Wilderness Photography Tuesday May 5, 2009

Wildness was discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Or rather rediscovered. It was the Romantics that did it. Of course, nature has always been celebrated in different ways across the centuries: you can see that from cave paintings, you can read it in the earliest poems that survive. But the Romantics were revolutionaries: and nature – wildness – was at the heart of their revolutionary fervour…for the romantics, wild nature – nature without thee hand of man – was what mattered. The wild world was the place to find beauty: but more than that, it was the place to find truth.

How to Be Wild Simon Barnes 2008: 118

Wilderness can mean “a place of abundance” as in John Milton, “A wildernesse of sweets.” Milton’s usage of wilderness catches the very real condition of energy and richness that is so often found in wild systems. “A wildernesse of sweets” is like the billions of herring or mackerel babies in the ocean, the cubic miles of krill, wild prairie grass seed (leading to the bread of this day, made from the germs of grasses) – all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants, feeding the web. But from another side, wilderness has implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and the demonic. In both senses it is a place of archetypal power, teachings, and challenge.

So we can say that New York City and Tokyo are “natural” but not “wild” They do not deviate from the laws of nature, but they are habitat so exclusive in the matter of who and what they give shelter to, and so intolerant of other creatures, as to be truly odd. Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. In ecology we speak of “wild systems.” When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive.

The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder 1990: 18-19

What is ‘wildness’, and what is ‘wilderness?’ This is a topic that’s interested me for a few years in relation to mountain walking, its aesthetic and psychological experience: what do you find there, and what effect does it have? To be truly free, Snyder says, one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, an in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence (ibid 12).

The Chinese word for nature, zi-ran (Japanese shizen) means “self-thus.” There’s a clue in this. Yet for some people wilderness is little more than an aesthetic category, whereby the only meaning it has is the emotional pattern some people make with it. There is nothing intrinsic to an experience of the mountains, since they are just inert if shapely rock. What we experience is ourselves and how we feel about it, and that is not intrinsic: different people experience different things. There’s a scene in the film Trainspotting when the drug addicts take a trip to the highlands. Appalled by their vast emptiness, they go scurrying back to Glasgow. And yet, as philosophers like Lao Tsu noted in the Tao te Ching, emptiness contains fullness. This dichotomy between natural wilderness and so called civilisation is an underlying fact of life: walk far enough, and you eventually find places where energies are not maintained but exist according to the subtle but powerful rules of nature. To drive there and immerse yourself in them is more likely and convenient. Quite recently, the English Lake District was regarded with horror and foreboding, a place of threat and menace rather than beauty. Then a few people climbed the hills, it aroused the curiosity of others, and the pursuit of mountain walking has attracted substantial interest ever since.

To a large extent, the Romantics were responsible for this: Wordsworth evoked the gentler pleasures of birds, hills and even the daffodils of the Lakes, his famous poem about the latter inspired by a spring time hillside near Ullswater. Coleridge, his friend, evoked more of the wildness of the mountains and in that respect they were complementary. He took to the hills in a state of opium-induced fervour, regarding their danger as challenge and poetic inspiration. Wandering with neither plan nor knowledge, he allowed inclination and caprice to lead him as it would: on one occasion down to a notorious station called Broad Stand, one of the danger areas of Lakeland. There are accidents there every year, broken limbs and occasional fatalities. It’s a tantalising crossing between Scafell and Scafell Pike, designated a Grade 3 scramble not be taken lightly; it’s the one area of the Lake District that taunts and challenges me. I’m not a peak-bagging walker, but motivated by aesthetic and sensory pleasures irrespective of so-called attainment. However I’ve heard contrary accounts of Broad Stand, on the one hand of doom and foreboding and on the other that in dry conditions if I don’t mind a bit of exposure I could do it: the latter advice from a Mountain Rescue chap, who knew what he was talking about – maybe – because really it’s only me who can know this. And it bothers me, that I’ve never tested it.

Here it is, Broad Stand; the dangerous part is just above this area where a slip apparently sends you plummeting down a precipitous twenty-five feet. These rocks are smooth, polished, and lethal in wet conditions. Even at this point, you get some sense of the exposure down to the left:

Coleridge recorded his account of descending Broad Stand, requiring that he lowered himself down two or three platforms when he didn’t know what was below; it’s traditionally regarded as the first recorded account of rock climbing. He survived, but some others haven’t. He further exulted in violent weather, lashing his body as a kind of corollary or exorcism for his emotional state, so his tale should not be regarded as any recommendation

Wildness though doesn’t have to be of the Coleridge kind; pretty skylarks trilling in a blue sky are part of a different mood, but no less wild if you are on Scafell Pike – preferably alone, although that’s not easy to find on this popular mountain. I was there once a few years ago in late autumn, when the valleys were full of thick pea-soup fog. Walking up the steep slope of Lingmell, cloud rushed in from the Irish Sea and visibility was reduced to fifteen feet. Would it blow away? No it would not. It was settled snugly in the pockets and undulations of hill and mountainside, and like a sleeping cat reaching the fireplace had no intention of moving. I had to decide if it was worth continuing; there was no point going up Scafell Pike with nothing to see, so I reasoned that I would summit Lingmell and then come back down the Brown Tongue ravine. Thirty minutes later I was in brilliant sunshine with a pristine blue sky, and an astonishing seabed of cloud extending to the Isle of Man, Scotland, across the Lakes and literally as far as the eye could see in all directions. Cloud inversions are unusual, but not rare; although recounting this tale later a local told me she had never seen one despite living in nearby Eskdale. In a further hour I reached Scafell Pike, highest English mountain, and enjoyed it by myself. Here’s what I saw:

The sun had set at about five o’clock, and I had to get down quickly to make use of the remaining glow in the sky. However, on reaching the cloud again it was inky black; so black, it was like wading through a dream. I had to descend the rough track down the ravine, which was quite icy. The only sight navigation was what my head torch illuminated in its short and narrow arc, only useful for where to put my feet and not slip. I considered, momentarily, that should I encounter another person suddenly, or even worse some kind of beast, it would be profoundly frightening. I reassured myself that should that happen, I’d get such a massive adrenal kick I’d be the equal of any possible hostility. Grrrr, bring it on.

Fortunately, it was a track I’d used before and its curving descent around Lingmell provided literally a sense of direction: down, and gently to the right. Other than that I had no information at all on how to get down to the valley, and when I reached the flat it wasn’t over: impossible to find a path or accurate route I ducked under trees, clambered over a wall or two, crossed streams and slipped over boulders. As with the descending path I roughly knew the direction to follow, that if I just kept going I would eventually reach the road winding along the Wasdale valley and the return to my car: as solitary as I was, in the parking area. Not my idea of fun, I was thus in gloom for about thirty minutes and total blackness for the last two hours of the walk. I discovered later there’d been several collisions on the roads, which was not surprising.

I’ve had a few such encounters. Another was stumbling across a Welsh hillside in darknesss near to Cnicht, returning to Beddgelert; another was finishing the Lakeland Dale Head horseshoe in darkness again, though fortunately with moonlight: because on that occasion there was heavy snow and some hazardous ice. Even back in the Newlands Valley and on the road, it was easy to slip and hurt yourself and in the cold silence you could be in some danger.

I don’t know if anything mitigated Coleridge’s crazy wandering, notably his Broad Stand descent, in terms of aesthetic pleasure. What he described in regard to that occasion is an impending storm he had to escape, and the exhilaration of having neither control nor certain safety, but nonetheless surviving it all. He regarded such experiences as a kind of training ground for his literary vocation. To put it colloquially, he was a bit of a nutter.

For myself, the mitigating circumstances for my day up to Scafell Pike were the great beauty of the cloud inversion, enhanced by the fact that no one else was around. The dark descent was unpleasant but it does, admittedly, add another facet to the tale as I recall its details, adding a dimension to it like musical counterpoint: wild rather than tame, dangerous rather than comfortable; black, literally, rather than light.


  1. Thank you for your great photos of the cloud inversion.

    Despite having been a reasonably keen hill walker for some years, I have only once seen a cloud inversion on the hills myself. It was a day in July 2008, which had been forecast to be a sunny day, so I planned an early start for sake of a long walk. But in the morning all I could see from the Coniston Coppermines youth hostel was thick fog. Just as I was wondering whether to bother with that early start, the fog thinned briefly and through it I could just make out the ridge line above me to the east — only very faintly, and only for a few seconds, but enough to give a clue that the fog was confined to low levels and that above it was clear. So I set out from the hostel into the thick fog, and sure enough by the time I reached Levers Water I was emerging from the cloud, and by about 8am I was on Swirl How, completely alone, under blue skies and already warm sunshine, and with Coniston Water and the other valleys hidden under thick banks of cloud. No photos to show for it, but a scene to remember.

    Alan · Aug 26, 12:20 PM · §

  2. Thanks Alan.

    I don’t think you ever forget the first inversion you see, and coming to understand that such a thing is possible: that a grey, gloomy valley is quite possibly surmounted by bright blue skies. Quite a revelation!

    What I liked about my occasion is it involved Scafell Pike, highest mountain in England, and like yours was a (rare) solitary experience. And quite literally, from that height, it extended as far as the eye could see in every direction.

    I have a feeling Autumn is a good time for it; I’ve seen reports of other cloud inversions at that time of year.

    James Lomax · Sep 3, 11:09 AM · §

  3. I came across your site after idly looking for some google images of Broad Stand, and I’m glad to find someone actually spelling it out, why we seek out wild places and have an incurable desire for beauty and the spirit of adventure. Yes, there’s definitely a sense of oneness, of unity, of communion with nature which I certainly experienced taking up wild camping in the Lakes during 23 years of wandering there. I never saw a cloud inversion. I only managed to get across to the Lakes 2, perhaps 3 times a year if I was lucky. I remember once, having the summit of Scafell Pike to myself with the exception of one other person, my father. It was very late in the day. It must have been near 8 pm. Anyone else had gone. Having been to the summit twice before, I wasn’t that bothered then about visiting it again, although my father hadn’t been to the summit before and wanted to be there. I gave in and agreed, although felt very anxious about getting back down to Wasdale before night set in. We had no torch and not much money between us. This is going back to a day in September 1978 when I was a lad not long turned 17. We came over and camped in Borrowdale and Ennerdale before heading for Wasdale because my father wanted very much to experience Coleridge’s descent of Broad Stand, being very much into the Romantics and their works of literature. However, we didn’t arrive until around about 2 pm and sat by a dry stone wall in one of those patchwork fields. It was a cold, gray and chilly afternoon while we set up the stove and brewed some tea and ate some digestive biscuits. We also disagreed and bickered about attempting Broad Stand that day. I thought it was too late and foolhardy but my father was adamant about wanting to attempt it then and now. He didn’t want to stay in the Lakes very long.
    We got onto the Lord’s Rake traverse from Hollow Stones, I think. There was no time to go all the way up to Mickledore and start it from scratch. We quickly found the end of the traverse and an opening to Scafell’s summit called Red Ghyll. Despite it being slippery and somewhat treacherous, dad
    though, thought I performed admirably. Managing the crux of Broad Stand was another matter. The only other way than your photo which depicts it is to jump a good few feet unless you have a rope to abseil onto the level slab which I remember was distinctly slippery and uneven. My father came down the way that your photo shows. I didn’t like it and dithered for what must have been close on a half an hour before jumping. I had no choice but to be a daredevil. Once I stood up feeling mercifully fine, we quickly got through the narrrow corridor called Fat Man’s Agony and sauntered up to the PIke. I pointed out the distant peaks of Bowfell and Crinkle Crags looking distinctly desolate in the late evening swathes of cloud.
    It was, of course, pitch black when we desperately stumbled over dry stone walls and clambered through fields to reach the asphalt road near Wasdale Head although its whereabouts was helped by the headlights of moving cars. A bit like your experience. After my father annouced at the bar that we were ‘plum tuckered out’ we each got a bed, somewhat luckily, in the bunk house.
    I’d since gone on to have more adventures around the Lakes, although none quite like that one. I’m writing an autobiographical book about my entire Lakes experience although I don’t know when I’ll get it finished. Since moving out to Asia more than 10 years ago I haven’t done much in the way of rambling. You might like to check out my blog at the address above about my experiences there.
    Hope you find this story interesting.

    David · Jul 3, 03:06 PM · §

  4. Thanks David. I do find people’s personally personally related tales of the hills interesting…and there’s not much of it about.

    Its remarkable how the hill experiences we have are embedded in memory and then nourish us.

    I once saw two young lads casually come down Broad Stand and I quizzed them as to its difficulty. “Don’t know what all the fuss is about” is a reasonable summary. So it does tantalise and annoy me that maybe, I could do it without too much bother. Going up though is perhaps more difficult – I couldn’t see how you could get onto and go around that polished sloping ledge, without some danger. And am I right in thinking that just above it, the next stage is a vertical face of ten feet or so? Again – you could maybe drop down that without too much difficulty so long as its dry, but going up is a climbing task with – I understand – some reasonable exposure.

    And yes – Fat Man’s Agony is further difficult, if you’re carrying a rucksack.

    James Lomax · Jul 3, 06:58 PM · §

  5. Yes, sorry, I made a mistake. The polished sloping ledge was OK. The ten foot wall you rightly locate was where I dithered when coming down. That’s the crux of the scramble and where people, most likely, get into difficulty. Coming down you just hang over the side and drop. Going up might be difficult without someone to top rope you, or you might be able to do it in rubber soled plimsolls. I think we did start from Mickledore as I remember more than one up and down when doing Lord’s Rake. I think also we left most of our gear at the Wasdale Inn before setting off. It was just as well we did it then as the next day was overcast and wet. I hope you get a chance to do it someday.

    David · Jul 6, 12:22 PM · §

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