Mike Hutton tells the story of his solo journey to Lofoten to photograph bouldering under the Northern Lights.
I first experienced the magic of the Lofoten Islands whilst on a solo 4000 mile bike ride from Gibraltar to North Cape back in 2001. Jagged peaks rose dramatically from the sparkling turquoise waters whilst deserted sandy white beaches seemed to be just around every bend of the road. The memories gained during those formative years as I travelled through this wild landscape were powerfully imprinted and are the reason for my recent explorations.
Some years later I returned in the depths of the arctic winter on a mission to capture an image of bouldering under the Aurora Borealis. This was going to require many factors coming together and I decided that whatever the outcome I would enjoy the adventure, and spending time in this rugged environment would be a soul cleansing experience for me.
As I touched down in Bodo the weather gods looked angry. I had planned to take the over-night ferry to Svolvaer on Lofoten but storm force winds rendered this impossible. Forced to spend the night on the mainland I struggled to erect my tent in the high winds and even getting the pegs into the frozen turf was a battle. Exhausted by travel I drifted off into a tormented sleep dreaming of green skies and snow covered beaches. The reliable De Havilland Canada Dash 8 aircraft, suited to strong winds, was the answer to my prayers as it touched down on Lofoten the next day. As I set up camp amongst the pink granite boulder field below the renowned peak of Presten (the ‘Priest’) I was sure some of my food had vanished but put the matter to the back of my mind.
I spent the evening, as the light faded, scoping out the perfect boulder that I could frame up with the northern lights and the distant snow capped mountains. My eyes were drawn towards a jagged monolith that protruded out into the sea. As the granite glowed golden in the arctic light it was impossible not to pull on and sample its delights despite the potential consequence of falling into the freezing sea.
As I waited for Borealis that night I heard a rustling and rushed back to the tent only to discover my food lay scattered down the hillside. My attentions were drawn toward two bright eyes in the snow. The rest of the night was spent playing hide and seek with what turned out to be a hungry arctic fox.
I later learned that the Finnish word for Aurora Borealis is ‘revontulet,’ which literally means ‘fox fires.’ A Sami legend tells that the lights are caused by a magical fox running across the arctic fells; the fox sweeps its tail across the snow sending a trail of sparks up into the sky. There were to be no lights that night but at least I had made a friend!
All plans involving the chosen boulder were quickly abandoned as I awoke to a thick covering of snow. The following days were spent questing around the island on a hunt for a better venue. The archipelagos of islands had been transformed into a wild winter scene and I indulged in photographing the desolate stormy beaches at Uttakleiv and Haukland with snow down to the shoreline under the mesmerising arctic light. Everywhere I ventured snow-capped peaks reflected perfectly in the numerous pristine blue fjords. From Moskenes in the far south to Henningsvaer in the middle, I found places devoid of people.
On my way back up north I stumbled upon a stunning beach on the isolated headland of Myrland. Further along the road were boulders galore with just a dusting of snow that were sparkling in the weak winter sunlight. My eyes were drawn to one on the shoreline with magnificent views of the distant mountains on the other side of Steinsfjorden.
I returned later that night equipped with an array of flashguns and a sturdy tripod. Thankfully the moon had started to rise meaning I would need minimal light from the flashgun in order to balance the exposure between the bright north sky and darker rock. By 3am I had been out for several hours in the sub zero temperatures as I practiced climbing the boulder under the moonlight. The descent was decorated with snow and my feet were getting colder on every attempt.
Just when I was about to give up for the night the sky came to life with a dazzling display of emerald light. I climbed the boulder and the let the camera capture the magic. I shall never forget that electrifying moment when all the elements came together to create this beautiful image. Frozen to the core I stumbled back to my sleeping bag and sank into a deep sleep. When I awoke the next day I had to question whether I had dreamt up the whole event but the images on the camera confirmed the special moment.
As I drove back to catch my flight home the memories of those invigorating days were still close. As I reflected on the outcome of my photographic project I realised it had been a success; not just because of the final image, but because of the adventure I had in getting it.
Mike Hutton is a well-known and widely published climbing photographer based in the UK Peak District. You can see more of his work here.