"I fear that future generations will judge us harshly for our failure to place proper value on wildness, diversity, open space, spirit, solitude and other treasures of the natural world still available to us today. May they at least know that some of us tried." - Guy Tal
In mid-October I revisited the rugged Dolomites in the Italian Alps to go on some kind of thoughtful and peaceful light-hunt and to enjoy the eye-wateringly spectacular views from the top of some famous mountain pass roads and hiking trails while car-camping and hiking my way through the mountains of South-Tyrol. I was there a couple of times before, one visit during summer and one during autumn. This time I wanted to focus on some places where I wasn't before, enjoy the larch foliage, the pleasant low and refreshing temperatures after the very hot and dry summer here in Europe and explore the region around Cortina d'Ampezzo even more and of course last but not least just enjoy the solitude of the mountains there far away from any stressful city full of people or distracting civilisation noise.
My favourite camping spot during the trip during sunrise
I had the designated spots I wanted to visit in my mind but not a real schedule when to do what. Since I was car camping the whole time like on various other road trips through Bavaria, whole Scandinavia, Fjord-Norway, Scotland, Saxon Switzerland, Iceland or the Lofoten Islands before, I was completely flexible and could react to the respective weather conditions and adapt my plans at any time. Although I know the area quite well I did some location scouting online in preparation of the trip and found some nice and wild camping spots and checked when the sun's position will be where at different spots to roughly plan all the hiking and shootings and so on. More on planning a photo trip or a landscape shooting here or what makes an interesting landscape photo here.
The typical chaos in the trunk while on photo expedition
After modifying my car to its "photo expedition-mode" (photo above) with lots of blankets and pillows next to the thermarest mattress and a warm sleeping bag for the freezing tempeartures at night and buying all the food and supplies for a week in the mountains, I started the nine hour drive from Leipzig, Germany towards Toblach, Italy. On trips like this the co-drivers seat with all the photo equipment usally looks like what you see in the photo below. As usual nowadays in my photo bags are the dji phantom 4 pro plus drone, a D810 body, a backup D800E, two tripods, lots of lenses (14mm - 300mm) and filters, cable releases, cards, batteries, chargers, several backpacks and an F-Stop ICU for the hiking and of course one of the most important tools - the mobile phone (Samsung Galaxy S8) with all the useful apps, camera (pro mode with raw image files) and the possibility to keep contact with other people or call help, if needed sometime.
(some of the links in the paragraph above are Amazon Affiliate-Links)
Ford Mondeo Photo Gear
Some annoying traffic jams around Munich and a very long drive on different Autobahn sections and through three different countries later, I finally arrived just in time for sunset at the famous Lago di Braies (also called Pragser Wildsee) in Italy (photo below). I felt quite lucky to have arrived timely and to see some colour in the sky. I arrived at the parking lot during the end of the golden hour and when I approached my shooting location at the lake the clouds just began to turn from yellow to pink. After being pretty busy with photographing several perspectives along the shore, I just thought what a blessing with the timing and the light during sunset that day and what a great start of the tour. I left the place with a smile on my face and drove towards my first sleeping spot for the night. At the end of the day I called the people at home to say that I had arrived safely and then straightaway prepared the car for the night because it was already quite late and I was very tired after all the driving.
The next day I awoke after a relative short but restful night and started my car camping morning routine with brewing coffee on my gas cooker at the trunk of the car. Since I arrived during the night and in complete darkness at this first nice camping spot I only did see the impressive rugged mountains all around me with the first coffee in hand. It was breathtakingly beautiful. After taking my time for breakfast and a little walking around I started the drive towards Cortina d'Ampezzo and further to Passo Giau to the starting point of my first serious mountain hike of the trip. My heavy backpack was filled with the ICU including all my needed camera gear with a D810 body, lenses, cable release, spare batteries and CF cards, headlamp, battery torch and what not for the photography and hiking and of course some food, water and additional clothes. The multiple-hour climb to the first remote mountain lake was quite steep and very exhausting but when I finally reached the top and took a short break, it was so quiet and the view literally breathtaking at ~2050m that I forgot the effort of the ascent instantly. I took my time and surrounded the lake taking lot's of photos and absorbing the views and reflections at this very calm place. I also had lunch there and took my time to just relax and to enjoy the silence and the sun combined with a gentle breeze on my skin. Eventually I left the lake sometime in the afternoon and continued my loop hike back to the car down in the valley.
After an almost equally strenuous descent and being back at the car I had not much time and daylight left so I continued my way up another mountain pass road and wanted to have a look at my camping spot for the night which I've previously scouted online via maps. When I arrived there an hour or so before sunset I was completely thrilled! The spectacular view and the place (first pano photo above) itself were just great - and I was completely alone there - no other people around. It was so incredibly quiet without any disturbing noises from people or traffic noise or whatever, only a few birds could be heard - wonderful.
This was exactly what I was looking for during this trip. Spending all the time outdoors away from devices combined with a lot of hiking during the day and physical movement at the fresh air and in the evenings to find the mountain solitude I had hoped for. I enjoyed my first full evening there with a little reading and thinking and just calming down. I think due to the hiking and that I felt save at this place during the night I again slept quite well, though not very long.
Car camping in the mountains with freezing 0°C at night on 2098m
At the beginning of the third day I repeated my usual morning routine and took my own sweet time with everything I did and for instance sat in my camping chair just enjoying the sun and peacefulness of the place for a few hours. A nice contrast to the normal structured routines and procedures in my everyday life. Around noon or so I continued exploring the area and drove down to another valley nearby. My rough plan was to drive another mountain pass road and just explore nice and interesting spots along the way. On my way I accidentally came to a cinema filming scene. They had blocked the entire mountain road and you only heard a helicopter in the distance, but then, it came closer and closer towards me and so I could witness the elaborate filming of this scene. What a hassle and how many people were involved (including catering, ambulance, SUV cars with a movable camera arm and whatnot) just for a scene in the movie where a car drives on a mountain road. Watching this was incredible. They then opened the road and I thought ok, they're done with filming for today and drove along the road and stopped randomly somewhere because I wanted to take a photo there, but then they suddenly closed the road again and I was stuck there for the moment. After a minute I heard the helicopter again and then saw it flying sideways exactly towards me. Luckily I had the phone in my hand at this moment and spontaneously thought why not recording this and pressed the record button. I could hardly believe my eyes when the helicopter flew right over me and almost blew the cap off my head. What an experience. See the video below.
Compared with the impressive helicopter experience the rest of this day was pretty unspectacular. I just drove and hiked around a bit, mostly thinking of the costs and extravagance of the filming of this one motion picture scene. For sunset I planned a relative short hike to another mountain lake and started in the afternoon to be there early enough for a relaxed dinner and some location scouting there. But the reality was that I arrived there approximately an hour later after a pretty muddy and partly steep ascent and was really dissapointed because the lake looked more like a big puddle with little water in it, probably due to the countless weeks without rain in the previous months. I looked at the scenery, thought about it for a moment and reviewed the situation and came to the conclusion that it is better to change the plan for this evening. So, after taking a snapshot with the mobile phone I started the descent back to the car. A little frustrated (I carried all the photo-equipment and the drone up there - for nothing) I drove to another, very well known place, for sunset on the summit of a pass road. The weather conditions were not so good this evening and the fact that were a lot of other photographers (10+) because of some photography workshop happening there unmotivated me a little. I tried to find my own image compositions away from the crowd and to enjoy the views and nature there but this evening I did not take any serious landscape photos. Instead I then focused on enjoying the evening at my favourite spot for the night. This lifted my spirits again at the end of this nice day and I had a good nights sleep.
For the next morning I had planned a sunrise flight with the drone so I got up a bit earlier then normal and drove to my previously scouted location. Luckily, I was there completely alone, no other people around. I hiked to the spot where I wanted to start the flight, prepared everything and then flew around the area there trying some new perspectives, angles and technical functions with the Phantom 4 Pro+. With almost cloudless skies the weather conditions were not exactly what I had hoped for but at least there was not that much wind nor rain. The result of this early endeavor is the photo above - for example - with which I am pretty satisfied by the way. I spent about two hours there taking lots of photos with the DSLR and drone cameras enjoying the view and experimenting with different techniques and perspectives. When my stomach began to growl it was a good time to think about breakfast. So I hiked back to the car and drove down to the valley to find a nice sunny spot. As usual during this week I took my time for that and then continued my way towards the famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo mountains near Misurina and Lago Antorno. A few impressive mountain pass roads with sections through nice looking golden larch woods and countless curves later I arrived at the Rifugio Auronzo on ~2350m, the starting point of the hike. The goal for this day was to get a closer look and explore and photograph the region around Lago del Piani, photo below.
And this is what I did for the rest of the day. Hiking and creating photos and enjoying the views and the nice weather. It was a delightful hike with a few ups and downs but not too demanding, with lots of breathtaking vistas and not much people around. After five hours or so of roaming around the lakes I started the hike back to the car where I arrived during the golden hour with an impressive view of the Cadini di Misurina group, photo below. Somehow the whole scene strongly reminded me of the Lord of the Rings movies, hence the title of this photo.
Shortly after creating the photo above I arrived at the car and started my drive back to my favourite camping spot. On the way down from Rifugio Auronzo I came across another eye-opening scene which I hoped to find during this photo tour. Namely larch trees with their foliage at its peak and the typical rugged mountains of the Dolomites in the background with some illuminated clouds above during sunset. When I arrived at the place and saw the possibility for the photo, I quickly hurried to build the tripod and setup the camera to have a little more time for the image composition and then minutes later the photo below ended on one of my cards. I continued the drive again with a smile on my face.
When I arrived at my camp spot I prepared everything for the night and enjoyed the remainder of the evening with a decent drink and some thinking. While sitting there alone on the mountain at my campsite I thought about all kind of things - one was the proscribed trophy hunt in the realm of landscape photography. In fact, in philosophical photography circles a so called trophy hunt for iconic or even unknown place is often frowned upon but imho and my past experiences it is indeed very satisfying when you spend hours planning a possible photo at home with some maps or Google Earth and all kind of other tools like The Photographer's Ephemeris for example, to spend countless hours of traveling to the location (driving, flying, by boat or whatever) and not to forget all the strenuous hikes with a heavy backpack to get to the place (often in the dark, very late or early in the day) and then everything materialises like in a dream and your previsualised photo you imaged at home is formed in front of your eyes and everything works out as you hoped for and all is left to do is pressing the shutter and capture the beautiful scene you see - this is just a great feeling! And yes, I like to take this often spurned trophy photo home - for all the planning and effort and the anxiety about the weather and other circumstances during the shooting or trip. Honestly, I can not find anything wrong with it. After planning another attempt to shoot my long anticipated sunrise-photo of a peak in the nearby Saxon Switzerland National Park and finally got all the circumstances right after planning, driving, hiking and spending a night alone in the mountains it just felt great - like a success. I had the exact same feeling while creating other photos in the past years which involved a lot of planning and maybe several tries. Of course, this only applies when you've done all the scounting, planning, getting there alone and learned the needed shooting techniques before and not only captured your "trophy photo" during a payed photo "adventure" tour with a guide who plans everything for you, leads you to the places, and teaches you the techniques on site - because then it's really only a plain trophy hunt and not a personal experience, accomplishment and success for yourself. I understand why many people do that and take this shortcut but for me this is not the kind of experience I strive for with my photography. In the end, everyone must decide for themselves what they prefer. Anyways, I was happy with my week in the mountains so far, both the experiences and the photographic results.
The mountains are calling
That said, of course it always feels good when a plan works, but unlike past years when I was dissapointed when I was unlucky with the weather or whatever, I now (mostly) can enjoy the trip anyway and appreciate being outdoors away from the distractions and just enjoy solitude. But, I have also to admit, that was not the case from the beginning of my photographic journey. My inner mindset changed over the recent years to the mantra "experience first - photography second - read more in this article.
For the last day I planned some more exploration and driving through the mountains of the Dolomites to a region I first visited seven years ago near San Martino di Castrozza. For whatever reason, back then, I never visited the specific place I now wanted to explore. It was a 2.5 hour drive again on very narrow and winding mountain roads, but when I arrived there, I immediately liked the place very much. With the forest and sounds of the rivers running through it, the location reminded me a lot on my virtual adventures in Skyrim.
After the tiring drive on these winding and treacherous roads another hike was more than welcome. So, I quickly grabbed my photo gear and something to eat and to drink and started my way towards the valley called Val Venegia. After half an hour of constantly walking up through the forest a beautiful valley with forests and foliage, rivers, small rapids and waterfalls and of course the impressive rugged mountains in the background unveiled before my eyes and I could hardly believe it. What a place! I walked along the river and soaked up the whole scenery with all its nuances, sounds and scents.
And then, I somehow thought it would be a great idea to drive back to Leipzig in the evening and through the night to avoid traffic jams etc. instead of spending a last night in Italy at this beautiful place. Yeah, I ended up with another nine hour drive, a traffic jam in Innsbruck, Austria, another one at the border to Germany and then a very stressful drive back home through Germany and the darkness of the night with an unbelievable amount of cars on the Autobahn on a Friday evening. Welcome back to civilisation! But however, finally it only remains to say that it was again a terrific photo tour in the mountains with great experiences, sweet solitude and quite a few new photos of course.