THERE are many Scottish hills that are instantly recognisable, big bold shapes that could be picked out of a line-up even by non-mountaineers.
They tend to be the peak pin-ups, faces easily seen from the road, their charms on display for all. Buachaille Etive Mor instantly springs to mind.
The flip side is those gems hidden away in the midst of a jumble of peaks and ridges, where layer after layer has to be gradually peeled away to get to the prize.
Meall Garbh, a Graham which sits between Glen Kinglass and Glen Strae, is a grand example. There are three main approaches to this rugged little hill, none particularly easy.
The route in from Victoria Bridge involves a couple of river crossings and then a loss of height to reach the foot of the climb. The same point can be reached by a long bike ride on the track from Inverawe along the shores of Loch Etive and then into Glen Kinglass.
Hardcore walkers can combine it with Beinn nan Lus, another fine, retiring summit across the glen, but there's a lot of ascent. I tackled this hill in high summer when the bracken was head high and the idea of going on to climb anything else was quickly dismissed.
I settled on taking the Glen Strae route. This involves an ascent of 1150m for a summit of 701m, but I had never walked in this glen before so at least it would have novelty value. Besides, most of the walks I've done over the last couple of months have involved crossing high cols then losing height before a re-climb to reach my target.
Last weekend, I did a circuit of the Munro, Beinn a' Chlachair, with friends. The ascent was 840m, and there were good paths most of the way. I remarked how it was a welcome break from those smaller peaks and their damned re-climbs over rugged, pathless terrain. Now here I was again, on a tussocky rollercoaster to a height I knew I would have to drop off as soon as it was breached.
There were suggestions of a path on the west side of the Allt Dhoireann, but, like so many before, the only path I found was to the east of the water. Nothing but Highland cows on the other side, and they were giving nothing away.
It's not often Beinn Eunaich gets star billing, but its eastern profile is its finest, dark, brooding cliffs overseeing the uphill struggle. The cleft known as the Black Shoot, said to be a favourite haunt of Victorian climbers, is particularly prominent.
The climb felt harder than it should have, probably a psychological factor in the anticipation of the ups and downs still to come. It was also a possible explanation for the momentary confusion I experienced when I got my first sighting of Meall Garbh – I thought I must have been in the wrong place. I couldn't see the lochan marked on the map, or the shelter, or the cairns, and the slopes all around looked immense.
Out came the map, and logic prevailed. I had come through a different gap, but everything I needed was just a few feet away behind a small rise. My head back in the right place, I contoured across the steep slopes of Beinn Lurachan before switching sides for another contour, this time of Meall Beithe.
Meall Garbh really is crossword puzzle of a hill; up, across, up, down, across, down and then up again, then repeat in reverse. It's also a bit of an imposter. Nothing was ever as hard as it seemed at first glance. The first crossing took just ten minutes, the next about 20, and the final push just over half an hour.
The reward, as you would expect from a small hill at the centre of a ring of giants, was well worth the effort. The Etive peaks filled the eyeline to the north, dreamlike in the haze, snow streaks forming skeletal rib cages, while the Cruachan range stretched out in the distance, fading to spectral infinity the further they got from dominant Beinn Eunaich.
The route back was always easier, the psychological back of the day broken. Just as well. Blue skies and warm sunshine had taken control, the wind now warmer, the coolness of the morning blown away.
The crossword puzzle had proved easy to solve once I managed to get my head round the first tricky clues.