Published 2nd January 2022, 12:26

    I WAS approaching the halfway mark of a high-level circuit on a fiercely changeable winter day when I noticed my compass was missing.

    It wasn't a disaster, just annoying. I hate losing gear at any time, but had it been a hat or glove for instance, I may have just carried on without too much of a thought. 

    A compass, however, is a vital piece of kit, and although I have a spare I don't carry it with me on the hill. It stays safely behind, a ready replacement for next time out.

    I was approaching the top edge of the wood at Bachnagairn when I became aware it was no longer in my pocket. I knew I still had it at Moulzie, and I knew I still had it on the track beyond that. I never heard any sound of it falling, so logic stated it must have dropped more recently on the soft path in the wood.

    I now had two options: a) accept that it was lost and continue on the circuit over to Jock's Road or b) abandon the circuit and retrace my steps in the hope of finding it.

    I knew the route well enough so it would be unlikely I would be caught out without a compass. On the other hand, this was late November and the start of the descent into my annual December malaise was kicking in. Besides, the walk was a mere leg-stretch in less than favourable weather so there was no great compunction to complete the circuit.

    After sitting for five minutes arguing back and forward with myself, I decided to retreat in the hope of retrieving the compass. I hadn't met anyone else for more than an hour, so if it had fallen there was the chance it would still be lying there. As if to provide consolation to my decision, the snow started driving in from the west. 

    Yet just 15 minutes down the path, I caught a glint in the flat russet line of pine needles. All of a sudden, the mood changed. I decided I would go on and do the circuit after all. At the same time, the snow stopped and the sun came out. A 360-degree mood switch in a matter of minutes.

    It never fails to surprise how a day in the mountains can be severely affected by the smallest of mood triggers. There are certain days when it can feel you are actively looking for the merest excuse to abandon your plans.

    Back when I was night walking regularly, there were times when I simply couldn't be bothered. I could be all packed and ready to go but when I finished a long shift and saw everyone else going home to bed the prospect of heading off alone into the darkness was sometimes just too much. At times like those, I suspect even Glen Miller would have struggled to get in the mood.

    There were occasions when I would get so far before coming across road closures, days when the car was playing up or when it became obvious the promised fine weather would prove an illusion. If I was in the mood, these obstacles would be brushed aside, but other times they would be the excuse to avoid something I probably didn't have the enthusiasm for in the first place.

    One example of being in the mood was of arriving in Glenshee for a huge day and finding I had left my boots behind. No problem – I was so determined to get out on the hill that I ran round in trainers. Mind you, they did go straight in the bin afterwards.

    No surprise then that the days of dark December are the worst for my mood triggers. It's the early rising and the thought of breakfast at an ungodly hour, the oppressive lack of light, the switch to heavier gear, walking on heavier ground, moan, moan, moan.

    But despite the struggle, this is the time of year when fitness is forged for the days ahead, and there's nothing to beat a fine winter day in the mountains. And by the time we reach early spring, the mood has completely changed.

    The compass retrieval produced an instant mood swing on my Glen Doll walk. As I made my way out of the trees and on to higher ground, the split-screen weather was transformed from menacing to bracing. 

    The snaking path across the plateau was highlighted by snow, the grey swaddling the high peaks became a passing fad, the ice-coated lochans lining the route shone through the gloom. Even the heavy snow which accompanied me down Jock's Road only added to the raw beauty of a walk which had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

    And no, I didn't need the compass, but recovering it was definitely the catalyst for the positive mood swing.