Saturday, February 9, 2013


As I leave the stream behind and start the climb towards the ridge of mountains at its head, the afternoon is already thickening to dusk. The sun has been shining, after days in which the mountains have been hidden by cloud, their snow-covered lower slopes rising into the grey like a warning, or like a promise. The snow is days old; it has hardened to a thick crust and makes a crunching sound beneath my feet, like sugar crystallised in a jar.
The head of the valley above me is split by a broad line of shadow which is edging higher as the sun descends below the western ridge. Above me, the lure of sunlit slopes; below, the darkness of the valley, the aubergine tangle of heather darkening the sides of the stream.
Moving into stripes of sunlight, I see that the glittering surface of the snow is pitted with footprints: the asymmetric pattern of the hare; a fox with its tail bobbing behind at each step, a faint brush stroke between the prints; and the tiny dimples of a shrew, barely breaking the surface of the snow, its thin toes splayed against the cold. Mine seem so clumsy in comparison, an intrusion in the remote world of this upper valley, a stranger in this world of birds and wild animals. I follow the steps of the fox for some distance, meandering between tufts of heather and rock outcrops, pausing now and then to pounce, or perhaps just to jump for joy on this day of so much brightness.
As I emerge from shadow onto the sunlit top of the mountain, like a diver breaking the surface for air, a word comes into my mind. Chiaroscuro: the interplay between darkness and light; the contrast which makes a portrait complete; the denseness of shadow which makes the sunlight so pure and brilliant; the days of darkness without which the sunlight would seem banal, mundane. Our lives are shaped around these contrasts, these shifts of mood, this dance of light and shadow which defines mountain regions, the way that our moods can shift from sombre darkness to brilliant clarity in the space of a day.
As I leave the summit and start down the long ridge homewards, four ravens gust from the shelter of the ridge and spill across the mountainside beneath me; dark shapes etched on the pale snow, their voices dark, harsh notes scratched on the peerless blue of the afternoon. They circle and dip in the steely breeze, like fragments blown in the wind, before settling once more amongst the rocks and heather. Further along the ridge, I see a single one which has risen again into flight and is coasting the updraughts of chill air just above me, my tutelary spirit, my reminder of the darkness that makes the day complete. Below me, the valley is already steeped in shadow; the river glows like a thread of gold in the last reflected light of the sun.


  1. Great post Ian. I too was the first to place my clumsy footprints in the virgin snow in the Black Mountains a few days ago and observed a similar fox trail of footprints and tail brush strokes.

  2. Thanks, Eddie. Interestingly, as I was climbing out of the Hopebeck valley on friday (the location for this post), my mind was on your recent article on 'finding wilderness'; a piece which has resonated with me since reading it. I was marvelling at how a touch of snow can turn familiar landscapes into wild ones, and how even the well-trodden hills of the lake district can seem like an un-human domain when only the footprints of animals remain. A good antidote to our anthropocentric viewpoints.