Sunday 10 March 2013

Amongst the Clouds

Dawn, Stob a'Ghrianain

The last week has been cloudy and misty with the hills mostly hidden. Watching the clouds drifting past I thought I'd post the following piece, originally written for TGO magazine. Clouds and mist can be glorious!

Amongst the Clouds
The air was damp and chill and thick with mist. With visibility down to a few metres I wondered whether to go on climbing. Was there any point when I could see nothing? But above there were hints of brightness and a blue sheen to the greyness. Maybe up there the sun was shining. I climbed on and the mists did indeed begin to dissipate as a cool breeze blew and a watery sun appeared high above. Soon the mists were gone, the last tattered shreds speeding away on the strengthening wind and dissolving in the now dazzling sunlight. The world exploded outwards from a few hazy boulders and the patch of damp grass at my feet to a startling vista of ranks of mountains fading into the far horizons, mountains that floated in space for below them was the rippling blanket of white cloud that I’d climbed through. I sat on the summit and stared out across the land. Everything above 700 metres or so was sharp and clear, everything below that height hidden. The visibility was superb; the clarity unreal.

Cloud inversions like this are one of the joys of our humid climate and a particular pleasure of camping high in the hills. A few years ago I camped on the snow-covered summit of Ben Nevis. There was a lovely sunset with just a little cloud out to the west and the night looked like being clear and frosty. However I woke to find the first grey light filtering through thin mist that drifted round my camp. Out to the east a pale insipid sun was just visible on the horizon. Slowly the sun rose through the clouds, putting out more heat and power, and the mist faded and sank down the mountain’s flanks, leaving a bright world with tremendous views of the hills all around. Below the glens were thick with cloud. Above ranks of cumulus clouds drifted across the sky, covering and then revealing the sun. The world felt fantastically alive, almost unreal in its mobility and sharpness.  

Sgurr a' Mhaim from Ben Nevis

Dawn is often the best time to see such atmospheric delights, before the sun’s heat dispels the clouds; an advantage of high level camps. Sometimes, as on Ben Nevis, the cloud-filled glens are unexpected, sometimes the mist can be seen forming at sunset. Once I camped just below the summit of Glas Maol above Glen Shee on a dull cloudy evening. As I lay in the tent I watched fingers of mist slowly creeping up from the glen below and crawling across the slopes towards the tent. They reached me just as I was falling asleep and I felt the first touch of dampness on my face and saw the first drops of condensation forming on the tent. I closed my eyes thinking that the next day could be one of compass navigation in the clouds. But I was woken by brightness and heat. A newly risen sun was shining straight into the tent door. The mist was shrinking back into the glens, which were still thick with cloud. For a few hours I walked over dew soaked grass watching the clouds gradually thin and fade until the glens too were shining in the sun.

Against the days of magic and wonder must be set those when the mist doesn’t clear. Particularly frustrating are those times when it feels as though the thin cloud could disappear at any minute and there are tantalising hints of blue just above and glimpses of sunshine. Often it seems that if only the hill was just a few metres higher you would be in clear air. On other occasions the mist thickens and rain falls and it’s quickly apparent that there will be no clearance. I experienced this on a camp on Beinn Eighe (which has surprisingly large areas of smooth, flat turf for a Torridon hill). The forecast was good and there had been a lovely sunset with a deep red sky. I woke once in the dark to find the open tent full of damp mist and drips falling from the roof. By dawn it was raining heavily and the cloud was thick. I abandoned my intended traverse of the mountain and set off down to the glen. By the time I was off the mountain the burns were foaming with water and the rain was lashing down. 

Beinn a'Bheithir

Then there are those days of playing cat and mouse with the cloud, dipping in and out as it hangs on the side of the hills, occasionally sneaking across a col or drifting over a summit. I traversed Beinn a’Bheithir above Ballachulish and Loch Leven in conditions like this, sometimes in bright sunshine with views stretching many miles, sometimes in dense cloud with visibility just a few metres. To the south the cloud wall never wavered, thick and white and implacable. Rising up the side of the mountain it broke on the ridge, spiralling up into the sky and breaking into ragged tendrils. Each time I was enveloped I wondered if the mist would stay but then I would suddenly walk out of it and the world would be revealed.

Perhaps the most unusual and magical night above the clouds was on Stob a’Ghrianain above Glen Loy. In the evening I’d watched a huge orange moon rising over the Great Glen and the darkening bulk of Ben Nevis towering above the sparkling lights of Fort William. Then dawn came with a fiery red sky as the sun lit up thickening clouds. Below this dramatic sky all the long lochs to the south and west were totally covered by thick mist, tinted pink by the sunrise, but the dark land was clear with the silhouetted peaks purple in the early light. The powerful lighting lasted an hour or so and then began to weaken along with the clearing mist over the lochs. Only those who spend their night high in the hills would have seen the red sky and the mist-covered lochs. Perhaps I was the only one.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful and evocative - these are your most inspiring posts Chris. A passion of mine are clouds - the way they not only change the sky into an endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of colour, but also how they turn the earth into a living tapestry.