"You’ll never know unless you go!"
That’s the smartass tagline that tail-ended 3 years of my Trail Ninja films — those short, GoPro destination films that were love or hate, depending on your flavour of humour and willingness to endure.
But that same tagline is also the ethos that shapes my bike riding and my photography.
Adventure photographers are like those leather-handed gold prospectors driven to scour the vast American wilderness in search of pillaging opportunities of old. We know that peeking over the next ridge might strike gold… or it might lead you to be eaten by wolves. Okay, that's a little poetic, but you get the idea: curiosity brings home the bacon and all that, give or take a dead cat or two, as the mixed metaphors go.
While a need to make a living, along with scruffy beards, a disconnect with fashion and familiarity with perpetually cold hands are common to both prospectors and adventure photographers, our rewards are different. Yes we're bot in search of nugs, but to me looking over that next ridge has more to do with curiosity. I’m curious to know how the most southern trail in the world rides or if the people of North Korea like wheelies, and which one of us will snap first when my team faces another long rock garden trudge.
Driven by this inane, perverse curiosity, 2018 was another year of fresh experiences for me —one of pioneering trips, rides and new adventure features to shoot. The full stories are out in various print and online media, but here's a round up of 2018 — an insight into what a year can look like if you let curiosity tempt you. But if you choose to be tempted, be prepared for some cold, calloused hands and a life in which the word ‘fashion’ is irrelevant.
La Puna, Argentina, January 2018
Argentina is a place that’s been close to my heart and my adventures for 30 years now. So when Trek asked where we could chisel out a solid, challenging adventure that would admirably support their new Full Stache
bike launch, Argentina was at the top of my list.
I teamed up with local guide Francisco from Jujuy En Bici
to plan a pioneering ride in the wild, mountainous high plateau area of La Puna in Argentina’s desert north. We swapped notes on possible routes until settling for a tough 3-day ride following a trail hoofed into the dirt over a thousand years ago, but now little used. This 75 Kilometre strand of singletrack would lead us between a handful of villages —left nigh on deserted by the closure of local mines— that see almost zero tourism, and certainly no bikes. And all the time we’d never drop much below 4000 metres until the final hard-won descent. Joined by Travis Brown and Will Ritchie we rode this desert trail, puffing our way over 4300m passes, freewheeling through slot canyons and sleeping our nights in local houses or in tents. I’d ride it all again tomorrow if I was given the chance.
Navarino Island, Chile, January 2018
The world is shrinking but if you look hard enough you’ll still find trails that still have as yet to experience the loving caress of mountain bike tyres before. Often the reason such places have resisted an influx of us whooping, endorphin-intoxicated, wheelie-pulling hoodlums is that they just sit just off the safe, established radar, and as a species we riders are too lazy. But sometimes it’s because they sound like they would be hell.
Both apply to Navarino Island — home of the most southern hiking trail in the world. It can snow on any day of the year here. But I wanted to see what this Chilean outpost was like, and if it could become the new Finale Ligure, albeit without the gelato or a sea warm enough to swim without first being coated in lard.
I put word out of my intentions and armed with a job for Panasonic to shoot them some camera-proving images to help launch their G9 I bought my ticket. Figuring that selling a story consisting solely of selfies might not prove to too popular, I had Javier Aguilar, Dennis Beare, Ryan Stimac and Daniel Franco join me.
We teamed up with the island’s sole rider, Claudio Osorio to dive deep into the Dientes de Navarino Mountains. We found a place of immense beauty, some incredible if adventurous riding, and a local Mayor keen as mustard to build new bike trails — all a long way from the image of ‘hell’ conjured up by the region’s fierce weather. Finale Ligure, watch out!
Ainsa, Spain, June 2018
Everyone knows Ainsa, right? But how about the region around it? In June I delved into the mountains around Ainsa to explore its countless trails and the potential for it becoming a serious adventure escape for mountain bikers. Teaming up with Blacktown Trails
for the logistics we found world-class backcountry riding, good beer, free camp spots and a use for waterproofs (hey it is the mountains after all). Check out the earlier photo feature on Pinkbike here
Switzerland, July 2018
Switzerland is one of those places that have always sat a little off my radar —maybe it was just a little too close to home, a little too unadventurous sounding to make me want to dive right in. But that changed this year. Throughout July I dropped in on a handful of different Swiss resorts and areas to see how their riding is, and then puzzle why their trails are not busier. Riding Ticino, Zermatt, Davos, Grindelwald, Visp and Val d’Anniviers, I found some of the most flowing trails on the planet with some easily-accessed adventure overnighters to boot. It’s no plot-spoiler to say that Switzerland has the nugs.
Scotland, July 2018
I’ll jump at any excuse to spend time in Scotland so long as they don’t demand me to go in mid-summer, when the midges are hungry and the rain is plentiful. So when my long time clients and friends at Endura announced they wanted me to nail their annual photoshoot on Scottish home turf in mid-summer, I was more nervous than curious.
I’ve shot around Glen Coe a few times before — but usually as part of another endeavour, say riding through it as part of a Fort Bill to Glasgow romp on the West Highland Way, or being head butted by a stag
, I knew the area has solid riding and amazing photo potential if the weather plays ball. And it did. Scotland saw no rain for 7 weeks, until the day I got there. But remember about clouds and silver linings: at least the midges aren’t out when it’s raining. But come rain or shine, faced with one of the most magnificent backdrops on earth, it’s hard for a photographer not to see Scotland as the visual goldmine it is.
Kyrgyzstan, August 2018
A few years ago I spent a week staying in a yurt and splitboarding the mountains of this central Asian country. Overnighting at a family homestay gave me a snapshot of the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people, and travelling the country gave me a sniff of the horse-culture that has shaped the potential for mountain biking on the trails it has created. I knew I had to go back with the bike, but it took me the intervening years to work out a focus and a plan for a trip.
Working with Euan Wilson at H+I
, we collared a local guide to work out a pioneering mountain bike traverse of the Alai Mountains, in the south west of the country. Our plan was an 8-day singletrack ride finishing at the foot of Lenin Peak, Kyrgyzstan’s second highest mountain. And to make it look good we brought in the inexhaustible energies of Red Bull’s Rene Wildhaber and Tom Oehler as riders and the creativity of Douglas Tucker to capture it all on video
North Korea, September 2018
In September I shot what is seen as possibly the most outlandish (and certainly in some camps the most contentious) mountain bike trip anyone has ever done: to North Korea.
Shrouded in myths, fears and skepticism, North Korea is about as far off the conventional destinations bucket list as you can get. But I was curious — curious to see inside this secretive, little known, little-understood country. I was curious about what we would find, curious whom we would meet and curious about how I would photograph it. And bikes would be our excuse to go. Needless to say the story would be a ‘first’ — that was a given.
I’ve always argued that the best way to get a better understanding of a place is to see it for yourself. This trip had nothing to do with glory seeking or bravado; our agenda was to see if mountain biking could break down barriers here like it does when we travel to so many other ‘remote’ or ‘exotic’ or ‘challenging’ places.
Evoc riders Harald Philipp and Max Schumann joined me and Secret Compass’ Tom Bodkin for 12 days of eye-opening experiences for both us and the local people we met; warm and welcoming people, fascinated and entertained by the fact that we were riding trails in their country.
And now as the story comes out in press around the world, I’m curious to see how it is received and am sure there will be both disdain and praise, and for sure a heck of a lot of trolling. So if you have any questions about why or how we went check out this Q+A here
Mont Blanc, September 2018
I’ve ridden the classic Tour Mont Blanc circumnavigation of Western Europe’s highest mountain three times before, but there’s always been room for pushing it a bit harder. This time, accompanied by fellow Yeti freaks Nate Hills and Francesco Gozio and armed with a job from Yeti to shoot its new SB130
in its natural habitat (that’s big mountains and fast trails, by the way) I re-visited the TMB with reinvigorated curiosity — this time looping in the route’s highest, more challenging and less pedal-friendly passes that had eluded me previously. The ride was a blast. The pace was fast. The adventure was fulfilling. The full photo story will drop on Yeti’s site in the spring.
So now it's 2019 and I'm balls deep in plans for another set of adventures, some distant, some close to home. Wherever they happen, one thing will be assured: that they will just make me even more curious as to what lies just that bit further beyond...
Thanks for empowering my curiosity goes to: Yeti Cycles, Shimano, Mavic, Fox, Giro, WTB, Race Face, Crank Brothers, One-Up, Alpkit, Seven Protection, Fstop, Lumix and Clif Bar.