Serendipity in the French Alps

January 20, 2012

By Denis Balibouse

noun; the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity

Going back to a previously covered event is a challenge in creativity in order not to produce the same pictures over and over again. I wondered how to achieve this before traveling to the Haute Maurienne Valley in the West of France to cover the last five stages of La Grande Odyssee sled dog race in the same location as last year.

I had taken with me what I thought would be enough equipment; 3 cameras bodies, 4 lenses, 3 tripods, remotes and their cables, all this packed in a robust backpack. I also took some mountain equipment (I don’t have the same fur as the dogs and the wait can be long).

An obvious way to be different is to change angles. I was lucky that the organizers were able to give us a few minutes in a helicopter every day. This helped to produce some interesting complimentary images. The key part of the 3 stages over 5 days is the polar base at the Mont-Cenis Path, a road that links France to Italy. Mushers and their dogs start the stage in the valley for about 60 to 70 kilometers and then ascend the 10 kilometer long road to the Path at 2081 m (6827 ft) where they sleep.

Last year I photographed the mushers running up the Mont-Cenis road twice during those night stages. This year I had planned to do the same. How could I be creative in complete darkness when the use of the flash would destroy all the atmosphere of the image? Last year I had noticed a giant cross about one kilometer from the summit and headed straight to it this year once we were allowed to take the chairlift up to the summit. I carefully set up two bodies and a remote flash behind the standing cross and proceeded to shoot a few test pictures in order to include the headlight for the longest time possible. I knew the mushers would arrive soon and with 13 still left in the competition I would not have many attempts before getting my desired shot.

Once I was done setting up I noticed noise and light coming from a snow machine behind me on the other side of the mountain. I began to become suspicious when I saw them stopping every 200 meters or so. They would usually be the forerunners making sure all the signage was correct and in position. That meant that I was in the completely wrong place. My only option was to move quickly in the deep snow and guess another angle to find something new.

I decided to go to the other side of what probably was a farm in the summer. I could see a small tree in the snow but as the moon was not out yet I could not see any of the track, I could only guess. After a couple of mushers passed I decided to switch to the bulb exposure settings as the track was in a S shape and the mushers were taking longer than expected to “travel” through my frame.

The final result was taken with a 2 min 13 sec. exposure, a time of contemplation of a beautiful and silent landscape and the interaction between the mushers and their dogs.

Serenity after serendipity in the French Alps and I have a good reason to go back next year; the cross is waiting for me.

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