Published 14th November 2021, 19:57

    IT was a day of contrasting moods, an ever-shifting extravaganza of colour and light, the Cairngorms at their finest.

    The rains of the previous 24 hours had left the streams and rivers lively and some waterlogging on the paths but the cleansing had been thorough. It may have been late autumn but the freshness invited comparisons nearer summer than winter.

    We started by walking away from a promising sunrise. The complexion of the landscape ahead was subdued but the calm conditions suggested this flatness would be fleeting. Progress along the Lairig an Laoigh could be measured by the burgeoning brightness: patches of sparkling gold on the Derry Cairngorm faces across the tops of the pines, spots of blue penetrating the high-level blanket of cloud swaddling every hilltop.

    We were heading to the high point of the pass, before turning east to climb Beinn a' Chaorainn and then return over Beinn Bhreac. Most guidebooks recommend doing these hills the other way round, but having done both on more than a few occasions this has become my preferred route.

    Ascending Beinn Bhreac from Glen Derry always feels more of a slog than sticking with the solid path until much further up the glen and then making the short push upward over easy terrain. There's also the bonus of the view from the top of the pass towards the Fords of Avon, a sight that always comes as a welcome surprise, a classic case of familiarity breeding content.

    These two Munros are linked by the sweep of the Moine Bhealaidh, the yellow moss, a featureless spread of grasses and peat where keeping dry feet is a near impossibility. The distance between the two summits is some 4.5 kilometres over challenging ground. There is a path, but it seems to vanish in places and it can also be easy to lose at other points. In zero visibility, the long walk over this expanse can feel intimidating.

    On one occasion, with vision reduced to just a few feet, we set off into the mist on a compass bearing. Surrounded by an eerie silence and with little to look at other than the needle, the walk seemed interminable, but we stuck to our line to reach the large cairn on Beinn a' Chaorainn. Earlier, we had had to resort to a step-counting exercise to determine we were on the correct summit of Beinn Bhreac. Another walker we had met there was having doubts about going on: he started to follow us across then vanished in the grey, presumably deciding to leave it for a better day.

    There's also a psychological advantage in going north to south. Beinn a' Chaorainn is the higher summit, and reaching that earlier in the day means there's a sense of it all being downhill from there. The prospect from Beinn Bhreac is not only of a long, tough bog walk but a greater ascent as well. We managed to avoid the worst, but there was still a bit of bog-trotting to be done. It may have been my imagination, but this plateau seemed to have its own weather system.

    We had left the blue skies and sunshine of Glen Derry behind to locate the beehive trapped in stubborn cloud on Beinn a' Chaorainn. The cool breeze which had been funnelled through the glen slowly disappeared, a greater stillness gained with height. We could see our way across the Moine Bhealaidh, but it felt as though we were being squeezed into a toneless corridor, all the more frustrating with the glimpses of iridescent slopes to either side.

    We were eventually re-admitted to the light show when we hit the cairn on Beinn Bhreac. Laser shafts were burning through the cloud above Derry Cairngorm and Carn a' Mhaim, but the most spectacular illuminations were on distant Beinn a' Ghlo, a horizon set ablaze from above and below.

    The descent route via Meall an Lundain is not an easy option, soft and spongy ground that saps the strength with every step but the compensation was the late evening glow. It washed over the surrounding slopes, turning mundane brown into magnificent auburn, making every tussock spark like the flames of a welcoming fire.

    Mighty Beinn a' Bhuird had thrown off its grey cloak and was pulsing, a wispy band of white clinging to its midriff like a casual accessory. Even Beinn Bhreac was daring to look exciting.

    We plunged through the thigh-deep heather to emerge on the Clais Fhearnaig path as the evening dimmed and the moon began its shift in earnest. The dying of the light moves at an accelerated rate at this time of year and the final track walk was in darkness.

    If this does prove to be the last of autumn, it was a privilege to see it going out in a blaze of glory.