It was three little words that cemented my decision to attempt the hill I’ve been dreaming of for nearly a decade. Three little words in the weather forecast that carried a prospect of such beauty as needs to be seen to be believed.
Summits above cloud.
The moment I read that I knew I had to give it a shot. The mountain that has been looming over me for all these years, standing there as a reminder of the distance I have so often felt between what I think I can do, and what I want to do. Braeriach.
Braeriach is the third tallest mountain in Scotland, with a summit that tops a whopping 1,296m. Only Ben Nevis (1,344m) and Ben Macdui (1,309m) are higher. But Braeriach has the added factor of remoteness as well as height. It’s not the most remote hill in Scotland by any means, no; but whereas you can begin walking to Ben Macdui from a height of 600m, there is no such luxury for Braeriach. Ben Nevis is taller, granted, but you start the ascent almost immediately on that famous hill. Again, no such luxury for Braeriach. The walk in is long; the round trip wherever you start from is at least 26km in length.
This vast and sprawling giant had become a thing to me. A one day, some day kind of thing. I never felt ready for it. Too many health issues telling me not to. Acute anxiety. Chronic fatigue. Heck, two years ago I couldn’t even cross a style without exhausting myself.
So it wasn’t without a hint of nervousness that I hoisted a truly monstrous rucksack onto my shoulders, looked at the distant whale back of Braeriach on the horizon, and started walking. But what if I was wrong? What if I actually could?
Watch: Journey to the Summit
Beginning from Whitewell at around 2pm, I set off under clear blue skies through the ancient woods of Rothiemurchus. The landscape bloomed in late summer colour; pink heather fragrant on the air. As I left the woods behind and entered the bottom of the Lairig Ghru the heather gradually gave way to hill grass, turning golden with the first signs of autumn approaching.
Making slow but steady progress I clambered up the slopes of Sron Na Lairig, struggling if truth be told under the weight of my bag. Having packed a lot of camera gear, and foolishly overpacked a few other things, it weighed in at a whopping 23kg. With my left leg feeling weakened by recent injury it was a hard slog to gain height. Nonetheless, I eventually found myself on the plateau overlooking the mountains in a warm summer glow as sunset approached.
I finally reached the summit of Braeriach with minutes to spare before the sun set. But, feeling exhausted by the climb I spent only a little energy on photography then, keen to set up camp and sort myself out before it grew dark. As I pitched my tent beside the Wells of Dee I watched the sun lower in the west, and finally diminish to no more than a red glow above the distant hills.
The night was eerily calm and bright. The moon was so strong it cast sharp shadows, but alas I was too tired to attempt to photograph it when I sneaked out of my tent for a look at the stars. I knew that without a tripod it would be futile anyway. Surrounded by a seemingly infinite wildness I retreated again to my sleeping bag, to steal what rest I could before the return of the sun.
Several hours later, shortly after 5am, I made my way up to the summit once again. I could see far away an ocean of cloud filling the low places all across the Highlands. Washing up against the slopes of the hills, the white sea made islands of the Cairngorms, turning gold as the sun peeked above the horizon once again.
I turned my attention to the interior of the Cairngorms, which remained cloud free. Watching the light build and spill over the tops of the hills, lighting up the flanks of the Garbh Coire and the peaks of Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul. This was the view I had come for; to see it with my own eyes. As I watched I took a moment to think of others who had come before. Seton Gordon, watching the sun rise from this same spot as he listened to the whistle of the train in Aviemore. Nan Shepherd, placing her hands over the Wells of Dee to see if she could hold back the water. Fleeting moments of life and vitality which I felt somehow privileged to share, by virtue of being here to see and feel as they did.
As the sun drew higher into the sky and the day grew bright, I quietly made my way down from the summit and back to my tent. I watched some reindeer wander the plateau in the distance as I packed away my gear and started the long walk home.
Before I left the mountain though I still had to see another wonder of the hill, in the form of Loch Coire and Lochain. So I wandered over the edge of the coire rim, and stared down at the great sheet of water, blue in the morning sun, with the sea of mist beyond.
I descended to the water, and gratefully, joyfully, removed my clothes and waded in. After the initial shock the purity of the coldness was absolutely blissful. I felt it reaching into every part of myself. The water was sapphire blue in the glittering sun, and the red rocks at the bottom of the loch danced in a web of silver threads. I emerged feeling reborn – made new by the mountain.
Restored, I dressed again and continued downhill, looking to the line of the Glen Einich track that beckoned me north, and home again.