Graham Bradshaw | A Magical Night with Aurora on Beinn Alligin

A Magical Night with Aurora on Beinn Alligin

December 24, 2016  •  1 Comment

It's probably worthwhile apologising up front for the sheer number of Aurora photos on this blog, but when I'm out and the aurora is around I can't help but keep hitting the shutter button repeatedly in case either I miss something or it disappears.... Hopefully though, you're reading this primarily due to the promise of some aurora or mountain photos and it won't upset you too much :)

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   I tend to keep an eye out for overnight clear sky forecasts in the highlands as an opportunity to get out and get some decent photos, especially of the stars. In March this year, I saw a promising forecast for the Torridon area that suggested clear skies overnight on 16/17 March, so I decided to book a couple of days off work to see if the forecast actually turned out to be right. I've been up Beinn Alligin a few times and reckoned there would be a choice of pitches on either summit. I suspected the snow would be mostly gone as I had been over that way a couple of weeks previously and it had looked quite clear. Sounded like a plan!

 

I was also seeing one Aurora website which was predicting a KP5 storm on the night of the 16th. As this didn't seem to be corroborated anywhere else I didn't hold out much hope, but you never know...... This was primarily why I chose Beinn Alligin though, with a pretty much unobstructed view north. Most of the night there would be a half moon, but this set at 3.43am and Astronomical twilight didn't start until 4.18am which would give about 30 minutes of enough darkness for all the stars and the Milky Way to be visible. As long as it remained clear, it could be quite a good night for stargazing (for about 30 minutes anyway...)!

 

I was working on the 16th, but took a half day and planned to be starting my ascent no later than 4pm. Sunset was due at 6.28pm so that would give me  two and a half hours to get to the summit and get some sunset shots.I popped home, grabbed some lunch then headed over to Torridon with half the house in my rucksack.

 

It was a glorious day when I set off up the path to the first Munro on Beinn Alligin, Tom na Gruagaich. I was convinced that I would be at the top in no time. It was a little bit chilly at first, however the combination of the sun, my jacket, my rucksack with my tent and half the house, as well as the physical effort of climbing made me feel as if I was going to have a heart attack within the first 20 minutes. I was sweating buckets, overheating and wondering how on earth I was going to get to the top for sunset. I was already starting to think about other options to save face.

 

The jacket came off pretty quickly that made things a bit better, and I started to give myself mental targets on the way up (ie. 'That next rise, just focus on getting there in the next 10 minutes' or '500m. I really need to be around 500m by 5.15pm to make sunset). Slowly but surely, by putting one foot in front of the other I was getting there. I didn't think I would make the top for sunset, but the the path steepens at around the 500m point and snakes up through the corrie, making better time on the latter part of the ascent.

 

From the carpark it wasn't clear whether there was a band of snow that would have to be crossed at the top of the corrie, and this was a bit concerning on the way up. However, when I got the snow patches were easy enough to avoid and the summit area was majority snow free. 

 

I got to the summit just after 6pm, quickly found a decent pitch relatively sheltered from the easterly wind, threw the tent up and headed out quickly to grab some photos.

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The sun was setting directly over the Trotternish Ridge on Skye and the jagged Cuillin to it's south was looking tiny, but quite spectacular.

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I took a walk with the camera as far to the west as I could to try to get some shots out over Loch Torridon without the foreground slopes of Beinn Alligin. I was looking directly down on Inveralligin, and  out over Shieldaig to the Applecross peninsula and Beinn Bhan. 

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Once the sun had set, the real colours in the sky started coming out to the east. I love the post sunset (and presunrise) pinks and this was a good show going on tonight. Liathach was particularly strinking, with the bulk and approximate lines of a battleship, and across the head of Loch Torridon Ben Damh and the Achnashellach Munros were looking calm and peaceful on this beautiful spring night.

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The main view however, was Sgurr Mor, the higher of Beinn Alligins 2 Munros along with the horns of Alligin. It looked amazing with Baosbheinn to the north and Beinn Dearg behind the horns. I took many photos of this as the light faded (and again overnight and the next morning!). I was sure I could see a light around the summit of Sgurr Mor and it was circling above the summit at times. I was pretty certain there was someone over there with a drone getting some sunset footage.

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I was all done taking photos by 6.55pm (according to the time on the last photo taken), and by this time I was knackered after the climb and running around taking photos, so it was time to get into the tent, have some dinner, and try to get some rest  before coming out to see if the stars (and maybe aurora) was out. Nautical twilight ended at 7.53pm and Astromnomical twilight ended at 8.41pm. However, with the moon out, it was always going to be relatively bright. I decided to set my alarm for just before 8pm to see what the sky looked like.

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I got to the summit of Tom na Gruagaich at almost exactly 8pm, setup my camera and tripod, and took a shot north to Sgurr Mor. To the west the last light of the sunset was still just visible and I wasn't really holding out much hope for the aurora yet. However, when the image popped up on the screen there it was. A faint green band running from west to east, pretty much landing on the summit of Sgurr Mor. I was pretty excited and, thinking it might end at any minute, started taking photo after photo from as many different vantage points around the summit as I could.

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It was clear that my neighbour on the summit of Sgurr Mor was having just as much fun. I saw his/ her headtorch light going on and off and suspected they were also grabbing some photos. If you look closely at some of my Sgurr Mor Shots you can make out a tiny light on the summit. Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw

and the odd panorama

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The moon was lighting the landscape up like daylight and although to my eyes it was too dark to see without my headtorch it was coming through great on the camera. The only issue was trying to compose a shot just by point the camera in a general direction and hope for the best.

 

I also took a walk in the darkness to a spur on the northwest where I thought there might be some slightly different views. I had thought about taking a walk to Sgurr Mor in the dark, but it was a long way and I still thought it would end at any time. The wind was cold again. Nowhere near as cold as on the Fiddler the previous month, but enough to make it uncomfortable without gloves on and hood up.

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and then back to the summit again....... Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw

 

and a couple of obligatory selfies!

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I took photos pretty much constantly up until about 9.40pm and was then conscious that I had taken pretty much every composition I wanted, so decided to head back to the tent and try to get some rest. 

 

and took my only 2 tent shots of the night, which is unlike me...... Can you see my tent? It's quite a crowded site. That's as far as I got with the rucksack before I gave up. With the number of times I went to the summit, I was regretting not pitching it closer though....

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I didn't rest much. To be honest, all I did was flick through the photos on my camera, thinking, 'This is awesome' and not really believing just how lucky I was to be experiencing this. I was also wondering, now I was in the tent, just what was happening in the sky outside. I couldn't sleep, and around midnight I headed back outside to see what was going on now.

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The aurora was still around, and seemed brighter, but less active. It was a more or less uniform arc stretch from west to east in the north. I took some photos to the northwest, with the lights of Gairloch and  Harris clearly visible and the north of Trotternish on Skye. Again I took a few photos, but you'll be pleased to know I didn't take as many as previously because the lights weren't dancing as much. I did try to get some shots lining it up with the summit trig point of Tom na Gruagaich and the summit of Sgurr Mor. 

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Once that was done, I took a walk south on the summit towards the snow cornice to see if that presented any nice shots. The aurora wasn't really visible from there though.

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That done, I then headed back to the tent. The next milestone was moonset at 3.43am and I was back on the summit just before to see if there were more stars out.

 

As I got there the moon was just setting behind the trig point, so I got a couple of quick shots including a panorama as it disappeared out of sight. The aurora seemed to be a different colour. It was bright yellow, and even appeared yellow to the naked eye, which was a bit unusual. I wondered if it was the White Balance in the camera, but checked and apparently not. I must say, I don't like the yellow as much as I like the green......

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I then took a bit more care over a panorama, hoping I would be able to stitch it together properly later. I've had mixed success with star stitching. Each of these panoramas took about 10 minutes to take as they were 6 shots each requiring about a minute, with recomposition between shots.

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I then took a couple of final shots, before heading back to the tent pretty happy, to wait on sunrise which was due at 6.31am.

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I set the alarm for 5.20am as I like the predawn light best. Unsurprisingly I didn't really sleep. I looked over some of the photos I'd already taken and had a think about what I wanted for sunrise. Before I knew it, it was time to get back out, and I was back on the summit as the first light of the new day started to creep across the landscape. 

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With the changing light of sunrise, you really have to move around to get a variety of different angles, sometimes revisiting the same point many times to get the same shot with different light. It was an hour of non stop moving and shooting, all the time thinking that the best shot was probably somewhere else.  Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw

I noticed my neighbour up as well, from the light moving around on the summit of Sgurr Mor. It looked like he/she was doing pretty much the same as me. 

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Once the sun broke the horizon in the east, directly over Beinn Eighe, I decided to call it a day. I had stacks of photos and was well pleased with the nights haul. I went back to the tent and took my time packing up, then set off down the mountain in no particular hurry. Near the bottom of the trail I started to meet people just starting out to climb the mountain during the day, It was a fantastic day to be on the mountain, but I suspect it would be hard to beat the night that I had just experienced. I made sure I told everybody who would listen that the aurora had been out all night long. Really annoying probably.

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I was back at the car by 10am, Breakfast at Tarvie Services at 11am and in the house by noon. Despite being anxious to see some of my photos on the laptop, I was so exhausted that I got a few hours sleep first. It really was a fantastic night with no small amount of luck to experience such a fantastic aurora. 

 

A couple of weeks later I was surfing the interweb and came across a report of a chap who had been on Beinn Alligin doing a summit camp watching the aurora on the same night. Turns out it was my neighbour who I had been watching through the night and morning. Scotlands Mountains very own Murray Wilkie (AKA Steaming Boots). You can read his excellent Blog and see his fantastic drone footage here. His stuff is well worth a look. I really wish I'd popped round to say hello now.... :)

 

Again, sorry for the shear amount of photos here. But it was a bit of a target rich environment that night!

 

 

 

 

 


Comments

Nic(non-registered)
Just amazing photos and love the story behind them. Glad you survive the experiences so we can hear about them and see pics!
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