Over the past few years I have seen many images of the jagged peaks, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes of the Dolomites and a visit to that area in the north of Italy has been high on my wish list... at the end of August I finally got my act together and organised a short trip to the area.
I took an evening flight to Venice and stayed overnight in a guest house at Ponte Nelle Alpi... in a violently horrendous thunderstorm. The guesthouse was on the top of a hill and very exposed to the elements. The rain hammering off the window, the howling wind and the thunderclaps directly overhead meant that I did not get much sleep. The coffee at breakfast was most helpful in my recovery and I continued my drive north.
As I got to higher ground I found that the storm had completely disregarded all thoughts of it still being summer and had dumped 10-15cm of snow on all ground above about 1600m altitude.
I drove to Misurina lake but did not find that to be too photogenic, so I continued along the road to Lago D'Antorno which was more to my liking. I find that in order to get good reflections it is best to use lakes that are rather small (ponds and puddles are also acceptable) in order to keep your subjects more immediate and prominent in the frame.
Both of these lakes are on the road which leads to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and my idea was to drive up the steep toll road and maybe do the circle hike around those iconic peaks. The car parks at the top of the road, holding at least a thousand cars, were already full (about 11am, on a slightly unpleasant day) and as a result they were operating a "one in one out" policy on the toll road with a sizeable queue. Instead of joining the queue I returned to Lago D'Antorno and decided to follow the toll road on foot. I had read an account from another photographer of doing the same thing in deep snow in winter and he described it as an easy hike taking about 40 minutes so I was quite confident. I am not sure what kind of physical specimen wrote that other blog but I can say that apart from the smooth road surface there was nothing whatsoever which was easy about that hike - an unremittingly steep slog which took me at least an hour and three quarters and left me extremely tired, despite the beautiful views.
After spending so much effort on the climb I decided not to do the 4-5 hour circle hike around Tre Cime, the clouds were looking rather dark and moody and I did not want to get stuck in a storm, so I decided to retreat back down the road and check in to my accomodation.
I chose a hotel close to Cortina D'Ampezzo as my base for the trip on an "it looks like it is roughly in the middle of the places I want to visit" basis and I was happy to find that it was in quite a beautiful spot.
As a location it also turned out to be quite good as it was quite close to what turned out to be one of my absolute favourite spots, the top of the Giau Pass. As the day ended to skies cleared and sunlight bathed the snowy ground.
Although I usually do at least some research on specific locations before embarking on my trips I find that there is no substitute for actually viewing a location in person. With mountain locations especially it is hard to reliably translate "kilometres on the map" into "time taken to travel" and plans made without knowledge of the terrain can easily turn out to be unrealistic. I decided to treat this trip as a scouting mission, meaning that I would try to visit as many sites as possible in my 3.5 days in order to understand where to focus in a future "proper" photography trip.
The next morning I was out of my room at 0430, ready to try and do some astro photography at the Giau Pass and then wait for the sunrise, but I faced an unusual difficulty - I could not get out of the hotel! The door was locked and bolted, the reception was empty, there was no bell, there was nobody around and there were no other exits. I made some noise (enough too attract the attention of anyone who would be there, but not enough to wake the hotel residents) and waited around for 15 mins to see if anyone came along... but no. Trapped. I went back to bed.
Three hours later the day began properly and I drove up to the top of the Falzarego Pass.
From here it was possible to travel by cable car to Lagazuoi, a 2835m peak. Although this was the second highest altitude I have reached (without the aid of a plane that is, the Zugspitze summit being my highest point) it was still possible to look up from Lagazuoi to even taller peaks in the surroundings.
From Lagazuoi it is also possible to look down on a much more famous neighbour, the small cluster of peaks which make up Cinque Torri, a kind of natural monument in the middle of nowhere and a popular destination for climbers.
Near the summit of Lagazuoi you can get a closer look at some fortifications dating from the Great War over a century ago. The front line in the battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire went right through this area and all over the Dolomites it is possible to see evidence of the desperate struggle which took place between the opposing forces in the harshest of environments.
There is a lodge at the top of the cable car route where you can eat something, get some coffee or even stay overnight. These Rifugios are a feature of almost all easily accessible peaks and mountain areas in the Dolomites and make it a lot easier and more comfortable to spend time in what would otherwise be the wilderness. On this occasion there was some construction work ongoing at Rifugio Lagazuoi and while I was there a helicopter was constantly shuttling materials up and down the mountain without ever landing. It was impressive to watch.
It was time to continue my journey, starting by entrusting my life to a few rather insubstantial looking wires as the cable car made its descent.
I made my way to the Gardena Pass, another spectacular tour through mountain peaks by way of hundreds of hairpins.
My objective was the Seiser Alm, a vast mountain meadow surrounded by peaks. There are many different ways to reach the Seiser Alm, but during the day it is forbidden to drive there, you have to approach by cable car. I had partial directions to get to the spot I was aiming for - I took the cable car to Compatsch and then a bus to Saltria... but then I was not quite sure where to go next. I wondered around for an hour or two but I don't think I found the best views.
When visiting this area again, and especially in order to get to the best places at the best times for photography (sunrise, sunset, night) I think that a totally different approach would be needed. Normally I like to have a single base and then travel to different locations, but in the Dolomites there would be huge advantages to staying in a different Rifugio every night in order to be as close as possible to your subjects.
This was a very long day... some 4-5 hours of driving as well as multiple cable car journeys and about 20km of walking... so I was happy to get back to my hotel and get some rest before the morning.
The next day I also planned a long journey, heading this time a bit further north before circling round to an area near to where I had been the day before and returning via the Gardena and Falzarego passes. My first stop, before 6am, was at Lago di Landro.
From there I continued to Lago di Dobbiaco having first satisfied the demand from my rental car which instructed me to add at least one litre of oil "immediately".
The final part of my morning lake trilogy was the famous Lago di Braies, a very beautiful place but also a horrendous tourist trap. My advice to anyone wanting to enjoy this place is to arrive very early in the morning or very late at night, it was slightly uncomfortable already when I arrived at 0830 and by the time I had completed the easy hike around the lake it was absolutely swarming with what seemed like many millions of people.
Having gladly removed myself from the multitudes at Lago di Braies I made my way to the next famous destination, the church at Santa Maddalena. This was a location I had been looking forward to perhaps more than any other, but it was a place where the experience did not quite measure up to the expectation. It seemed to me that the place had not quite made peace with its status as a tourist attraction. It has managed to embrace some aspects of that, such as charging a few euros for a parking place, but the overall feeling is one of being a bit unwelcome. The church is in the middle of a field, but according to the signs it is prohibited to walk around in that field which rather limits your chances for photography. There is a tiny platform that you are allowed to stand on in the corner of the field, which means that everyone who obeys the local rules will end up with almost exactly the same picture as each other. Drone photography is also prohibited there, which is another limitation. I think that if they would accept that the place is and will be a tourist attraction and make a little bit more effort to be accommodating, while also charging a bit more money for parking if necessary to make it a sensible business, then everyone might end up being more happy.
The whirlwind tour continued and it was time for the next destination. It had been nearly 20 hours since I took a cable car journey so I decided to fix that by ascending to the spectacular peak of Seceda (2519m).
This mountain provides some other-worldly views as it looks like the ground has just been ripped apart at the seams, on the one side pleasant green meadows slope steeply upwards and on the other side there is a vertical drop of hundreds of metres.
After another rather exhausting day it was very easy to fall asleep... and a bit of a struggle to avoid doing just that while driving back to the hotel.
My final morning in the Dolomites was reserved for completing my mission to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, having had a false start in that adventure on the first day. The toll road does not open until 0600 which makes it a bit of a challenge to be in position for the sunrise in the summer, but I was the first one through the gate on this day and determined to make the best of it. I parked in the massive car parks near Rifugio Auronzo and started the circle hike around Tre Cime by around 0615.
The hike, which took me about 5 hours, could be thought of as a tour of different Rifugios. The trail starts at Rifugio Auronzo and then (in the direction I travelled) leads you to Rifugio Lavaredo, Rifugio Locatelli (Drei Zinnen Hutte) and Malga Langalm before completing the circle at Rifugio Auronzo. Each leg of the journey takes about an hour.
The temperature was something of a challenge during this hike, it was 3 or 4 degrees when I started before the sunrise and 31 degrees when I finished about midday... luckily I had pretty much expected this and had dressed on a "I will warm up eventually" basis, accepting to be a bit cold to start with in order to have the benefit of not having to carry extra clothing in the second half of the hike.
The trail is easy to follow and well maintained, but there are some noticeable changes in elevation at various points, requiring quite a lot of ascending and descending even though it is roughly level overall.
By the time I was approaching the Drei Zinnen Hutte, about half way round the hike, a coffee was definitely needed. I stopped for 20 minutes to recharge my batteries. This mountain lodge is in an amazing location on the mountain plateau.
This was the most spectacular place on the circle hike in my opinion, but the views in general in all directions were quite amazing and I highly recommend the route to anyone who has the opportunity and capability to experience it.
With that, it was time to make my way back to Venice Marco Polo airport. This was my first visit to the Dolomites, but I truly hope it will not be my last. Whenever I get a chance to return I think that these hectic few days have provided me with some good lessons for how to make a successful second trip. The key for that would be to stay in a number of well selected Rifugios rather than one central hotel and accept the slight inconvenience of regular check in - check out as a price worth paying for being in the right place at the right time.
Until next time!
Normally my photography travelling is done solo, but a couple of weeks ago I spent 5 days in the Appenzell Canton of Switzerland as a guest of Robert Juvet and his family.
Robert and I have competed against each other in some photography competitions on GuruShots and we have become friends through some photography related facebook groups - meeting in person for the first time earlier this year in Budapest. When he invited me to come and shoot with him in his home country of Switzerland for a few days I was very happy to accept.
The Finnair link from Helsinki to Zurich is another perfectly planned route, you can leave early in the morning and return late in the evening, allowing you to make the best of both travel days as well as enjoing the days inbetween, and I met up with Rob and his family by lunchtime.
Our first location was the Thur waterfall, a 10 minute walk from the village of Unterwasser.
The waterfall is at the end of a winding path which follows the downstream progress of the water, ending up in a cave like area in front of the waterfall itself. You can also follow a path up above the waterfall and view the spectacle from different angles. This was an excellent place, kind of hidden away near to a small village in the middle of nowhere, perfect.
One feature of this trip was the prominence of interesting bird life. On the relatively short drive from Zurich I had seen red kites circling over the motorway on at least a dozen occasions and here at the waterfall I watched a pair of common buzzards wheeling around overhead.
From Thur we continued the waterfall tour, following a steep, overgrown and vaguely unsafe path from a roadside car park down to Ober Glessenfall.
Our third waterfall of the day was Glessenfall II, but that scene did not really get my attention and I found myself a lot more interested in identifying the small birds that were flitting around the area, one of which was a grey wagtail - a species I had not photographed before. It is always nice to photograph a new species, even if - like this time - it is too far away and in too dark a place to get a good shot.
It always seems a bit unfair that the Grey Wagtail, a striking bird which is about 40% yellow, is called the Grey Wagtail... but it is a victim of the existence of the even brighter Yellow Wagtail and the stunningly yellow Citrine Wagtail.
The following morning it was time to head for the mountains. We took the cable car up to Ebenalp. I have been on a number of cable cars... and I guess I will be on a number more in future... but it never feels like a particularly safe way to travel.
We survived the cable car journey and were rewarded with fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys, including the summit of Säntis (the highest point in the Alpstein massif) and the beautiful alpine lake of Seealpsee.
The area at the top of the Ebenalp cable car ride is a starting point for a number of different hiking trails and the route was a very popular one, people were crammed into the cable car in scenes reminiscent of the Tokyo subway.
Hiking, and photography were not the only activities taking place on Ebenalp, the area near the cable car station is a very popular launching point for paragliding. The considerable updrafts made for superb conditions for that activity and it seemed that the skilful paragliders were able to gain a couple of hundred metres of additional altidute and spend many hours swooping around.
The paragliding was hugely impressive to watch, but the fascination was not universal... the cows that were summering on the high pastures seemed completely uninterested.
After purchasing ice cream to combat the considerable heat we followed a hiking trail which led down and round the mountain side with the first notable stop being at Wildkirchli, a series of three interconnected caves with a small chapel inside the lowest cave.
The trail continued to wind its way around the mountain face to the remarkable Gasthaus Aesher, a tavern situated under a huge overhanging cliff. There were too many people there for me to take a decent picture but the place was certainly an interesting one.
Although we had already descended a few hundred metres from the cable car station, the views were still fantastic to many directions. While my kind host continued to capture landscapes, I was distracted by the presence, once again, of a black redstart, the bird species that has been following me around Europe, presumably to make up for always eluding me in Finland.
After hiking back up to the cable car station, and descending once more to the car park, we found an impossibly cute (and very tiny) kitten nervously exploring it's surroundings.
After sensibly restricting ourselves to less than 1500 kitten pictures each, we were able to break away and head for the next location, the Leuenfall waterfall. As we made our way towards the trail which led down to the waterfall, I got interested in how the light was filtering through the trees in the area of a small steam, and I ended up preferring that picture to any that I took at the waterfall itself.
The following day we visited the same area once again, but instead of heading up the mountain by cable car, we set off on foot on the steep climb to the beautiful Seealpsee lake. The trek to Seealpsee takes about one hour and, although the road has a good surface (it acts as a service road to the guesthouses and restaurants at Seealpsee), it is significantly uphill all the way. When the temperature is in the 30's and you are carrying 10-15kg of camera stuff (as well as any extra kilos that you might keep inside your body) then it is a hard slog. The effort however, is certainly worth it - Seealpsee is very beautiful.
After the strenuous climb, the walk around the lake is a very pleasant one. There are beautiful views to all directions and there is always the possiblity to use the lake for reflections. The alpine cows are ever present, happily chewing their way through their day surrounded by the beautiful scenery.
The lake itself features a number of different territories that are patrolled and defended vigorously by Eurasian Coots. These birds are a lot of fun to watch, especially if it is anywhere near the breeding season when they are likely to feel territorial.
When a "rival" (i.e. any unsuspecting bird of any species that just happens to be within 40m) happens to catch their attention then they launch their attack from a very long way away, running quickly and comically across the surface of the water to chase them away or start a vicious fight. When the rival is also a coot then there is the prospect of them both running after each other which looks even funnier.
Anyway... on this occasion the coots were comparatively calm.
Before long we were making our way back down the steep service road and heading to our next destination, the cable car journey to the summit of Hoher Kasten.
This cable car journey was much like any other - looking forward to the view at the destination while slightly concerned about the possibility of falling to your death during the journey. This one had one unexpected difference, it stopped for a while, without explanation, a bit more than half way up... while you dangled about 100m above the ground. I guess it was intended to help you admire the amazing panoramic view... but without knowing that it was going to happen the first thought was that something had gone wrong.
When you arrive at the top of the mountain you are rewarded with views over 4 countries (Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and back into Switzerland).
At the right time of the right day this place would be an unbelievable photography destination, but on this day the light was very strong and direct and there was a considerable haze over the mountains, so no amount of post-processing could really rescue the pictures.
Another welcome feature at the summit is the large refreshment area with great viewing windows, perfect to get yourself together after the cable car journey.
The mountain section of this trip was now over and for the remaining days we would concentrate on other things, so I suppose this is a good place to call an end to this post... we certainly packed a lot into these couple of days.
As a final offering I will leave you with this picture of the moon at its First Quarter phase, halfway between a new moon and a full moon.
My report will continue with a new installment in a few days time. Huge thanks to Robert Juvet and his family for their amazing hospitality on this trip!
My latest trip, to the Berchtesgaden area of Germany, was a return to the beginning in a number of ways. This magical area, with spectacular alpine scenery and the vertical elements that I always look for in my landscape photography, was the venue for my first ever photography trip back in April 2016. I was so taken with the place that it was also the venue for my second ever photography trip back in May 2016. Germany itself has long been a favourite country of mine. I lived there for about three years when I was very young, leaving when I was three and a half, which may have something to do with it, but I also spent a lot of time there while working with great colleagues from our Ulm site in the Nokia days. For whatever reason, the country as a whole is a comfortable destination for me, and the southern part of Germany is somewhere that I just love to be.
The town of Berchtesgaden, at an elevation of about 700m, rests in a valley surrounded by spectacular hills and mountains. The area has rich salt deposits which made it an important town, changing hands between various countries in the conflicts of the 19th century. For my purposes it is a perfect base for a photography trip as it is in the middle of an area which is filled with amazing sights. Within 15 minutes you can be on the shore of the beautiful lakes at Königsee or Hintersee, at the foot of the cable car to Jenner (1876m), looking at the beautiful Maria Gern Chapel, exploring the gorges at Wimbachklamm or Almbachklamm, or driving up Rossfeldpanoramastrasse for amazing views of the surrounding scenery.
Visiting the area in November is something of a gamble when it comes to the weather. I had been watching the forecasts closely and it seemed that the weather would be a mixture of cloudy and clear days with temperatures fluctuating either side of zero. This sounded pretty good to me, there may be a chance to capture the area covered in the first snow of the winter and there could be a balance between periods of capturing new shots and other periods of going through the results. It was definitely the off-season for the locals, the hiking and summer tourism season was well and truly over, but the skiing activities were not yet up to speed, and that also showed in some of the attractions - the Jenner cable car was out of action for maintenance and the gorges were just open routes rather than being staffed as they are in summer.
My biggest hope for the trip was to get an updated and improved shot of the Maria Gern chapel. This has been one of my favourite places to photograph since the moment I first visited it in April 2016. The beautiful chapel, perched on a hillside, with the road curling round it in an s-bend, and the crowning glory of the iconic Watzmann mountain in the background. My best picture from there in 2016 was taken at night, capturing the headlight trails with a long exposure.
I hoped that during the trip I might be able to enhance this shot with snow, stars, more headlight trails, sunset/sunrise colours or many of those. Getting such an opportunity would require some persistence and also some cooperation from the weather.
On the afternoon of my arrival I headed for Hintersee, a fairly small lake surrounded by mountains, with a level path winding its way around the shore, a fantastic place to go for a walk in any season. On this occasion, in a pattern that was to persist through the whole trip, the clouds were almost constantly too low for the mountains to be visible. I had to make do with occasional glimpses of mountain through the clouds.
My accommodation for the trip was the fantastic Hotel Edelweiss in Berchtesgaden. I have stayed there three times now and it is just about perfect. The family run hotel is in a prime location in the middle of Berchtesgaden and has direct access from the very convenient and not very expensive underground parking. The rooms are generous, clean and well taken care of. The breakfast is sensational. The service is always polite and helpful, and there is a great pool and spa area. Considering all these things, the price is very reasonable. I would highly recommend it to anyone, but please don't all go there in case the prices go up and it makes it harder for me to get a room next time.
While Maria Gern might be my favourite place to photograph in Berchtesgaden, my favourite place to be might be Rossfeldpanoramastrasse - a toll road which lets you ascend from the valley floor (700m elevation) all the way up to the top of Rossfeld (just under 1600m elevation) via a series of hairpin bends. This is a real pleasure to drive, and it offers spectacular views, to all directions, both of Germany and across the border into Austria. On a clear day you can easily see Dachstein in the distance, some 70km away. On this trip however, the visibility was often closer to 70m than 70km.
Over the next days, the weather failed to live up to the forecast, the clear spells did not arrive and the temperature did not go low enough to allow snow at the level of the valley floor (there was however an abundance of rain). I tried to find some breaks in the weather, moving between places and also changing elevation in case there was a way to get under or over the clouds, but it seemed like there was no relief. I realised that all the things I had in my mind to photograph on the trip were impossible without visibility of the mountains. This was pretty frustrating... but all I could do was keep trying and hope for a break in the weather.
On the third evening, there was finally a short window of opportunity, as the clouds lifted higher than the mountains for about 25 minutes in the period after sunset. Luckily I was ready for this at Maria Gern, and tried to capture a longer exposure image with the headlights of multiple vehicles coming and going.
This was at least something... but the dark and moody weather makes it very hard to get attractive colours to an image like this.
The following day there was another short weather break, this time while I was near the summit of Rossfeld. The clouds were split, below 1400m there was no visibility and there was also cloud cover above the mountains, but in-between there was a window of partial clarity and the impressive Göll massif (the highest peak being Hoher Göll at 2522m) was visible from Rossfeld for the first time during the trip.
At Hintersee there was an improvement in visibility also as the surrounding peaks came into at least partial view, but still the featureless grey skies were ever present. Those characterless expanses of grey do rather limit your options for making beautiful images.
That evening another small weather window opened after sunset, and it was possible to see through the cloud blanket at Maria Gern for the first time in the trip, for about 25 minutes before the clouds gathered again.
That night, finally, the first snow of the winter arrived to the lower elevations in the Berchtesgaden area. As usual on these trips, I was up and out at about 0530 - around 90 minutes before the sunrise. I headed for Maria Gern, for maybe the 10th time in the trip, hoping to find it blanketed in perfect fresh snow and also dreaming that the Watzmann mountain would be visible. As many in Finland can recognise, the day of the first snow is the trigger for everyone to forget how to drive, this manifests in many ways but the main ones are to drive far too cautiously and to drive nowhere near cautiously enough... both things being relative, each of us has the luxury to place ourselves somewhere in-between at the "just right" point and observe how everyone else gets it wrong.
Early that evening, back at Maria Gern for the umpteenth time, the skies were at least more interesting, with many shades of grey instead of one, but the mountains were still not visible.
At this stage, the trip was starting to feel like a disappointment from photography point of view, the mountains had been visible for a total of about 90 minutes during the past 120 hours, and I had not really been able to make much progress. There was one night left, and then possibilities to shoot until lunch time before heading back to the airport. Last chance.
The final morning was a a beautiful one, but the world was still shrouded in cloud - the cloud was however white rather than grey and looked like it might burn off as the morning progressed. I headed to Maria Gern once again, hoping that the sky would clear to reveal the mountains as the sunrise approached. Once again this was a frustrating morning... 2 hours on top of a hill in temperatures below zero... above me I could see clear blue sky, behind me I could see the first rays of the sun hitting the Untersberg mountain but ahead of me a bank of cloud obscured the view behind the Maria Gern chapel. Disappointed, I headed back for breakfast.
The Edelweiss breakfast lifted my spirits somewhat as I sat with my back to the window and thought about what time I would need to leave to get back to Munich airport. After eating an enormous breakfast I turned to check the weather - it was stunning. The clouds has burned away and it was a beautiful day. I hurried to pack my things and checked out in a terrible rush before making my final visit to Maria Gern where a fairytale scene awaited me.
After drinking in the beautiful view for a while, and taking many photographs, I realised that my wallet was not in it's usual place. I guessed it would be in the car and carried on. Returning to the car, it became apparent that my wallet was gone... along with my credit card, drivers license, etc. This was not good. I retraced my steps... fortunately it was not a long trail. I had the wallet when checking out of the hotel, then I went to the lift (10m walk) and descended to the car park before driving to Maria Gern. I double checked my route at Maria Gern and also triple checked the car before calling the hotel and driving back to the car park... where I found my wallet and all its contents. It had been lost for about 80 minutes. No harm done, but I do not recommend anyone else to try this experience.
After this unplanned detour I had about 2 hours before I had to leave for the airport. I returned to the summit of Rossfeld where the fresh snow and beautiful blue sky combined to make it a place of amazing beauty. There is no better place to be than in the mountains when the weather is like that.
It was a fantastic way to conclude my trip, in such beautiful conditions at one of my favourite places.
As with my other November trip, to Iceland, it had been a pretty challenging trip, with a lot of time and effort needed to squeeze out comparatively few good photographic opportunities, but once again I loved being in Berchtesgaden despite the difficulties. It is usually the case when dealing with landscape photography, that you are at the mercy of the weather conditions to some extent... occasionally you hit the jackpot, but often you are limited in your options. All you can do is be in position and ready to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way, and keep your eyes open for possibilities that you didn't consider in advance.
Now I need to try staying in Finland for a little while, at least long enough to sort out the insurance claim from my Iceland trip equipment accident, and then consider what my best options are for this time of year, I need to find destinations that are less weather dependant and subjects that are possible to work with regardless of poor visibility, the 2017 mountain photography season seems to be done.
Until next time!
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