The Great Inversion, Part Two: Shadow of the Mountain

Day Two: Sunday 19th December

The second day of the Great Inversion was Saturday 18th, but since I had to drive south to get my booster shot I wasn’t able to spend much time outdoors. Besides this, I also wanted to write Friday’s account of the mountain. I felt absolutely filled up by that experience, as if I had made direct contact with the mountain in a rare and special way. I badly needed to transfer that feeling to word, or else lose risk losing sense of it as time went on.

By the time I reached home again on Saturday night the sun was set, and a pink moon had risen through the earth’s shadow. It hung in the heavens – a disc of wonder, shining brightly as if it were stuck to the pink and blue bands of the sky.

Who could look at that and not be moved? Such beauty simply had to be responded to. So, I would be going out again tomorrow, regardless of what the weather did. I was eager for another encounter.

I had no plan beyond simply turning up the next morning at Whitewell. My tried and trusted place – there is nowhere I am more familiar with. And, in particular, it seemed likely that the birch trees there would be covered by hoar frost, which was the sight I was particularly keen to find and photograph.

I had no inkling at all that the day would turn out to be what it was.

Scout and I arrived at Whitewell noisily, the van tires slithering on ice as I gunned it up the hill. Emerging from the layer of mist that still shrouded Aviemore as we climbed, we broke into clear air capped by a higher level of mist or cloud. But I saw straight away that the crown of birch trees that ring the top of the hill were indeed coated in a fine filigree of silver hoar frost. Perfect.

I was desperate to get to them, and jumped out of the van, dragging Scout along behind me in my urgency. The trees at the top of the hill make a fine view, set against the sweep of the Cairngorms. I have photographed this scene literally hundreds of times, if not thousands. But its appearance today was completely novel. The hills were obscured in cloud, so the whiteness of the trees, against a grey curtain, seemed to be especially bright.

That would have been enough in itself, but to my amazement there was light spilling into the world from a gap between the layers of cloud. Over toward Glen Eanaich I could see light illuminating the forest. Thick, tangible, golden light that made shadows and vapours dance. It played backward and forward, teasing and shifting, never quite breaking through entirely.

This scene alone, already, was without question one of the rarest and most extraordinary moments I had ever witnessed in this spot. I pressed my fingertips together over my mouth, watching in quiet awe and taut anticipation. I was muttering to the light: please come this way, please come this way, please come this way. I knew that if it did – that if the golden light would only sweep across these birch trees for a moment – that it would be the one of the best photographic opportunities of my life.

The light did not move toward me. I realised that I was going to have to go to it. There was great urgency. Perhaps the light would continue to flow and dance across the forest, but the mists could easily seal the sunlit gap at any moment.

Poor Scout had no idea what was happening as we set off at a run, breaking our way through frost bound heather. I am hardly that fit and hardly that fast, and my breath was soon burning in my lungs as I pounded along the track in my boots and heavy gear. I would wheeze back down to a walk, only to catch a glimpse of light through the trees and start running again. My hands clutched camera bag and rucksack as they jostled and swung. We entered the shadow of dense trees which formed a tunnel. At the far end I could see the light.

Almost a mile further on my chest was heaving, my hands shaking, as I staggered off the path once again and up into the heathery moor. The light still shone, the mist still danced, and the scene was quite simply beyond description.

Panting desperately for air I collapsed to my knees, feeling my heart thundering in my ears. I tried to keep my hands steady as I raised the camera. Somewhere just on the edge of laughter, tears, and hypoxia, I basked in light. I shook my head in helpless joy and wonder at it.

Ten years. Ten years, I thought. I’ve been looking for this moment for ten years and I’ve finally found it. Thousands of days exploring these woods, learning its ways and its trails (the living trails, not the man made ones). Ten years of devoted watching and waiting. By day, by night, and in every weather. All for this – to find a single moment that beyond any sense of merely ordinary beauty.

I felt almost as if I had to look away. As if I wasn’t worthy to see such beauty. It was overwhelming. Annihilating.

There is only one word I can find. Though I hesitate to use it, because I am a cynic. And again because there are implications; assumptions you will make. I don’t mean it the way you think I do, but I need the strength of that word.

Divine.

The entire forest was adorned in a sharp but delicate frost. It gave the appearance of whiteness among shadows. But toward the sun it was not white. It was flaming, gleaming gold. Glittering from every facet of root and twig, shining among the drifting mists that twirled their shrouds among mountain and tree. The sun shone out from a gap among the cloud, just above Braeriach, and blazed across mists that flowed from Glen Eanaich. The pine trees were clouds of shadow and light.

In the far off distance I could a bank of mist sitting in the mouth of the glen, where it silhouetted trees that faded off until they were lost in grey. The mountains of Braeriach and Carn Elrig where emerging between layers of golden cloud. I decided to head much further up the glen and see what sights could be found there.

With our breath recovered, Scout and I began the long walk. We next stepped off the path near to the mouth of the glen, where there is a small rise that provides a superb overlook of the woods that span the lowest slopes of the Cairngorms.

From there we could look across literally miles of forest and mountain, and the sight still continued to defy imagination. Light flooded the woods from a gap between two layers of mist – one at ground level and the other wrapping itself around the summits. As I watched I could clearly see that the bottom layer was flowing down, out of the glen; but the upper layer was flowing counter to it in the opposite direction. I put the drone into the air to capture this remarkable motion of glowing cloud, behind which the dark mountain loomed.

We continued on our way, eventually walking into the river of mist that was gushing out of the glen. The air was bitterly cold now, and my fingers quickly froze whenever I stopped to take photos. Conversely though, when I traversed about 50 metres to the right to find a composition, we exited the cold air once again and found the frost melting, and I grew uncomfortably hot. Within a tiny distance the temperature difference must have been at least ten degrees.

The conditions of the inversion were indeed remarkable. An inversion, of course, refers to temperature. The normal arrangement of getting colder the higher you go is inverted, so that the cold air lies beneath the warm. If the temperature is below the dew point that day, then the cold air will condense any water vapour and form a layer of mist.

But what was remarkable was that there were several different layers of mist, at all different heights. There was a thick layer just above the ground in Aviemore. Where I stood, higher up, the air was clear; but there was another layer just above me. Then it was clear again, with at least one more layer on top of that. Each one seemed to be moving differently, flowing this way and that. Now thick, now thin. Now sunlit, now in shade. An endlessly shifting dance of light and magic.

Looking back toward Whitewell, where I had begun walking, I could just see the wooded hillcrest poking above the cloud layer. The birch trees in the distance were still frosty, so it was clear the sunlight had never reached it. I had made the right choice, and the forest around me bathed in gold and silver.

On the slope beneath me I saw the mist advancing again, and I tried to find a position where I could look downslope on a grand tree, with the sun at my back. If I could do this, then I might be able to frame a tree in a Brocken Spectre – now there would be a sight! But although it was close, I was not quite able to make it work the way I desired.

Gradually the light on the mouth of the glen finally faded, denying the chance of the Brocken Spectre. An hour drifted by. Scout and I waited, dining on cold pizza and biscuits. I hoped that at any moment the sun might reappear, but eventually it was clear we were now in the shadow of the mountain.

I did not mind. I was tired and sore, but deeply satisfied. The hours we had spent here among the woods and fog were among the most wonderful and disarming I had ever had. It was an absolute joy. How wonderful it is that life can have such moments.

Still, there was yet potential for more photography. So why call an end? The sun still seemed to be holding steady on the opposite side of the glen. I decided to cross over to where the light yet picked out Scots Pines that sprinkled the steep flank of Carn Elrig.

There are several trees on the side of that hill that are among my favourites for photography. They are exceptional trees in exceptional settings. But the journey to reach them on foot is hard going, and involves fording through a deep river. In these freezing airs, and with the river swollen by meltwater, that was clearly a bad idea. But there was nothing to stop me from flying there.

I put the drone up once more. The flight across was not far, and was within sight. With care I was able to navigate the drone to a spot just barely above the ground – the exact place I would stand myself – tucked in behind the now familiar shape of ‘The Grandfather’. I couldn’t help but wish I was standing there myself, taking a proper photo, but it at least satisfied my curiosity about how it looked in that moment.

After this success I carefully piloted away from the tree, gained height, and turned to face the hill. As I manoeuvred to frame a nice angle of another sunlit tree, I realised I could see the conical shadow of the hill being projected onto the mist by the low winter sun.

This extraordinary sight was the final glory of the day. The mists finally closed over, sealing off the last hour of sunlight. Scout and I headed on a little further up the glen, into the depths of shadow and ghostly air. The cold was becoming extreme, and I could see the frost reforming already on grass and trees that the sun had stripped bare just a few hours ago.

Aching and tired we set off back to Whitewell, full of amazement at the things we had seen. The world was once again grey, icy and cold. Yet even that had a deep beauty all of its, that was more than enough to convince me to return the next day.

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