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  • iainthow


Updated: May 31

I love being on the hill in the evenings. Obviously there are the wonderful 'Golden Hours' when the entire west is saturated with light as the sun sets, and everything around glows orange, but there are also subtler moments when beams of pale light spray out from behind clouds giving a sense of a better world just beyond reach. It's unsurprising that Tir nan Og was always out to the west! Coming down the hill in the semi dark afterwards is one of the great joys of mountain country. The light lasts longer on the higher ground so you can usually see far better than you would in the valley. You try to put off using a head torch as long as possible to avoid destroying the awareness of space, gradually descending into the pit with the last glimmers on the horizon not really lighting your way but more providing a kaleidoscopic slide show.

Sunset, Stanage Edge, Peak District
Sunset from Stanage

The Eastern Edges of the Peak are perfect sunset spots. The west-facing gritstone is reddish anyway and a good sunset turns it improbably orange. The warm colour makes the crag seem more approachable and it becomes easy to get into the flow of soloing route after route. It's compulsory to pause the flow of rock, sit on a boulder and watch the sun go down to immolate Manchester of course.Then you can squeeze another half dozen routes out of the twilight before it gets too dark to see the holds properly.

Sunset and cloud sea, Stanage Edge, Peak District
Stanage sunset above the cloud sea

Sometimes it's cool enough for the valley to fill with cloud, hiding the villages and creating the illusion of being out in the wilds somewhere. Even the cement works fades into the darkness of the hill behind and more or less vanishes. When I lived in Hathersage we used to go up to Stanage at the summer solstice and stay up there until you could see the first star come out (Venus didn't count), and I've since sat on lots of hills doing the same. Watch the sun set, feel the gloaming fade, then first Sirius and Vega, then whole constellations, materialise out of the ether. It's a never-ending fascination.

Sunset on A' Mhaighdean, Carnmore
A' Mhaighdean and Dubh Loch

The most surreal sunset colour I ever came across was in Fisherfield. I had intended bivvying on the summit of Beinn Tarsuinn Chaol, hoping that at 652m it would be above the midges. No such luck. Long before dark it had become obvious that a bivvy bag offered no refuge, so I fled for the safety of the bothy at Carnmore. As I crossed the causeway between Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch the hillside opposite turned blood red, so vivid that if I had seen it in a photograph I would have assumed it photoshopped.

Carnmore sunset, Wester Ross
Carnmore sunset

Evenings with cloud around can really up the drama quotient, and rapidly dropping temperatures often generate inversions. A couple of winters ago I was coming down into Langdale and within minutes of the sun setting behind Crinkle Crags there was a thick carpet of cloud coating the lower ground. Huge waves of cloud slowly flowed up against Wetherlam and corrugated into rolls like a giant ruckled carpet. Sunlight was still sneaking round the corner behind the hills and lighting up the top of the cloud, while the atmospheric haze behind glowed palely.

Cloud Sea, Langdale, Lake District
Cloud sea rolling into Wetherlam

Eastwards the dense cloud pack trailed out into wisps, finally disintegrating against the barrier wall of Helvellyn and Fairfield. I hung around on Thorn Crag until the light finally died, enjoying the huge full moon sidling out from behind the prow of Harrison Stickle. Helpfully the slightly warmer air on the south facing slope had kept my descent cloud free, and the good path and moonlight got me down to the road without having to break out the torch.

Full moon, Langdale, Lake District
Full moon and Harrison Stickle

The South Lakes has a habit of doing this, presumably the closeness of the sea being a factor, and as Jack Ewing and I traversed the head of Eskdale on our Lakes 2800's round we were treated to a spectacular light show as the setting sun lit up the cloud sea filling the dale. Again Langdale was clear of cloud and the good track down the Band provided a quick escape. We reached the pub a few minutes before closing time and I viewed this as providential. Jack was teetotal at the time and more bothered about timings than I was so was less keen, but I insisted on stopping for a beer to celebrate 😁.

Sunset, Eskdale. Lake District
Sunset above Eskdale

In December 1990 I had a repeat performance with a group from BP, scrambling up Esk Pike Fortress in the sunset with the rock glowing orange above a frothing sea of cloud. Wisps of higher cloud licked against patches of old snow and filtered tiger stripes of shadow across the fellside. It was a sight we were in no hurry to leave, and we were still on the summit of Esk Pike as the sun sank into the cloud. This time we did eventually get out headtorches, partly as a reaction to the previous day, when we had pigheadedly neglected to use them, lost the track and ended up floundering around in dense woodland in the dark.

Sunset, Esk Pike, Lake District
Sunset light on Esk Pike

The first time I ever found myself on a proper hill at night was in the Lakes too, on a teenage attempt at the Lakes 2800s. I knew that the Helvellyn range was the easiest ground on the route so planned to do that section in the dark, plodding up the zigzags from St John's in the Vale as the dusk thickened. The novelty gave it an edge - what would being on a big hill in the dark be like? The first thing I noticed was the reaction of the animals. In daylight sheep and hares would have run as soon as I got anywhere close, but in the semi-dark they didn't. I still don't know why this happens, do they assume that anything around at that time must belong there so be no threat? Or are humans just less frightening in the dark? As I soon discovered, night walking was no problem with a good torch. I had chosen a hand torch rather than a headtorch as you keep much more of a sense of what's around you, which makes navigation easier. In the end my atttempt ground to a halt halfway up Fairfield when I saw what I took to be a distress signal flashing. I went back down to Grisedale Tarn and halfway back up the side of Dollywaggon Pike to discover that it was a bunch of lads from the Forestry Commission on an overnight bivvy and larking about. They made me a brew for my efforts and I couldn't muster the energy to reclimb Fairfield so spent the rest of the night with them.

Sunset, Baugh Fell, Yorkshire Dales
Sunset on Baugh Fell

Since then I've had hundreds of deliberate hill trips in the dark, from winter evening hill runs and torchlit bouldering sessions to the inevitable descents in darkness that long hill days out of season bring you. I soon learned that it's nothing to be worrried about, just an added experience. Keep a head torch in your sack from October to March but make sure to enjoy the texture of the dusk before you get it out. At UK latitudes the light takes a long time to fade, and as your night sight adjusts gradually you can keep walking till much later than you expect. A covering of snow makes things even easier. One memorably atmospheric late November day I dawdled along the top of Baugh Fell above Garsdale watching a coruscating sunset over the Irish Sea. The afterglow turned the frosty tussocks pale pink, while the cooled air lensed the setting sun to an unlikely immensity. By the time it hit the sea a higher band of cloud had materialised, producing a startling 'Eye of Sauron' effect. Appositely I couldn't look away from it. Once it had gone there was a vast empty stillness, a sense of waiting for something to happen, and crossing the frozen ground felt like being beyond time. It was an experience I'll never forget, and even coming down to the farm track there was something special in the air, as if the whole world around was listening.

The Eye of Sauron, Baugh Fell, Yorkshire Dales
The Eye of Sauron, Baugh Fell

Friday night walk ins to bothies have provided memorable moments too. Walking up Glen Lui with snow down to track level under far more stars than I'd ever seen before is an hour that will stick with me forever. There was no moon but the starlight on snow was easily enough to see by. The snow had forced enormous herds of deer down to the low ground and as with the Lakeland sheep they didn't seem in the least bit bothered by us. It went down to minus 24C that night and the next evening we had the northern lights for company coming off the hill, the first time I'd ever seen them.

Lochan Uaine, Pass of Ryvoan, Cairngorms
Lochan Uaine, Pass of Ryvoan in daylight
Lochan Uaine, Pass of Ryvoan, in daylight

Going through the Pass of Ryvoan under a full moon was another gem, the light making a semi-frozen Lochan Uaine even more ethereal than usual. On that occasion we had started off from Glenmore with snow to the lochshore, but woke up the next morning without a snow patch to be seen, still one of the fastest melts I've ever experienced. The friday night anticipation of hills or climbs to come adds excitement so sometimes you don't even have to leave the road to get the buzz. Barrelling over Milltir Gerrig heading for Tremadog springs to mind, with Llyn Tegid catching the last of the light. Walking along a side road at night always takes me back to a lane in Newlands having hitched down from the Highlands, with the bare winter branches stark against the starlit sky.

Winter branches and the Wolf Moon
Winter branches and the Wolf Moon

Some of the evenings with the most impact are those at the end of a long day. There was the Welsh 3000's trip when the cloud that we had been walking through all day thinned at sunset leaving us wading through a dense pink soup that felt like it ought to be glutinous. More recently there was a long walk out along the north side of Loch Quoich after checking scrambles on Ben Aden, when the stillness of the loch allowed superb reflections of the sunset light.

Loch Quoich, Glen Garry
Evening on Loch Quoich

Perhaps most memorable of all was at the end of a Cuillin Ridge traverse. It was late October, so even starting at the first stirrings of dawn we inevitably finished in the dark. We dumped our kit at Bealach a' Bhasteir and the release from loads gave us just enough speed to get up and down the West Ridge of Gillean in the last of the twilight. As we descended past the stump of the Gendarme it started to snow, and we were really glad that our packs and warm clothing weren't far below. Wearing everything we had we trudged down Coire a' Bhasteir through falling flakes, opting for the traverse to the foot of the Pinnacle Ridge rather than trying to find the start of the way down the slabs in the dark and mist. This was probably a good plan, except that by the time we got to the main Gillean path it was snow covered and we walked straight across it. After another ten minutes the ground ceased to fit my expectations and I realised what we'd done. Another ten minutes of forricking about and we managed to locate the track, plodding down thinking "it's Sunday, the Slig will have shut at 10pm and we aren't going to make that, wshm fshm, grr". Then lo and behold there were lights on when we walked in just before 11. Ian Campbell took one look at us and said "We stop serving in four minutes, how many pints do you want?". "Four, and two Taliskers please 🙂". It was presumably obvious where we'd come from and I've had a soft spot for the Slig ever since. RIP Ian.

Sunset, Stanage Edge, Peak District
Sunset over Rushup Edge from Stanage

None of the pictures are photoshopped or adjusted in any way.

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