ANY trek into the heart of the Cairngorms is a long one, but every minute of our ten-hour, 22-mile circuit of Loch Avon felt precious.
There was blue sky and there was sunshine. There was rain and hail. And as on so many days in this magnificent massif there was the wind, roaring across the summits and rendering high-level walking a foolhardy option.
This was definitely a day for lower ambitions, but in the Cairngorms this doesn't have to mean inferiority. On the contrary, we were able to put together a route that could be sold as a greatest hits collection. There may have been a suggestion of absence making the heart grow fonder. Even the track in from Linn of Dee to Derry Lodge felt like a long walk to freedom rather than the mandatory entry fee to the big show.
The weather was operating on a localised west-east split. Distant Carn a' Mhaim was mysterious in a grey cloak and everything behind remained invisible, while fast-moving cloud cover provided a blue and white stop-motion effect over Derry Cairngorm. There were spots of rain in the wind but it never amounted to much, just a warning shot, a reminder that it was in the vicinity.
The neglected Derry Lodge is a sad sight, the deterioration worsening with each passing year, rumours that it is to get a new lease of life remaining just that. We headed into the pinewoods of Glen Derry with some relief, the trees providing a welcome windbreak. There's a fascinating mix of life, new and old, and death here: ancient Scots pines twisted and gnarled, standing defiantly in the heather carpet beside fallen comrades that have been snapped and broken by time and the elements, while fresh growth sprouts all around.
Rogue light showers spat at us on a regular basis, the wind becoming more noticeable again as the tree cover thinned and we emerged into the flatter floor of the glen. The openness of the ground was matched by big skies. Rainbows came and went, the arcing colour scheme scything across slopes of varying greys.
Where the path split, we stayed right, heading gently up the Lairig an Laoigh before dipping down towards the shining waters of the Dubh Loch and then on to the Fords of Avon. The River Avon feels like the Cairngorms' version of the Rio Grande, a distinct dividing line between south and north, the great crossover where the walk takes on a different vibe.
As if to prove the point, the weather changed radically after we had made it over on the stepping stones. The light and colour behind us had been wiped out and the route up to Loch Avon was now swaddled in a mass of gloom, Cairn Gorm a looming, threatening presence. Not only had we crossed the river, we had crossed into a different climate.
The next section was the worst of the day, the path winding through bog and marshy ground, a lot of scrabbling over and around boulders. At times the line was hard to follow, so it was inevitable this would be the point when the heavens opened in earnest. It felt like an ambush.
With the wind also ramping up its efforts, we abandoned the plan to cross at the outflow of the loch and instead stuck to the northern shore. The disappointing lack of views had one upside: we could concentrate fully on where we were putting our feet in this potentially ankle-snapping terrain as the rain morphed into hail. As we neared the beach at the end of the loch, the downpour eased and chinks of light appeared overhead giving renewed shape to the huge rock features which dominate all sides of this trough.
We passed a group of young walkers huddled beneath a huge boulder, a couple of whom were the picture of abject misery, their route plan in tatters, the initial optimism and enthusiasm of their day broken by the distance and testing conditions. They asked for a simpler way out and we able to suggest alternatives.
It's impossible to visit this amphitheatre without a visit to the Shelter Stone, that king of kings among boulders which nestles in the jumble of rocks under its impressive namesake crag. Besides, it was a useful shelter for a much-needed break and calorie intake before the final push. The rainfall had left a sparkle on the wall ahead, the twin-pronged water feature of the Feith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge Beag like twin lightning forks crackling down to earth.
The climb up to Loch Etchachan was swift, but accompanied by a wind that was growing in ferocity as it raced over the plateau from the north, funnelling through the channel. The last time I had been here, the waters were frozen solid as they can be for about half the year, as a blizzard swirled round. They were free now but the white horses were stampeding across the surface: we were struggling to stay still and it appeared the water was as well.
The descent into Coire Etchachan was wind assisted (or hindered) so much that we had to apply the brakes at times to avoid take-off, but the sky was now a brilliant blue and the temperature had risen fast. The waterproofs were now the equivalent of a portable sauna.
The Hutchison Hut, that Alpine-like refuge halfway down the corrie, seemed to change from a speck in the distance to full size in the space of about five minutes. The wind changed from foe to friend in the walk along the floor of Glen Derry, a cooling presence in the heat of the evening, and a deterrent to the midges growing bold enough to finally make an appearance.
There were a few brave campers among the trees near Derry Lodge, all in full netting. The last few miles back out along the track were weary as ever, the excitement now in the rear mirror and the only incentive a finish to the day.
The wisdom of Nan Shepherd was that we should walk into mountains and not up them. It felt as though we had been on a package tour devised by the grand lady herself.