Have you ever seen a Brocken spectre?

A few years ago we were winter walking on the Mamore Range south of Ben Nevis when we spotted our first Brocken spectre, which was being cast onto the southern slopes of Ben Nevis. This blog comes from a short article about this experience that I published on the Malvern Mountaineering Club website back in 2001.

A clear Brocken spectre - ghostly goings-on high on Bynack More

What is a Brocken Spectre? High altitude travellers such as mountaineers and aircraft passengers have often reported seeing shadows on clouds surrounded by concentric rainbow-like rings of colours. Such phenomena are known as glories – or in the mountaineering community – Brocken spectre.

Where does this name come from? It is alleged that the term “Brocken spectre” is named after an old story (folklore?) emanating from the mountain of Brocken in Germany. Apparently, a startled climber fell to his death on seeing his own shadowy figure accompanied by its “glory” ring. This shadowy ghost-like figure, or spectre, has been coined to describe this phenomenon.

So how does a Brocken spectre occur? There are two requirements that must be met in order to see one’s own Brocken spectre. These are that:

  1. There must be many water droplets in the region where the glory is to appear (the size of the water droplets is probably also important);
  2. You must be looking directly away from the sun (anti-solar direction).

The first condition occurs when there is mist, fog or cloud in the atmosphere. In the mountains, the second condition best occurs when the sun is low in order to cast one’s shadow a long distance and hence onto any potential mist. (Compare, for example, when the sun is overhead, then your shadow is effectively at your feet!)

I haven’t yet worked out if the physical principal underlying the phenomenon is that of diffraction or refraction. Instinctively I’d say it was refraction, but several web sites say that it is caused by diffraction (answers on a postcard please!) One explanation I’ve heard states that sunlight penetrates individual water droplets and reflects off their backsides. Some of the light heads back towards the sun and interferes with the direct sunlight causing diffraction patterns(?) that are essentially the circular zones of colour. Red is always seen on the outside of the pattern.

(Incidentally, you only see your own glory, which will be centred around the head of your shadow. A partner, only a few feet away, will not see yours – nor you theirs.)

Elaine on the summit of Sgurr a' Mhaim with the south face of Ben Nevis in the background

Ascent of Sgurr a Mhaim. Elaine and I climbed Sgurr a’ Mhaim (1099m) on a cold but bright day in January 2001. The hill is situated in the Mamores range on the south side of Glen Nevis. The Mamores comprise 10 Munros (peaks over 3000ft). Our trip started at the Lower Falls in Glen Nevis and made a direct assault up the NW spur of Sgurr a’ Mhaim. From the summit we headed due south across the “Devil’s Ridge” to summit Sgorr an Iubhair (1001m) and then finally descended NW down the glen to our starting point. The first photograph shows the spectacular views from the summit of Sgurr a’ Mhaim with the south face of Ben Nevis in the background. Although the conditions were very bright there was a thin veil of mist. This mist, and the low angle of the winter sun, provided ideal conditions for the formation of a Brocken Spectre.

Cameron on Sgurr a' Mhaim sees his Brocken spectre cast on the south face of Ben Nevis

The sun, which was directly behind me as I took the photographs, cast my shadow onto the thin veil of mist between our summit and the Ben. Moments later a Brocken spectre appeared around my shadow (second photograph). The Brocken spectre can be seen in the middle of the picture. About the same distance that the glory ring appears away from the centre of the shadow, a second faint ring can be see around the first glory.

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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2 Responses to Have you ever seen a Brocken spectre?

  1. Karl says:

    I’ve seen pictures of these many times in various books but have never been fortunate enough to see one. I suspect few people have -or perhaps many have and not realised what they have seen and how special it is.
    After your story, I am not so sure now that ‘special’ is the right word.
    Hope you see one again soon.

  2. Neil Fairbairn says:

    Karl, with the right conditions at the right time of year you can see them in Snowdonia. We’ve seen them on the Carneddau and on ridges up onto the Glyders. Best chance of seeing one is on a ridge with a bit of low cloud. If it clears above, you might be lucky!

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