Wild Camping on Pen Y Fan

In Trip Reports On Friday, February 17, 2012

With the potential for a sunrise the following morning I couldnt resist visiting Pen Y Fan for the first time with a friend. Wild camping on the mountain summit in sub zero conditions I captured some of my favourite ever images.

On Thursday 9th of February I had my weekend plans changed late in the day. 10 minutes after realising I would have Friday night free I had planned a wild camping trip to Southern Britain’s highest peak, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons with a friend, Tom. So on Friday afternoon we set off across the Severn Bridge (by car of course!) and soon found ourselves at the bottom of the ‘mountain’.

Frozen eyelashes and eyebrows, a new experience!

The ascent of Pen Y Fan is relatively easy, especially when compared to Scottish peaks, but the freezing rain and low visibility made the walk feel more like a death march. It was at least amusing to experience our clothes gradually solidifying and it gave a new meaning to the term ‘waterproof shell’!

For the last 50m we donned our crampons making the uphill walk considerably easier. Once at Pen y Fan it was easy to find a pitch and we didn’t hesitate in setting the tent up, such was the cold at the time. I have a Terra Nova Ultra Quasar, a full on mountain tent and it’s nice to have that security when you are on a mountain summit!

The visibility never improved, the whole walk was completed without seeing anything but the path but I was hopeful that the weather forecast would come true and we would be greeted with fine weather by morning.

A big dinner helped to warm us up before going to sleep

We spent the evening chatting whilst wrapped up in thick down sleeping bags. People have asked me previously whether I get bored on winter evenings when it gets dark so early but somehow the time just goes, even when I am alone.

Although cold initially, dinner soon warmed us up (I had 2 packets of noodles and 50g of chocolate) and after a cup of hot chocolate we went to bed and slept well through the night. I actually woke around midnight to take my down jacket off because I was too hot. It was still around freezing in the tent though! Down is an incredible insulator and my Alpkit Skyehigh 1000 sleeping bag has been worth its weight in gold during the winter.

Every few hours I would get up to have a look at the weather outside. At 4am we were still in cloud, but finally when the alarm went off at 5.30 I looked outside and saw (to my delight) high clouds overhead and a gap on the eastern horizon. We were in for a cracker of a sunrise!

I’ll admit that it still look me a while to get out of the tent. Putting on frozen clothes isn’t one of my favourite activities warming numb hands in frozen gloves is no easy feat. We were at least fortunate that there was no wind which would have made things quite unpleasant. When I know I’m about to have some spectacular light I tend to forget about everything else. After a quick snapshot of our home covered in ice I went to seek out compositions.

Tom and I after finally getting out of the tent. Chilly but not unbearable! Corn Du is in the background

In the full knowledge that the high altitude clouds would soon be glowing red I looked for a composition into the sun and after exploring the cliff of Pen Y Fan I settled on some interesting foreground detail and a panoramic format which I knew would work. With ‘The Shot’ planned I set off in search of other images.

Much of the surrounding area was covered in ice crystals which were pretty fascinating to look at. The first image of the morning was of grasses covered in white with Corn Du behind. I planned to reshoot the image with sunlight on it, but in the end I preferred the subtlety of the twilight image.

Softer light might not have the ‘wow’ effect but it can feel more atmospheric

I also made my way along the ridge line searching for foreground subjects, the idea being to contrast the cold blue light on the snow with the warm sunlight that would soon hit Corn Du.

The focus of the morning shoot remained on the panorama and with a couple of compositions lined up I headed back to the cliff edge, set up my camera and double checked my settings and focus. I was ready! Minutes before sunrise the clouds lit up a fiery red, a spectacular site. I was keen to shoot the view in the cold diffuse light prior to sun up, and shot one complete panorama, later deciding to crop it to the image below.

Just before sunrise the clouds were most colourful. Altocumulus at sunrise! Is there anything better?

The intention was always to shoot the full view in all it’s glory and as the sun crested the horizon the foreground snow inevitably lit up. It’s hard to describe to a non-landscape photographer just how exciting such moments are. These are the mornings that I spend numerous unsuccessful trip for! Being in the right place at the right time unfortunately requires being in the right place at the wrong time all too often!

Pen Y Fan

Pen y Fan at sunrise. I really couldn’t have hoped for better conditions in any respect. It’s rare I can say that!

As the sun crept above the horizon I shot the complete panorama 3 times, choosing the last of the images for its richer pinks on the snowy foreground. I double checked the images on the LCD before moving on to photograph other things.

First I re-shot the image of the grasses that I had taken minutes earlier. I’ll let you be the judge of which is better, but for me the light in this particular case destroys the content of the image. I also think I was more sucessful with my initial composition.

The ‘wow’ version of an earlier shot, but I prefer the subtlety of the original

After that it was off to the composition at the cliff edge which I had scouted earlier. It was rather precarious even in crampons, but I’m happy with the result. You can see virga comping from the cloud, an unusual sight.#

From Pen y Fan to Corn Du at sunrise

I followed this image up with an attempt to capture the combination of light and texture on top of the mountain. The resultant image was a little rushed and a complete compositional failure. The foreground subject is detached from the mountain beyond which in turn has been completely stunted by the hill. I have no idea why I thought this would work!

A compositional disaster. What was I thinking?!?

Then it was back to shooting into the sun again in case the brighter light brought something new to the image. I like the below shot, but at the same time I am aware that the better image was captured earlier. I may add this shot to my portfolio one day, but for the time being it will sit in the archive with the rest!

The light was still wonderful but the very best moment had passed

Despite the spectacular light I couldn’t resist photographing the tent over and over covered as it was in ice and snow. It’s fair to say that I wasted much of the light that morning, but this is one of the luxuries of not being a professional photographer. It allowed me to take it all in and chat to a few other walkers who had found there way up the mountain in the darkness.

The tent, a rainbow and virga at sunrise. I couldn’t find a good foreground shooting north so the tent filled in!

The wild camp on Pen y Fan was one of my favourite ever trips, and no doubt I will be returning some time soon!

Processing the panorama

I know people find processing endlessly fascinating so here’s a quick view of the panoramas which were stitched in PTGui and later blended in Photoshop. The image is mostly comprised of the brightest +1.5 EV exposure. The darkest -1.5 EV exposure was only used on a low opacity close to the sun to recover detail.

15 frames were used to make 3 panoramas which were parallax corrected and then blended in photoshop

 

5 Comments

  1. You had such a great light and condition ! Photos are just perfect ! And rainbow, and virga… Lucky you, I wish I’ve been there on the same time – Pen Y Fan is on my list however it is about 6h driving from my Yorkshire town…
    All the best,
    Kate and Raf

  2. I love scenes like this, but rarely get the chance to be in such fantastic locations so early in the morning.

    I sympathise with you about “…being in the right place at the wrong time all too often!”. Many times I’ve been up Snowdon and have only been able to see a few feet in front of me, though Pen Y Fan has given some superb views in the past.

    One question: do you have issues with the batteries in your camera at such cold temperatures? When I’ve taken my kit out walking I’ve charged it prior to leaving and while my batteries may be past their best, the battery indicator is often flashing at me after just a few shots. As a precaution I tend to remove them and keep them in my pocket to try and get a bit more life out of them!

    Cheers,
    Mark

  3. WildCamp 5th April 2012

    I am going camping up Pen y fan this saturday with a few other people and we are hoping its not too cold. We are all looking forward though

  4. Julian Willmott 2nd August 2012

    I just love your work. I’m off to Dartmoor with the wife and kids next week. I will be packing my 5d mk2 plus my ND filters to have a go at some landscape photography for the first time.

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