trophies. There’s no end to it — I’ll always be curious.”