on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

An Englishman in the Dolomites

Jon Baker experiences a spectacular mountain range

Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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In 2010 I left my job as an accountant in London and embarked on a European photography adventure. My plan was to travel from Provence through the Swiss and French Alps down into the heart of Italy and then make my way up to Slovenia via the Dolomites, part of the Italian Alps in the North-East corner of the country. Throughout the early part of my trip, I kept hearing alluring accounts of the magnificence of the Dolomites. I would outline my itinerary to fellow hikers and travellers, and on the mention of “Dolomiti” (as they are called in Italian) a gleam would come into their eyes, “Ah, you know about the Dolomiti”.

And the reverence this range of mountains inspires is well deserved. They are certainly unlike any mountain range I have ever seen, and for me, by far the most spectacular in the world. The fine early autumn day my fiancée and I arrived we spent that first afternoon driving the mountain roads drinking in the scenery in a state of high excitement. The striking originality of this landscape lies in the contrast between the upper and lower parts of the mountains. Raise your hand to block out anything above 2,000 metres lying in your view you will find yourself gazing upon gentle rolling mountains covered with verdant forests and lush green meadowland scattered with old wooden barns. Enchanting villages complete with picturesque churches either nestle in the nooks and crannies, or perch precariously on the steep hillsides. But take your hand away, and you reveal soaring rocky spires, pinnacles and towers of limestone rising like skeletons of mountains up to 3,000 metres above the fairytale landscape below.

Well, we fell in love, and became determined to make this place home!

There are 18 major peaks in the region, some in isolated splendour, others forming great sweeping panoramas. The area is surprisingly easy to explore by car at any time of year, as many of the mountain roads go up to and beyond 2,000 metres and are kept open all winter (unlike those in the French or Swiss Alps). There is also a large ski lift network, with over 1200 kilometres of piste covered by the Dolomiti Superski pass alone. Also in contrast to much of the Alps, although the ski lift network is a visible modern development in the landscape, it is not so overwhelming as to be ugly and many mountains have been left entirely untouched. Venture down one of the many marked trails on foot and a little effort is quickly rewarded with tranquil solitude in which to enjoy special and magical vistas. A fantastic network of “Rifugi” (mountain huts) populate the upper reaches of the mountains where a hiker or climber can sleep in comfort. Some are simple shelters while others are luxurious; one such establishment even serves Cristal Champagne! It is also possible and permitted to camp overnight in the mountains for dawn and sunset shots, and this is my preferred style of accommodation.

Autumn is an especially beautiful time to be in the Dolomites, the many alpine Larch trees turn a beautiful rich gold before dropping their leaves. For a few magical but all too brief days the first snowfall of winter added a dusting of icing sugar to the golden trees and contours of the rocky peaks. These two images of Croda Di Santa, taken from the Armentara meadows were captured just days apart. I returned one day later and all the needles had fallen to the ground. I look forward to returning in spring when I have heard the pastures are ablaze with wild flowers.

Jon Baker ~ Armantara with snow

Jon Baker ~ Armantara with snow and moon

Croda Da Lago is a magnificent jagged ridge not far from the town of Cortina, the winter playground of Italy’s uber rich. In preparation for this shot, I hiked up into the Cinque Torri region and scouted for a suitable location. I knew I wanted a line of golden larch with the ridge in the background. I also knew that for the trees to be out of the mountain shadow I needed to be set up and ready a full hour before sunset.

Jon Baker ~ Croda da Lago with sunlight on larch

Lago Di Carezza was one of the first spots we discovered in the Dolomites, a classic alpine lake with the Latemar mountain range as a backdrop.

Jon Baker ~ Lago di Karsee

There is a wonderful detail to be photographed; I waited by these dew covered trees for several hours in anticipation of the early morning light illuminating them.

Jon Baker ~ trees with dew and backlit

From a photography perspective, the interaction of man with the landscape has provided many interesting opportunities such as this shot of Val Di Funes was taken moments before sunset with the magnificent Odle range nestled behind the village St. Magdalena.

Jon Baker ~ Madellane with church

This image of the Wengen church in Alta Badia was captured in the pre-dawn twilight.

Jon Baker ~ Church in Val di Funes

By late November the alpine landscape is in the grips of winter, and suddenly everything becomes much less accessible on foot. Following a failed hike to a location which had to be aborted after three hours trudging through thigh deep powder, I began to use the ski lifts to reach handy vantage points. Usually, I would catch the last lift of the day and wait for sunset. The theory was simple, but in practice, I soon discovered that the ski police (yes, such a thing exists!) do not take kindly to photographers hanging about on the piste once the piste bashers get to work. After one run-in with them, I took to hiding behind trees which added a comic aspect to loitering in the cold. At least my return journeys were quicker than my usual boring trudge down in the dark from mountain top sunset shots, and exhilarating too, as I whizzed over virgin piste dodging the piste bashers!

Jon Baker ~ Pale di San Martino sunset

This image of Pale Di San Martino was taken from the stunning Passo Rolle ski area.

Enjoyable though my lift up/ski down shoots were, I still hankered to reach those less accessible spots in winter. I purchased a set of touring skis to which you can attach synthetic “skins”. The skins stick to the bottom of the ski and have a nap, which allows the ski to slide forward but not back on a gradient – hence enabling uphill travel. It’s certainly good exercise and means you can get to remote locations in heavy snow.

Perhaps my most successful ski touring trip gave rise to this image of Mount Civetta. One late winter afternoon the cloudy stormy skies looked very promising. I threw on my ski touring gear and set off in search of locations in the Cinque Torri area. First up was a mid-afternoon shot of Croda da Lago. Caked in snow, surrounded in a moody cloud and dappled with rays of sunlight I took my first keeper shot of the day.

Jon Baker ~ Civetta

I began to wait for sunset and dug a snow hole to keep warm, but presently I spied an even better vantage point higher up the mountain. To the alarm of my fiancée who was watching from lower down the mountain getting there necessitated traversing a two metre wide ridge of snow with drops on either side. As I set off I received a phone call on my mobile phone. “Do you know there’s a big cliff just next to you?” my dearly beloved wanted to know. I assured her I did and was being careful and it was true – I was terrified. I set my sights on Rifugio Nuvolo, a summer only hut near the summit. At over 2500m the hut has incredible 360 degree views from the tiny summit with vertical cliffs in all directions. Heaven knows how it was built. Every way I looked there was a composition to be had and the sky filled me with hope and anticipation. As the sun got lower in the sky I photographed the last rays of light on Civetta and also shot towards the sun with incredible rays of sun bursting through the clouds. I gingerly skied back down across the terrifying ridge and lived to see another day.

Jon Baker ~ Sun breaking through

Another method of getting into the mountains in winter is to make use of snow shoes. Having scoured the map I felt spectacular views of Mount Pelmo could be found if I could get up high enough so we ventured out on our snow shoes into the Mondeval region. After spending an enjoyable afternoon hiking up in glorious sunshine I found a spot looking over Pelmo near a small unmanned emergency hut. We put on every item of clothing we had as the sun disappeared behind a mountain and the temperature plummeted. I waited with my camera for an hour and a half in the now howling wind on a snow-blown slope. The light was beautiful and the view was perfect, just as I had hoped.

Jon Baker ~ Pelmo

It is repeated so often as to be a cliché, but patience really is a virtue in landscape photography. On a flat, overcast day there is so often the temptation to pack up and head home early, especially if the temperature is ten Celsius below freezing. These days I wait, no matter what the conditions, as there is nothing more demoralising than missing the perfect light. On my last winter excursion, I took the last cable car to Lagazuoi from Passo Falzarego. I had close to a four hour wait for sunset and during that time the cloud cover did not fill me with hope. Boredom and cold soon got to me but somehow I fought the urge to head down the mountain. I walked in circles and made frantic “star jumps” to stave off the shivers. Then, the joy of joys, a few minutes of magical light came without warning, lit up the surrounding mountains and made it all worthwhile.

Jon Baker ~ Lagazuoi view_-_Pelmo and croda

I am still to photograph the most iconic mountain of the Dolomites; Tre Cime. It really requires high summer for dawn or dusk light to illuminate the North facing peaks and I must return in June 2012 to capture it. This is what makes the Dolomites such an exciting prospect for me. In such a small area there are so many beautiful mountains and the four vastly varying seasons ensure endless photographic opportunities. Hopefully, over the coming years, I can share my passion for these mountains through my images and workshops.

For more of my images of the Dolomites, Italy, England, Scotland and more please visit my website: www.jonbakerphotography.co.uk

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