Push beyond our limits, we slid into a world of illusions as our brains struggled to make sense of their surroundingsby Cal Flyn / December 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in Mid-winter (Jan-Feb) 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Two years ago, I had an unnerving experience while winter mountaineering in the Cairngorms. Having woken at a bothy in Glen Feshie to a clear, frosted morning, we climbed above snowline in the watery sunlight to begin what should have been a simple loop—summiting the nearest Munro before following a track north beyond a steep-sided corrie and dropping down to where we’d left the car.
As we approached the peak a bank of snow clouds appeared in the east, moving fast, and soon we were engulfed in the most complete white out I’d ever experienced. The ground, the sky, the boundary between them, all completely obscured and aglow with a flat, white light. The track nowhere to be seen. With visibility down to zero, we bunched together and trudged onwards through a featureless haze, eyes on the compass and counting our steps.
It was dizzying, disorientating. My eyes, searching for a hold on this otherworldly scene, grasped at what reference points it could: cliffs reared suddenly out of nothingness and raced forwards only to transform, abruptly, into thin strands of frozen grass, poking through snow. It soon became impossible to tell whether we were travelling uphill, or down.
Under normal conditions, human perception works so well as to render its workings invisible to us. But in certain circumstances—extreme weather conditions or extraordinary places—we push beyond its limits, sliding into a world of illusions as our brain struggles to make sense of its surroundings.
Depth perception, depending as it does on a number of visual clues, is first to go. In flat light conditions in the Canadian north, 19th-century explorer…