A second attempt for an Aurora from Stac Pollaidh

January 09, 2017  •  2 Comments

Those of you who have read my previous blogs may have noticed that I’ve wanted to catch the aurora from the summit of Stac Pollaidh for a while. So, when I returned to work on the 3rd of January and realised that there was a clear sky forecast for the night of 4th January in Assynt, I started to think about taking a trip over to catch some stars. Before long I had booked the Thursday as a holiday and was leaving after work on the Wednesday for an adventure!

Anyone that’s interested, my gear consisted of the following:

  • Berghaus Men's Ridgeway 75L Rucksack
  • Thermarest Neoair Xtherm mat
  • Snugpak Chrysalis 4 sleeping bag
  • Vango Banshee 200 tent (smaller footprint than my Quasar)
  • Snugpak Special Forces Bivvy Bag (In case I couldn’t find a big enough pitch for the tent)
  • 2 x Boil in the bag meals (Chicken Tikka and Sausages in Gravy)
  • 3 x Cuppa Soups
  • 1 x Chocolate Mousse Dessert
  • Pots
  • One of Chinas best quality petrol stoves from Ebay (BRS-8 Oil/Gas Multi-Use Stove)
  • 0.5 litres of petrol
  • 3 litres of water
  • Go pro camera (I never actually used it)
  • 1 x 30,000mAh lithium battery (To recharge camera batteries)
  • Dual usb charger for camera batteries
  • 1 x 15,000mAh lithium battery (for phone recharging)
  • Headtorch (Petzl Tikka RXP)
  • Spare headtorch (Petzl Tikka RXP)
  • Spare headtorch battery
  • Nikon D810 with Nikkor 14-24mm F2.8 lens
  • Nikon D7100 with broken Nikkor 17-35mm F2.8 lens (Aperture stuck wide open J)
  • Nikkor 28-300mm spare lens
  • Manfrotto beFree tripod (For D810)
  • Manfrotto 190 Carbon Fibre Tripod-Q90-4 Section
  • An additional Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW bag to carry the D810
  • And a few odds and ends – matches, granola bars, charging cables, Ibuprofen, cutlery etc.

As you can probably imagine, this wasn’t the lightest of backpacks, so I was relieved to be setting out on a clear path that I knew quite well, and it shouldn’t take much more than an hour to reach the summit, even in the dark

On the drive over, the temperature gauge was hovering around the 2C mark, except passing loch Glascarnoch when it dipped to -1C. I expected this, and was confident it would be above freezing in Assynt. I was right. When I reached the carpark at the base of Stac Pollaidh at 8 pm, it was 3C, pitch black, and there was only a motorhome in the carpark. Occupants obviously in for the night, as I could see the internal light on.

I’ve often wondered what must go through the minds of people staying in deserted carparks when a car turns up in the middle of the night and car doors are heard opening and closing outside. I’m not sure I’d get a comfortable nights sleep with all the weirdo's around….

Anyway, I quickly got my boots on, pulled my fleece snood over my head, zipped up my down jacket, wriggled my rucksack on and set off up the mountain.

Within 10 minutes, I was sweating like a pig, had my jacket and fleece unzipped, and felt like I was about to have a heart attack. I slowed down somewhat and just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. As I made height, I remembered the previous time I had been up here  at night and saw the deer eyes reflecting with my headtorch light. There were none this time which was reassuring. However, in the complete darkness your mind does start messing with you a bit and the thought crept into my head, ‘I wonder what scared the deer away……’

As the path climbs, it skirts around the east side of the mountain and then a path of big boulder steps takes you the final couple of hundred meters to the low point on the ridge. It was when I was about halfway up this last part that I realized I’d left my phone in the car. I generally tell my mum where I’m going when I head into the mountains as she’s my 4th emergency service. As long as there’s a signal, I tend to message her from the summit to say I’m still alive at night, and then again the next morning. So, as she knew from previously that I’d get a signal from Stac Pollaidh I started to think that there was a chance she might start getting worried soon. I really didn't want some hairy arsed mountain rescue guy turning up and saying, 'Mr. Bradshaw? Your mum says it's time for you to go home now.....'

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it would be midday the next day at the earliest before I was at Ullapool with a signal, so I was starting to think that the responsible thing to do might be to go back down and get the phone……. First things first though. Pitch the tent!

I've been on Stac Pollaidh a few times, and never actually thought there was a place to camp on either summit. However, in October I saw John McSporran posting about a camp on the eastern summit, and then a month later Murray Wilkie confirmed this by also posting a blog about a summit camp there. I was pretty sure John had used a Banshee 200, so that's why I had taken this tent. A quick easy scramble from the low point on the ridge had me on the summit, and I quickly found an area of partly frozen ground squeezed between 2 large boulders that I thought I could fit the tent into. Before pitching the tent though, I got the D7100 out, and set it up just to the north of the tent pointing over toward Lochinver (north) and started the timelapse. A 20 second exposure at F2.8, ISO 6400 every 40 seconds. I also tied a big bag of boulders to the tripod to try to make sure it didn't move during the night.

20 minutes later, and being a bit creative with placement and length of guy lines, it was up and I had all my sleeping stuff sorted in the tent. The head of the tent was facing south, about 3 feet from the southern cliff, so I'd have to be careful at the side in the night, but the weather forecast was for the wind direction to change and come from the south in the early hours. I hoped I wouldn't be blown over the edge.

It was completely cloudy at this point, and I suspected my trip might be a complete waste of time. In order to kill some time though, I decided to walk back down to the car and get my phone. It was 8.30pm, and I reckoned on an hour to the carpark and an hour back up. This would work well, as I had decided on switching out the batteries of the camera every 3 hours. Back in the carpark, the motorhome was still there, still with a light on. Again I wondered whether they heard me back at the car and if they were worried about a potential madman outside their window in the middle of nowhere. I got a drink of water, picked up my phone and headed back up.

If anything, I think I was slower than the first time. I was starting to get cramp a bit, and was becoming extremely hungry. First thing I did when I got back to the tent was to get out my stove and a boil in the bag meal (Chicken Tikka) and start to try to cook.

I pumped up the petrol can pressure and released the valve a bit to prime the flame. Nothing came out the nozzle, but the petrol started pouring out the valve all over my hand and the rock I was sitting on. The air temperature was probably around freezing by this time, so a hand covered in petrol wasn't going to heat it up much (well, not without matches....). Faced with a prospect of granola bars, or cold sausages I decided to see if I could get the stove going. I managed to unblock the jet, confirm I could blow through it, then connected back up to the petrol can and give it another go.

And that was when the first of a few small thermonuclear explosions appeared to take place right next to me. Petrol stoves are quite scary to light, have a habit of flaring up a lot, and this one is really noisy! I was about 3 feet from the tent, but initially thought it might be in danger with all the flames of the preheat procedure. Still, priorities first, I got the Chicken Tikka on.

I also took the time to have a look at the sky and saw that there appeared to be some breaks in the cloud. Happy days! It was 11pm now, so I did the first battery change of the D7100 and started charging the one I took out in the tent, with my big lithium battery and USB charger.  I was anxious for the light pollution from my cooking to go away so I could start taking some photos, so when I eventually did turn the stove off, the first thing I did was to take some photos.

I was delighted to see lots of stars out, but even more delighted that the aurora was visible through breaks in the cloud to the north. The little red glow in the tent is coming from the very faint red LED on the battery charger. It really was pitch black up there. Anyway, thinking this might be the best I get all night, I wanted to make the best of it and get some decent photos. I set about taking a number of different composures from around my little summit.

 and then decided to get back to the tent and get some rest. It was getting bitterly cold, and although the wind wasn't strong, it was beginning to pick up a bit. Back in the tent, I tried to get warm in my sleeping bag and was reasonably comfortable although I couldn't really get my feet warm. By this time it was midnight and I started playing the time game again. 'That's 7 hours since I set off in the car to come here. In 7 more hours dawn will be almost here. I'm nearly halfway through....' I lay there until 1am when I had a look outside and it seemed like there was more aurora around.

There was still more cloud than I would have liked though, so just took a few photos, changed the battery again in the D7100 (which should do until 4am now) and went back to the tent to wait and see if it got any better.

About 2am, the wind started strengthening, and also shifted as forecast, to come from the south. It was battering the head of the tent and really was making a racket. I think when you're in the tent when this is happening it always feels worse than it actually is, especially when you're on a summit. I could hear the wind whistling around and was just waiting on the next strong gust slamming into the tent. This kept up for the next hour, and although it was uncomfortable, I didn't think it was bad enough to abandon, especially as it was so bloody cold! At 3am, I stuck my head outside and had a look at the sky. It was completely clear. I was almost tripping over myself in my haste to get out and start taking some photos.

The Milky way was out to the north and the aurora was a bright green band on the horizon. This was more like it! I took some shots, then went to replace the battery on the D7100. I was surprised to find it had stopped and the battery was dead. They had all been fully charged previously, so I'm guessing the cold severely reduced it's life. It would last 4-4.5 hours normally, and it turned out this one actually gave out at 2.06am, which meant I'd lost an hour of time lapse. Nothing could be done though to get the hour back, so I switched out the battery and started it up again. I kept taking photos for as long as I could stand the cold, then heading back to the tent, started the battery on charge again and tried to get some rest.

At 5am I looked out and it was still clear. I tried a photo out of the door of the tent

I thought, I'm not likely to get this chance again, so forced myself out to get some more photos, especially of the tent illuminated. The aurora had died down a bit and the Milky way was more horizontal. I changed the battery again on the D7100 and then set about photographising again.

You'll see on the photo above my timelapse setup. My D7100 on a tripod pointing north with a big bag of rocks in a yellow drybag tied to it.  Well, you can't ave the rocks getting wet..... I also wanted to get some shots of the other peaks - Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven and the Ben Mor Coigach Range with the stars about, as well as the western ridge of Stac Pollaidh

Feeling happy now, I went back to the tent. It was still blowy and still freezing, but I knew I'd had a good night. As the minutes ticked towards 7am the wind subsided a bit and it became quite pleasant in the tent, although my feet still wouldn't heat up at all. I was constantly rubbing them together in the bag to keep them from getting too cold.

At 7.30am, I looked outside once again and saw blue hour had started. Not wanting to miss this, again I got up, put my cold feet again into my freezing boots and went out to start taking photos. I changed the battery out again on the D7100 and put it on aperture priority to try and prevent overexposure as it got lighter. The landscape was becoming visible to my eye for the first time since arriving at 8pm the previous night.

As the last of the stars faded, it looked like it was seting up for quite a nice sunrise, still over 2 hours away. Rather than hang about in the cold and take even more photos though, I decided to get some more time in my sleeping bag and review the nights haul of photos. I was quite pleased with what I seemed to have got.

At 8.50am, 25 minutes before sunrise, I went out for the final time, and started taking photos as the light was changing towards sunrise, and packing up my stuff in between times.

This meant that when the sun did actually appear above the horizon, I was all ready to go as soon as I'd packed the camera and tripods. The water I'd left in one of my pots overnight in case I'd wanted to get something else to eat was frozen solid, about a litres worth. I had to smack it against a rock to get the perfect rectangle of ice out. Something I like to think that may have confused walkers later that day :) So, last few photos and then set off down the mountain again for the final time.

On the way down, the air just seemed to be getting clearer and clearer. Suilven and Cul Mor were clearer than I had ever seen them, so as I had a camera in a bag around my shoulder I got a couple of snaps on the way down.

When I was nearing the carpark, I saw a couple coming towards me. The lady in front called out as she approached 'Did you have a nice night?' Turns out that it was the couple from the motorhome in the carpark. Paul and Maria from Bedford who were up touring on holiday. They had heard me back down to get my phone later the previous the night and assumed that I'd given up and slept in the car. They were confused when the car was empty in the morning. We had a pleasant chat about the night, the aurora and what a lovely day it was turning into. It looked like they were going to get a cracking day on the hill.

Back at the car, another quick look at my photos from the night, had some excitement about the thought of posting them later, then off to Ullapool to let my mum know I was still alive and to call off the Mountain Rescue. All that remained was a stop at Tarvie Services then home.

The photos turned out quite well, as you can see from above, The time lapse is below. The jump is quite noticeable with the missing hour from 2-3am and the transition to daylight is a bit clunky. But I'm still quite pleased with it!

Stac Pollaidh Aurora Timelapse

The good thing about timelapse of the stars is that you can use exactly the same images from the timelapse for stacking startrails. Here's a still from the D7100 and a then stack of a couple of hundred of the photos from the clear point in the night. It turned out OK too!

I don't think it'll be the last time I'm on Stac Pollaidh in the middle of the night, but I think this'll take a fair bit to beat!


Paul & Maria(non-registered)
Graham, really nice to meet you en route up Stac Polaidh.

When you arrived in the car park, we were enjoying a sneaky BBQ behind the van, I think the temp was showing -2 at midnight when we decided to get our heads down.

You've taken posted some great pics, we did reflect on the fact you must be completely bonkers and we're reminded of this when we found you bock of ice from your canteen at the summit!

Keep safe. Keep shooting, keep posting!

Paul & Maria
John McSporran(non-registered)
Superb blog. You do realise you're mad - don't you? Loved the description and the photos. Think you camped on the same spot I did as I had to remind myself not to turn left and fall 1000 feet off the cliff when I got out my tent in the middle of the night. Regards- john
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