Great Gable Cloud Inversion: A Lake District Walk Saturday December 14, 2013

Through the summer, the landscape’s most frequent mood had been dim and gloomy. The damp air coming through the window was rich with the fragrance of rot and growth, and to the eye it had much the same shimmering dense quality as looking through a telescope. The burden of moisture in the air worked on perception as optics of poor quality do, distorting, expanding, and diminishing distance and altitude, altering the sense of mass moment by moment.

Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain

Over the years you accumulate a catalogue of hill walking memories. Hardship, pleasure, accomplishment, joy: like a collection of photographs you savour and review. One autumn at Wasdale is especially poignant. Six years ago, staying at a farmhouse in nearby Eskdale, I woke to a morning covered in mist. I stopped to photograph valley scenes. Fields submerged in damp grey. Silent sheep and almost leafless trees. The two valleys sometimes have different weather separated as they are by the Scafells. Several times I’ve planned to walk at one, then changed my mind and gone to the other. I was hoping Wasdale would be brighter. Driving down the valley takes about thirty minutes and I looked for radiance burning through. It looked hopeful at the end of Wastwater where Illgill Head drops to a gentle col but it was only a glimmer against predominant grey-white.

I parked and started walking Lingmell, a steep and arduous climb. I hesitated. Was it a worthwhile effort, would the conditions change and for better or worse. After twenty minutes cloud billowed in down the valley which is not too far from the Irish sea. It became thicker, rushing in more quickly and filling the head of the valley. Visibility became twenty feet then ten. Fifteen minutes later it was unchanging. I began to consider a retreat but decided to continue for the sake of exercise. It felt good to pant, sweat, struggle, climb. Up through the clag I wondered if I was following the trajectory correctly. On a clear day you think how can you possibly go wrong up Lingmell. It is possible, with deceptive undulations leading you astray. No views of the Scafells, no views of Great Gable, no views back to Wastwater. Nothing but barren murky mist.

Then it changed. The mists began to thin. I had a glimpse of blue sky, indeterminate crag, and then a reasonable survey of the hill. I was slightly astray but not by much and resumed the proper direction. My mood changed as it often does with the weather, lightening with sunshine. My excitement grew. I could see the Scafells, climbed higher, had a glimpse of the flanks of Great Gable and more blue sky.

I realised, astonished, I was about to enjoy a stunning cloud inversion. I ran as hard as I could taking photographs before it disappeared. Ten minutes later it was still there. I rested, gazed up to Scafell Pike from the trig point at Lingmell which looks across to Great Gable. The sun was setting around four thirty and it was now three forty five. I arrived at the highest point of England expecting company but no one was there. In the far distance I could see Grasmoor peeping out of the sea cloud beyond which is Scotland. To the right of Great Gable, Borrowdale was obscured. Down to Great Moss, over to Harter Fell, around to Illgill Head: cloud and a perfect blue sky. Pillar was a small black mound and in the distance the slight suggestion of the Isle of Man. Silence at 978 metres.

The first twenty minutes of the descent was tricky but not problematic. When your time is limited, or for the fun of it, you can crash downhill very quickly on suitably secure rock but there wasn’t the light for it. I had to judge each step carefully and balance the risk. I couldn’t see where my feet were landing so my body sense, leg sense, balance sense and reflexes were heightened. Returning into the cloud was a dismal experience and I had to slow down further and use my head torch. The beam was barely adequate and on icy sections every step was hazardous. My body was tense, hardened against a fall, muscles locked against careless speed and dangerous momentum.

A friend asked me once was I afraid of the dark. I found it a strange question but he suggested it’s quite common. You can’t see what’s there but that doesn’t change the quality of what is there. Dark itself appears to be the problem like it’s a force, a threat from nature, like storm or hail you can’t control. I wouldn’t use the word afraid but it was definitely unnerving descending a path like I was walking through ink. The sun had set, the mist was thick, and this was the blackest experience I’d ever had. I reasoned, should any man or creature appear I’d get a sudden adrenal dump making me more than a match. It felt other-worldly, walking through a dream, a place where I didn’t belong but something else did which could be malevolent. The path was indiscernible and I relied on my sense of direction only. Back in the valley, later in the evening, I was told about accidents on the roads.