Hillwalking - The Aonach Eagach’s notched ridge ripped the sky like a saw...

Hillwalking by Frank
Hillwalking by Frank

A soft grey mist caressed the slumbering moor. Behind me I could sense the sun, not yet risen above the eastern hills, already breathing life into the coming day.

Above The Fara, blood-red mackerel clouds streamed in from the eastern horizon. Looking west again I saw Ben Bheoil and Ben Alder slowly congealing out of a turquoise sky; across the Bealach Dubh, The Lancet Edge of Sgor Iutharn, stabbed indignantly at a few defiantly remaining stars.

From somewhere low down on Ben Bheoil’s black flank came the doleful bellowing of a rutting stag. From somewhere nearer, out there in the dark rolling heather, came the staccato barking of a dog fox. Another stag roared, then another and yet another.

As I sipped my tea steam condensed on my spectacle lenses; as in a dream the scene turned hazy. “Porridge is ready!” came a sleepy voice from the bothy. By the light of a couple of stubby candles I’d made the first brew of the morning and come outside to reconnoitre the coming day whilst Kate got working on our breakfast. Soon the oil in the frying pan was sizzling and spitting as our eggs and bacon did to a turn. More tea. I washed the dishes at the river bank whilst Kate knocked up the sandwiches; and then it was time to leave.

I left first; Kate reckoned it would take her another half hour to get ready. (These lassies and their make-up!) Picking up the little path outside I set off with the sound of the Allt a’ Chaoil Reidhe, singing the morning in.

Though the dawn had promised so much I was annoyed to see thick clouds already fluffing themselves on the higher ridges; was it to be yet another day of compass work and stunning views of boots and blades of grass?

The lower few hundred feet of The Lancet Edge come in steep, rock laced grass, but by dint of getting my head down I was soon enough on the broken slabs and ribs of the arete. Like Ben Alder’s two Leacas, across the Bealach Dubh, the way up is an easy scramble, yet far more interesting than a simple walk.

The mist must have seen me coming, it raced down to meet me, robbing me of views. Yet every now and then it would shred momentarily to tease me with fleeting glimpses of the depths below. Once it even let me gaze down to the corrie floor, below Diollaid a’ Chairn, from where, like the dark eye of some ogre, Loch an Sgoir, winked back at me.

And then, before I’d hardly gotten started, it was all over. There was the little cairn; I was standing on the arrow’s tip. Before me unrolled a grassy plain and, beyond and just visible in the fog, a rising boulder field.

With compass in hand I made my way up to Geal Charn’s own summit cairn. Nothing to write home about, except that the breeze was beginning to stiffen. I didn’t hang about. A well defined grassy ridge with an obvious path had me down at the next col in no time.

Aonach Beag, the next summit west, is another easy climb, made all the more interesting by way of its stonier stairway. For a short distance the path traverses just below the skyline, high above steeply hollowed Choir a’ Charra Bhig. I could see nothing but, through the smoke of this deep cauldron, there drifted up the chatter of the waters that rush down to join the Uisge Labhair.

There is just room enough at the summit for a cairn; almost immediately I was plummeting down again, this time above the corrie of Lochan a’ Charra Mhoir. Alas, unlike Lochan an Sgoir, this adamant pool refused to show its face. The stony path wound itself around the horse shoe ridge of Benin Eibhinn, even its beautiful northern cliffs fell away unseen beneath my feet.

There was little to hang around for. Summit visited I retraced my steps to that of Aonach Beag. Here I almost went astray! I set off downward through the gloom, but within seconds I had the feeling that something was different, that I was going in the wrong direction; there seemed to be something unfamiliar in the grass.

I looked at my compass; I hardly needed to as it happened. Suddenly, and for no more than three or four seconds, the cloud I stood in rent itself asunder to reveal the ridge below. It was broad and grassy. The ridge I’d previously come by was narrower, rockier. I was heading down north instead of east!

No harm done, I was soon racing down to the col below Geal Charn. By now the wind was blowing a gale, it was freezing. I was glad to be descending. But not so fast! At the saddle, just off the path, were some big boulders. One of them was lilac! And it could talk! “Come and share my rock, Frank.”

It was Kate. We huddled together, grateful for the shelter, and share a sandwich and a drink as we compared notes on the day so far. Kate seemed a little dispirited. What with the cloud and the biting wind she was unsure that she wanted to complete the entire round. Yet even as we chatted we felt the cloud thinning around us; the steep slopes of Geal Charn suddenly came into focus, and stayed in focus! At our feet Choire a’ Charra Bhig, opened up its steep grassy slopes. “That’ll be me off”, I told Kate. “I fancy a walk over the Bealach Dubh”. Kate elected to carry on her own way.

It was a steep descent on wet grass and then a rough, pathless way beside a feeder burn to the pass below. At one point I went down into a black, goo-filled hole, up to my knees. Somewhere else, whilst testing the depth of a suspicious looking peat hag that barred my way, I was astonished to find, on retrieving my trekking pole, its basket had been sucked clean off by the thick black ooze; I usually have to hammer the things off!

When I eventually reached the path from Ossian, the sun was shining fiercely and the only cloud in the sky was plonked fat and square over Aonach Beag’s crown. Looking west I could see Loch Ossian stretching away like a huge blue banana. Beyond, far across the vast wet wastes of Rannoch Moor, Buachaille Etive Mor, rose like a Matterhorn and The Aonach Eagach’s notched ridge ripped the sky like a saw.

The climb over the bealach was the final exertion of the day, but it was easy and short lived and the waters of Allt Bhealach Dubh, offered me both reflection and joyous company.

With the sun shining it would be a pleasant walk back to the bothy. Above me, to my right, the dark, waterfall riven cliffs of Ben Alder’s northern face towered skywards. Across the glen, Sgor Iutharn rose sharply and stonily to this morning’s first summit.

There came a point in the path where I recognised my own footprints going in the opposite direction. I’d closed the circle, another half hour would see me enjoying a much desired cuppa.

There was no one in the bothy so I had to brew my own. It was about an hour later, as I sat sipping more tea at the bothy door, that I spotted Kate meandering her way down the hill behind the hut; she looked weary, I put the kettle on afresh.

Ten minutes later Kate burst into the bothy and threw her rucksack down beside her sleeping bag. She looked done in; but she’d had a great day, she began to tell me. After I’d left her at the col, she’d gone on to Benin Eibhinn and then back tracked to cross Diollad a’ Chairn, thence Carn Deag. Now she was hungry, and I was on dinner duty for that day...