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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.#
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!
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!
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 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.