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Published: 4 Feb 2021

Wild Moment: Bern Hellier

A red-letter day on Helvellyn, featuring a temperature inversion and brocken spectre, brightens up his 'dark materials'

A Parallel Universe

In the winter of 2007 I had decided to climb Helvellyn on Boxing Day. The forecast was for cloud and rain and I had slept badly having eaten too much food on Christmas Day.

Getting up was an effort. Travelling along the A66 the cloud base was well down on Skiddaw and my depression was reinforced. Glenridding Car Park was quiet and as I plodded up Mires Beck into the mist I reconciled myself to a dank and introspective walk.

Things did not improve as I gained height. The ground was frozen hard and a treacherous film of verglas covered the rocks, the only compensation being a heavy hoar frost coating the dry grass with rime banners which formed an army of cut throat razors, stretching as far as the eye could see. Rather a morbid interpretation, but it suited my mood.

Striding Edge would be no fun in these conditions and I resolved to go by Swirral Edge. Then, as the footpath junction at the Hole in the Wall approached, the cloud thinned. I broke out into a parallel universe as surely as if I had sliced through the mist with Philip Pullman’s subtle knife.

I was on the shore of a breaking sea. The climate in this new country was kind with a low winter sun, cool breeze and cloudless sky. Along the ridge my daemon followed as my shadow, haloed in a tight rainbow ring within a much wider, matching, arc of white crystals perhaps 300 feet in diameter. It was a benevolent presence which brought to mind that an alternative name for the brocken spectre is a glory.

On the summit the full extent of the ocean was revealed. Only islands formed by the highest Lake District peaks and, to the east, the Pennine giants of Cross Fell and Great Dun Fell, broke the surface. I dipped down again. In the clammy depths of the cloud my senses were dulled. When I emerged on Nethermost Pike I heard the raven’s croak with an unusual intensity and I picked up the scent of a dog some distance away. 

The magic was strong. I glimpsed an ancient world where I might sail with Jason across this billowing ocean in a quest for the golden Herdwick fleece. Perhaps so, but I could not wait for the Argonauts and had to drop down to the head of Grisedale and crampon up icy slopes until at last I reached Fairfield’s rocky coast.  The last island in the chain was St Sunday Crag. I rested on the summit and was loath to return to the other world. But the tide was coming in, the waters lapped ever closer, and in the rays of the setting sun I saw again the glory that was my daemon calling me back and, for the final time, I dropped into the cloud.

I was lucky to have been in the mountains on such a day.

Bern Hellier brocken spectre at Helvellyn

Above: Bern Hellier captures a brocken spectre

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