The magic of a cloud inversion

The magic of a cloud inversion

The magic of a cloud inversion

The chatter of excited adventurers carries up from the deep bowl cradling the tarn below. Helvellyn’s answer to the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s Cathedral. I am high above them, tiptoeing across the narrow ridge, sending pebbles skittering across stone towards their inevitable plunge into the abyss. I move with laser-like precision, my gaze focused on nothing but the line of least resistance through the crag.

Perfect conditions on Helvellyn

I reach the summit plateau. Heart hammers against my chest. I sense a subtle shift in my surroundings: something creeping silently around me. Turning with trepidation, my subconscious mind becomes alive to this presence. 

I ogle, open-mouthed, at the landscape. So focused was I on the final push that I didn’t notice the transformation. Candy floss clouds fill the void beneath me. Ombre skies stretch out to the horizon. Muted sounds have morphed the most popular mountain in Lakeland into this untroubled sanctuary above the clouds. 

Catstycam and Swirral Edge

I look to the summit, sealed off by this white ocean. It’s deserted. Could it be that I am the only one to witness this spectacle? I feel a lump in my throat and gasp in disbelief. The elation of experiencing my first proper cloud inversion washes over me, as I am plunged, fathoms-deep, into a bubbling pool of emotions. If I ever needed proof of the healing power of the mountains, this is surely it.

Seeking perfection

This wasn’t technically my first experience of a cloud inversion. I’d had a few what I’d call ‘near misses’. They probably satisfied the definition of a cloud inversion but they didn’t meet the exacting requirements of the experience I seek.

The makings of a cloud inversion

One time on the Kentmere Horseshoe, I was chasing a cloud inversion. I’d approached it from the ‘wrong’ side, so while I could see cloud gathering in the valleys below, the bulk of the action was to the north. I was peering in from the sidelines; the drama eluding me this time.

Cloud inversion over Great Langdale Valley

Separately in Great Langdale, a thin layer of cloud lay beneath me as I climbed The Band. It was undoubtedly pretty, in the sense that any scene with the Langdales in it always is. But it was a little washed out; the purple colours of dawn and erratic patches of cloud above soon evolved into a typical claggy Lakeland scene and left me wanting more.

Later that day, sheltering from the wind on Esk Pike, the clouds began to swirl once more. I was clearly nearing the top of this bank of cloud but I’d run out of mountain. Not quite the view I had in mind but the weather gods sent the supporting act instead, treating me to my first brocken spectre. I did catch a fleeting glimpse of Scafell Pike – 92 metres higher – where conditions would likely have been perfect. As is often the way in the mountains.

Brocken spectre on Esk Pike

I’ve developed a minor, but totally healthy, obsession in seeking out textbook inversions. I’m addicted to that feeling of pushing on through the clag, wondering if I’ll run out of terra firma before experiencing the thrill of emerging into that magical world in the skies. Nothing stirs the soul quite like it.

The Holy Grail

My latest, and most perfect encounter, was in Snowdonia. The Arenigs to be precise. During a period of sustained winter high pressure which had anchored itself to the UK, I stumbled across a spectacle I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry.

A gloomy start

It was sombre in the valley. Another grey, drizzly December day in the mountains. I scoffed at the forecast’s prediction of inversion conditions and climbed into the clag to practise some poor visibility navigation.

Emerging from the clag

Distracted by compass bearings and pacing across the pathless terrain, I began to sense a thinning of the cloud as I approached the summit trig point. I caught a glimpse of blue sky, as the whispy tops of the haze danced across the thick blanket below. Then, just a few metres from the high point, I punched through the billow to reveal a spellbinding scene.

Above the clouds

I was standing on an island in an ocean of cloud. Clear blue skies emphasised the black tops of all the major mountain ranges of Snowdonia as the cold wind stirred the cauldron of cloud surging below like an effusive lava flow.

Standing on an island

A cheshire cat grin stretched across my face and the tears soon flowed. The privilege of being the only one up here to witness this beauty was all too much. I laughed and smiled and snapped away with my camera before settling into the moment and simply staring out to all points of the compass in disbelief. It has to be one of the finest experiences of being in the mountains.

Cloud inversion

How do I catch an inversion?

First things first, you need to be out in the hills regularly. You’re never going to see an inversion sitting at home!

Autumn and winter are often the best seasons for inversion conditions. Keep an eye on specialist mountain weather forecasts, like MWIS, which often point out when inversion conditions are likely. Otherwise, look for longer periods of stable weather. High pressure anchored over the UK with a gentle breeze are good signs. Messy synoptic charts aren’t going to help us here.


Remember to stay safe. You’ll often be walking through thick clag before getting above the clouds. And that means having the appropriate skills to get there and back safely.

Cloud inversions really are wonderful. And if you are lucky enough to catch one, the ordinary world beneath the clouds just doesn’t feel the same again. 

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