• GOLDEN AUTUMN MORNINGS WITH OLD FRIENDS IN KINTAIL

    Published 1st November 2019, 20:15

    THE legendary climber WH Murray wrote that 'in Kintail everything culminates, nothing lacks'.

    Those words perfectly encapsulate the feeling I have every time I squeeze through Glen Shiel, soaring slopes and multi-peaked ridges on both sides for mile after mile.

    Visits in late autumn are particularly therapeutic, the landscape flitting from muted browns to glittering golds with every miniscule mutation of the light while the roars of the invisible stags reverberate in this massive echo chamber.

    Golden mornings in Kintail are something to savour.

    It was unusual to find the best of the weather here, so much so that I didn't quite believe I could be so lucky until I actually arrived. This sparked an overpowering optimism that I should have long outgrown, but I prefer to tell myself it was down to feelings of inspiration rather than naivety.

    Two days, and I was convinced I would be tackling a couple of mountain chains, rising and falling over summit after summit, a continuous walk towards the sunsets. 

    The reality was different. This was the first true hint of the coming winter, shorter days, plunging temperatures, sometimes biting winds, and with them the need for heavier boots and clothing. It shouldn't come as a surprise a this time of year, but that first assault always seems to sneak up on you.

    You forget how much longer walks can take, how much slower the pace with heavier legs and the need for more care. You forget how much quicker the darkness comes down.

    After the initial burst of excitement and enthusiasm, I decided to settle for quality over quantity. Even then, the reality was different.

    Beinn Fhada was first up. I had planned to take the excellent path up towards the Bealach an Sgairne, branch off into the long mountain's great northern corrie and then return over its neighbouring Munro, A' Ghlas Bheinn.

    It was heartening to hear and see the abundance of birdlife in the mixed woodland, but four hours' sleep and a four-hour journey to the start helped contribute to a fairly weary ascent.

    I always feel this mountain has a similar feel to Ben Alder; both have beautiful, rugged, lengthy approaches which emerge on to vast featureless plateaux, sprawling summit cairns sitting at the edge, their trigs close at hand.

    By the time I reached the top, I was mulling over the wisdom of taking in the second hill and the inevitable descent in the dark. It would be an unnecessary imposition on a so-far stunning day of constantly evolving sunshine and shadow. 

    I took the leisurely way out, heading instead for some photo stops on the way back to Invergarry. The black curtain came down fast, but it provided some wonderful silhouettes of the Glen Shiel ridges against an orange backdrop.

    The icy mists were slowly lifting from the glass-like surface of Loch Garry early next morning, and sunrise brought a phosphorescent glow which promised a fine day. The tones were more muted on the climb up to the Forcan Ridge, but there was an eerie stillness out of the wind, amplified by the fact I was the only person around.

    The unrelenting rise of the sometimes knife-edge ridge was as entertaining as ever, but after encountering a few unexpected ice patches, I made sure to err on the side of caution. Near the final rise, the infamous Kintail mist rolled in, reducing my summit views to that of spiny rock beasts looming out of the grey, always there but heavily camouflaged. 

    The chill at these heights was palpable, my fingers numb at times despite the winter gloves, so I didn't hang around too long to see if it would clear. It did, of course, as soon as I reached the col, but then reappeared again just in time for the tops of Sgurr na Sgine.

    I still hadn't seen another soul, but there was always that distinct and distant bellowing as assurance that I didn't have the place entirely to myself.

    The choice for descent was back the way I'd come, or over the subsidiary peak of Faochag and straight down to the road. I chose the latter, despite past memories of the descent being a real knee-breaker. It wasn't as bad as I had remembered and it is certainly direct, dropping some 900 metres in two kilometres. My knees survived just fine.

    I was less than half an hour into my journey home when the first spots of rain hit the windshield, and at that moment, the feeling of satisfaction notched up another level. Childish, I know, but what can you expect when you have been spoiled rotten for two days?