STANDING at the summit of Sgurr a' Mhaoraich the other day with not a soul in sight, it was easy to convince myself I was in a high-level nirvana.
Forever views stretching west to Knoydart and Skye, the elongated isle of Eigg a deep, distant blue under shafts of sunlight; the long, wriggling ridge of the South Shiel peaks immediately north with numerous rows of summits stacked up beyond; the Arkaig jumble to the south.
It was in complete contrast to the situation below. Glen Garry feels like a glen under siege. There are multiple hydro projects in progress with the sadly inevitable ugly tracks carved obscenely into the landscape. Old paths have been altered, in some cases obliterated. Rubble-strewn ramps everywhere. No matter how good any restoration work is, at best this land will take decades to recover. There surely has to be a better, kinder way to carry out this work.
At least the cluster of Munros which jostle for attention above Loch Cuaich help draw the eyes away from the exposed tide ring around this less than attractive body of water. Gairich is the most shapely, the pin-up across the water with the perfect curves, while Gleouraich and Spidean Mialach team up to provide a short, sharp circuit with superb stalkers' paths that raise you from the ground with startling ease. Bulky Sgurr a' Mhaoraich may just be my favourite, though.
I've seen this mountain in all moods and it has never failed to thrill, even though conditions had never been quite right for the horseshoe circuit over Am Bathaich. My first ascent was in the burgeoning light of an autumn morning where the cloud stalled at the 800-metre mark, but the path's final climb through the hollows and shadows of the rock chaos was wonderful.
Second time round was under beautiful winter skies and a good cover of snow, and despite taking in the subsidiary top, Sgurr a' Mhaoraich Beag, time and light were against going further round. Attempt No.3 was conducted in a constant deluge where getting down and dry became the only option, but again the rocky maze compensated.
The only concern this time was the heat, but there was a welcome breeze and setting off late in the afternoon was a wise choice. I had given the Bank Holiday weekend a body swerve, allowing the crowds to disperse and choosing to travel up against the traffic flow on the Monday.
The stalkers' path made for fast progress and any eyesores were soon out of sight, replaced by rocky rooftops rising all around from the final contorted line twisting up on to the heights. The big cairn on the summit appeared to have had a bit of makeover some time in the intervening years, its scruffy and jumbled shape now sculpted into a more rounded look. The cairn fairies had obviously been at work again.
The continuation to Am Bathaich needed some care, steep and loose, with those ball bearing stones ready to roll out from under the feet. Further out was the impressive Sgurr Thionail, a peak with the finest complete view of the South Shiel ridge, but the extra distance and ascent seemed too much of a luxury. The long chiseled wall of Sgurr a' Mhaoraich was an impressive companion on the way down, and a series of linking grass ramps, one way then the other, provided a speedy exit to the floor of the glen.
The finger of water from the loch provided some unusual colour to take the mind off the depressing track that has been bulldozed along here, a brilliant yellow in the reflection from the sunny-kissed slope of Gleouriach dotted with black islands.
With the sun starting to drop below the horizon, I settled down into a favourite spot across the water from Gairich for a few hours' rest and to watch the jagged silhouettes all round the loch grow darker by the second. These mountains have long been night-time favourites: I have watched the sun set over this loch on many occasions, before waiting on the summits for the sun to rise.
Four hours later, and with the sky on fire long before sunrise, I set off over the dam en route for Gairich, surprised to find the path onward dry and firm as opposed to the normal quagmire. The early overhead promise had failed to feed through and the eastern sky stayed dark and moody. It was warm but there was a strong southerly sweeping across the approach ridge and some fierce gusts on the ascent.
When the sunrise did finally show, it made the summit a weird contrasting point of light and dark with no discernible dividing line. Every height for miles around was clear but their definitions were diffused to differing degrees.
A little after scrambling down the short rocky wall which sits astride the ridge, I felt my foot slide (those ball bearings again) and I went tumbling about six feet off the path down to the right. No damage done, but it again highlighted how easy it would be to come to grief in a matter of seconds. On the plus side, my stuntman credentials are still good.
A mountain in the evening, a few hours' rest and then a mountain before breakfast – it seemed just like old times.