Thursday 5 August 2021

Not Quite A Thunderstorm On Meall a' Bhuachaille


Thunderstorms scare me in the hills. I've had too many close encounters with lightning, most recently on my Colorado Rockies walk two years ago (see this post), so I don't go out if thunderstorms are forecast. Usually. Today I did, surprising my partner, who pointed out that I didn't do this. But for the previous fortnight writing had occupied my time, enjoyable writing but intensive and tiring. Suddenly I felt in need of a break. My work rate was slowing rapidly, my concentration fading. I knew the signs. I needed a day in the hills. 

The forecast the evening before looked okay - showers, sunshine, enough of a breeze to keep the midges down. Certainly better than the following four days when heavier rain and thunderstorms were predicted, embedded thunderstorms too, the ones that scare me most as these are hidden inside other clouds so you can't see them coming. In the hills that can mean being in the cloud. Twice I've been walking high up in thick mist when thunder has cracked and a flash of lightning has lit up the mountainside. This is terrifying. Where is the storm? Which way is it moving? Go down, that's all you can do.

By the next day the forecast had changed confusingly. Thunderstorms were predicted for Aviemore but not Cairn Gorm, only some 18km away. Could the forecasters be that precise? I doubted it. As thunder storms were still predicted the next few days I decided to go anyway but to head for Meall a' Bhuachaille so I wouldn't be too far above the forest and could head down quickly if I heard thunder. I didn't fancy being on the Cairngorm Plateau in a thunderstorm.

The walk through the woods past An Lochan Uaine to the Pass of Ryvoan was as enjoyable as ever, the lush regenerating forest always glorious. In the trees it was hot and humid. 

Once I started the climb up Meall a' Bhuachaille and left the forest behind there was a welcome breeze though the air was still warm enough for rolled shirt sleeves and no jacket. Now I could see the sky I watched the clouds towering above the hills. Was a thunderstorm brewing? At one point it seemed so. A dark anvil-shaped cloud reared up (see image at the top of this post). I hesitated. Maybe I should turn back. The cloud was some distance away though and moving towards the Cairngorm Plateau. I carried on, watching it carefully. By the time I reached the summit it had lost its shape a little and was drifting away. 

As I descended shafts of light appeared through the clouds as the sun lit up distant hillsides. The sky was still dark and ominous but these sunbeams hinted at brightness and warmth. 

There were no thunderstorms. There weren't even any showers. The clouds were impressive but in the end posed no threat. The light had been magnificent. Maybe I could have gone higher and further. I'd have worried about lightning though. Now to see if there is any in the days to come, when I'll be safely back at my desk, rejuvenated and writing.

Photography note. As the clouds were the dominant feature and there wasn't much colour in the landscape I decided my pictures looked better in black and white.


  1. Hi Chris
    Like you thunderstorms terrify me as well. A number of years ago I was caught above the Ordessa Canyon in the Pyrenees...all I could do was lie down having dumped my gear well away! I, like you don't venture high if thunderstorms are forescast.
    Cheers Alistair

    1. Back in July'94 it thundered every day, just to the East of where you were, about 3-4pm for about 12 days in the Pyrenees whilst hiking the HRP. I remember it started happening one day whilst I was about 2200 metres high and it felt terrifying especially as you were carrying a walking axe attached to your rucksack!