I don't often get to "hang out" these days. Everything seems to move at 100mph! We want it and we want it now, or even yesterday? So when i got the chance to spend 7 days on the tiny Scottish island of Pabbay in the Outer Hebrides i jumped at the chance. Work, at least on this occassion was going to be more like a holiday, or so i thought. It wasn't ideal that between finishing an assignment in Chamonix and travelling to Pabbay i would only be home for several hrs before heading North again. It didn't help that my flight back from Geneva was delayed due to "Backing up"
Luckily for me Lucy was doing all the driving, so in the few hours i had at home i could concentrate on packing (which i hate) or rather unpacking and re-packing. The main criteria for the nxt week was "self sufficiency" weight constraints! and battery power. After a few fraught hours, copious amounts of tea and gratuitous use of the saxon lanuage i was ready, van loaded and we were away. First stop Armathwaite where we'll be spending the night. After a good nights sleep ( i was absolutely knackered) we're back on the road and heading for the Port of Oban on the west coast of Scotland, gateway to the islands. The forecast for the week is looking less inviting than todays glorious sun. The temperature is almost being halved to around 12-14 degrees but at least the rains staying away, well it is if you believe the various websites i've trawled through. We arrive in Oban at just gone 14:00, dump the gear at the ferry (we're going as foot passengers - we don't need a car or van, there aren't any roads) and meet up with our fellow castaways for the week - Steve McClure, one of the best free climbers in the world. Rab Carrington, climber, mountaineer, President of the British Mountaineering Council and founder of the outdoor clothing brand which bears his name RAB, and his long time friend and British climbing legend Martin Boysen. Also joining us for the week are Neil Foster, another "lifer" from Planet climb and his wife Clare a climbing instructor. That just leaves me, ageing overweight one time climber and my partner of 10 years Lucy Creamer, 7 x British leading champion and another of the worlds best trad climbers. I can't remember who first suggested we go to Pabbay, it could have been Lu or Steve, in fact i think they both independently came up with the same idea. Lu had spent time on the surrounding islands of Mingulay and Sandray and Steve wanted an adventure, so here we are about to board "The Clansman" As foot passengers we have to be able to carry all our belongings up the gangplank in one go, not sure why but it makes for an interesting 5 minutes, with Lu and Ste pretty much carrying their bodyweight! and everyone else in excess of 50kgs. Not only do i have the usual camping gear, food and basic clothing, i'm also lugging 2 x 100m of static rope (more later) rigging gear and 2 x camera bags. After much sweating and heavey breathing akin to the scenes you get in "worlds strogest man" you know, fat but strong bloke carries two fridges 50m uphill before collapsing in a breathless heap, we store the gear as the boat sets sail for the Island of Barra, our first stop. Five and a half hours later we arrive, load up with our gear and head down to the quayside where our lift is waiting. For part two of our journey we take a small fishing boat to the island which will take a further hour to reach Pabbay. Finally the little island comes into view and what a view, the beach where we land easily rivals anything the seychelles could throw at you, a little colder but then it is 22:30 and its still light.
The Isle of Pabbay
We set up camp amongst an old ruined cottage, 5 tents scattered amongst its remains, a new community taking the place of an old one. The story of Pabbay is one of the most savage of the clearances. Until 1846 it was a thriving community of around 350 people, 65 households, who distilled illegal whiskey, paid their taxes and bothered no-one. However the landowner's decision to create a sheep farm here led to the entire population, bar six people, being forcibly evicted, some to neighbouring Berneray, some to the mainland and many to Nova Scotia where they joined the Gaelic diaspora in the New World. Today all that remains is peace and quiet among the ruins, a solitary sheep and a bunch of climbers.
We can't go to bed without a quick walk along the beach. The sand soft and cold underfoot. The next day the sun rises and so do we, excited by the prospect of a new place of discovery. Eat breakfast, sort and pack gear, fetch water from the stream and head up the big, long hill to the other side of the island to where the climbing is. Every step is like treading on a sponge. Its not long before my feet are sodden for the first and last time. They hit saturation point and stay that way until we leave 6 days later, only momentarily drying out when i'm in the tent at night before having to cram them back inside my shoes again the following day (note to myself - pack two pairs of shoes from now on!)
The reason i'm here on this beautiful, if not slightly sodden little island is to shoot some photos for the outdoor clothing manufacturer Marmot. Marmot sponsor both Lucy and Steve and they had been looking for an opportunity to photograph them together for some time. As they had both expressed an interest in climbing on Pabbay it seemed a good oportunity. The photos would be used in Marmots own promotional brochures and website, as well as featuring in an audio-visual which is being put together for one of the film festivals.
The climbing on Pabbay is found on the cliffs directly above the sea. Each cliff named by the people who first climbed them or at least first saw them - Banded walls, The Bay area, Pink and Grey walls and of course the main reason we are here, the Great Arch. So after 4 days of climbing, getting to grips with the rock type and getting to know the island and all its little idiosyncrasy's and mentally preparing for the climb - its important to feel comfortable - its "game on"
I'd done a few little "reckies" of my own to work out exactly where i was going to shoot the photos from. Basically i had two options open to me. I could abseil down the route and shoot the climbers from a rope (i'd specifically brought along 2 x 100m of Static ropes for this) or i could shoot across at them from a steep hillside. A difficult choice to make, both options offering good and bad points in there favour. I think if i had been looking to make just a single, really dramatic image then i would have shot from above on the rope, Steve pulling through the final moves of the roof, fear and anxiety etched on his face and the waves crashing on the rocks 300ft below. But on this occasion I wasn't, DAMN sounded good! I even did a "dummy run" rigging my ropes and abbing into the abyss, hanging on the exposed lip of the roof with my camera and 14-24mm to check the exact angle, it looked stunning, but it wasnt meant to be!
My brief was to document the whole climb, as well as all the preperation beforehand. It wouldn't have been practical to try and do all this from a rope - i needed two of me - i needed to be in two places at the same time. Practicality had to take preference over drama, so i opted to shoot from terra firma. I needed to be able to shoot the preperation before they started, sorting gear, reading guidebook discriptions, racking gear and then when they started to climb i needed to document every move of every pitch. I needed to be able to shoot tight in to the action as it unfolded as well as faraway shots of tiny climbers lost in a greater landscape - i'd had a sleepless night deliberating with myself over the options and didn't decide until the morning of the climb which way to shoot it. It was a battle between what i wanted and what the clients brief demanded, when you're working for someone else you have to put your own ego on hold.
After working out "where" i was going to shoot the action from i needed to decide "What" i was going to shoot it with. As quite often happens in photography the gear you end up using is a compromise from the "Ideal" set-up. If i had been shooting a similar scenario back on the mainland, low speed action at a distance, i would have opted for my Nikon D3x mounted on a sturdy tripod fitted with a 400mm/2.8. A second 300mm/2.8 by my feet and a second camera with a 70-200mm/2.8 for wider shots. On this occassion with a weight restriction imposed on us (not to mention my bad bad) i opted for a Nikon D700 (my favourite camera) a 70-200mm/2.8 with a 2x converter mounted onto my trusty old Gitzo monopod. This lightweight combo meant i could dash about the hillside and still get as close in as i needed to be. Add in the fact i could shoot at pretty high ISO settings and we were laughing.
The Great Arch - 350ft Lucy Creamer on the crux of pitch 2
The day of the actual shoot (the saturday) arrived bathed in Glorious sunshine, which was great for the climbers but presented me with a bit of a headache. The color of the rock on the upper face of the Great Arch is a yellowish orange, quite bright in fact. Direct sunshine bouncing off this plays havoc with the light readings, but shooting and constantly checking my histograms proves workable. What is less workable is when Steve goes for the "crux" pitch (hardest pitch) the huge 20ft roof of the Arch. Exposing for constant bright light, looks harsh but can as i said before be managed. Now Steve would be climbing from the bright, sun drenched rock into the huge black shadow created by the roof, a difference of some 3 or 4 stops. Momentarily the sun dips behind a cloud and i smile to myself, better! expose a few well balanced frames, before we're back to bright light again. It annoys me because there isn't anything i can do about it except shoot away using my histograms on the back of my camera as a guide and hoping that as we are so late in the day the sun would eventually drop low enough in the sky that it would start to illuminate the underside of the roof and get rid of the harsh shadows - it wasn't meant to be!
Using everything she's got - Lucy Creamer tackles the crux overhang on pitch two
Lucy and Steve started the route at about 13:30 they finally topped out as the sun was setting at 22.58, luckily the days are longer in the outer hebrides, otherwise they'de have been climbing the last two pitches by headtorch. As it was by the time we'd packed all the gear, we were looking at the walk back to camp in the dark. It was a tired trio that finally made it back just shy of midnight, luckily for us though Clare had kindly cooked us supper, it wasn't long before my head hit the pillow - the editing could wait.
Our small perfect island Almost alone - our beach Hebridian Sunset over Barra
A big thanks to my fellow adventurers - Rab, Martin, Clare, Neil, Steve and Lucy.