Into the Nicht

Dan Richards

15 September 2022
DB at dawn from Bertol

What does nighttime darkness mean to you? A time of fear, or a place full of promise? This essay, especially written for Wigtown Book Festival by author and adventurer Dan Richards, explores the many sensations, and the sensory distortions, that come when the sunlight fades. You can meet Dan during the festival when he and Ranger Elizabeth Tindal, will be leading forays Into the Nicht.

Benighted — Overnight — Into the Night

The red lights on the side of the Matterhorn blinked on and off for several hours. We watched them, perplexed, from our seat on the side of the Dent Blanche.

Every so often, freezing cloud would envelop us, obscuring the view, but then it would clear and the moon would emerge and the red lights could be seen again.

Sometimes I would fall asleep, but only for a few seconds before jolting back awake. Swells of snow occasionally strafed us. Our jackets were frost-lacquered pearly and the rope was frozen solid. The bivvy bag around our legs had ripped at some point so, rather than being sat together in a sturdy sack, we had it wrapped about as an ineffective sheet, as if engaged in the worst picnic in the world.

At one point, shifting slightly with numb feet, I felt myself knock into one of the helmets on the ledge, heard it slide and fall down into deeper darkness – down towards Zermatt some thousand feet below. I didn’t turn my head torch on to watch it go, I could hear it ricochet away on the rocks beneath us; tick, tick, bang; bouncing, clattering, fading . . . I followed it with my ears until it was lost in the low humming whistle of the wind.
I knew my father was awake and also listening next to me. Neither of us spoke. Shivering hard, I hugged myself and drew my knees up to my chest.
Ahead, the lights on the Matterhorn flickered on and off, on and off, on and off.

*****

Back in 2015, my father, Tim, and I were climbing in the footsteps of my great-great-aunt and uncle, Dorothy Pilley and I.A. Richards, who made a celebrated first ascent of the North Arête in 1928. Tim had climbed the mountain before and was now making the painful discovery that he was no longer 30 but, worse and inexplicably, 60-something.

After a tiring, slow day’s climbing — capped off with a disagreement with a group of inept Catalonians — we’d been on our descent when the light broke down. We ghosted to a stop at the cornice break above the sharp gneiss flank and turned our torches on. Under us, the needle marks of crampon nails receded, a slight sharp path into the rocks. Our beams sought out the flecks as we descended in the dark. That morning it had been an obstacle course, a discordant field to overcome, now the night made it a maze. The future was rendered illusive and strangely flat by headlight, sharp shadows shifting and listing with a turn of the head, leaving strident after-glare.

Peppery snow began to fall and again our peripheries shrank. Depth and distance were hard to gauge and we soon lost our way. We were tired, slow and slowing. Our rope was often snagged. We were cold. I’d begun to feel my body as a weight. It was bleak weather. Time was passing unknown.

Sometimes I’d find myself dreamily detached, listening to the sound of my strapped axe knocking, the woozy wind, the raking of sleet, my boots on the gneiss. I could sense Tim was tired through the rope. Unbeknownst to me, he was already sure that we wouldn’t get back to the cabin that night.

*****

The Matterhorn started blinking red an hour after we’d stopped in the shelter of a small stone ledge. It was rather like sitting on the tailgate of a car apart from the fact that our legs were quite possibly dangling over an abyss of several thousand feet.

After a short chat as to our plan, we’d agreed to stop where we were and bivouac. Tim summed up our position: we were tired and had no kit for a brew. We were low on rations and unsure of our position. The weather wasn’t bad but the cloud was low. Our torches were not powerful enough for us to see any real distance. If either of us fell it might be serious and so it was best that we stop and carry on at first light.

All night — and it was all night for neither of us slept — as we talked to keep ourselves awake and shivered on that ledge. Benighted — a lovely word; a chastening reality.

*****

Funny what you think about stuck on a ledge. There was nothing to do but talk, shiver, look around and think. The stars of Zermatt blinking far below. Occasionally we had the moon. My neck muscles were taut, my throat was dry — our Sigg bottles had long since frozen solid; no clatter and dink when shaken now, just solid blocks of ice. I spent the dark hours rocking back and forth, sporadically shaking uncontrollably, alternatively rubbing my legs and arms, hugging myself. I recall the quiet hisses which escaped between clenched teeth, my jaw set, the night dragging endless.

“Your teeth join with all the other unemployed muscles in a counterpoint of chattering”, wrote Dorothy of a night out on a glacier below Epicoun. “Mercifully a kind of stupor descends to dull the senses.”

I thought of nights spent in railway stations having missed the last train home. The loneliness of knowing everyone you know is asleep, tucked up: thoughts of home. I thought of my mother back in Bath, sleeping, oblivious to our situation – how she’d always wait up for me and my brother alike if ever we were due home late.

The dream of sleep, the reality of having to remain awake.

I watched planes passing high above. Where were they going? Where had they been? What were the pilots talking about? How did the night look to them?

Lights in the dark.

I thought of search and rescue teams looking for souls on mountains elsewhere, the hospitals treating the sick, the emergency services out on call, Samaritans comforting the distressed. Alone in the dark, together in the night, the sleepless and the steadfastly nocturnal; the shift workers, cleaners, bakers, bus and taxi drivers, watchmen — the people who safeguard, replenish, and repair the world whilst most of us are asleep. The mariners, container ports workers, rapid-response fighter pilots up at Lossiemouth, National Grid technicians; fishermen; the monks up before dawn to pray for our souls…

I’ve suffered from insomnia for a long time. Sometimes I have night terrors, the darkness opening up as a black hole of fears, embarrassments, angst and dread. But never when I’m travelling, only when I’m home. The safe spaces teem with monsters at night — lying awake, mind spinning. Head full of regrets and worry, willing sleep to come and turn it off.

All of which is odd and slightly disappointing because I come from a family of night workers. My grandfather, Bob, worked for many years on the GWR night mail trains between Bristol Temple Meads and Plymouth. I always imagined the trains howling through the dark, the flaming cabs of the express locomotives — a speeding point of fire rushing across the still country and Bob there, overseeing the apparatus which collected and dispatched the letters; snapping and swinging mailbags in and off the train at speeds of 70 mph.

Bob’s daughter, my mother, Annie, was a ward sister — responsible for rooms of sleeping patients at 19 years old, ready to deal with emergencies and disturbances — making her rounds by torch-light. On rare occasions, having to wrap inquisitive bats in towels and surreptitiously flap them out of the window… By which I mean, I hail from good practical night stock, able to function on changing rotas and re-calibrate their circadian rhythms at will.

Yet, I spent many of lockdown’s small hours awake and frazzled. Once, I jogged to the top of Arthur’s Seat before dawn. I was shocked to find a lot of other people up there before me — bleary nods and hellos. The Edinburgh chapter of Insomniacs Anonymous meeting atop an extinct volcano.

Benighted on the Dent Blanche, we’d stared fixedly across at the Matterhorn — entranced, blank, awaiting first light. Every so often the sky seemed to brighten but it was only our tired eyes playing tricks.

I remember thinking about Ra the Sun God, my mind skating on to my mother’s whispered disclosure of her greatest fear growing up: a night in the Ancient Egyptian section of The British Museum. Thereafter, always mentioned in a John Burningham Would You Rather sort of way — always the worst-case scenario.

What was going on at the museum at that moment, I wondered. Was the sun shortly to cut across the monumental stones of Room 4? What would it be like to spend a night with Ramses II, silent, granite, three metres high. It would be warmer than the night I’d just endured, no doubt, but mightn’t the chills induced by night terrors have as much to do with lack of light and friendly folk as the surfeit of spectres?

As the old prayer runs:

From Ghoulies and Ghoosties, long-leggety Beasties, and Things that go Bump in the Night, Good Lord, deliver us!

Perhaps such visions and fears result from time spent alone and out of sync — awake, mind racing whilst everyone else, unconscious, unknowing, sleeps on. Don’t all insomniacs have something in common with Moomintroll in Moominland Midwinter: awake from hibernation months too early, a living ghost in a snow-bound world, unable to wake his family?

As a child I recall an audiobook of The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson — the story of a young barn owl named Plop who, like me, was frightened of the dark. There were seven chapters, each taking place on a night during which Plop learns something new about the dark — dark is exciting, dark is kind, dark is fun, dark is necessary, dark is fascinating, dark is wonderful and dark is beautiful.

I remember the chapter about dark being kind. An elderly lady tells the owl of how small hours are the time she’s alone with her memories, how the darkness hides her aged hands, how she feels a peace when the world’s asleep. And I thought of Bob now, alone, dozing in his Bristol home, dreams echoing with the trains and crews he once directed.

*****

At last, dawn delivered us. As soon as there was light enough to see the mountain-side, we made a move. It transpired that the drop beneath us levelled to a wide terrace, beyond which was the plunge to Schönbielgletscher.

We picked up the footprints of the track within five minutes – we’d been sat within 100 metres, obviously so, but the mountain was a different proposition in the day, opened out. Joyous. New. We tromped along the Wandfluelucke, cramped stiff but happy.

I found the red helmet feathered with frost ten minutes later on the snow. We approached it disbelieving. How had it contrived to skitter ten minutes sidelong in the face of that yawning drop? Who knew. Like us, it had escaped the night unscathed. But the benighting on the mountain had sown the seeds of an idea; to travel overnight, to shine a light on dark goings on — not in the sense of exposure or exorcism but a celebration and rehabilitation of the night as a time of action, endeavour, and innovation. Less things that go “bump” than things that go on, unseen but vital.

Perhaps, like Plop the owl, I could take a journey and learn how exciting, kind, beautiful, necessary, fun, full, busy and hopeful the night can be.


  • Join Dan and Dark Skies Ranger Elizabeth Tindal for Into the Nicht during Wigtown Book Festival.