I WAS sitting at the western rim of An Garbh Coire waiting for the sunrise.
I had set off from the Sugar Bowl car park around four hours earlier under a full moon, picked my way through the boulder field in the enclosed blackness of the Chalamain Gap by torchlight and rose steadily up the Sron na Lairige ridge in swirling, dancing mists to reach the summit of Braeriach by 3.30am.
The sky had changed gradually from black to grey to blue and the remains of winter’s cornices took on a luminous glow in the moonlight to provide a haunting white contrast to the dark rock faces.
The chaotic cairn of Braeriach was glowing pink, a hub for conflicting views; to the south the moon lit the terrain in pastel shades, to the north the horizon was still a silhouette, pale orange light trying to battle through the clouds to bring some relief from the blackness.
As I made my way round the corrie, the morning light grew in confidence. Streaks of yellow, orange and pink now formed the backdrop for the summit cliffs. I took my seat in anticipation of the fireworks. I didn’t have long to wait. The sun started to crest the ridgeline at 4.29am, bang on time.
Suddenly this magnificent rock amphitheatre was filled with warming rays. The faces I had recently passed started to pulsate, a copper wave washing down their snow-streaked depths, sweeping over the floor of this grand arena. It had changed from the cold indifference of night to the warm promises of day with the flick of a switch.
Of course, it could all have been so different had my original mission gone to plan. July was just a few days old and the moon was full, so I headed for Glenmore with the intention of doing a dusk til dawn circuit over Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul and The Devil’s Point and then travelling back via the Lairig Ghru.
Then I would have been ascending the Sron an Lairige ridge in the dying embers of one day, reaching the summit of Braeriach with a full moon for company and then seeing the new day arrive as I made my way to Cairn Toul.
The weather had suggested the possibility of a localised shower. What I got was a series of mini-monsoons. On the drive up the A9, it felt at times as if I were piloting a speed boat through the waves rolling down the road. The rain ceased as I turned off for Coylumbridge but the surface water was still making life difficult. Loch Morlich lay like a massive sheet of tin foil, the dark line of the mountains a cummerbund between the silvery grey of the water and the brooding, broiling sky. The rain didn’t look like it had finished with us yet.
I pulled into the Sugar Bowl parking area just before 10pm intent on a quick change around to catch the evening’s last throes as an opener for my big walk, but as I was checking my gear the heavens opened again. Take-off was delayed. The dusk part of the walk was now lost. Disappointing though that was, I must admit I find the tinny beat of the raindrops on the car roof almost therapeutic, the rhythm varying in perfect beats.
Around two hours later, the pings faded away to zero and I took it as my cue to depart. The moon, which had been posted missing for the last couple of hours, was now pushing its way through the cloud cover and providing some much needed assistance as I entered the short stretch of path through trees laden with water.
The main track ahead was now spotlighted, a pale, snail trail leading south-west to the dark narrows of the Chalamain Gap. This deep V of bouldery chaos is no place to be travelling blind and with the moon‘s light now cut off, I put on my head torch to help pick a route through the mayhem. Once safely out the other side, I was able to rely on natural light again for the descent to the Lairig Ghru.
Once over the water, a short steep rise on the path - more like a trench in places - saw me emerge on the open slopes of the Sron na Lairige, the long ridge that leads south then swings west, gaining height all the time, to emerge on the final climb to Braeriach.
So far, I had had two hours of darkness but now chinks of light were beginning to appear. Behind was the orange glow of Aviemore, but it was dwarfed by what appeared to be a city of New York’s stature to the right, towering clouds piled up on the horizon, a line of vapour skyscrapers backed by lines of green and ochre. Off to my right I heard ptarmigan, and then I saw them, dozens disturbed by a night intruder, sending out their alarm calls, before lifting off en masse heading for safer ground.
The higher I rose, the more the contours of the hills ahead were taking shape. Early mists danced around, changing the scenery constantly but always leaving something to see. At one point they shifted enough to leave me with a vision of throbbing orange line dividing the cloud line before it went back into hiding in the shadows.
When the path did its abrupt right turn to head into the higher reaches, I was greeted with a clear blue view of the Cairn Toul/Angel’s Peak skyline, the full moon’s glow picking out every contour, every bit of snow in every wrinkle of their faces.
A massive bank of snow from a collapsed cornice lay in a gully below my feet, radiant in the moonlight, its pure whiteness almost otherworldly. And then I was at the summit of Braeriach, the huge sprawling cairn that lies just feet away from one of the sheerest drops in Scotland’s mountains, where it was night in one direction, day in the other.
It was 3.30am but I didn’t have time to rest. I wanted to keep moving to get down to the head of the corrie for a ringside seat for the coming of the sun. I passed the burbling of the Wells of Dee, the sky ahead holding its early colour like a horizontal rainbow, and watched the start of the dark rocks I had just crossed take on tinges of varying colours as the inevitable approached.
Then the sun burst over the corrie walls and the Cairngorms showed just why their true name is the Monadh Ruadh: Everything turned red. The great bowls of An Garbh Choire and Coire Bhrochain turned fiery red from head to toe, the path and the rocks of the Angel’s Peak took on a mellow red and across the Lairig Ghru Ben Macdui did likewise. From the summit cairn of Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul was now starting to turn as well.
As the day rose to its full height, the colours started to calm down. The north and east facing slopes were sparkling in the sunshine, those of the south and west staying in shadow for the moment. By the time I reached the top of Cairn Toul, I needed sunglasses. Sunglasses at 5.30am. It’s hard to believe I was in the heart of the Cairngorms, but then some sort of realism kicked in.
As I sat having my breakfast at 4,000 feet, the only soul, it seemed, for miles around, I started to feel the cold wind for the first time. All this sunshine and soft colour had given me a false sense of warmth. After ten minutes, I needed to get moving.
The next stop should have been The Devil’s Point but I had done this recently from the other side on another huge traverse so I thought I would enjoy reversing what I had done so far and catching the same views in a totally different light. The drop back below Sgor an Lochain Uaine, for instance, took me down into the shadows again where rainbow rays glistened as they edged over the ridgeline. Aviemore now lay under a sea of early cloud while the mountains which give it much of its identity were crystal clear.
I enjoyed the classic views of the front of Cairn Toul and The Angel’s Peak with their trademark scooped-out hollow and the views back up to the mighty faces of Braeriach. I enjoyed the view down the length of the Lairig Ghru, the sharp cap of The Devil’s Point on the right, complete with a lone puffy cloud for company, and the long ridge of Carn a’ Mhaim to the left.
I had been out for more than seven hours in the middle of the night and yet there was still a spring in my step, a lack of tiredness. The angle down the Sron na Lairige line is gentle and the success of the walk was carrying me along nicely.
Near the foot of the ridge, I saw a lone reindeer enjoying an early breakfast. He didn’t pay me any attention, and I decided to leave him in peace. The ptarmigan had gathered in numbers too, running along together this time instead of taking to the air. I could pick them all out among the rocks but the photograph I took has rendered them all but invisible.
The heat had been building strongly and as I reached the foot of the ridge I met the first person I had seen for more than 12 hours, a runner coming up the steep path. He had been staying in the area for a week and had chosen this as his daily run, but this was the first time he had met anyone coming down the mountain at this time.
The further I dropped, the more bodies I saw. One walker with a huge pack was finding the stifling early heat oppressive, his face redder than that of Braeriach when I had sat above the corrie waiting for the day to start. A few more behind him seemed to be flagging already, gaining height proving to be a Herculean task.
When I reached the Chalamain Gap again, I met a couple who had decided to have a rest stop in the cool shadows of the boulders, in no hurry to venture back out into the sunshine. The V at the far end of the gap was now filled with bright blue, a contrast to the darkness I had faced on the way in.
I could be forgiven for feeling smug. This was what night walking was all about. I had done the hard work in the cool of the night and retreated before the heat of the day became too severe.
We may moan about never getting enough sun in the mountains, but walking in this kind of heat is never comfortable. I had the feeling that many of the walkers I had met on their way up would agree.
I may have missed the dusk but I was there to witness the dawn among some of the highest peaks in the country. You can never tire of that.
(First published in The Great Outdoors, June 2017)