Stepping out of the cosy mountain hut at 3am, for an Alpine start of a peak, you emerge bleary eyed under a sky dotted with thousands of stars. The swathe of light of the Milky Way slashes across the sky. Constellations that you learnt as a kid, are instantly recognisable; Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Andromeda, and Orion’s Belt. You instantly feel insignificant and full of awe. As your eyes adjust to the dark, the mountains are deep black, far blacker than you thought was ever possible. To even take one step away from the pool of light outside the hut doorway, you need a head torch, and it’s pool of light transforms you into a little star, slowly making its way up the mountain.
As the clocks have recently changed, the evenings have got much longer, and all the mountain rescue teams are making their annual pleas to hill walkers to take a decent head torch with fresh batteries, to help find their own way down a mountain side, without the rescue teams pagers going off, and the members leaving hot meals and loved ones behind, to head out into the darkness once again. Whilst echoing the same message, it’s worth considering the opportunities that having a good head torch opens up for you, in the night time in the mountains. There’s no doubt that the experience of climbing, walking, or even running in the mountains at night, is a sensory overload. To have the mountains to yourself, in the hours of darkness, under a hemisphere of stars, is a genuine privilege to enjoy safely.
The aim of this article isn’t to discuss the relative merits of different types of head torch. There’s plenty of these out there already, and most will help even the most ardent insomniac nod off to sleep. If you are already a good sleeper, I’ll save you some time, by summarising that the general advice is to get the best head torch that you can afford. Geeks can research to their hearts content the relative merits of single LED’s or arrays, rechargeable vs single use batteries, wide beam options or hybrid models. To the mountain user, the single most important thing is that you can adjust your head torch whilst wearing big gloves. With a good light, you should be able to move as quickly as in daylight.
So why roam in the dark? Aside of satisfying any misanthropic tendencies, often the conditions are better in the night. Snow is better frozen for climbers heading up a peak, and consequently there is less risk of rockfall, and snow bridges over yawning crevasses are more solid. Trail runners can avoid the heat of the day, and have the routes to themselves, moving at their best rhythm, and eating up the miles. Many races are of such great distances, that a large proportion of the run is during the hours of darkness. One such example is the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) series of races, where runners have one if not two nights running in the hours of darkness. Ascents of peaks such as Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn are made far safer and more feasible, by some of the ascent being in the hours of darkness. Night is often not a limitation, but a key.
At this time of year, my head torch is the first thing into my pack each day I go out. A twisted ankle, or simple navigational misjudgment, can happen to the best of us, and the last thing in the world I want to do unnecessarily is summon the mountain rescue volunteers away from their families, due to my stupidity of leaving a head torch behind. Once you get confident moving in the mountains at night, it adds a really new dimension to the experience, and far from seeing nothing, you experience more. Night time mountain travel allows you to immerse yourself into the environment. When you stop for a break, turn off your head torch completely, and watch as the mountains emanate a gentle reflected glow of the star and moon light. It’s magical.
The long winter nights aren’t times to restrict your access into the mountains, but to me they offer an experience I look forward too during the long summer evenings. I know that I can slip out into the mountains in the long autumn and winter evenings, and have them to myself. Some people often cite being scared of being in the dark in the mountains, but you can swiftly learn that the night is an experience to relish, not fear.
If you’d like some coaching on night running, we offer Lake District based evening sessions, to get you acquainted with running in the darkness; link to itinerary
To purchase a head torch, you can visit our online mountain store. Course clients get a 15% discount voucher code, and there’s free postage over £30; buy a head torch