THE sun was rising in full splendour as I drove through a conflicted landscape, anarchic icy mists dancing and twisting, creating constantly shifting patterns of light on the fields and in the trees.
It was difficult to get a clear picture; one minute there was a wall of dense grey freezing on the windscreen, the next a brilliant nuclear wash of white. The contrast was startling, the end result the same.
By the time I was on the final stretch of single track road into Glen Doll, there was a distinct north-south divide of shadow and light with temperatures to match.
There were a few other souls in the car park, all wrapped up for Arctic climes. I could feel the minus figures numbing the hands as I prepared my gear. By the time I was lacing my boots, I was struggling with freezing fingers and toes.
The dark rocks of the Scorrie looked resplendent, laser beams of sunshine striking them head on, a marked contrast from the stiff, frosted grasses and glazed boulders on the other side of the river. Despite the lack of snow cover, this felt every bit a January outing.
I was heading for Broad Cairn, a favourite during winter months. Glen Doll is my home territory and visiting these summits always feels like popping round to see old friends. They are also the hills that regularly kick-start my mountain year, the mid-January walk that finally shrugs off the inertia of the last six weeks or so when every walk has felt like simply going through the motions.
This is the turning point, the day the fitness and enthusiasm returns in earnest. It’s all uphill from here on. The heavy clothes and footwear, the bag loaded up for any potential problem, suddenly they don’t seem the same burden.
There was an early detour. The bridge leading to Bachnagairn was swept away late last year, so I crossed into the sunshine to connect with the track past The Strone and the splendidly named Juanjorge.
This track seems to be permanently under running water, but in the shadow of the surrounding walls it was now sheet ice. Once over the little bridge in the treeline, I rose quickly out of the shade and into a dramatic temperature rise.
I now felt distinctly over-dressed in my winter gear in the full glare of the sun. There was hardly a breath of wind, but a glimpse down to Loch Muick, smothered by a layer of icy cloud, provided a reminder of the reality of day and month.
There was something of the surreal about sitting sun worshipping during a lunch stop on a Scottish mountain in January. Sporadic flashes of white among the boulders only added to that feeling, hares and ptarmigan, their dress code all messed up.
This day was too good to cut short. I strolled across the plateau to Cairn Bannoch, crossing short patches of snow formed into curious patterns. It looked as if someone had taken an ice cream scoop to them in perfect alignment.
The Cairngorms were lined up along the horizon to the north-west, displaying a little more of the white stuff but still uncharacteristically bare for the time of year.
I followed the line south-east from Fafernie to Crow Craigies where the ground was solid without being slippy. Loch Esk was a frozen silver penny in the shadowland below the ridge while higher the Glittering Skellies lived up to their name in the low setting sun.
Jock’s Road made for a fast escape as darkness approached, and the final section through the trees was soft on the feet, fallen pine needles providing a red carpet home.
Glen Doll had come through as always, blowing away the cobwebs and setting me up for another year of mountain spectaculars.