Published 23rd October 2020, 20:10

    THIS was supposed to be big ridge year, a return to classic multi-peak walks, a reacquaintance with familiar faces.

    Instead, it turned into something of a salvage operation as plans and aspirations were demolished by a microscopic wrecking ball.

    The first lockdown back in March didn't seem too bad. Then it stretched into April, and May, and June. It was as frustrating as it was necessary, particularly when it turned out be one of the best spells of weather for years.

    The sighs you could hear when the easing of restrictions first allowed a return to the hills were a combination of relief and aching legs.

    When times are tough, you learn to enjoy the small victories; that three-month lay-off ensured that every mountain walk since has felt so much sweeter. 

    While no-one can pretend normal service has been resumed, I've been pleasantly surprised at how many of the big days have been saved with just a bit of fine-tuning: Mullardoch, Strathfarrar, Glen Shiel, the Alders.

    Those have mostly been solo affairs, hermetically sealed inside my vehicle for overnights. The one exception was Strathfarrar where sharing is often the only option to beating the time constraints of the locked gate. Even then, contact was minimal. We met at the gate in separate cars and only travelled together for a few minutes each way, all precautions in place.

    Sitting in the back silently, all masked up and with face turned towards the open window like a human collie made me wish that I had made the effort to source a novelty face covering sporting a dog's features.

    Days on the Glen Shiel ridges involved more road walking than usual but the extra few miles were largely unnoticeable on fine evenings. This glen is usually a hitcher's heaven, a place where your thumb can be your best friend, but neither party is willing to take the chance of sharing a car with a stranger at the moment and it is likely to be that way for some time to come. Besides, being picked up while wearing a mask is a near impossibility at the best of times for very good reasons. Just ask Jason Voorhees.

    The Mullardoch boat has spent this year in dry dock due to the virus, but I had never intended using it anyway. In autumn golds and russets, the mountains were as magnificent as ever – and the shoreline path as gruelling as ever. 

    My Alders circuit went as originally planned, an approach from Luiblea in the north, over the pass towards Loch Pattack and then a sweep along the ridge from Carn Dearg to Beinn Eibhinn and out by Lubvan.

    It was also pleasing to squeeze in the Corryhully Munros, especially as I had to retreat from their slopes at the same time last year. The walk in to catch the sunrise proved too much due to exhaustion, a combination of lack of sleep, a long drive and the excess weight of my pack and cameras. Even the beautiful conditions couldn't inspire another step forward and despite brilliant blue skies and sharp white tops my day was over before it really got going. This time, it felt like making amends.

    The only real casualty of the programme was a 24-hour sweep of the nine Fannaich Munros. For a few years now, I have planned for a dusk 'til dawn circuit with a difference, starting in the evening to catch sunset on the furthest west peak of A'Chailleach, then walking by moonlight east for sunrise. This would likely entail a bivvy under Sgurr Mor during daylight hours, with the final walk out back out at sunset.

    It needs clear weather, but more importantly it would have meant hitching a lift one way or persuading a friend to do the honours and that was now out of the question. I knew that as the days drew in the chances of doing this traverse were increasingly unlikely. With the clocks changing this weekend, I have now accepted the inevitable and the blueprint has been rolled up for yet another year.

    I'm looking forward, as always, to winter on the hills but at this time of year ambitions have to be tailored to a more realistic approach. There is plenty still to amuse, but those bigger ridge days are now in cold storage until the spring.

    Of course, we may well face further disruption and restrictions at some point over the coming months. The mountains may not offer a cure but they do provide a tonic. Make sure you appreciate every second of freedom.