I’ve been taking a deep dive into my image archive to a wonderful day in 2008, exploring Glen Etive for photography in the snow. This was one of those days that really stood out in life. Even now, fourteen years later, I think that the images from that day stand up remarkably well.
Glen Etive, 2008
I was among a group of students from the St Andrews University Mountaineering Club heading to the fabled Black Rock cottage in Glen Coe. Early season snow blanketed the mountains of the west coast, promising a weekend of high adventure and epicness for the young guns intent on big days out among some of Scotland’s most famous peaks.
Excitement rose in us as we drove west. The familiar sights of the A82 seemed grander than ever, painted white and glowing brilliantly under a sunlit sky.
From the passenger seat I snapped away at the passing views, desperately wanting to get out of the car and do some real photography. Landscape photography was still relatively new to me, but I already loved it. A couple of years prior, and I hadn’t owned any camera at all. But now a new Nikon D40X DSLR hung proudly around my neck.
I had worked a summer job as an outdoor instructor the year before, earning the grand sum of £312 a month. I’d spent pretty much all of my wages on that camera – my first ‘real’ camera – a big upgrade from the compact point-and-shoot I’d owned previously. My Nikon seemed like a dream come true.
This was in the years just before Instagram came along. Heck, the iPhone itself was still a novelty, released just 18 months prior. I had never even seen one at that point. But the appetite for photography, and for sharing photos online, was already strong. In those days I would post my photos on DeviantART and Flickr, and I couldn’t wait to get some good shots from the stunning winter landscape and share them there.
On these sites I’d seen some amazing photography. I had seen photographs from Glencoe that seemed like visions of another world – fiery wonderscapes of mountain and cloud. And I was entranced by the sense of space produced by super wide-angle lenses. There were amazing possibilities of composition and light. To produce such results myself seemed impossible. A goal to work endlessly toward, but no doubt never achieve.
Still, the first lesson seemed pretty clear. To create amazing photographs you need some simple ingredients. 1 – An amazing landscape. 2 – Amazing light. 3 – A camera that is good enough. I had the third, so now I’d try to find the first two.
As we crossed Rannoch Moor I convinced Chris, driving, to pull over at the layby near Lochan na Stainge. Here the views across Rannoch Moor in one direction, and to the Blackmount hills in the other, are never less than magnificent. Even then it was a famous spot for landscape photography.
After an all too-brief visit to the lochan we drove the rest of the way to the iconic cottage. It stands just near the ski centre, in the rough and wild no-mans-land where Glen Coe gradually turns into Rannoch Moor.
We decided to waste no time and make the most of the remaining daylight. Just behind the cottage were the lowest slopes of Meall a Bhùiridh, which offered a superb view across the glen from a minor top. The 400m ascent was slow work in the deep snow, but we managed to reach the top just in time to enjoy the light of sunset picking out the high peaks of Lochaber to our north.
As the sun set and the Earth’s shadow rose into the sky beyond Rannoch Moor we descended back to the cottage. It’s exterior light was like a little beacon of warmth in a deep blue world that was growing increasingly cold with the onset of night.
I remember that night the cottage never really got warm, even with the fire on and a dozen bodies in the living room. I cooked some pasta for dinner, but the moment it hit the freezing cold plate with a wet slap it was cold again. Our breath fogged the air inside. Outside it was bitterly cold, but it was also beautiful. A thin mist hung just over the ground and the night sky was brilliant with starlight. I ventured out to attempt some photos of the stars, but the results was not great. I still had lots to learn.
People were discussing plans as I went back inside. I had been toying with the idea of a winter ascent of Curved Ridge, but now all I really wanted to do was get up early and watch the rising sun strike Buachaille Etive Mor. I’d seen similar shots in photography books, and online. Having never done a dawn shoot before, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something special.
In the morning I was the first to rise. It was deeply, deeply cold as I entered the outside world once more. Mist still hung eerily still in the night air, in a layer no more than 4 feet thick. I will never forget the sight of the sky that night. It was as if someone had emptied a bucket of silver glitter in a pool of the blackest, darkest ink you can imagine.
I had in mind to take my photo at the Falls of Coupall, but as I had no car of my own I would have to walk there. It was about 5km through the cold and snow, but fortunately I could do most of it on the road, which was quiet in the pre-dawn gloom.
There was no sound except for the quiet thud of boots on tarmac. Occasionally a car would roar past, then vanish again, silence returning. Suddenly I saw the light of my headtorch reflecting on something in the mist beside the road. I stopped, and watched transfixed as a glowing pair of eyes peered at me. Silently they rose upward as if levitating, then a huge spread of antlers appeared above the layer of ground mist. Then another, beside them. And another. I turned my head, and the light of a hundred eyes glowed at me, like a second milky way. Deer in the mist. I felt an absolutely primal thrill of magic. No photograph was possible.
The sky was lightening as I reached the river. The white mountains were emerging from the night. Birch trees along the riverbank held branches elegantly decorated with fine frosts. The dark red andesite rock of the glen already carried a hint of the colour that was promised in the sky.
There is a famous composition there at the falls, where the water cascades down over a huge boulder. Just beside it is a graceful birch tree, with the pyramidal bulk of Buachaille Etive Mor beyond. This was the shot I had in mind, but as I reached it I discovered someone had had the same idea, and was already setting up a tripod beside the river.
Not wanting to intrude on their experience, I said a warm hello and decided to head just above the falls,where they wouldn’t be able to see me, and get an angle on the mountain from the upper river. This turned out to be a good move. The river was largely frozen, and I found a composition I loved. Using a wide angle lens, I placed a snowy boulder firmly in the foreground and used the mountain as the backdrop. The mountain itself was reflected in the ripples and edges of ice. Everything was ready.
Gradually light built in the sky. Colour returned, and the stars faded. First the clouds grew orange, then the very top of the mountain began to glow bright red, as if it were a fiery beacon. A tiny triangle of light, about to grow. The sun grew higher behind the mountains, light washing down the flank of Buachaille Etive Mor, and then across the hills of Glencoe in the distance.
I took my shots, but even with the scene there before my eyes I could hardly believe what was coming up on the screen.
After a while I turned to look for other compositions, and to my surprise I saw the other photographer was gone. So there was no reason to ignore the classic composition any longer.
An hour or so later I was slightly disbelieving of what I’d just seen and photographed. The sunrise colours were gone and the day was started. But I still had all day to enjoy. All day, in one of my favourite places in the world.
I set off walking down Glen Etive, simply wanting to wander and see what else I could find. Between dark tyre tracks I walked down the glen road, feet crunching on hard snow. Golden light washed the tops of the blue and white mountains, grey clouds gleaming. I reached a bend in the road, realised what I was seeing and stopped there to take another photo.
I pressed on into the glen, and by the end of the day I would actually cover a very respectable 20km or so; but I had no notion yet of how far I’d go.
I decided to head for the river. At the time I was also a very keen white water kayaker, so naturally I was keen to get a look at the state of the waterfalls, which in warmer times I had kayaked down.
Some sections of the River Etive were frozen solid. Not just the river, but also the ground. Icicles hung from rock and reached downwards like stalactites. Even the air itself felt frozen.
I walked a long way beside the water, but sadly have lost most of the photos now. Eventually I reached the huge waterfall known to kayakers as ‘Right Angle’, where the river falls off a 30ft ledge into a huge plunge pool. I decided that was far enough, realising with a shock just how advanced the day was, and how far I had to hike back.
Returning up the glen I started to meet other photographers. One chap was using an impressive 4×5 Large Format field camera to capture a scene very close to where I had photographed the road. We chatted amiably, and I eyed his camera enviously. I still believed then, that an expensive camera probably made the biggest difference to the quality of your images.
But it doesn’t, I can tell you now. Your camera doesn’t need to be the best. It just needs to be good enough. By far the biggest difference comes from your ability to find something interesting to point the camera at. That is the lesson that I evetually took from that day.
Before saying goodbye to the other photographer I took a quick snap of the same view. Even though I recall I missed the best moment of light, I am still impressed by the result, fourteen years on; although, for some reason, I was never really happy with it at the time. Maybe I thought I needed a better camera.
As the sun began to set again I decided to follow the course of the river as far as possible. I kept seeing other photographers; dark shapes rising from tripods like the deer in the mist. No wonder we should congregate here and now. The light was growing spectacular once more, and the icy river was making wonderful scenes against the backdrop of the Etive hills.
For a while it seemed like I just didn’t know where to turn – the whole world was overwhelmingly beautiful. So I just chose a spot beside the river, to just sit and look, and watch as the sun slid away behind the horizon once more.
Eventually I had to go – I was due to meet others back at the cottage for a ride home. I legged it laboriously (now there’s an understatement) through the semi frozen moor, arriving back as darkness fell.I’d had such a day, a day unlike any I’d ever had before.I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I knew from that day on that this was what I wanted to fill my life with.