Adam Burton Photography

Long Way Down

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One of the biggest challenges I faced when photographing the landscapes of the Faroe Islands was finding locations to photograph from sea level.  Although you are never far from the coast in the Faroe Islands, beaches are relatively uncommon.  Instead there are cliffs, and not just any cliffs.  The sea cliffs of the Faroes are among the highest in the world, towering basalt monsters that rise vertically for hundreds of metres straight out of the sea.

It is these such cliffs, together with neighbouring mountains, which for many years encircled the tiny village of Gasadalur in a u-shaped wall of basalt, leaving the village and its lush valley trapped precariously close to the open cliff tops. Cut off on three sides, the villagers route to the wider world would seemingly be from the coast.  However, the rocky ledges providing access to the sea were still fifty metres below unscalable cliffs.

Despite this, the incredibly picturesque Gasadalur was high up on my list of priorities during my trip to the Faroe Islands, and I was relieved to discover that a tunnel now connects the village with the other parts of the island, making access a simple affair.

The classic view of the village, dwarfed by the dramatic coastline and immense mountains is THE iconic vista of the Faroe Islands, photographed by many visitors to the islands.  Despite its popularity it makes a simply irresistible photographic subject and I was not going to be the exception.  But in addition to this shot, I also wanted to capture something a little different and so was excited to discover a concrete stairway descending to an alternative viewpoint far below the clifftops.

However, my excitement instantly faded the moment I looked down!  Subsequent research revealed that this stairway was built by the British during the Second World War.  Sadly they do not appear to have been maintained since then and as a result were the most frightening set of steps that I have ever witnessed!  Clinging precariously to the edge of the sheer basalt cliffs, the steps descended steeply in one continuous narrow stairway to a raised ledge around thirty metres below. There was a warning sign at the top saying something in Faroese, which probably translated to 'Go down this way and you might regret it' or words to that effect.

Even bearing this in mind, to some people this descent would be no more than an invitation to adventure, but to somebody with a healthy fear of heights it was tantamount to certain disaster.  Never the less, my friend who had no such reservations began the long walk down and, after a few anxious moments of deliberation I nervously followed.

The steps, covered in loose stones and gravel were broken in many places, making descent a hazardous affair.  I knew that one slip could result in a fairly quick trip to the bottom with no prospect of return! On the cliff side of the steps a wobbly rusty handrail was to be my salvation, ensuring my safe passage to the bottom and as the fierce Atlantic wind battered me I clung onto it with all my strength.  On the other side there was no such barrier separating the steps from a sheer drop to certain death, so pushing myself up against the cliff side I focused all my attention on the hand rail and descended one step at a time in grim determination.

About half way down and my anxiety meter was suddenly turned to maximum.  The wobbly handrail, my little bit of salvation abruptly ended in mid-air, and in that moment it dawned on me that all my hopes had been clinging to a rusted rail that for some way had been attached to nothing at all!

Relief flooded through my body when I finally reached the ledges below and I immediately started searching for a foreground to compliment the wonderful backdrop.  It wasn’t long before I had discovered some verdant algae covered rockpools, and I set to work, all the while trying not to think about the inevitable return trip up the steps.

Later, after returning to the top I vowed to myself that I would never descend these horrible steps again. But just two days later I was back doing it all over again. All in the pursuit of photography!

This article originally featured in Landscape Photography Magazine, May 2014.

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