Friday, 20 January 2012

Walking on the Wild Side: Nightwalking

Another little post from the Arran Voice series I am writing.  This one appeared in December's issue. 

It’s December on Arran, and the wheel of the year is dipping in to the darkest phase. If the weather is good, the low winter sun hits the eyes in cold hard rays, but if the island is shrouded in cloud, light slips in and out of the short days almost unnoticed.  

Walking in the mountains at this time of year means preparation, extra equipment and warm clothing.  One of the essentials is a torch. There is a certainty to the darkness in December, and I carry a torch with me now wherever I go. Trying to avoid the darkness cuts short the day and so it is in the dim pre-dawn light that I set out for the hill, and I know that I will return under the cover of dark. The weary trudge out of the glen in the gathering gloom is part and parcel of winter walking, and not always welcome, but the darkness focuses the senses and condenses the experience.  Some of my most intense memories are of the mountains at night.

Mountains have moods, and the same peak can have a hundred different faces depending on the prevailing weather, wind, and time of day. Camping wild and high in the mountains is a great way to feel the changes that come with darkness.  I recall my first mountain camp, two of us pitched by a lake in a lonely cwm on Cadair Idris. As darkness fell we retreated to the warmth of the tent for an early night. Much later I needed to pee, and crawled out of the tent in to the black night.  A mist had fallen, so there were no stars or moon visible, but the beam of my torch picked up the startled eyes of dozens of sheep. Like small green lanterns, they hung in an unblinking circle around our tent, the whirling mist revealing and obscuring each pair of eyes in turn. There was something very creepy about these sheep and fear of their luminous eyes kept me awake until dawn.

Night time is a great time to practise navigation, and the dreaded “Night Nav” is usually a set exercise on Mountain Leader Assessments. My most unpleasant night time mountain experience was one such exercise here on Arran. We set up camp on the shore of Coire Fhionn Lochain, under normal circumstances an idyllic place to spend a night, but on this occasion a storm was raging overhead.  After a hurried tea we went out in to the lashing rain to practice our navigation, heading on to the stony ridge above the coire. The torchlight created a white cocoon of dazzling light around us, beyond which the darkness was intensified and we could see nothing.  Rain soaked in to our clothes, our fingers went numb, and the wind wrestled with us so that we staggered around like drunks trying to feel our way in the dark. It was grim.  A sudden gust of wind snatched the flapping map out of my wet gloves and I watched as it hung in the air just out of arms reach, before being swept off in to the black sky above. I never saw that map again!

By contrast, on a clear but moonless winters night on Ben Macdui a couple of years ago, the stars alone illuminated the glistening white plateau so well we dispensed with our torches and walked by starlight. It was as if the land itself had an inner glow that was reflected back at the Milky Way.  We could see for miles, to the furthest extent of the mountains, where the frosty edge of the Cairngorms dipped down towards the darkness of the Aberdeenshire coast. It was like being on a magic carpet of snow, flying through the sky. On a night like that, the only place to be is roving the hills, on a twinkling island 4,000 feet up while the rest of the world is fast asleep.

The sheer beauty of the mountains at night can be breathtaking and sometimes the darkness brings even bigger surprises. The mysteries of the Cosmos best reveal themselves to the naked eye at night, and being high up in the mountains gets you closer to the action and away from light pollution.  I count myself lucky to have seen the Northern Lights from a mountain top in Norway. However, the one nightwalking experience that I treasure more than any other happened here on Arran just last winter.  Descending from Cir Mhor at dusk with my husband, the sun had set and the sky was a deep velvety blue, still smeared with pink at the horizon.  No need for head torches yet, but the going was tricky in deep snow and slippery boulders. Suddenly, our surroundings were illuminated and we looked up to see a burning ball of fire soar past. The trajectory of the meteorite took it at eye level across the hollow void of Glen Sannox, where it fizzled out in a puff of sulphurous light above the dark glen. It was a chance occurrence, a once in several lifetimes experience, but as they say, you have to be “in it to win it”, and walking at night is a great way to find these surprising and magical moments that come at you out of the gloom.  

Safety First:
Walking in the mountains carries a risk of accidents, and this is increased further at night.  There are ways of minimising the risk to yourself when mountain walking at this time of year:

  • Take plenty of warm clothes, food and drink
  • Carry a map and compass, and know how to use them.
  • Carry a headtorch and spare batteries, or even a spare torch.
  • Choose a route that will be easy to follow in the dark.
  • Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back.
  • In full “winter conditions” other equipment such as ice axe and crampons may also be necessary.

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