THE day started with Champagne on the misty summit of Cairn Gorm and finished with the orange lights of Aviemore twinkling on the horizon as we descended in the twilight.
In between, we managed to lounge around on a beach, hopped across giant boulders and crawled in and out of many makeshift caves in the corrie under the Shelter Stone crag and then explored the random summit tors of Beinn Mheadhoin.
It certainly wasn’t your usual mountain day. We were in the Cairngorms to meet multi-Munroist extraordinaire Hazel Strachan and celebrate her record-equalling sixth ‘compleation’ of Scotland’s 3,000-foot peaks.
Hazel’s car wasn’t hard to spot - it was decorated with coloured balloons and her family and friends were dishing out glasses of Buck’s Fizz. Then it was a leisurely stroll up into the clag before the Champers was popped at the summit cairn and the requisite pictures taken for posterity. We parted company, agreeing we would probably meet up again next year when, all going well, Hazel tops out on round seven.
The summit was unusually quiet but we did meet a couple of walkers who were heading on to Ben Macdui in the hope of catching a glimpse of the snowy owl which has been spotted there recently. The cloud blew away as we descended into the steep confines of Coire Raibert, the line of giant rock towers of our next mountain target, Beinn Mheadhoin, now in full view on the skyline.
The drop takes you to the shores of Loch Avon and the path goes round the sandy beach at the head. In the summer sunshine, campers and kayakers are here in their droves and the golden sands rival any you will find in the world’s hotspots. In the depth of winter it’s a lonely spot, a haven of stark, frozen beauty.
The Shelter Stone crag towers over the corrie, the slabs of rock so sheer and unblemished they look like they have been freshly washed and shaved every morning. Hidden among the jumble of giant rocks below is the Shelter Stone itself, a giant, fallen boulder which provides a handy refuge from the elements. There are actually many shelters scattered around the corrie, although even with rough man-made walls enclosing them exactly how watertight they would be in lashing rain or driving snow is debatable.
The adventure playground part of the day over, we pushed up out of the corrie. It’s an easy rise, helped by the stunning view back down to the loch with the sand, water and vegetation providing a palette of colours and shades.
The mist and drizzle rolled in again and Loch Etchachan was the only marker as everything else around became enveloped in grey. This is the true heart of the Cairngorms, the highest body of fresh water in the country, with the cirque of the Derry Cairngorm and Ben Macdui satellites forming an impressive rocky guard of honour.
As we advanced over the Beinn Mheadhoin plateau the tors loomed out of the mist, twisting layers of granite resembling stacks of pancakes, certain rocks taking on the shape of gnarled, ancient faces. The summit tor involves a short easy scramble up the back, more impressive when viewed from the sheer wall at the front.
Then came the hardest part of the walk, the 1500-foot plod back up the steep Coire Raibert path. But by the time our wearying legs had reached more open ground, the approaching dusk brought another spectacular change of conditions overhead, this time shafts of brilliant light penetrating the clouds to illuminate the landscape in every direction.
The summit of Cairn Gorm seemed trapped between night and day, golden sun rays off to the left, darker skies behind. The walk down through all the ski detritus was beautifully lit, and the sight of hares darting here and there and grouse and ptarmigan calling out provided the perfect finish to a day of huge contrasts.