Most people who reach the summit of K2 barely comprehend what they have achieved. Overwhelmed with emotions, out of breath and tired, these mountaineers rarely see what is around them. They reach the summit, take a few pictures, and are usually on their way down, spending less than 10 minutes on the top. But, in the summer of 2022, Sandro Gromen-Hayes did something no one had ever done.
On one of the most perfect days to climb the savage mountain, he took out his drone and flew it from the summit. From there, he showed K2 and the Karakoram as the world had never seen before.
“I got a bit lucky with the weather, but the shots came out quite nice. It was also great to finally summit K2 after years of trying,” says Hayes at a rooftop restaurant in Kathmandu.
Since then, he has become a superstar in terms of high-altitude photography. People from all over the world want him to cover their climbs in the Himalayas. His ability to climb and take perfect shots has put him up there with the best videographers and photographers in the world, but for Sandro Gromen-Hayes, being the best does not matter as he just wants to have fun and maybe in doing so climb the rest of the 14 highest mountains in the world.
“This is a fun job I do. It’s dangerous, but it’s fun and I hope I can continue to do this,” he says.
Outdoor photography as a childhood fantasy
Gromen-Hayes grew up in the plains of London, far away from the mountains. As a millennial, he grew up partying with friends and doing anything to pass time. He says his mother tells him how he loved the camera but he developed a love for clicking pictures when he used his brother’s camera during high school.
“He taught me a little bit. But, then, I went to university to study engineering, which I failed. Then I decided to try my hand at photography and see where I could go with it.”
By this time, he was in love with the outdoors and particularly skiing. So, in 2011, he decided to spend a few months in Chamonix in France. To fund the trip, he worked for a hotel. And, whenever he was free, he would get out and ski.
In Chamonix, Gromen-Hayes fell in love with the outdoors and the mountains. Along with that, he also fell in love with photographing the outdoors.
“I think I found a purpose. It gave my life meaning of sorts. I was there having fun and doing what I loved. I also got to shoot the X-Games, which was pretty awesome.”
Shift to music shoots
But, the joy was short-lived. It was hard to sustain a life in France so Gromen-Hayes decided to get back to England in 2013 and train to get into the Royal Marines. But on the side, he also started to help his friend make music videos in Birmingham.
“The more I used the camera, the better I got and I decided to live in Birmingham and get better at it.”
He spent the next three years in Birmingham doing odd shoots for music videos while working at a club and also shooting weddings.
“It was basically do anything to make money.”
Soon, Gromen-Hayes got bored with that life and decided to get into the British Army Reserve. He was not sure as he heard how the army organisation was full of racists. But, gladly, he found some like-minded free-spirited people and trained with them.
“It was good cause for two weeks of training, I would be allowed to do one week of skiing. For me, that was a worthwhile exchange as I could back to the mountains.”
He also took part in different adventurous training every year. He did a mountaineering course and filmed it and the army liked it so much that they made him the resident videographer.
“I became their climbing cameraman for a year shooting all their courses.”
Meeting the Himalayas
Through it, Sandro Gromen-Hayes did his climbing courses and also learned to film in the mountains.
Things then moved up quite quickly for him. In 2016, a British Army team was going to Dhaulagiri for an expedition without oxygen or Sherpa support. He did not have a clue what they were talking about, yet as soon as he heard climbing, he said yes.
“I’d done like two weeks of alpine climbing in Switzerland and I thought I was ready even though I hadn’t a clue about Himalayan climbing, but I said let’s go.”
Soon, he realised how hard Himalayan climbing was. The trek up to base camp was hard. He developed altitude sickness but was not fully aware he kept on climbing with his bag, which was nearly 30 kg.
“I reached Camp 2. But, I got crazy sick. I didn’t sleep well or eat well. I knew I couldn’t carry on and thought that was it for me when it came to the Himalayas.”
But, fate had something else planned for Gromen-Hayes. The army decided to come back to Nepal to climb another 8000-er, this time Everest.
“It was the Gurkha expedition and I was doubting myself because I didn’t really do well in altitude but I couldn’t say no and decided just to go to base camp and shoot.”
But, Hayes wanted to climb more. He climbed up to camp 3 and felt good. He got good shots and was having fun. But, sadly, he could not summit as after the first group summited, the weather window went bad and the Gurkhas decided to end the expedition.
“I enjoyed the journey but was a little gutted. But I knew my time would come.”
Scaling the highest mountains
The next year, Sandro Gromen-Hayes went to Afghanistan to climb Noshaq, the highest mountain in Afghanistan, to climb with an Afghan woman who was aiming to be the first to climb the mountain.
“This was the highest summit I’d done and it was with only a few people and I had so much fun. Reaching the summit during sunset was one of the most magical moments of my life.”
After this, he was approached by Nirmal Purja (Nimsdai), who was looking for someone to shoot his attempt to climb the 14, 8000-ers in record time.
“I had met him during the Gurkha expedition in 2017, but as he told me he didn’t have enough money to pay me, I didn’t go with him during his first leg.”
But, once, Purja shocked the world by climbing six 8000-ers in a month and got the funding, he joined him in Pakistan and also climbed Manaslu.
Gromen-Hayes also climbed Ama Dablam, Aconcagua and finally Everest. He was also with Purja during the K2 winter and did a lot of shooting. He even evolved as a photographer and videographer.
But, being at a high altitude has its fair challenges too. There are times he has to deal with impatient clients.
“I have a hard time catching up with some people after taking a shot because they are so fast and due to that we miss some great shots.”
There are times that Gromen-Hayes also feels a bit tedious. Because he has been going to the same place, again and again, he finds it tough to sometimes motivate himself.
“There are times when you have to think hard on what new you want to do, but then on a place like Ama Dablam or Everest, you just can close your eyes and shoot because the place is just too beautiful.”
But, the main challenge for him is the cold. He says filmmaking in the mountains is difficult as soon as your fingers get cold you need to warm them up.
“I do what I love so I think I don’t find things challenging.”
Gromen-Hayes calls himself very lazy and wonders how he has got himself here. But, he loves the mountains and the people he meets there. He feels he can be open to the universe and just wants to be happy.
“I meet people like me in the mountains. The Sherpas and some carefree mountaineers keep me going. Life is simple there and so magical.”
He says he loves Alaska for this reason. The mountains are open to everyone and accessible. Sandro Gromen-Hayes feels that more mountains around the world should be like that.
“I feel Nepal could be similar. The place is so much fun and I get a sense of adventure… not just in the mountains but even here in Thamel.”
When he has it shooting the mountains, he shoots people he meets to tell their stories. He made a video about a girl who grew up in a family of Gurkhas and her life. He also did a video about an ex-convict in Alaska while the man was talking to his wife who was crying her eyes out.
“Work makes me meet some interesting people.”
After his video on K2, Gromen-Hayes feels he was done with the big mountains. But, he was asked to film Kristin Harilla who was on her quest to beat Purja’s 14 peaks record.
Now, he wants to continue climbing big mountains and says is looking for a filming project and climbing all 14 8000-ers. The dream he says is to just hang out in the mountains with friends, making videos and shooting photos.
All photos courtesy of Sandro Gromen-Hayes