A Mountain Spectre, also known as "Buddha's Light"

Have You Met Your Mountain Spectre? We Have. Check It.

A Mountain Spectre phenomenon with man and glowing halo

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You never forget meeting your mountain spectre. I had just reached the ridge between Gimli Peak and Niselheim in the Valhalla Mountain Range of British Columbia when I first glimpsed the anomaly. He was backed onto a bank of cloud, hovering over Mulvey Basin, surrounded by a rainbow halo. His limbs belonged on a Hollywood alien – stringy and long. Really long. The arms and legs appeared to be over 40 feet high but his torso was a blob of shadow topped by a minuscule head cast in nimbus luminescence.

A Mountain Spectre with bright glowing halo

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Very few people in the world are lucky enough to meet their mountain spectre. For one thing, you need to leave your living room and get high. Really high. You have to be standing on a peak or a ridge above the clouds with the sun at your back and the cloud bank below has to be composed of uniformly-sized water droplets so as to best diffract visible light. What happens next is really just an optical illusion but one that’s so unsettling it has the power to terrify. In his 1872 book Round-about Rambles, Frank Richard Stockton described how the “Spectre of the Brocken…was a fearful sight to behold suddenly upon the summit of a loft mountain…sometimes with arms upraised, as if invoking ruin upon all the country.”

The Chinese call it “Buddha’s Light” and in Germany the phenomenon is known as “Brockengespenst,” named for the Brocken mountain where spectres are regularly seen. Frankly I don’t like the name “Brocken” – too much like “broken,” which definitely doesn’t summarize how I feel about the experience that happened to me the day after my 38th birthday.

A Mountain Spectre or Brockengespenst

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Perhaps this is what Moses saw on Mount Sinai? Maybe he climbed above the clouds, saw his own shadow cast onto the mist and, without any comparative reference points in the white out, assumed the illusion was a deity descending from on high to tell him how we should curb the desire to gossip about our neighbours.

My mountain spectre wasn’t quite so scary or omnipotent. In fact, he was ridiculous. He flapped his long arms and jumped around while I yelled at my lagging companions to hurry up and get to the ridge so they too could experience the phenomenon. (And bring up a camera.)

A Mountain Spectre, also known as "Buddha's Light"

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Alas, when the team finally did join me the cloud bank had dissipated, puffed into the ether like morning fog dying in the sun. My spectre had fled, replaced by a valley scene of turquoise lakes and snow and I was left to try and describe the immensity of the moment. Eventually I just gave up, savoured the memory and secretly hoped Buddha’s Light would return on my next visit into the mountains.

A Brocken Spectre also known as a Mountain Spectre

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Do you have a photo of your mountain spectre? If so, share it with us in the comments below.

Author / Contributor

Vince Hempsall

Vince Hempsall lives in the beautiful mountain town of Nelson, British Columbia, where he spends his time rock climbing, backcountry skiing and mountain biking (when not working). He is the online editor for Mountain Culture Group and the managing editor of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine.


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