Talk to people who have been around the mountains and high country for a while, and you’ll occasionally come across a few who may recall a rare phenomenon called the Spectre of the Brocken.
I’ve never seen it, but then, I might have just missed and not noticed it. But my friend Noall did see it when hunting the backcountry of Murchison in the South Island’s Buller valley. Noall, then 18 years old with his brother Pip, was traversing a step sharp ridge of snow grass when they noted their giant shadows appearing on the mist out from them. Eerily, there were glimpses of a rainbow halo surrounding each of their outlines.
In spite of another 50 years in the mountains, Noall told me he had never seen the Spectre again. The Spectre of the Brocken is rarely seen but not always noticed. That might be just as well, as superstition has it that it means bad luck.
I once met veteran deerstalker Frank Scott of Marlborough who had seen the Spectre of the Brocken.
One early morning in 1946, Frank and his companion Ted Monson were hunting in the Seaward Kaikoura Range. The pair walked along a steep rock ridge that descended to a low saddle. Thick mist poured through a saddle and into the valley. They halted and sat with the low morning sun behind them when they noticed something strange.
Directly in front of them were two enormous shadows on the wall of mist. Around each of the shadows was a larger and similarly beautiful rainbow. Frank estimated the shadow to be about 300 feet (100 metres) high. He stood up and his giant shadow did likewise. Ted then stood up and his giant shadow followed.
For over five minutes Frank and Ted watched the unusual phenomenon and then it gradually disappeared but only temporarily, for it reappeared as they scrambled down towards the saddle.
The Spectre of the Brocken is a greatly magnified shadow of an observer projected onto a wall of mist or cloud by the low angle of the sun. It only occurs when atmospheric conditions are just right with the sun low enough to throw the shadow of a person standing on the skyline, lower than the sun. The fog bank acts as a giant screen for the magnified shadow with the moist air and sunshine combining to form the rainbow halo.
Legend has that the name came from the Brocken, the highest peak of the Northern German Harz Mountains. It portends bad luck or so the story goes. Lore tells that once a climber was startled by the sudden appearance in the nearby mist of a human figure with a rainbow halo around its head. Startled and nervous, the climber fell to his death, killed by his own haloed shadow that he saw.
Frank and Ted weren’t worried though, but they had second thoughts when later they found themselves hemmed into a rocky creek bed. Their progress was barred by a 40-foot (13-metre) waterfall. Bluffs rose sheer on either side. Retreat was impossible. But then the pair spied a precarious wild goat track around the steep crumbling rocky bluffs. It was their only option. Gingerly, inch by inch, they eased their way around and down and came out into the open shingle below the waterfall. Then they noticed ominous south-westerly storm clouds brewing.
They headed back up a steep spur to locate a pack track, which led to a hut, but it took valuable time and daylight faded. Soon, thick mist descended and drizzling rain set in. For two hours, they carried on, getting drenched and cold and eventually utterly exhausted and weak. They dreaded a night in the cold, wet open.
“Damn the Spectre of the Brocken,” smiled Frank weakly.
An experienced man in the mountains, he had never experienced anything like their struggles. They eventually found the hut and staggered into the shelter. Outside, the wind rose to a howl and the increasing rain beat a constant tattoo on the iron roof. It mattered not; they were safe under shelter.
A legendary old deerstalker Lester Masters in his books told of an encounter with the Spectre of the Brocken. He had seen the phenomenon in the Ruahine Ranges and later on the hunting trip suffered a bad accident when his horse stumbled. Lester’s foot was caught in the stirrup and he
was dragged about by the frightened animal. From the ordeal, Lester suffered broken ribs and bad bruising and ended up in hospital.
So, while a rare and beautiful natural phenomenon, if you happen to see the Spectre of the Brocken, maybe take extra care. Whether you believe in the superstition or not, it’s perhaps never a bad idea to be a bit more cautious on misty mountains.