Chasing Spectres

"Coniston Old Man and Wetherlam rise like whales from the ocean. I imagine I am standing on a beach, watching, transfixed, dreaming."



Words and Pictures by ERIC WHITEHEAD

Published in The Great Outdoors, January, 2016

Mountain Phenomena

  • A Brocken Spectre is the name given to the walker’s shadow that appears in the mist. The ‘glory’ or rings that form a halo around their head are formed when light is refracting off millions of tiny water droplets that converge at the antisolar point.
  • Fogbows appear in thin fog and bright sunshine at the antisolar point. They seem white because the colours that we usually associate with rainbows wash out when the bows overlap and desaturate.
  • A temperature inversion occurs as the temperature of the atmosphere reverses and the cold air in the valleys becomes trapped underneath the warmer air above.

“Then, as though a light is turned on, the hills appear. The sun sits on top of a cloud – a magicians ball rolling along the edge of a cloth.”

Darkness fades as dawn approaches. The air around me speaks of a sunrise hidden behind the thick clouds that clog up the valley. Shadowed by dawn’s early light, enveloped in cold, damp mist, I climb up Nab Scar – part of the Fairfield Horseshoe – convincing myself that I am here for an amazing walk, for great photographs and to recapture what was lost yesterday . . . but it doesn’t look promising. On the path, cold, steel-blue stones mellow into warm, sulphur-yellow rocks. The sun is rising.

Yesterday, I gazed forlornly at peaks breaking through early morning cloud while I stood on the shore of Windermere. Now, I am slogging through claggy, porridge-thick mist, hoping of the previous day’s temperature inversion. I’d love to spend the day photograph amazing panoramas of rugged peaks jutting out from a sea of clouds and of brilliant deep cobalt-blue skies. But this morning the air is much warmer than yesterday and I do not hold out much hope. The wavering red needle of my compass points the way ahead; it is all I have to go by. Unperturbed, I climb towards summits that remain hidden.

Chasing Spectres

Approaching Heron Pike, the cloud brightens and the air becomes thinner. I take my camera from my rucksack. Wisps of cloud drift across my path. Something is happening. A shadowy outline appears through the clouds. Then, as though a light is turned on, the hills appear. A watery sun sits on top of a bank of cloud – a magician’s ball rolling along the edge of a cloth. I drop to the ground and start taking pictures. Filaments of cloud float around me. Like a curtain, they draw away and I gaze into a saturated blue sky.

sunrise above nab scar

Clouds envelop me again. The sun disappears. The moment vanishes. My hopes are dashed. Only a couple of pictures – not enough. I wait. Then the sun returns, this time sitting in authority higher above the clouds. I bask in glorious sunshine and rattle off pictures as though firing a machinegun, running around the fell-top like a rabbit, the exuberance getting the better of me. Stop, breath, take it easy, relax. This is amazing.

The cloud drops again, the views vanish. When I emerge above the cloud I am standing on an island amidst a cotton-wool ocean. Everywhere the black peaks of the Lake District rise out of a vast sea of white. Remnants of cloud drift around me – like spectres from a ghostly movie or angels clothed in raiment. Coniston Old Man and Wetherlam rise like whales from the ocean.

I am not alone. Something catches my eye!

A temperature inversion occurs when cold air in the valleys becomes trapped underneath warmer air above. It generally occurs during the winter months at dawn and is a magical reward for those walkers who take the trouble to rise early and climb in hope through thick cloud. In the clag it is impossible to tell at what height your head will poke unexpectedly into the sky; but that serene moment is one that no walker will ever forget. You feel utterly detached from the world that slumbers below, unaware of the glorious day above.

As I gaze over the billowing cloud, my eyes fixed on the distant crags of Wetherlam, a shiver runs down my spine. I suddenly sense that I am not alone. I am being watched. Aware of my vulnerability, I turn, slowly, then something catches my eye and I freeze. And there he is – or rather, there I am. I see myself. He sees me. I see my shadow of my head haloed in rainbow colours. I jump, and he jumps. I wave and he waves back, I move and he moves, I run and . . . . it’s all so surreal.

The Spectre was first recorded in the 18th century by a walker in the Brocken Mountains of Northern Germany – the ghostly apparition so alarmed him that he fell to his death. From that time on it became associated with folktales of imminent death for anyone who was unfortunate enough to see one.
 The Spectre is the name given to the shadow that appears. The ‘glory’ or rings that resemble a halo around the walkers head are formed by light refracting off millions of tiny water droplets that converge at the anti-solar point.
 To have the chance to see a Brocken Spectre you need to be on the top of a ridge above the cloud in the early morning or early evening.

Brocken Spectre

This is a Brocken Spectre; the apparition that, according to folklore, lures walkers to their death. In decades of mountaineering I have never before seen one. At first I can’t comprehend what it is.

My heart beats wildly with feelings of trepidation, then excitement and finally disbelief that I am actually in the presence of something that few walkers ever witness. I had seen photographs and read stories about this phenomenon appearing when light and raindrops come together at just the right time and in just the right place. It seems that now is that time and place.

Although Brocken Spectres have been associated with grim folk tales of imminent death for anyone unfortunate enough to see them, in reality they are the affect of shadow being thrown onto cloud by low sun.

The Spectre is the name given to the shadow of the person who witnesses it. The ‘glory’ – or rings that resemble a halo around the walkers head and so add to supernatural myth-making – are formed by light refracting off millions of tiny water droplets that converge at the anti-solar point.

To have the chance to see a Brocken Spectre you need to be on the top of a ridge above the cloud in the early morning or early evening. If you are fortunate enough, the sun will cast your shadow onto the cloud below and your shape will become distorted, as your legs appear long and your haloed head tiny above the triangular shaped apparition.


As I stand, staring at my otherworldly shadow, a huge white rainbow arcs above our heads. I look up, and he looks up, and both of us are astounded by a fogbow, a sight I’d always associated more with the ocean. There are more tales of fogbows from sailors than there are from mountaineers.

They are formed where there is thin fog and bright sunshine and, like a Brocken Spectre they appear at the antisolar point, opposite the sun. At sea they occur when the air comes into contact with water and is chilled.

This is extraordinary. I had set out to walk the Fairfield Horseshoe in the singular hope of seeing a temperature inversion, and I have been lucky enough to witness so much more.

The clouds stay away and I begin to work on taking more photographs. Taking time to get the correct exposures, the perfect angles, and everything just right. No room for error, I may never experience a day like this again.

walking above temperature inversion

Following a Spectre

Thirty minutes later I continue my walk along the ridge, heading for the ice-covered plateau of Fairfield. My shadowy friend walks with me, resplendent in his rainbow hat. A sea of cloud encircles us. A full moon floats above contrails that etch into the deep-blue sky.

A finger of cloud hovers lazily across our path as we approach Great Rigg. My friend draws closer. We can almost shake hands; but now we must part. I may never see him again. I take the last picture, wave farewell, and walk into the cloud. When I emerge, he has gone, but the day is not over. Clouds glide down the mountain slopes and fill the valleys, the sun burns out of a deep blue sky, the air is crisp and clear, the mountains beckon.

brocken spectre on the ridge to fairfield

A few weeks later I have another opportunity to experience a temperature inversion. This time I decided to take my 11-year-old daughter and her friend out onto the hill to see it. They don’t relish the prospect of getting up on a Saturday morning at 6am, especially after a week at school, but I manage to persuade them and we drive into Great Langdale through thick cloud and set out for the slopes of Harrison Stickle.

We lose the path in the thick fog a few times but eventually find the correct one and start our ascent by the side of the plunging waters of Dungeon Ghyll. Shutting my ears to the constant demands for a rest or for food, I push on up the hill. We have to keep going or miss what we came to see. A passing walker tells me that the cloud is beginning to lift and we should hurry, so I do, spurring the girl into speed with the promise that they might get the chance to catch something special.

Hannah and Georgia celebrate their first temperature inversion, over Langdale, Cumbria

Above 1000 feet the cloud begins to thin and takes on a bluish tinge. We will soon climb above it. Minutes later we emerge into sunshine. Wispy tendrils blow around the hill as we climb a little higher and sit on Pike Howe to enjoy the view. All the moans and groans of the ascent are forgotten as the girls run about, shouting and waving their arms. Across the valley the cloud drops enough for us to see the crags of Pavey Ark, orange in the morning sunshine.

To chase spectres, sit under fogbows and walk above clouds is a joyous privilege. It’s rare, to be sure, but worth making the chase for a day you will never forget.

Chasing Spectres, article published in The Great Outdoors, January, 2016