“Braeriach boasts a pointless and distant top …”. This passage in the Butterfield book had fascinated me for some time – one of those laconic guidebook remarks that seem to be a provocation to go and do it anyway, be it to prove them wrong or just as a challenge for those of a masochistic bent. Earlier this month, after all those years, I acted on it. The plan, drawn up around free time and the train timetable, was to get onto the plateau from Glen Feshie in the afternoon, sleep out, and visit Tom Dubh the next morning, before tramping on to Monadh Mor to make a day of it.
This trip cannot, beyond truisms about the changed nature of the game when snow is on the ground, really be called mountaineering; but it is a means of finding a genuine sense of remoteness, a space with no unnatural light and a form of suspended existence on a vast plateau bounded by arcs of crag that are more sensed, or remembered, than they are seen.
A body changed
After a quick visit to the Aviemore chipper, I took a cab down to the carpark by Achlean. It was almost a year to the day since we rolled up in Braemar for a few days before Christmas 2017, while we were still living in Denmark and casting the die about where to go next – and since I realized how desperately unfit I was on an overnighter in the vicinity of Glen Quoich. I was, therefore, curious to see how much had changed; and what better way to do that than start walking at 1.09 pm with the intention of getting up the hill and reaching the planned spot for the night?
I surprised myself. Progress was, despite the winter and overnight gear in the pack, rapid: almost effortless, and at one point impossibly peaceful. There was just enough visibilty and depth to make out the contours and tell from the land exactly – more or less – where I was, absorbed in the cloud and snow. Despite the white everywhere, the failing light, a wind that could be felt nasty — I felt no hurry, no disquiet. All was plain, all content. You might call it a sense of being at rest, or at home; and I like the latter idea because the effect was broken by the same place that caused it: an evil, overcoming cold when I reached the vague col where I intended to sleep, and fumbled with the tent just before the darkness came down.
Night, and clearance
After a night made restless by the continual wind and whishriff of spindrift, dawn passed unnoticed; outside was a grey that promised brutal cold. It delivered as soon as I emerged, shuffled and at once set about generating warmth by marching off towards the first of several elementally pointless landmark elevations on the way ahead; movement, at such times, is a necessity.
I was already cursing another less-than-accurate forecast, when cloud untangled itself from the earth to the south-east. There was no excitement at first, merely a base thankfulness that some warmth might be gleaned from the sun. The process of release had its slow rhythm, but the clues were there and it cleared sure enough. Tom Dubh – located after a longer-than-usual perceptual readjustment to cloud breaking – came, and went, and on the flow took me to the plateau’s end, as an inversion rose and returned uncertainly across lesser heights behind.
A case of retracing steps. There was no flamed sunset – a weak front gathering cut out the West – only subtleties: cobalt and emerald in the sky left over the giants, and clouds layered with a shine like mother-of-pearl. Around that instant when the light is turned off, the last sacks were rammed, in the stunting cold once more, into the pack, and the final rise brought darkness, the lights in Speyside beyond the crest and a sparkling torchlit descent to the snowline. Tbe path to the road was walked and jogged; a brief phonecall generated a lift; and then it was just another empty Monday evening in December, and the chipper again, before the train south.
Tom Dubh itself is not pictured here … at least not up close … so you will just have to go and see for yourself. And on that note, here, by way of motivation – or challenge, or provocation – is what the book has to say, in case you are not familiar with it:
Braeriach boasts a pointless and distant top – Stob Lochan nan Cnapan (Tom Dubh). Those who wish to take this in during a Braeriach traverse might consider starting up Ross’s Path from Gleann Einich or from Achlean in Glen Feshie […]. From the edge of the Moine Mhor, Stob Lochan nan Cnapan (Tom Dubh) may be discerned above the streams feeding the Eidart. Its ascent involves a considerable detour from whichever route is chosen on traverses of the neighbouring tops. This is one for the real enthusiast, the most meaningless 3000ft ‘top’ in all Britain, for here lies the ultimate in desolate wilderness, a landscape so featureless that it almost defies man’s ability to use map and compass. Devoid of landmarks, in mist, only the oozy drains of the plateau’s few streams offer guides of any consequence. When frozen by winter blizzards even these fail to assist, and dead reckoning by compass is the only sure guide to the safety of the glens below. (Irvine Butterfield, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland, London 1993, p. 128)