Published 27th November 2023, 19:47

    THE sunrise burned through the twilight to bathe the Cairngorms in beautiful fiery reds but it quickly proved to be filled with false promise.

    Within minutes it had fizzled out and flattened, a damp squib, the following skies anaemic and the sun lukewarm as though the initial effort in pushing above the horizon had simply been too much.

    Yet it seemed fitting for a November ascent of Geal Charn – yes, another one – the white peak, a lone Corbett above the Braes of Abernethy: a pale hill for a pale day.

    Sandwiched between the storms of October and the freezing, short dark days of December, The 11th month has a habit of embracing the benign, neither here nor there when it comes to big weather events, a moment to pause and reflect before winter takes control. 

    Leached of light, the empty landscape at the end of the road to Dorback failed to stir any real recollection of a previous visit many years ago. Then it was a start in the dark of night and an ending in brilliant sunshine which washed out every picture.

    Days of heavy rain had still left their mark. Despite the dry and cold calm, water ran everywhere. The Dorback Burn had split and spread its fingers over a wide area making attempts to cross impossible without wet feet. Retreat was sensible choice, the solid estate track a better option.

    The flat light made the derelict lodge seem even sadder, a once-grand building now reduced to a crumbling, boarded-up ruin. The track wasn't the most aesthetic experience but it made for fast progress as it mirrored the twists and turns of the burn below while consistently gaining height. And shortly after cutting off and heading down the running stream masquerading as a path, I began to appreciate its simple virtues.

    Everything was sodden, every step a squelch. When the path had run its course, the clinging heather and spongy ground alternated in making life harder than the distance suggested, stumbling one minute, sinking ankle-deep the next.

    So far, Geal Charn was matching the seasonal mood perfectly, slopes of dull brown and washed-out greens overseen by a pallid sky. I've always believed there's no such thing as a bad hill – and continue to do so – but some of them really do push their luck at times.

    Then came the moment that restored the faith. Reaching the wide summit crest revealed a magnificent sight, the snow-dusted Cairngorms stretched out across the horizon, a warm yellow glow illuminating the tops and tors of the eastern peaks, darkening in stages through the centre until taking on a more severe expression at the western end.

    The white quartzite rocks that form the untidy cairn marking the high point were the next focal point, a bright spark in the midst of a huge swathe of drabness. There was a feeling of regret in leaving this point but that was mainly down to the realisation that there would be no avoiding another bout of sponge-hopping. It was however short-lived and with the feet now well and truly wet I had no worries about the river crossing still to be faced.

    I went directly to the water below the ruined farm buildings of Upper Dell, but the flow was always too fast and deep and I had to bide my time. The best crossing point came much further down directly opposite the point I had retreated from earlier in the day.

    Trousers rolled up, I managed to get over in four parts, a hop and a jump from either an overwhelmed tussock or a shaky boulder until the final leap of faith where one foot had to be sacrificed to save the other. Somehow, though, the submerged one didn't seem much wetter than its partner when I finished. It was that kind of walk.

    A pale hill for a pale day, an archetypal November outing.