THERE’S nothing to compare to the sensation of a new winter season in the mountains.
No matter how much you have enjoyed the long days of summer with their endless light or the spectacular changes of colour which signal autumn’s reign, it’s that first kiss of snow on the high tops that really gets the heart racing.
The sharpness of the air, leaves and grasses petrified in white, the sheen of thin ice coating puddles on the paths, the sugar-dusted horizon - it all adds up to heaven in the hills.
The sudden blizzards which swept in at the end of last week brought an end to the phoney war, converting the creeping chill into all-out assault and transforming the landscape.
It may be short-lived. We may return to a warmer spell with the snows being temporarily swept away by wind and rain. But the seed has been planted. Winter has laid down a marker and there’s no going back.
It’s almost as if the mountains have been re-imagined, their individuality restored. The fuzzy vision of the summer months often sees them all merge into one on the horizon, rolling shapes that morph and confuse the eyes.
But that first coating of white brings them back into their own, summits pushing into the sky, each more recognisable than from a few months’ earlier, ridges thrusting boldly up on definite lines, corries dark bowls seemingly bottomless.
We had met in darkness, hats and gloves already in place, stamping our feet to fend off the cold, then driven in the rising light to Fersit, near Spean Bridge, through squalls of white which rendered anything beyond 20 feet invisible.
The rucksacks were heavier and the layers multiplied, as we set off along the track on the approach to the Easains, twin Munros that sit above Loch Treig. The threatening skies had eased. On our left, Stob Coire Sgriodain was now clear, dark slopes showing off a white tip, but to the right, the snow was rolling in waves across our targets.
The wind was forecast to touch gale force, but on the lower, muddy slopes it was merely a breeze. We felt its troublesome potential for the first time as we crunched our way up on the iced path which threads through the rocky nose at the entrance to the Easains plateau.
Winter was waiting when we reached the top. The wind chill suddenly bit harder and stronger, and the way ahead taking on a more Arctic disguise.
Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin rose like an iceberg ahead, and beyond that the perfect pyramid of its more shapely partner, Stob Coire Easain, could be seen trying to upstage it.
There was a battle going on to the south-east, dark tumbling clouds grabbing the initiative one minute, beams of sunlight fighting their way through to illuminate every splash of water like thousands of pieces of shattered mirrors.
It was difficult to stand at the summit of Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin with the wind whipping across the small plateau and I feared the steep climb to the higher second could be fraught with difficulty.
But as we dropped into the col, we gained unexpected protection from the blasts and that helped us make short work of the ascent. The summit here was calmer, the wind seemingly happy to restrict its fury to the previous peak.
The Nevis range and the Grey Corries stood boldly to the west, easily picked out of the identity parade by stark skies which helped accentuate each peak’s unique features.
The route homewards involved a renewed battle with the wind, and the light vanished quickly bringing with it a further drop in temperature. We were glad to see the car but equally we were pleased with the first skirmish with winter conditions. Hopefully it’s the first of many in the months ahead.