Getting to Grips with Vertigo (part 10, Monviso)

For someone who spends most of my life in the mountains for both work and fun, vertigo is a seriously tricky affliction, affecting both walking and driving in annoying and often completely illogical  attacks. For example – a 3000ft drop posing no problem as long as there are trees, whereas a 30ft drop down a steep grassy bank or scree slope cut into a hill can be paralysing and walk-ending.  I’ve struggled with this for years and while I’m making inroads into overcoming it, it’s excruciatingly slow and I’d love to hear any ideas or success stories anyone has to share before my endlessly patient husband finally loses the plot with me altogether.

For our wedding anniversary this year we decided to continue with the age-old tradition (started last year) of popping up to the higher hills to see off some of August’s more intense heat and gain a bit of altitude. I’d got it into my head for some reason  that I’d like to hike up to 3000m and Viso Mozzo in the Monviso Natural Parc seemed like a reasonable bet.

Scaredy cat that I am, I actually googled the road up to the Rifugio Pian Re where I’d booked us in for a couple of nights and finding it on the  DangerousRoads.org site did absolutely nothing to reassure me – “The road is difficult and it’s a nightmare in the wet or dark (or both). The road still remains an adrenaline-pumping journey and is definitely not for the faint of lungs, heart, or legs”.  Lucky for me the road was pretty fogbound, and I wasn’t driving, so didn’t have to worry much on the way up.

Our destination was so utterly spectacular that our little legs carried us straight off on a mini-hike to see what was round the corner.  What you get in the alps more than Liguria is a lot more water, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands and you immediately notice the difference that a river makes as a companion on a hike – the ever present rush and burble.  What you also get, in this part of the Cottian Alps is the Salamandra Linzai – a very funky looking shiny black salamander that constantly gets under your feet when you’re not looking – one even walked along under my camera bag when I stopped to grab a shot.

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We turned in early after delicious food, some vino and a round of cards,  ready for a bright start the next day – we’d calculated something like a seven hour walk. At the crack of 8.15 we were off, striking out from the car park and soon encountering the source of the River Po, sparking some musings on it’s length and destination (the Adriatic, apparently).  The path climbed steeply upwards, magnificent crags on both sides and we’re on the shores of Loch (ok Lago) Fiorenzaan impressive lake, it’s blue hue reflecting the mighty Monviso. A bit more climbing follows, all on very friendly, non challenging terrain – apart from one tiny section but I push through it without too much worry.  Around the next corner and the delicate Lago Chiaretto reveals itself, named after its startling turquoise waters.

It’s here that I get my first taste of the collywobbles – I can see a traversing path along what looks like a steep scree slope and I start to get myself worked up – I’m feeling pretty strong and determined though so we agree to get on up to it and see how it feels.  Which turns out to be OK, huge relief that I’m not calling the walk off after less than an hour.  It’s a short-lived reprieve though, as in no time at all we reach a rockfall with alarming – “very dangerous, fallen rocks” painted on the boulders which sets me a-jittering again, just in time to get onto the narrow and steep traverse around the edge of the hill.  I’m not liking this much, even though the exposure is only genuinely lethal in about one place – question here for other vertigo sufferers, is anyone else really bad when there’s a blind corner combined with a drop? Because I’m still feeling determined I manage to round the corner and can see the path gets a bit less tricky up ahead, with solid ground on both sides again.  It’s all very rocky, there was a big glacial collapse here in 1989 and it’s not long before we encounter another couple of scary bits, with a fallaway path which Ted coaxes me over – I don’t enjoy it but the drop isn’t the worst I’ve seen and soon we’re onto the boulder field proper which makes me very happy – although it’s not ideal for the dog with lots of big gaps to potentially lose a leg in.  This goes on for a while and with another one or two tricky* sections we finally pop out onto the Colle di Viso and it only takes one look at Viso Mozzo for Ted to firmly declare there’s absolutely NO WAY he’s taking me up there (we reflected later that we should have just started up there and seen what is was like, as a lot of the paths look worse from a distance).  Given that I’m wobbling on a fairly flat wide path that slopes steeply down to the lake, he’s probably right and so we carry on the few hundred metres to the dramatically located (and reachable only on foot or in a helicopter) Rifugio Quintina Sella for a brief refreshment.  The clouds are coming and going on the face of the mountain and I set up a little time lapse while Ted is photographing stills – there’s background sounds from almost constant rockfalls and I think of the climbers up there and hope they’re all safe.

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As we’re not going up the ‘big hill’ we decide to carry on for another hour or so in the direction of a different pass and we stay on splendidly friendly terrain for the duration, giving us time to admire the waterways and the magnificent mountain flowers, omnipresent in both this area of the Alps and Liguria where we are based – every mountain seems to have it’s own unique variety – I swear I see a new flower on every walk.  Today’s special is a rich purple delphinium.  Given that the clouds are swirling and we haven’t seen a weather forecast since yesterday – deliciously wi-fi and cellular signal free up here – we decide that we should turn around, it’s no place to be in a thunderstorm.

The return walk is almost strife free – despite the fact that I’d spent the last two hours dreading the scary bits on the way back with my mind conjuring up all sorts of hideous unwanted scenarios (one of which was disembowelment on a sharp rock!!).  I was only properly scared on one bit but by keeping an eye on the path and putting one foot in front of the other, thanking the universe for the wonderful cloak of fog it had again provided, I make it over the gnarly bit and can breathe easy again for another day.

It was genuinely satisfying to know that I’d stuck with it and managed to do a bit of fear conquering and we decide to celebrate by adding another night on to our trip and do some more walking the following day.  Unfortunately for me, exposure to The Fear has a sensitising rather than alleviating affect and on day three (with hardly any sleep the night before) the chimp part of my brain has got up early and is banging on in my ear from the first sight of steeply traversing path which I’m praying isn’t our route.  I’ve got a whole different level of wobble going on today, I feel dizzy, shaky and almost physically sick on the first few metres of said path and have to beat a very hasty retreat (anyone else do the dangerous drunken run/stagger thing when faced with exposure?) leading to an instant change in destination for the day.  Luckily we’re in another very beautiful valley and it’s no hardship to divert up the other side of the hill.  Until about 100 meters from the top that is, when I find myself completely incapacitated again. Dang and blast.  Ted goes on ahead and comes back saying I’ll hate it (!) and won’t gain anything by carrying on up – but in spite of the fear I’m also seriously pissed off about being beaten, so we decide to stop and have lunch and give it some thought.  There’s another path higher up which I think looks much friendlier and so after a very pleasant hour spent lunching and lazing we go off piste and upwards (following the ibex we’d been watching ascend the hill earlier), clambering up a bit of scree/grass and onto a path that’s pretty much identical to the one we were on, just a bit higher.  For some bizarre reason it’s less frightening than the other one, yet I still grind to a halt (another bend) and Ted has to spend another 10 minutes coaxing me round and up and over with admonishments to ‘really dig my poles in’ and ‘stay upright’.  Embarrassingly there’s actually people up there having lunch who must wonder what this weirdo woman is scared of, but knowing I’ve got to clamber back down again the same way I can only allow myself about 45 seconds of admiring the view on the other side of the Col before I have to go immediately back down before I freak myself right out again.  Ted makes me take the scarier of the two paths on the way back – maintaining that it’s actually the least dangerous of the two and I reluctantly but firmly join him and arrive back where we’d left our packs – because life is always less scary without a pack, right?

Anyway, to cut a very long story short, we had a few really lovely walks in the Monviso park, finished off with a delightful hour sat on a large rock watching the light roll across to us down the valley on Saturday morning.  I’d be fascinated to hear anyone else’s vertigo/fear of heights stories, especially coping strategies or ways to overcome it entirely, please feel free to message me privately or share your experiences in the comments section.

 

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*only for me, it seems

 

 

 

Viozene, Carnino, Punta Marguareis and the Via Del Sale

A bit late getting this one up on the blog but hey ho….

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Traversing the high meadows between Carnino and Colle Dei Signori

Seeing as we have one of the offspring staying, I decided we need an adventure into the mountains.  We had been planning on walking from Limone to Upega along the Via Del Sale but the threat of thunderstorms and a bit of a logistical faff to get to the start (which would also lose us at least half a days walking) meant we decided to stay a bit more local – mooching around on the high level border between Italy and France.

Ted and Zed dropped us off at Viozene and we made the steep trudge up the hill to Rifugio Mongoie, where luckily a big cold beer was waiting for us.  We enjoyed the refreshment overlooking the impressive valley and towering peaks above us before heading along the footpath to Carnino.  It was tempting to check out the caves that are just by the wobbly bridge that Zed hates but we realised we were already risking being late for dinner and decided to leave them for another day.

Rifugio Foresteria in the middle of Carnino is a great place to stay.  We were served a lovely meal by the patron, who was a bit flustered as his wife was away but the food was delicious all the same.  We had the dorm to ourselves so got a pretty good nights sleep.

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High Altitude Car Park and Punta Marguareis
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The French Side

We got an early(ish) start the next day as we wanted to avoid the heat if possible and so were on the trail at 8am, winding up through some very pretty woods before heading up the side of the gorge which in turn gave way to high pastures, nestled in a bowl almost surrounded by high peaks and the sound of cow bells.  The first marmots could be heard at this point, and the geology started to get really interesting.

Taking note of a very loud bark up ahead which we assumed to be coming from a gigantic cane da pastore (a herd guarding dog – we’d met one the night before and assumed our most humble body posture to be allowed to pass) we proceeded with caution.  A few hundred yards up the track and we came across a small pocket sized dog using the echo from the surrounding mountains to amplify his stature.

Another climb up and we reached Rifugio Don Barbera, who – after a worrying pause – assured us we could stay the night and eat there.  After some lunch (the most meagre of snacks according to Joe) we headed up towards Punta Marguareis, which was looming impressively above us, with some pretty scary looking scree.  With the mist descending rapidly and worried about thunderstorms we opted for the ‘easier’ path to the summit.  It was still a bit of a haul and the odd gap in the mist revealed some exposure close to the path so we picked our way up carefully.  On reaching the summit we were greeted by two very cheerful 78 years olds so we stopped for a bit of a chat, gleefully establishing that we’d all brought our own sandwiches rather than lunching at the rifugio because the Genovese are just as tight as the Scottish (something they delight in).

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We couldn’t see much up here at all, so we used the cloaking mist to be brave and get very close to the edges which were all that stood between us and yawning chasms on three sides.  Joe was actually holding on to my ponytail at one point having coaxed me out onto the precipice.

We scampered down again, with Joe taking advantage of the late snow fields to do some impressive skidding, and then we had a quick explore under the edges, because we could.  Annoyingly coming down to the first Col I realised the top I’d tied round my waist had fallen off so I had to retrace my steps up the hill but apart from that the descent was relatively uneventful, other than a ‘quick’ short cut across a boulder field.

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The day was still young so I persuaded Joe out for another donder around the plateau and we were rewarded by spotting a large lone wolf, not very far away and making full eye contact.  Sitting ourselves down on the rock we managed to watch it patter it’s way up the steep hillside for a full five minutes, a real treat.

Another nice meal and we were ready to hit the hay, a bit less sleep as we were sharing the dorm with another three guys who were doing impressive amounts of cycling.

IMG_1440aFollowing what can only be called a meagre breakfast we struck out south along the Via Del Sale heading for Monte Saccarello.  The first bit was the scariest, with overhanging rock and a big drop to the side but I’ve been making inroads into tackling vertigo and got up there without too much trauma.  The road was open to motorised traffic now (it’s shut on Mondays and Tuesdays except to pedestrians and cyclists) and we were pretty surprised by how much traffic there was.  The scenery was spectacular but we soon dropped down to about 2000m and it wasn’t long before we hit the high tree line.  Walking on a track can be dull in some ways but it does afford the opportunity to take in the surroundings a bit more thoroughly and we saw some interesting sights, including a guys washing out his huge milk churns in the river before presumably milking his herd of goats in the nearby field.  The wildflowers were spectacular as ever, other wildlife including butterflies, possible eagle and vulture sightings,

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Rifugio Don Barbera

IMG_1430IMG_1465IMG_1469IMG_1483IMG_1508IMG_1510IMG_1514IMG_1522marmots and a (sadly) squashed fire salamander.

With our only possible short cuts down behind us, a full five hours later we spotted our goal – the top of Monte Saccarello, not far above us as we were already on the high track above the ski lifts of Monesi.  Unfortunately the sight was accompanied by some pretty hefty thunder so we made a quick decision to hot foot it down to Monesi, getting a serious drenching in the progress.

Monesi was hit very badly by the extreme weather in November 2016 and it was interesting to see the level of damage to the roads, both above and below the resort.  We decided to do our bit for the local economy and stopped for a pint and some food, before pressing on into the rain.  A quick phone call to Ted and we arranged a pick up much further down the hill at Mendatica, I think as we approached the 8 hour mark and passed 30km Joe’s patience might have been wearing a bit thin and we were glad of a lift.

IMG_1525The trip ended as many seem to: in Bar Centro in Borghetto D’Arroscia tucking into some excellent pasta (pizza for the boys) and rehydrating ourselves liberally with the local grape juice.

You can see some of the routes by following these two links, we didn’t record the first section and the second section cut out on the mountain top.

https://www.relive.cc/view/1724694696

https://www.relive.cc/view/1726950404

Pisso Di Ormea (not) part 2

14.7km    1245m ascent   4h 16mins

Who could resist the thought of a lunch date with a wild clematis? Not me, that’s for sure.

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Chionea (bottom right)

Zed and I got packed up and headed up the road through Nava and Ormea before climbing up to Chionea to start the walk. The first section unravelled pretty much the same as last time we were in these parts, a steep burst through the top village, flower meadows and vegetable gardens. The path forms a kind of small gully between two walls here, which seemed like the designated meet up spot for all the butterflies in the area.

We turn up onto the rocky and tree covered ridge and see the vibrant orange lilies are out in force. I’m sure this is where they belong but it’s still startling to see such a showy flower out in the high mountains.

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Lilies

A little further up as we come across the first pasture I’m chuffed to bits to find some arnica, for someone who manages to hurt themselves as much as I do it’s a brilliant ally. I leave this in the ground though as it’s not abundant.

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Arnica Montana

The roses are just starting to appear too, in numbers, although they are no match for the azaleas (yet).

(A lizard has just scampered up to the window to watch me while I write, tapped his foot a few times and then buggered off. No, me neither).

Legs are a bit tired today and its slow going, the top of the hill looks ominously cloudy though, although it’s a bit brighter when I take my shades off so we push on.

This time we manage to find the ridge top path straight away which leads along a spectacular rocky stretch and I’m immediately on the look out for more clematis patches. I’m certain I’ll find the one I saw last time  (how difficult can it be to find one particular plant on a whole mountain top?) but I’m curious to know if there will be more. Also I’ve decided I’m having lunch with the first clematis I find, and I’m bloody starving.

A flash of blueish purple catches my eye from under a rock and we’ve stumbled upon our first clematis of the day. Not having learned any lessons from the last time, I take a crappy iphone picture of it, knowing that I’ll find the larger specimen further up the track. Or not, as it turns out.

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Clematis Alpina

We stop for a clematis-less lunch with fine views over Liguria, we can even see down to Albenga which is our nearest coastal town. With the cloud lifting we decide to push on up to the mountain lake, it’s a steep grassy path with an impressive drop off to the right. As is often the way, as we reach the signpost to stop climbing and turn to the right, the cloud makes a swift and fulsome descent. I decide it’s best not to tangle with the next phase of the path and we turn and retrace our steps.

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We’re overtaken by a mountain biker not long after and Zedboy gets his hopes up that he’s still a trail dog, we both miss our biking days.

We make a brief stop at the unmanned rifugio, which is open today as there’s a family with a couple of kids staying there – what a wonderful way to spend the weekend. We fill up with water and have a general nosy inside – no dogs allowed inside unfortunately, so Zedboy frowns at me from the porch while I inspect the accommodation.

The views from here are spectacular, last time we passed the visibility was about 10 metres and we could only guess at the surroundings.

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Striking out along the high track we extend the walk by another 5km or so, returning by way of the lower track.
(At this point Ted phones me and says he’s about to take off from Milan and I’m truly boggled to receive a text from him as I arrive back at the car saying he’s landed – the time passed for me so differently than had I been on that flight.)

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…3.

There are a couple of interesting abandoned buildings, one of which has a stream running right out of the front door, I’m assuming it won’t be standing for too much longer.  We linger for a while to enjoy the birdsong.

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My favourite signpost “hunting forbidden”

We’re also very taken with a couple of little grotto type spaces that have formed around the banks of a burn by the track.

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Heading down at what can only be described as a dawdle, stopping to photograph flowers and insects on the way we descend towards Chionea and a promise of a gig (The Fantastic Blue) and unlimited pizza for 8 euros at the Bar Centro in Borghetto D’Arroscia.

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Check out the animation of the walk here: https://www.relive.cc/view/1642424123

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Up Next?

Bocchino Del Aseo (well, nearly)

Bocchino Del Aseo_00378.3 miles 3650ft ascent 4h 05min

Having been out for a gentle stroll from Carnino to the Rifugio above Viozene on Sunday with Ted, Zed and I decided to tackle the route high up into the craggy peaks today.

Climbing out of Viozene on the steep path amongst the trees it wasn’t long before we had to navigate our way through a free ranging herd of cattle, with their usual jangly bells. Not much further and the path crosses the edge of the high pasture before climbing steeply through more mixed deciduous and pine woods, plenty of funghi and wildflowers here.

Walking steadily up and out of here we found ourselves on a detour (ahem), what is it about mushrooms that mesmerise you right off the path you’re following. We traversed around the hill for a while, through lots of lovely stingy nettles and ended up at a dead end snow shoot. Good excuse for a spot of lunch, and thanks to Mapout and a gander at the compass we could see we needed to retrace our steps before turning back up the hill again.

The landscape became increasingly wild and we stopped briefly to watch a herd of deer make their way up an impossibly steep snow field before heading back on up the sharp ascent.

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The Deer, braver than me

Finally reaching what I thought might be the top, only to find it was a plateau we soldiered on thinking there couldn’t be much between us and the summit. Except – as it turned out – a craggy high altitude landscape made up of scree and snow packs. Initially we thought it would be impossible to path but the path navigated the hazards surprisingly well for half an hour or so. Gingerly crossing some snow, glad of the walking poles we made progress. Not for long, we eventually came across snow lying on a 45° gradient and I decided my trail running shoes weren’t exactly the right footwear choice for continuing on.

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Erm, no.

Zed and I did make a half hearted attempt at scrambling over the top of the snow but several cuts later decided it probably wasn’t our best course of action given how remote we were and the pack I was carrying. The top of the pass and the lake beyond will have to wait for another day. Perhaps an excursion right across to the Rifugio at Mondovi on the other side of the mountains would be a good excuse for a second attempt.

Bailing half an hour earlier than our designated turn around time did give us plenty of opportunity for dawdling on the way back, and stopping to appreciate our surroundings.

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Start of the route down.

We startled a very large marmot but he got away before I could whip the camera out, and we were accompanied by the noise of what I think were young crows learning to fly for a while.

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Any ideas what this is? I’ve never seen it before.
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Lots of landscape views today, I suddenly developed a wide angle obsession.

Bocchino Del Aseo_0080Still plenty of wildflowers, including the gentian, which today the sky was giving a run for it’s money, one of the first really hot and sunny walks so far this year. As we reached the trees again the flora changed a little and the welcome smell of thyme underfoot became strong again.

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Looking back up the trail.
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And down…..
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Nice crags.
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Another deer, just chilling.
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More unidentified flowers.
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A great view of the crags above the scary Viozene to Upega road.
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The big peaks, looking strangely small.

We took a look at the Rifugio on the way back – it had been packed at the weekend but was quiet now with some renovations going on so instead of stopping for a drink we followed the track down to the road. Happily instead of turning onto the tarmac at the bottom we found a small path running parallel just a few metres higher up. The path meandered down and eventually reached the town, we passed through an area of really lovely looking summer cabins, most of which were still unoccupied. One last bit of road to do and we were back at the car. Happy and hungry.

If you’d like to see the animated map on Relive, click here:

https://www.relive.cc/view/1638268375

 

 

 

 

Long Lenses, Feathers and Caffeine

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After a meeting at Focus earlier this year, the guys at Sigma were kind enough to give us a months loan of their famous 300-800mm lens also known as the “Sigmonster”.  Ted and I had great plans for isolating small features in the landscape with this hugely zoomable (did I just make that word up?) beast in a continuation of our Zero Footprint project.

Alas the weather didn’t play ball and refused to offer up more of the same atmospheric sky and light conditions we had enjoyed for so long over the winter.  Heavy snow and freezing conditions meant Ted was the only one brave enough to stand on the patio for any length of time shooting for the first couple of weeks of the loan.  For myself, apart from the cold I was genuinely terrified of lifting this piece of kit out of the bag for fear of dropping it and it took me several days (OK, a week if I’m honest) to man up and give it a try.

When I finally gathered the courage to lift it onto the tripod with the Wimberley head attachment (pretty much essential for smooth manoeuvring of the lens) I was frustrated by a flat and uninspiring light. However, on reviewing my first set of images back on the computer, I noticed a bird in flight, which I’d captured by accident.  I was struck by the elegance of its shape – after all it was a common garden bird that I’m used to seeing everyday.  Flooded with a new excitement and suddenly grateful that we’d built up a good relationship with our local feathered friends over the last three and a half years, I quickly trained the birds to feed off the garden wall rather than on the patio they were used to, allowing us to make the most of the morning sun to backlight the birds.

The usual battle for tripod time when we are sharing one piece of kit ensued, with some less than tentative gestures coming from the kitchen when it was deemed time to swap over.  Additionally, it didn’t take us long to realise that an entire cafetiere of coffee consumed prior to going out isn’t a good idea with the level of patience required for this kind of work.

Using this lens towards its widest aperture enabled us to use the hill as a backdrop that fitted nicely with our abstract style, whilst simultaneously capturing the incredible shapes these birds make in the air and highlighting the subtle colouration of their plumage.  Their movements are one moment graceful, the next aggressive but always magnificent, in my opinion every bit as impressive as a mighty eagle.  The chaffinch possesses both speed and agility and it was interesting over a few days of watching these guys up close to start becoming familiar with their habits and anticipate their movements.

The resulting images make no claim to be perfectly captured shots on a par with an experienced wildlife photographer’s work but for us they are the start of an exciting new direction which we hope to build on over the next couple of years.  There’s an interesting collaboration already in the pipeline, watch this space to keep up to date.