• JOURNEY'S END: BEN HOPE AND THE COLD MOON

    Published 27th December 2018, 20:30

    I WANTED to finish my year of full moon walks on hope but always believed the expectation would prove elusive.

    Ben Hope, December 22. The day after the winter solstice on the farthest north Munro for the thirteenth and final full moon of 2019, appropriately for the time of year, the Cold Moon. 

    The chances of a perfect night were slim. I would happily have settled for making it to the summit and down again in anything less than horrendous conditions. In the end, however, Hope prevailed. It may have been a fleeting encounter, but the timing could not have been better.

    This was our second ascent. The previous morning two of us had set off in icy darkness for a recce, to confirm the route for the main event and make sure there were no nasty surprises.

    The single-track road along the side of Loch Hope was brilliant white, as though encrusted with millions of tiny diamonds. We were greeted with a biting cold as we set off uphill on the path by invisible whispering waters.

    It didn't need much height to encounter patches of brittle ground, and the last few hundred metres were in a deep freeze, grasses bowed in suspended animation, rocks coated thickly with rime and ice blast.

    The summit trig point sat like an ice queen on a throne of white stones, the views beyond hidden by a circuit of grey despite hints of blue sky circling far above. The sunrise remained unseen, the switch from night to day muted, almost imperceptible.

    The next night: temperatures had risen but the chances of a clear night had fallen. The party, now five-strong, had made its way up in a disappointing drizzle, the cloud and mist blocking out the stars and the route ahead. The moon was nowhere to be seen, not even a hint of a faint light.

    It was only a walk up a mountain but this was supposed to be the grand finale to a year which had started with full moon walks in blizzards and white-outs, before calming to a run of achingly beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and then plunging back into high winds and seemingly endless hours of darkness.

    Strange the thoughts that pass through your head at times like these, the places you look for inspiration, the places you look for hope. The words of Martin Luther King seemed fitting: Carve a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. 

    We certainly had the dark mountain and we were carving our tunnel steadily upwards in the gloom. Then, as we started the push up the final rise, we caught a faint glow in the sky. At last. This was the Cold Moon, trying to push its way through the clouds.

    We stopped to watch, silently cheering it on, but it seemed the battle was being lost. For five minutes we stood, scared to move off in case the moon would emerge triumphant for a few seconds and we would miss it. 

    Our vigil paid off. One mighty thrust and it was there in all its glory, rings of rainbow halos pulsating. It stood its ground, resolute for the next half hour, accompanying us up the ridge, until the cloud, now regrouped, swept in to smother the light again. We were disappointed, but given the earlier conditions, were happy to accept small mercies.

    We continued along the ever flattening terrain leaving imprints in the freshly fallen snow until the faint outline of the summit trig point could be seen dead ahead in the mist. 

    Fifty steps to the finish ... 40 ... 30 ... 20 ... and then the unexpected twist in the tale as the clouds parted and the Cold Moon exploded back on to the scene, a superhero back from the fdead in the nick of time. 

    From zero visibility seconds before we now had 360-degree vision, the distant lights of remote buildings twinkling far below, the outlines of surrounding ridges and rock formations standing out. The lunar light cast on the string of lochans dropping down through the blackness in stages looked like golden teardrops, as if the moon itself were weeping with joy.

    We drank in as much as we could of the moment, aware it wasn't going to last. There was a different darkness rumbling in from the north, boiling and threatening, and within the blink of an eye we were engulfed. We followed our footsteps in the snow and dropped fast.

    We made it down comfortably but it didn't matter any more; the spirit of hope had endured. Maybe I had made it on to the right side of Santa's list after all.