Daniel Groves

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Published: 24 November 2015 · Tags: photography, dartmoor, backpacking

Walking through darkness and snow to camp on Dartmoor.

We’d gone out looking for snow, but hadn’t expected it quite so soon. It was 23:00 on Friday 20th November, Mike and I had just parked in the Two Bridges car park and started walking along the path to Wistmans Wood.

We were both well buried in GoreTex to keep the biting wind at bay bringing with it a wind chill of minus six degrees celsius. As we proceeded past the gate our head torches punched into the pitched black emptiness ahead, quickly illuminating the small snow flakes drifting down to meet us.

This small flurry quickly increased in size and pace as the winds picked up. We were now being pelted by the snow; with our hoods pulled down and everything zipped up tightly we kept moving forward, trying to see the path ahead.

The brief snow storm finished as quickly as it had started, and we were soon making good ground once again. We made our way along the main path towards Wistmans Wood until we spotted the turn-off which would lead us up to Longaford Tor. Once up here we searched around for the driest and most sheltered spot we could find, cutting the worst of the wind out in exchange for an area slightly steeper than ideal. After breaking the ice from our rucksack fastenings we pulled our tents out and got everything setup as quickly as the winds would allow us.

Pulling my sleeping equipment out of my rucksack was when I discovered the first of several gear failures that would occur on this trip. One side of my sleeping mat was soaked, which quickly led to the discovery of my water bladder leaking inside my bag. My vital gear is all stored inside dry bags, which kept the critical items safe.

 alt: The tents pitched below Longaford Tor.
The tents pitched below Longaford Tor.

The warmth from a down jacket is immediate; something I was thankful for as I walked back up the side of Longaford Tor to photograph the lit-up tents below. Stood here you could feel the wind creeping through all and any gaps, desperate to find it’s way inside the numerous layers tasked with keeping each of us warm. Wearing thinner gloves to maintain enough dexterity to operate a camera quickly left my finger tips numb, something remedied by returning to the tents for a brew. It was now 01:00 on Saturday morning, and time to get some sleep before getting up in six hours time to shoot the sunrise.

 alt: Soft morning light
Soft morning light, with fast clouds overhead.

The next morning I slept through all three alarms. In the end it was pure luck that I woke up just as the sunrise began, resulting in a need to move fast in order to get setup. Walking up the last few metres to the top of Longaford Tor quickly exposed us to the biting wind. Ignoring this we split to find our own angles to shoot in order to make the most of the low morning light.

The soft pink-orange colours didn’t last long as the sun quickly rose above the low and fast-moving clouds. I moved quickly through a series of locations, first making use of the colours in the clouds, before moving on to take advantage of Mikes silhouette on the Tor above, and then the low but now direct sunlight on the moorland around. It was while changing filters during this next shoot that I discovered the second gear failure of the trip: the mount for my lens hood had broken off the lens, making the hood now completely useless as it now obstructed the view.

 alt: The calm after the storm: sunset.  alt: The calm after the storm: sunset.
Left: Mike on top of the southerly summit of Longaford Tor. Right: The northerly summit of Longaford Tor.

Back in the tents we could start to relax a little more now we were out of the wind. I could feel my finger tips softly tingling as the blood-flow returned after removing my gloves to handle the filters required for the long exposures I had been doing just a few minutes earlier. The ease of starting the pre-heat cycle on my MSR stove quickly proved once again how well designed the unit is, and sped the way to return my fingers to their normal state. You cannot beat the feeling of of a hot drink and breakfast to warm you through after shooting in cold conditions.

Once we were both fed and watered it was time to move on. We’d planned a return route via Beardown Tors which meant taking a brief walk down the to West Dart River before finding a way across. We’d intended to use the weir to to do this, but seeing enough water flowing over this to flood our boots, something neither of us were keen on, we proceeded to move further up the river to look for somewhere else to cross.

 alt: Looking out of the tent.

I was moving in front of Mike, weaving through grass and hoping between rocks and holes, when I heard a call behind me. Turning around I could just see Mikes head and shoulders as he’d managed to fall straight into a hole I’d just hoped over. After helping pull Mike out we agreed it was unlikely we’d find anything by continuing further up river, and so returned to take another look at the weir.

On this second look we noticed a series of rocks below the weir led up to the central wall. Here we could traverse past the wider half of the weir, walk up the central wall, and then jump over the narrower but deeper and faster second half. Thankfully this plan worked out well, which would otherwise have been disastrous had one of us fallen in. With this we’d now unlocked our access to the Beardown Tors.

The walk up to the top of Beardown was quick, despite our loads. As we came up to the crest the winds hit us once again, so we immediately sought out some shelter where we got a brew on and had a quick bite to eat in our small pocket of shelter within the chaos surrounding us.

 alt: Mike shooting on Beardown Tors.
Mike shooting on Beardown Tors.

We spent a short while here enjoying the time in the sun and out of the wind before making our way down to the leat, which we followed into a small woodland, stopping to photograph the contrasting light and colours surrounding a leat overflow duct. It was here that Mike managed to snap a leg off his tripod while setting up; the third and final gear failure of the trip.

Leaving this woodland the snow was starting to fall once again. This motivated us to move along the last part of the leat quickly, before turning off onto a farm track which took us further along to the river. Here we took the path down the south-facing bank and followed this all the way back into Two Bridges.

 alt: The Leet we'd followed from the weir on the West Dart River.  alt: Mike shooting with his newly reconfigured bipod.
Left: The Leet we’d followed from the weir on the West Dart River. Right: Mike shooting with his newly reconfigured bipod.

Route Information

This route could easily be accomplished in a day for those who don’t feel like camping out in sub zero temperatures. You will need OS Map OL28, and the start point is at 609751.