MIDDAY on Mull, and I have just touched the cairn that marks the summit of Beinn Fhada and my 'compleation' of the Grahams.
To reach this pile of rocks at the highest point I have passed under the now traditional archway of walking poles held aloft by friends and members of the Munro Society.
Waiting at the cairn are celebratory bottles of fizz. There are handshakes and kisses, and, equally importantly, a selection of cakes and other goodies. But there are also blue skies and sunshine. Now that is a break in tradition. Often these final days are masked by mist and coated in a degree of wetness ranging from drizzle to heavy, pounding rain.
It isn't all sweetness and light. There's a strong wind, so strong, in fact, that when we arrived on the shores of Loch na Keal it was hard to avoid being shunted sideways. It drives directly into our faces on the initial march over boggy ground to gain the slope ahead. The grasses are waving in synchronicity like a driven sea, the loch filled with herds of white horses thundering across the blue.
Doubts start surfacing about the plan to do the full circuit from Beinn Fhada over A' Chioch and round to Ben More. If the wind is demonstrating such power at this low level, what will it be like high on the ridge?
I had been thwarted from sampling this classic on three previous occasions, once by naivety-stroke-ignorance in my early mountain days, twice later by the weather. A memorable springtime ascent came to an abrupt halt at the top of Ben More when we gazed down at intimidating ice-painted slopes, the other simply by the misery of the 'normal' lack of clarity brought about by mist and rain.
Beinn Fhada, the long mountain, is well named. Once on the ridge, there is a succession of rises and dips, culminating in a steep final push to a rocky rampart with some minor handwork needed.
This is all done to the accompaniment of superb vistas; Loch na Keal and its captive isle of Eorsa behind, the dark shadow of Ben More's skyline to the right, the rugged, scree ravaged walls of the impressive Beinn a' Ghraig on the left.
With all the elements coming together at the right time, Beinn Fhada was turning out to be an inspired choice for the finish of a list of smaller hills that proved far more challenging than mere height would suggest. It was a round that had started almost by default and by halfway through I was debating whether to keep going. I'm glad I stuck with it: I came to admire and even love these hills, and the run-in provided many moments to rival outings on bigger rivals.
We regrouped before the last push, then formed up for the celebration. It seemed unlikely, but the wind was less ferocious here than it had been on the ground. Suddenly, the Ben More circuit was back on the agenda.
Sunbathing and celebrations fulfilled, the party split, and seven of us dropped south for the steady climb to the dark, pointed peak of A' Chioch. There was a rough path weaving its way through outcrops and crags, but as the angle steepened just below the summit it was simply a case of putting hand to rock and hauling ourselves up to the final platform.
Depending on the direction of light, the volcanic rock of Ben More's north-east ridge can take on an almost flawless blackness, a dark beast with a hypnotic, enticing beauty. Resistance is useless – the only way is straight up.
The wind perked up again at the col, reminding us of its potential, but once over the gap and clinking our way along the shattered path, it was soon forgotten. A cairn provided a marker for a steep clamber up a long, broken chimney which gains height quickly. We emerged on to a small platform for some respite, or, as it is more often put, a chance to admire the views. And what views.
The eyes are drawn down the jagged edge of the ridgeline to A' Chioch with unknown drops into a dark void, but the whole of the island is laid out under your feet.
Loch Scridain was a shining, silver slash, the sun radiating from it with nuclear intensity, Iona a distant smudge. The Paps of Jura rose on the horizon, their ruggedness masked in pale blue, the flatlands of Islay to their left.
We wandered down the easier route to the road, the wind growing stronger the lower we got, a strange end to a momentous day. Fourth time lucky, and a fitting finale in every respect.