Published 28th May 2021, 22:32

    MINUTES from reaching the first Munro summit and I still hadn't escaped the thick grey blanket that had covered me for nearly three hours.

    The higher I rose, the more the infant sun struggled in vain. Then the breakthrough. First, I started to make out the ridge line to my right. Then a burgeoning blue, faint, but gaining strength as the pressure of the overhead light intensified.

    Now I had the company of a fogbow, and through its shimmering arch the ghostly pyramid of Sgurr Mor could just be made out in the distance. A few more steps and I was at the summit cairn of Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich – along with that wow moment we all hope for on every mountain walk.

    Sgurr Mor rose above the ocean of cloud, rolling waves of white pouring over the col, the remaining streaks of snow on its bold face gleaming in the now brilliant sunshine. Most of Scotland remained buried but the tops of the higher peaks – those breaching the 950-metre contour – were visible. An Teallach's spires were like shards of broken glass on the western horizon, Beinn Dearg's bulk supreme above its still hidden neighbours.

    I had set off north the night before more in hope than optimism. There was fine weather promised but the timing didn't suit the likelihood of walking under a full moon. The Flower Moon may have been glowing elsewhere in the country but for me it was a remote possibility, and with every passing mile the chances diminished further. 

    The next best option was going for a summit sunrise, but the grey pall hadn't lifted by 2am, the required start time to guarantee a dawn delivery. I decided to stay put for a few more hours. Eventually, I headed off into the gloom just after 5am.

    Three hours of featureless uphill trudging now seemed an irrelevance as I stood on top of Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich watching these select few high rocky islands protruding from a boundless sea. The rest of the walk didn't matter. Sgurr Mor had produced the wow moment and anything else would be a bonus.

    Reaching the prominent stacked cairn on the highest of the Fannaichs meant dropping back into the cloud filling in the gaps, the instant change in temperature a shock to the system. Coming out the other side had the reverse effect, burning off the excess moisture and replacing it with beads of sweat.

    As I made the final few steps to the summit, I was greeted by the magnificent sight of Sgurr nan Clach Geala, the only other peak of the nine Munros in the Fannaichs high enough to breach the white sea, across the glen. The rolling cloud seemed to be playing games with Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich, pouring in, over and around every contour, concealing and revealing in equal measure, conjuring visions of a lost world. 

    The onward ridge curved gracefully up to the next peak, Meall nan Peithirean, the long white cornice along its eastern side merging with the cloud sheet to present a constricted line ahead. Beyond this summit, the two final Munros of the round were invisible.

    Walking in thick mist always seems to elongate time, and the long trek over relatively flat ground felt like an eternity with the lack of defining features. There were summit cairns and rock shelters, and some weird and wonderful outcrops, but the rises were imperceptible, all gentle slopes and dips. Every so often, I would hear faraway voices and then figures would appear out of the grey, two walkers, three hill runners, all doing the round from the opposite direction. The lack of visibility at this height made me glad I had chosen the other way round.

    I dropped down over a series of boulder stretches on a compass line, and by midday the blue waters of Loch Gorm came into view with the mists thinning and starting to blow clear. Five minutes later it was a different landscape, the cloud sheet finally dispersing as promised to reveal all. The hardest part of the walk out was the now intense heat. There was hardly a remnant of cloud in the sky, the whole circuit crystal clear.

    Had I taken the chance and left at 2am in the hope of catching a sunrise, I would have seen nothing. If I had left my departure any later, I would have missed that magic moment when the cloud rolled away to reveal all.

    The whole day was a perfect example of small margins. For once, I had got the timing spot on.