5 minutes with Mario Colonel: the Man behind the Lens
Mario Colonel, 60, is a professional mountain photographer, gallery owner, journalist and author of 26 mountain books. Colonel's famous panorama of the Mont Blanc massif is the inspiration behind Altitude Gin’s new bottle design. From personal tragedy to triumph, Mario speaks candidly about his life in the mountains and the epiphany that gave his life meaning.
Q. You grew up in the city of Grenoble, what was your earliest childhood memory?
MC: Despite growing up at the foot of the Vercors massif, which is a magnificent limestone massif, my family didn’t climb mountains. My first striking childhood memory is when I was 5 years old, in 1966 – when I first discovered the snow, the cold, the skiing, and the hot chocolate in Megève! I used to sleep with my skis!
Q. Mountaineering is a huge part of your life, how old were you when you climbed your first mountain?
MC: My friend Jérôme introduced me to the high mountains when we were 17. He wanted to be a guide and he was so enthusiastic that he literally infected me and opened the doors to an incredible world. We travelled to the heart of the Massif des Écrins, to climb the Pic Coolidge, a classic summit at 3,774m altitude. What I discovered up there was so dazzling (adventure, friendship, freedom) that I never turned back. Tragically, Jérôme died in a car accident, aged 23. He was a great friend and gave meaning to my entire life.
Since that first ascent, the mountains have structured my life. I lived through the hippie era, had long hair and felt like the world was open. I was barely a few years younger than those who revolutionised pop culture! However, wispy worlds were never for me. You had to stay in shape to climb the summits!
Q. You arrived in Chamonix in 1982 to be a guide and photographer, but opted to be a photographer for the last 40 years. The panoramic photograph that wraps around the new Altitude Gin Is a masterpiece, tell us why it's special to you.
MC: I've climbed Mont Blanc more than 25 times on six different routes, but like many others, I have a special attachment to this summit. I even took my son there when he was 15, after his cross-country skiing competition in Peru. The photo chosen for Altitude Gin, for its high contrast and deep shadows, was taken from a helicopter where you can discover new angles and can move quickly and safely, especially in bad weather.
Q. Who and what was your source of inspiration for photography?
MC: As a teenager I had a poster of one of Pierre Tairraz ‘s famous Mont Blanc massif photographs in my bedroom. Like Tairraz, I put mountaineers and skiers in the background in my work, just to give scale and to emphasise the majestic peaks and a sense of humility. This seems to be the reverse of Instagram clichés where you zoom in on yourself! What matters to me is to reach for the horizon. Get up to see what's on the other side, and find another ridge to climb even higher. My job as a photographer is to offer others the next horizon …
Q. You had the privilege to write a book with Pierre just before he passed away, tell us about it.
MC: Our book “Voyage au Cœur du Mont Blanc” published in 1995, was a best-seller, reprinted four times. It was a wonderful book, but above all it was a beautiful meeting between two men, from two generations. I had a deep admiration for Pierre and we had a very special relationship. He was a brilliant mentor and my spiritual father.
Q. What's the philosophy behind your gallery in the centre of Chamonix?
MC: I was a journalist for 25 years, travelling everywhere from the Himalayas to Patagonia and of course to write about and photograph every inch of the Alps! We opened the gallery 15 years ago and it's now full of stunning photographs, art prints and sculptures. I wanted it to be a place where the beauty of nature is expressed and where climbers, travellers, photographers and mountain enthusiasts meet.
Q. Your portrait of a Tibetan girl is particularly poignant...?
MC: Ah yes! I painted a portrait of a very successful little girl when travelling in Tibet. Three years later I went looking for her for a TV documentary. It actually took two years and two trips to find her and I’ve been financially supporting her and her family ever since! Her English is becoming brilliant! I have been to the Himalayas so many times that I now have ties there: this wonderful family, a Sherpa friend and monk in Khumbu.
Q. There’s also a space dedicated to the added a space in the gallery dedicated to the most beautiful animal photos....?
MC: I’ve recently welcomed Jérémie Villet to the gallery who won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition (beating 50,000 photographers). I am blown away by his work and want to share it with the world ...
Q. Your passion for the mountains is endless, how have the mountains changed over the years?
MC: The mountains today are not the same as they used to be. Climate change is real - the glaciers are receding, the walls are collapsing: it's frightening. I decided to make a film of the Mont Blanc massif, telling the story of the 40 years in the mountains, to highlight these changes. What worries me the most is that man has disconnected from nature. He sees it simply as a space for leisure, no longer as the very matrix of life. I have no lessons to give, but I sincerely believe that if we want our children and grandchildren to have a life as magnificent as ours, we will have to adapt and reconnect mankind with the sources of nature.
Q. And your downtime...?
MC: Always in the mountains! Not so high nowadays, but I continue to climb and do lots of ski touring. At 60, I don't feel that the passion has died down, it’s just got better, better like a fine wine!"
Mario lives in Chamonix with his wife, Martine and has two grown up children.