Image of the June 2015 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more articles from the
June 2015 Issue
Home / Articles / Waypoints

See more… Brocken spectres

Brocken Spectre above Zetland Basin, Kahurangi National Park. Photo: Shaun Barnett

Where to go for your best chance of seeing this ghostly phenomenon

Ever been on the tops, above the clouds, with the sun at your back and noticed that your long, triangular shadow is cast onto the mist, with a curious halo effect, like a circular rainbow around your head? If so, you’ve witnessed a Brocken spectre, also, less commonly, known as a Brocken bow or mountain spectre. The halo itself is called the ‘rings of glory’. As you move along the ridge, the Brocken spectre moves ghost-like along the clouds, but – when your shadow falls over lower or higher clouds – can appear to suddenly jump.

While trampers and climbers have witnessed Brocken spectres in many mountain ranges around the world (Eric Shipton famously saw one during an ascent of Mt Kenya in 1929), the term comes from a specific 1141m peak called Brocken – the highest in Germany’s Harz Mountains. While a relatively low peak, it does protrude above the treeline and its northerly latitude results in alpine conditions more often found on much higher mountains. Cloud or mist drapes its flanks for as many as 300 days a year, creating ideal conditions for spectres to appear.

The naturalist Johann Silberschlag is first credited with observing and describing a spectre he saw from the peak in 1780. Since then, spectres have often appeared in literature. For example, in his poem Constancy to an ideal Object Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:

The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist’ning haze,
Sees full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round its head
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he meakes the shadow he pursues!

Wikipedia offers a more prosaic explanation of the optical effect: ‘The light projects [the shadow of the person] through the mist, often in a triangular shape due to perspective. The apparent magnification of the shadow is an optical illusion that occurs when the observer judges his or her shadow on relatively nearby clouds to be at the same distance as faraway land objects seen through gaps in the clouds, or when there are no reference points by which to judge its size. The shadow also falls on water droplets of varying distances from the eye, confusing depth perception the contrary, every time I’ve seen one, I’m on the tops, above the clouds, enjoying the tramping conditions.

Suggesting locations to reliably observe a Brocken spectre is, of course, impossible because it’s the combination of weather and terrain that creates one. The best I can do is say where I’ve seen them before, which at least gives an indication that the site is conducive to forming a spectre. Happy ghost hunting!

Mt Hikurangi, Raukumara Forest Park, East Coast
The summit ridge of Mt Hikurangi rises sharply above the surrounding terrain, and in places narrows almost to a knife-edge. On the first occasion I climbed the mountain, clouds were swirling about, but the sun broke through briefly to create a mountain spectre.

Whanahuia Range, Ruahine Forest Park, Manawatu
Rangiwahia Hut occupies a commanding position on the western flanks of the Whanahuia Range. As well as providing access to the hut, the Rangiwahia Track offers one of the North Island’s best access routes to the tops. Beyond the hut, a well-poled route leads across the undulating tussock tops to reach the range crest, overlooking the Oroua Valley. It’s not uncommon for cloud to fill the valley, and this was the situation on a recent trip to the range, when the westering sun formed a Brocken spectre around my shadow.

Zetland Basin, Kahurangi National Park, West Coast
Above Little Wanganui Saddle on the western end of the Wangapeka Track is an attractive sub-alpine basin beneath Mt Zetland. Tussock, speargrass and small tarns abound in the basin, which also offers excellent views over the Taipo Valley and surrounding peaks. While there’s no official track into the basin, experienced trampers will find little problem scrambling up the rocky slopes into it from Little Wanganui Saddle. Here, as we emerged out of the mist, the sun worked its magic to create a Brocken spectre.