THE waters of Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin had an eerie translucence. Wispy coils of mist were steaming off the surface, while a thicker, broken band sliced through the midriff of the hills and trees above the shoreline.
The stubborn grey also made sure the sunrise failed to ignite, but the stillness and silence of Glen Affric at 5am held a beauty which provided its own spark for the impending mountain walk.
I was heading for Toll Creagach, the easternmost Munro of the sprawling chain of five to the south of Loch Mullardoch. It is also the least interesting of the group, a rounded summit which gives a gentler conclusion to the greater traverse.
When closing in on the finish of any mountain round, there are always one or two stragglers that leave you wondering how they managed to be missed. Toll Creagach was one of those, and it was perfect for my purpose.
It had been nearly eight weeks since my last big hill and this would be the final test to confirm my recovery. It had the height and distance, and the route was straightforward. It also had the option of a continuation east to another top and a descent, which, on paper at least, looked simple and finished with a few extra road miles.
But it also gave me the chance to see how another healing process had progressed. The last time I had been in Glen Affric had been a shock to the system. The landscape was in the throes of a massive hydro electric project and the resulting scars were extensive. The road had been rudely widened to accommodate huge earth-moving machines. Verges had collapsed under the strain, ancient trees toppled. Huge mounds of bulldozed rubble lay everywhere, along with site huts, pipes, wiring and all the rest. This beautiful glen looked more like a war zone.
The difference in those three years was night and day. For once, the restoration work appears to have been largely sympathetic. There are still a few potholes on the road, but the verges are mostly restored and thriving, the bulldozed tracks reduced. There are even some improvements. One of the former site works near Chisholm Bridge has been transformed into a car park blended into the trees, and a woodland path from the rear is a more aesthetic alternative to the trek up the soulless track into lower Gleann nam Faidh.
The name Chisholm may grate with some. The clan owned Glen Affric for more than 300 years and were involved in supplying timber for bridge repairs, but there was a darker side to their stewardship with the eviction of tenant farmers during the Highland Clearances.
I climbed out of the grey, the light on the scalloped ridge of Tom a' Choinnich ahead suggesting the day had promise after all. But during the steady climb to the Bealach Toll Easa that promise evaporated.
Despite having been around these mountains several times, I had never used this as an ascent or descent route and there was little to inspire the need for a return visit. There was a path all the way, even though it appeared to have gone into hiding in places. There were other times when it felt like I was walking on water.
So far, it had been cool and dull but benign. My final steps up on to the crest were greeted by the full force of the wind. It seemed to arrive from nowhere, racing along the ridges from the west. The high-speed banks of cloud made the Mullardoch peaks appear blurred. There was nothing else to see until I had reached the summit and dropped to the next col where the blue of Loch Mullardoch re-emerged as I made my way along to the twin-topped Doire Tana.
I had planned only to visit the highest point but I was intrigued enough by a prominent structure on the eastern summit to keep going. This was a beautifully constructed shelter cairn with another two smaller ones close by, and there were signs there had once been a fairly substantial wall between the tops.
The mapped path leading down to Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin was also a curiosity. There were regular small cairns, but the best clue in following its progress was the shock of pink heather which only seemed to run along the zig-zagging, overgrown ramps.
It was like one of those Magic Eye puzzles, invisible until you squeeze your eyes to make out the faint lines cutting through the vegetation. Eventually the strain proved too much and I gave up in favour of a more direct line to reach the solid connecting path running down through sometimes head-high bracken to the lochside.
The final couple of miles along the road were peaceful, a quiet time to digest and enjoy the continuing healing of Glen Affric.