The Pyrenees are a wonderful mountain range extending from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, straddling the border of France and Spain. I’ve been there twice so far, the first time staying in a delightful town called Lescun though unfortunately at a grey, rainy, autumnal period with just one sunny day to enjoy and practise photography. This time, summer 2009, was very different. I started at Lescun again but walked across the mountains to Gavarnie, sleeping in a tent. What follows is a series of articles about Pyrenean Mountain Photography.
What can you expect for photography in the Pyrenees? What tips are there and what do you learn? Firstly, successful photography coincides with an enjoyable walking experience. The better the latter is the more likely you will get good photographs, and for that reason you need to plan carefully. While you can stay in one place as I first did at Lescun (and Lescun is a good place for it), it’s far better to have an extended trip and not rely on just one valley and nearby mountains.
One of the excellent features of the Pyrenees is the existence of numerous mountain huts where you can eat and sleep, and which make logical demarcation points for a multi day walk. They are usually situated in locations with great views, typically on a grassy plateau or level space which would attract you with your tent if the hut were not there. It’s common practice to pitch a tent in their vicinity if you don’t like dormitories of strangers, crammed together in the same space. One reason I went late in the season the first time was to avoid lots of people at the Lescun hostel where I stayed. In the last twelve months I’ve gained experience at UK wild camping, and I found I liked it. I took this experience to the Pyrenees, making use of the huts for evening meals and the further benefit of meeting and conversing with people at the end of the day: but then slept comfortably and privately in my tent. It’s not cheap eating at huts because their supplies are delivered by helicopter, but if you’re not paying for a bed it’s a reasonable proposition that means you don’t have to carry a huge supply of food.
I used a relatively modest GoLite Jam rucksack with about a 40/45 litre capacity, that checked into the airport at about 10 kilo. When food and water were added it was increased to about 15 kilo, quite a heavy load for summer heat but still modest for average backpacking. In recent years there’s been a quiet revolution in the outdoors community, with people increasingly using modern lightweight equipment. GoLite are one of the leading lightweight brands of rucksack, and the Jam was just right for me: while I did sometimes have to cram everything in, there was no wasted space and unnecessary weight. Travelling light means you walk easier, faster, and more enjoyably; this then underlies successful photography. If you’re serious about the latter the chances are you will have some heavy equipment (more on that later), which is another reason to optimise everything else in terms of its weight.
My tent and footwear were similarly light, and were excellent. I used a Henry Shires Rainbow Tarptent that weighs about 800 grams and packs down very small, and Keen sandals. The tent is a single skin US design not commonly seen in Britain, using super light fabric with a mesh vent area around the base. This allows for a slight breeze that prevents condensation and it worked very well in the Pyrenees; on only one night did I get significant dampness inside the tent. On the whole I find the Rainbow similarly excellent in British hills, though it sometimes feels borderline in terms of the protection and stability it provides in our rainier and windier environments.
Footwear is one of the most controversial but rewarding areas to go lightweight: the former because it challenges tradition and accepted habit, the latter because it makes a significant difference to your walking experience. Years ago I used to wear heavy Scarpas in the English Lake District, nervously tried a cheap and light pair of boots I’d got from Oxfam, then never turned back. My boots are currently Hi-Tec V-Lites, and if it’s warm I like sandals. For an extended backpacking trip you will typically take a second pair of flip-flops, Crocs or similar (though I don’t like either), to change into at camp. With a pair of sandals suitable for the rugged daytime hills, you don’t need a second pair of footwear for the evening because they are so comfortable – which means more weight saving. Trail shoes are more often favoured by lightweight walkers but I like the ventilation of sandals, and don’t mind if my feet get wet and cold once or twice in the course of a hot trip: gear is all about finding the balance and compromise that works for you, and this works well for me. Footwear is a complex subject because it’s also safety equipment but it’s ridiculous how the clumsy, heavy, traditional boots designed for glacier mountaineering were established as a necessary component of hill walking: I saw many people using these and their feet must have been extremely hot, tired, and uncomfortable. My feet did get wet and a little cold once or twice in the Pyrenees, notably in a thunderstorm, but I sheltered in a refuge an hour later, then in my tent for the night, and the following day it was once again hot. I prefer slight discomfort for 5% of the time to the discomfort of heat 95% of the time.
I recommend then, all mountain photographers research and experiment with lightweight gear, as the basis for a multi day walking trip. There’s no need to be obsessive (cutting your toothbrush in half is a little silly; some people do it), but the saving in energy, and improvement in comfort, is very significant when you optimise your equipment and rucksack, tent, and footwear are good places to start.