I’m recently back from a trip up to Scotland, a place I’d love to spend more time but with time constraints (takes up a good part of a day to get there!) and the rising price of fuel it’s somewhere I have to usually book a week in to go. Never the less, I try and get up at least once a year and this year it’s going to be at least twice.
This visit was for dual purposes, I wanted to do a winter skills course to allow me to be more proficient in the mountains in winter as well doing a bit of photography. I spent quite a bit of time deciding where to go but was able to secure a course in Fort William which placed me well for photography in the iconic Glen Coe and other surrounding areas.
One thing to note on the off really, is that all the images below were taken on my new Sony NEX-7 which since purchasing has been causing a bit of a stir among fellow photographers at the unbelievable quality in such a small package. I will probably do a review of it once I’ve used it a little more, but so far I’m very impressed and I never planned to do it initially but I decided to end up using it solely all week to see if I could really rely on it. I’ve got it set up with the Sony 10-18mm f/4 lens and a Tamron 18-200mm lens which makes it a killer 2 lens set up. Currently, I’m using 2 sets of filters but for the most part I can use the Cokin system with the 84.5mm pro-line filters (more on that later).
I booked my course with Dave Anderson of Lochaber Guides and the plan was to travel up on the Sunday with a two days course on Monday and Tuesday. I have to say, I initially thought I might not make it with lots of snow forecast that day and two of my main routes had snow gates on them so I knew these may shut. Fortunately, it was good old Britain as usual hyping it up and I only hit a bit of snow on the a66 which I had to take time over. Apart from that it was a very clear run and I made it to Glen Coe in record time without even speeding.
It was snowing a little up in Glen Coe, but with low cloud obscuring most landmarks it meant I didn’t manage to get any usable pictures, though I tried.
Monday had me meet up with Dave in Fort William at 08:30, so there was no chance to catch a sunrise beforehand. We fetched some boots for me to hire and headed off to Aanoch Mor to try and catch the gondolas to reach the snowline fairly easily but due to high winds they were not running.
Plan B it was then and we headed to the corrie below the Ben Nevis North Face, after a steep but not too exhausting walk in we reached the CIC hut and spent time around here.
While it was windy the weather wasn’t actually too bad, with clear views out of the corrie and some of the ben’s top being free from cloud it was a nice place to be and it could have been a lot worse and more miserable.
It was my first time under the North Face, a place I had heard many stories about but never managed to get up close and personal with it. It was very impressive, made even more so by the winter conditions. High cliffs, towering ridges and snow filled gullies all made me stand in awe. Dave had a very good knowledge of the area, pointing out routes and gullies by name and giving me a good background. While Ben Nevis isn’t particularly well known for its beauty or indeed for being inspiring via the tourist track you can certainly see the appeal from here. Though you probably wouldn’t catch me going up this way, maybe only via the CMD in summer.
We found a steep, but safe patch of snow to practice ice axe arrests on. While walking to the slope Dave explained some of the basics like kicking steps etc and also going through kit lists etc etc.
Once up on the slope we started off by sliding down it a couple of times to compact some of the fresh snow to make the run a bit faster and more suitable for an arrest. I then learnt the three different techniques and found I was using muscles I didn’t usually use especially while sliding down the hill head first on my back! It was quite exhausting and being 1 on 1 training I was reaching the bottom of the slope and running back up straight away.
Once I had got the hang of that, Dave shown me a bit on avalanche awareness and we then donned our crampons on and did some work with crampons trying to find some ground to work with. After all that work and a pretty full on day it was time to walk back to the car feeling I had learnt a lot. I didn’t do much in terms of photography, just a couple of snapshots for my own personal collection to remember the day by.
One thing I should probably state now, is while I love the mountains I am afraid of heights. It seems strange to some people but it’s a fear I’ve always had and something I try my best to overcome. The more I go out on exposed ground the more confident I become and become more comfortable with it. I’ve managed Crib Goch and some other exposed stuff and present company at the time say I don’t act afraid but it’s definitely there. That said, I always try and try and go with an attitude if other people can do it then it can’t be impossible.
So, doing a winter munro on day 2 was a big thing for me. Scottish Mountains are completely different to other places, with little in terms of paths and generally quite steep. Nevermind the snow.
The forecast for the Tuesday was the best all week and while it wasn’t quite as they forecast it, it was still a very pleasant day with high cloud and brief breaks of sun and cloud free summits and excellent visibility.
We went up the Buachaille Etive Beag aka the Wee Buckle. It is a range of mountains alligned in a wide ridge with a munro at either end and is located next to it’s more famous brother “The Buckle” or Buachaille Etive Mor. Dave had assured me it was a fairly safe winter munro with nothing to technical.
We started to head up from the car park and was immediately in the snow, however crampons were not required yet. We made steady but good progress up to the saddle, a turning point to which munro to go up to and on the way spotted a few deer etc. I have to admit, going up it looked very steep to come down and started to worry a little. However, I pushed through and made it to the saddle with Dave reassuring there would be no issue coming down.
At the saddle we had a small break to grab some food for energy and as the fresh snow was turning harder it was time to equip the ice axe and crampon. I was given a choice of going up Stob Coire Raineach or Stob Dubh. I was pre-warned that that Stob Dubh would be the harder one as there is a ridge walk and a stepper descent so I opted for the former which still looked fantastic anyway.
Off we walked and I found as always, going up not a problem even if a little tiring (crampons expend about 10% more energy). Arrival at the top and all previous thoughts about the walk down were expelled and I stood there in awe feeling right at home. I love that feeling on a summit, just feeling like you belong. For me, it would have been hard to top the day in terms of weather. Yes a little more light would have been nice etc but I was just so pleased to have clear views pretty much as far as the eye could see. It was a 360 view looking down Glen Etive, over the Three Sisters, round down Glen Coe and then over the Mamores with only Nevis being capped in cloud finally finished off with Buachaille Etive Mor.
This is one of the images I captured from the summit, which was a nice panoramic looking south towards Glen Etive, Stob Dubh and the Three Sisters (worth clicking on to see larger):
The next image was looking towards Stob Dubh on the left and Stob Coire Sgreamhach in the distance. I tried to concentrate a little more on the light and bringing the size of the mountains into perspective:
Thankfully the summit was also quite calm, despite a few biting blasts on wind on the way up so it was good to be able to take it all in. We then headed back down, my least favourite part but quickly became comfortable in the crampons and by the end it felt like I was walking downhill in summer and don’t know what I was panicking about. But this is why I did the course, to make sure I was doing it in safe hands and build the confidence.
I thoroughly enjoyed the two days and couldn’t praise Dave more, so if you are looking to do a course do check him out. We finished off with a debrief and a cup of tea in the Glen Coe cafe and it was time to crack on with the rest of my week.
Finishing the course relatively early I had decided to try and get to Castle Stalker for sunset, I had only drove past it once before but I sort of assumed the location would be easily accesible and straightforward but I was quite wrong. Feeling very tired and not much more to give in my legs I just didn’t fancy walking any kind of distance. I pulled up at the Castle Stalker View Cafe and started to walk, but soon realised it would be tricky to descend and a lot of hard work in my state getting back up. I then got back in the car and after about 10 minutes of trying to get my wellies off (note to self, don’t put the thick socks on with them in future!) I tried to find a better route looking at the map. I had spied a little road so headed back on myself to see if I could get on it. I did find the entrance but it was no cars allowed.
I headed back to Appin and then spotted my friend, James Pedlar who had earlier decided not to follow me parked up next to a house. I couldn’t park in the same place and took the next road down and managed to find a way to the shore. Unfortunately by this time any light that was there was gone. Not to worry I thought, there would be other nights and at least now I knew the location…
Wednesday came and went really. It didn’t stop raining for one minute all day, we had decided to go to Oban for a bit and then also had a look around at some waterfalls for reference.
Thursday, still raining but not as heavy and itching to go out we had a walk up to Steall Falls in Glen Nevis. Steall Falls is the second largest waterfall in Britain and is well worth a visit. The last time I came here I got quite a nice image from a distance looking up the river to the falls, but this time the water was too high to even contemplate. Unfortunately and getting quite frustrated now I didn’t get any images I was happy with, mainly due to a bright white featureless sky but its always well worth getting out, even if to just keep the sanity.
Still itching though and having thought about it before I decided it would be a good idea to go to Neptunes Staircase to see if it was lit up (previously when I had been it wasn’t) and do a bit of night photography there. It was quite a drive, but it was worth a gamble. Yes it was still raining, but it can actually help with night photography as it reflects the lights, just as long as you can keep it off your lens.
Neptunes Staircase is a series of 8 locks and with a 64 feet rise it is the longest staircase lock in the UK. Arriving at Banavie we were very happy to see the staircase was lit up. Time to get some proper work done. We easily spent a hour here, trying different compositions and locks but ultimately my favourite was from the bottom of the staircase looking up the lock at the different coloured lights:
The forecast for Friday was looking a little better at least, so hopefully a chance to do some good and proper photography. With only one day left, I knew I had to make the most of it. We wasn’t 100% sure where to go so at first we headed to Glenfinnan and Loch Sheil which is on the road to Malaig from Fort William. On the way, just before Fort William I spotted a derelict jetty on the shore of Loch Linnhe and said it might be good to grab a couple of shots.
After trying a few compositions and exposures I decided it would be a good idea to try and use the Lee Big Stopper to slow the water down and create and ethereal effect. Usually, these kind of images I never manage to nail colour so I had black and white in mind when shooting but was more than pleased with the colour version when processing. It also gave me chance to try out my new toy which was an infrared intervolometer for the Nex.
After that not so quick stop it was time to move on to Glenfinnan. I had never been here before and it opened up my eyes to there is more to the area than Glen Coe. Shockingly the sun had also decided to make an appearance, casting some pleasing winter light across the mountains and foreground and the mountains in the distance were snow capped. I walked up to the edge of the loch and the final section was tricky as I could see my foreground interest but getting to it would mean perching on wobbly tufts of grass submerged in the loch. In the end though I feel the resulting image was worth it and I didn’t fall in. I also managed to use my 84.5mm filters here on the Nex 7. I’m not a fan of the Cokin filter holder, but on the Nex it just makes sense being much smaller and it’s definitely more usable. Check out 84.5mm filters at www.84dot5mm.com. All following images shot using their filters except long exposure water shots:
We spent a little more time in the area but ultimately decided to head back to Glen Coe to see what we could do there. We went to Black Rock Cottage at first, an infamous and overdone location but a must visit each time I go none the less. Unfortunately a lot of the snow had melted so I couldn’t get the image I quite wanted but at least the light was still playing out a little (84.5mm strong soft edged ND).
Then it was off to Glen Etive, or at least the start of it to another icon of the waterfalls looking up to The Buckle. I decided not to use any of my images from here and instead headed further up river to a spot I’ve shot before that I’ve not seen anyone else do. This shot is looking at the River Rtive up to the famous mountain which a nice little bit of snow to add contrast:
At this point it wasn’t looking promising but we needed a sunset shoot, back to Castle Stalker it was then! This time a little more clue’d up we were quickly on the shore. The initial plan was to shoot from Port Appin looking over towards the mountains but the tide was out so it was better from the other side.
However while the tide was out, it was quickly coming in meaning a couple of paces back every couple of minutes. This is about as good as the sunset got unfortunately but I do like the deep reflections and the dramatic sky. It was also a good chance to try out 84.5mm’s pro line filters, here i used a strong reverse grad and I’ll be looking to do a full review in the coming months:
My last shot was “after the sun had gone down” and I use that term loosely. By this point the tide had come back quite far to where there was some sleepers in between the railway tracks that for the most part stay submerged. I shot this image and decided it would make for good black and white:
So sorry for the long blog but that was my week in Scotland. Unfortunately I didn’t get any amazing light but when you’re this far out you’ve got to work with what you have and do your best. I still came back with images I’m pleased with, I accomplished my main goal of the winter skills course and managed to capture a great mountain scene.
Now to look forward to going to to the Isle Of Skye at the end of March!