In a White Out Article

© Chris Vian

David Canning tells the story behind his poem 'White Out'.

I remember the purity of my first white out. I had walked up from the ski lodge on Aonach Mòr and beyond the top slopes I became enveloped by clouds. I ascended through deep snow up and up with white above me, white below, white enveloping my every side, and with the white noise of the wind and the blood pulsing in my ears, I had entered what seemed like an ante-room between lives, in utero. 

The joys of Scotland in winter   © Chris Vian
The joys of Scotland in winter
© Chris Vian, Jan 2011

Pale blue shadows filled my footprints, the surface crust of frozen snow cracked and folded, crisp like paper. Indeed, the world felt clean and unsullied as if every possibility was laid out before me. The fact that every movement I made irreparably marked the virgin landscape prompted more deliberate steps, gave me pause to think carefully about what I wanted to write into it, to make sure it mattered.

David Canning in a white out on Aonach Mòr.  © David Canning
David Canning in a white out on Aonach Mòr.
© David Canning

The disorientation that can happen within a white out can be awe inspiring or terrifying, but I had the assurance of being connected by an invisible thread to my future life: my compass locked onto the earth's magnetic field and guided me back to escape. It is this ability to transport yourself to alien worlds, where survival is only a matter of time, connect yourself to life by seemingly tenuous threads, and then return to the security of domestic warmth that stirs a visceral part of the human spirit, the need for exploration. Often we return, but there is always the risk that we won't. Traversing in the undiscovered country, among the whiteness of mortality stirs a reappraisal of life and its value.

In a White Out

It is perfectly blank,

the world's wide, white arc

rises ahead of me, unmarked

like a page waiting for a word.


As I climb, my feet punctuate

the papery crust of the snow,

crisp volumes of neve

piled on shelves of rock.


In this featureless fog,

no horizon, feint edge or margin

guides my cursive steps, I am written

by my compass, blindly along a line


magnetic, unseeable as the instinct

that calls me to solitude, to discovery

opening up my unread parts;

it thumbs the crease of my spine


and tells me my story.

David Canning's poetry has been published in various magazines, anthologies, film, and on television and radio. He has also served on the judging panel for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. The Celestial Spheres can be purchased here.

UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by David Canning

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