I woke with a start. Ten past one.
It was silent, no snow sliding down the tent. I gave the pole a dunt to shake off the worst of it and stuck a head out. There were definitely some stars visible through the cloud.
This bodes well, I’ll just have another wee doze. Ugh. Wha? Five to six? How did that happen?
The roof of the tent was bejeweled with crystals of frost, last night’s breath given solid form. I sat up and it showered gently all over my head. I unzipped the top four inches of the door and peeked out. Oh yes. You absolute beauty.
I jammed my feet into frozen boots and stumbled out of the tent like the last drunk getting chucked out of the pub at closing time. The moon had come over the top while I slept and was now perched above the coire rim, bathing everything in it’s no-longer-super but still pretty damn cheery light. The sky was crystal clear and I might have made some loud exclamations of joy.
Stove on, cuppa, porridge and the big down jacket, it’s flippin’ baltic.
Breakfast was interspersed by wandering about with a tripod and making ‘ooh’ noises. I shook the ice off the flysheet and packed up, the light was starting to increase so it was time to get on the road. If I was steady, I would make it up onto the bealach in time for sunrise. I love winter, you get a lie-in and still get to see the sun come up.
The pack felt heavier than it had the night before, probably due to the pounds of frost and moisture I had accumulated. I broke trail up round the side of the coire and up towards the bealach, zig-zagging as I went through knee deep powder. I hit the bealach puffing like Ivor the engine, to see the sun kissing the top of Sgurr na Ceathreamhnan and an inversion over Affric. I grinned like a buffoon. What a place. It’s one of my favourite parts of Scotland, this magical wild land between Cluanie and Mullardoch, a land of endless mystery and opportunity. I hung around and soaked it in, no rush on a day like this and the perfect time to spot locations for future jaunts.
As I started up the gentle slope to the summit, the snow become more drifty (made up word alert) so I had to pick a meandering route up to avoid the deeper sections. I came across some hare footprints, seemingly springing into existence out of nowhere. No sign of the magical apparating hare himself, but a clear long looping track up towards the top. He went directly over the deeper sections, showing what you can do when you’re a bit lighter and have massive feet. Show off.
I traced a parallel course more or less, until the sun popped over the summit bump. Just before the trig, the magical hare tracks disappeared again, my invisible companion departed leaving me alone. As imaginary guiding chums go, he’d played a blinder. Man, what a summit.
The view to the south was just phenomenal, low cloud in the glens as far as I could see to the south with the big whaleback of the Ben standing proud in the centre. All around the hills that have inspired and gripped me for decades; The Five Sisters looked positively alpine on the other side of Glen Lichd, it’s been more than 20 years since I’ve walked that ridge which is just far too long. The view out to the Cuillin made me instantly book in a return visit in my mental diary. Out over the Atlantic a massive weather system spanned the whole length of the coast, but it was a long way away and heading North, nothing would be coming to spoil my fun today. Perfect.
I stuck the kettle on and went a bit photo mad. So mad that I made the schoolboy error of leaving the polariser on when I took a series for a pano, I’m sure my notice of eternal damnation from the photo purists will be in the post. Bollocks to it, I was having fun. I also had a promise to fulfill for two wee girls so while I had a brew, I let Ted take in the view and I could tell he was suitably impressed, if a tad chilly.
I lingered until I felt it was time to go, which was a while. No need for a watch, the day was endless and my joy meter needle was bouncing off the max stop.
The plan had been to head down over the ridge over Sgurr a Choire Ghairbh which is a interesting scramble in summer. A survey of snow conditions showed that the plateau would be a deep powder treadmill and the ridge looked pretty tough in powdery condition from where I was, the steep slabby descent into and then out of the notch would be sporty in loose unconsolidated snow, certainly with a single axe and an overnight pack.
When I say cheerio to the girls to head to the mountains, Pippa’s parting shot is always ‘try not to die’. That’s top advice from a seven year old, and advice I’m always keen to follow. Today had already been enough. In fact, I’d had more enough that I knew what to do with. Bags of it. It wasn’t a hard decision: not today.
I turned back down the way I’d come, detouring off to investigate Meall a’Bhealaich. I met a few people heading up who were grateful for my trail breaking efforts. At the river crossing I could see a couple approaching, the tell tale signs of an on-hill domestic in the offing: the bloke up front making encouraging noises, the woman with a look on her face like she’d lost a fiver and found a turd. Chat revealed that the icy approach had put her off, and she was keen to head back to the car. I regaled them with tales of what snowy delights were to be found above and that did the trick, they carried on their way probably just to get away from me, but upwards none the less. That might be the first time my blethering has actually motivated someone, which was unexpected. Good thing too, no-one should miss out on a day like that on a mountain of that quality.
I returned to the real world with a bump when I hit the fog on the way down Laggan-side and it just got steadily thicker. The tailback at Pitlochry signified the inevitable A9 accident. It was foglights and 35mph for the last miles to the Tiso roundabout in Perth, surrounded by cars, busier than expected. I wondered of all the thousands of people around, how few knew of the existence of the magical place I was returning from? Lets just keep it our secret, shall we?