It’s true that no day on the hills – even in the pouring rain – is without its pleasures, but it’s equally true that you tend to forget this when you wake to see low cloud hiding the tops and all the views you’d dreamt of when making plans the night before.
So it was as I slowly came to life that morning at Clashgour. Where would be the wonderful view across Rannoch Moor from Stob Gabhar’s summit? What was the point in traversing the tops over to Stob Coir’ an Albanaich when I’d be climbing a hill I couldn’t see?
All the same, plans had been made and I was in the mood for a good, long walk. I would climb Stob Gabhar, traverse the Stob a Bruaich Leith ridge and cross to Stob Coir’ an Albanaich via Meall Tarsuinn.
None of the others staying at Clashgour that weekend were heading my way so I set off on my own in a hazy morning light which brightened only temporarily before cloud came rolling in.
There was no sign of rain, though, and my enthusiasm was high as I walked up the side of the Alt Toaig and cut up past Creag an Steallaire into the pleasantly spacious Coire na Muic. From the mouth of this hanging coire it was an easy walk north onto the eastern end of the Aonach Eagach.
Broad and gently rising, albeit with outcropping rocks, the ridge seemed little deserving of the appellation ‘notched’, and was certainly no competition for its namesake in Glen Coe. But it was here I had my first treat of the day.
Cloud had already started blowing across the crest of the ridge in a stiffening wind, and more was gathering thickly in the head of Coire Toaig to the north. Suddenly the sun was on my back and I gained a companion – a well defined Brocken Spectre – pacing the clouds below me.
Several minutes passed while, perched on a boulder, I capered about in childish delight, watching my ‘companion’ ape my arm and leg-waving contortions.
More and thicker cloud gathering all around put an end to my play and left me with little more than the ground at my feet as a view, but compensation came when shortly I reached that delightful section before the summit climb which earns the ridge its name.
The shifting vapours gave a dramatic air to the foot-wide castellations of rock with precipitous drops away to oblivion on either side. Nothing more than good balance is required for this section and it would be equally rewarding on a clear day.
From the other side the gradient increased and before I reached the summit I was in snow. Not that the top was any real milestone: the cloud was so thick by now I was almost on the cairn before I realized it.
No reason, then, to pause, and I took a quick bearing before tramping on down to the north-west. Two figures appearing from the moist as I descended turned out to be George Morris and Jim Taylor on their way to the top after climbing out of Coire nan Lochain, and we paused only briefly in conversation before going our separate ways, leaving me feeling all the more alone for the interlude.
Welcome as it had been, though, it very nearly proved my downfall. Having veered slightly as I saw them, I simply carried on straight down and it was only as I began to emerge from the clouds I realized I was heading onto Aonach Mor. Slightly embarrassed, I cut across and upwards to join the correct ridge, stopping before I had regained all the lost height for a seat in the snow and a bite to eat.
Had the cloud-base been higher I would have been looking into the great gouge of Coire a Chaolin (viewed to best effect, with its neighbouring ‘scoop’ of Coire Laoghan, from the summit of Bidean nam Bian) but as thighs were I had only a blank, grey-white emptiness before me with an impression, felt more than deduced, of great depth hidden below.
All the more eerie, then, was the great bellowing roar which came from the depths to break the perfect silence. A shiver which had little to do with temperature went up my spine before logic took over and the beast of the mist was identified as a rutting stag.
Carrying on after lunch I regained the desired route and continued on my way, the cloud clearing and the snow disappearing as I passed the northward-reaching Sron a Ghearrain which splits the two great north-western coires.
To say the length of the Stob a Bruaich Leith ridge was unremarkable is perhaps testament to what followed, but hides the quiet pleasure I found in the walking: the periodic flushing of a group of ptarmigan repeatedly wheeling round to land further ahead of me; the gentle beauty of the soft light on the hills around, and the warm contentment and peaceful solitude of tramping on easy ground requiring no great exertions.
With a perversity I could almost believe was deliberate, the cloud returned just as I was about to look for the col leading across the back of Meall nam Eun to Meall Tarsuinn, but a quick estimate of my position on the ridge and an appropriate compass bearing took me exactly down to the col – and decision time.
I hadn’t been moving fast, and to complete my intended round, returning to Clashgour, would not only take me well past sunset but also (and here sloth raised its ugly head) involve a lot more climbing. The sight of an immobile blanket of cloud lying along the length of Meall nam Eun tipped the balance in favour of laziness and I left the col with retreat in mind, heading homeward by contouring down Coire na Cmamh and taking in the ‘lowly’ Meall an Araich by way of consolation.
It was one of my more rewarding decisions.
The whole glen, and high up the hillside, was filled with hundreds of deer: stags sorting out their harems with a constant roaring and bellowing such as I had never heard before – so wild and raw, so vibrantly, assertively alive.
They retreated slowly before me, some slipping round to the sides and rear, leaving me in the midst of a huge herd widely spaced across the hillside from the heights above to the stream below.
And, affected as I was by the experience, there was more to come. Moving on down the coire, maintaining my height, the rounded bulk of Meall nam Eun retreated to reveal a sight of scarcely credible beauty.
Clouds. Golden yellow to orange, pink to deepest scarlet, the fairytale twin peaks of Ben Starav [Cruachan?] etched sharply black against the fiery glow – an almost garish drama of colour softening as it came forward into the haze gently silhouetting the nearer hills in delicate pastel shades of blue and green – a lochan silvery white in the dark of the glen. And through all this great swathes of illumination beaming softly from white-edged gaps in the rolling grey clouds, lighting haze and hillside alike, giving both form and solidity.
It was an experience beyond adequate description: standing in the heather and rock of the hill, surrounded still by the primeval roaring of the stags, the great depth and space of the coire before me, and beyond that this almost unbearable beauty created by careless chance of landform and weather.
Ego and self-awareness were overcome in a breathless, trembling joy going far beyond normal capacities for pleasure. How right the stags’ roar sounded then.
It was a long, timeless moment, which stretched on and on before I came to myself and began to move. It was long past time to be getting on, though I would as soon have stayed. Later, as I walked on, I found myself laughing in disbelief and wonder.
I had climbed Stob Gabhar, and took in Meall an Araich on the way home, but the highest point that day was not one measured in feet.
By Neil Reid