Waterfall – the voice of the mountains

viewpointTHE trail climbed steeply out of the creek’s gully to follow a crest that paralleled the edge of the cliffs. Soon, it gently dropped down to the clear waters of Yosemite Creek where white granite slabs sloped down to the lip of Upper Yosemite Falls. The stream flowed gently over the smooth slabs before suddenly gathering itself to plunge over the lip of this sheer cliff to become the 1,430 foot Yosemite Falls, one of the longest waterfalls in the world.

Earlier in the day I had stood at the bottom of the falls, full of admiration for John Muir who decided what he really wanted to experience was a view of the falls as they tumbled over the edge. Now that I was at the top of the falls myself I couldn’t help wonder if Muir had been a tad foolhardy, or just plain crazy?

I approached Yosemite Creek,” he wrote, “admiring its easy, graceful, confident gestures as it comes bravely forward in its narrow channel, singing the last of its mountain songs on its way to its fate.

He wanted to “lean out far enough to see the forms and behaviour of the fall all the way down to the bottom.”

Much has been written about John Muir’s apparent fearlessness. Generally recognised as the finest mountaineer of his time he appeared, time and time again, to take unnecessary risks and yet, as writer and Muir enthusiast Terry Gifford has pointed out, “Through a discipline of tuning in to wildness, Muir could take risks and trust his judgement of the conditions.

I couldn’t help thinking of Muir’s bravado as I read about three young people who had been lost after being swept over the 317ft (96m) Vernal Falls, only a few miles away from Yosemite Falls. Witnesses said the trio had ignored warning signs and climbed over a metal barricade to pose for photographs.

Vernal Falls

There’s little doubt that waterfalls can hold a deep fascination for folk who go to the hills, and they can be dangerous places, but this year I’ve been impressed by some of the finest waterfalls I’ve ever seen. A few months back I stood at the foot of the Rhaeadr Fawr, or the Aber Falls in North Wales. The previous few days had been very wet and the falls were swollen and tumultuous and very, very impressive. I spent a long time photographing them from every angle, trying to be more and more creative. It later occurred to me that long before the days of digital cameras many visitors to waterfalls would have written poems about them. Indeed, Sir Walter Scott left it on record that any poet, however poor his attainments, can write about a waterfall, and many have, some better than others.

Norman Nicholson refers to his “chain of water, the pull of earth’s centre”, while others anthropomorphise, describing cascades and cateracts as “the voice of the mountains.” In his typically adjectival poem Inversnaid, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the course of the burn in tumultuous terms –

“His rollrock highroad roaring down
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home,”

a poem which of course concludes with that emphatic plea for wilderness:

“What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

Although it’s not the highest of waterfalls, the crashing 60 metres drop of the Grey Mare’s Tail above the A708 Moffat to St. Mary’s Loch road in Dumfries and Galloway is certainly one of our most spectacular waterfalls, motivating Sir Walter Scott, despite his literary theories, to pen a rather grandiose poem about those waters which hurl down the dark abyss from “dark Lochskene / Where eagles scream from shore to shore.

The Grey Mare’s Tail

But my own favourite this year has been the wonderful Falls of Glomach in Kintail in Wester Ross. They’re not the highest falls in the country, that honour goes to the Eas a’ Chual Aluinn in Sutherland, but the falls of Glomach are well hidden away and you have to exert a fair amount of energy to see them.

I visited the falls earlier this year after a bout of heavy rain. Not only did the raging torrent look impressive, but you could literally feel the thunder and power of it. The ground shook below my feet and the air was cool with the icy draught of the golden brown waters. I was impressed by the sheer spectacle of power and potent energy.

Falls of Glomach (Photo © Phil Turner)

The top of the waterfall lies about a mile beyond the Bealach na Sroine and involves a descent of about 600-feet. As you drop down from the pass you can’t help but notice the sprawling strath of Gleann Gaorsaic and its various streams and burns that feed the main river, water courses that drain the slopes of big mountains like A’Ghlas Bheinn and the magnificently sculpted Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. All that water harnessed into a narrow stream and then directed into a narrow, rocky cleft where it plunges for some 400 feet, twice the height of Niagara, into a deep, black chasm. You usually see the spray and hear the thunder long before you spot the waterfall itself. Needless to say great care should be taken on the normally wet path that skirts the top of the falls.

I hasten to add I was never tempted, like John Muir, to “obtain a perfectly free view down into the heart of the snowy, chanting throng of comet-like streamers, into which the body of the fall soon separates.” I was happy enough to view from a distance.

See also our pick of Scotland’s finest waterfalls.

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    Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.