THE rain was incessant, the rivers raging. Even crossing the smallest burn was difficult.
Yet here we were, three men and a dog, attempting to find a way over the foaming Allt a' Mhuillinn below Ben Nevis in a bid to reach the slopes of Carn Mor Dearg.
It looked impossible, but we had youth and stupidity on our side, and we were going to get the CMD round done no matter what.
One overhanging ledge looked promising for a running leap, but the more we looked at the landing shelf some six feet below, the more it seemed something only the likes of Spider-man could achieve.
We wasted nearly an hour trying to find a way across. We should have called it a day and retreated. We would now. Then Fergus spotted a rock poking up in the midst of the boiling white water. Without any discussion he leapt over, managed to balance precariously on it for a second or two, and then leapt again to the far bank.
Malcolm followed, but he stayed on that wobbling, waterlogged perch, and then delivered the classic line: Pick up the dog and throw him to me. I had never thrown a collie any distance before but Malcolm's logic was that was the only safe way the dog could make it across.
“If he tries to follow me over, he'll be swept away. Throw him to me.”
I grabbed Scoop by the collar and his rear end and hurled him over. Incredibly, Malcolm managed to catch him and then quickly throw him over the last stretch before he lost his balance.
A couple of years later I got caught out during an excursion to those Cairngorms outliers, An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidhleir. A 25-mile circuit may seem excessive on a short December day, but the weather was benign and as most of the distance was on track I reckoned it would be simple enough walking back by torchlight.
The waters were flowing fast but there was no problem on the way out and I managed to hop across the Geldie Burn with dry feet a bit upstream from the old lodge. I reached the summits of both hills in good time and without incident. Then it all went wrong.
I was running late so rather than take the route back north to the track I thought I would try and speed things along by dropping east to the follow the Bynack Burn to the ruins of Bynack Lodge. That was a mistake.
By the time I found what remained of the ruins, I was in pitch darkness. I also realised I was going to have to cross the Geldie at a much wider point. Despite the roar of the water, I knew there was a Land Rover crossing, so logic said the river could not be deep. On the other hand, it was the meeting of two big waters owing into the Dee.
I stood on the bank shining my torch into the dark waters. I could not see the other side of the river or how deep it was, only how fast it was running. The alternative was a massive detour back upstream which, in pathless terrain and darkness, was not an appealing option. I would have to take my chances in the water.
The first step in was a shock. The water was freezing. The next step was even worse, the water up to my ankles already. There was no point in hanging around so, with walking poles planted, I stormed forward. The water kept rising. Soon it was up to my knees, then my thighs. I was tensed for the next freezing upward surge. My big fear was that I would stumble and be dragged downstream by the force of the rush.
Fortunately, the next step was back down to my knees, and then I could see the other side. A few more steps and I was out. For a few seconds I was elated – then I remembered I had at least an hour-and-a-half still to go, was soaked to my mid thighs and it was December. And icy. By the time I reached the car, I was shivering. I could not get my boots off because the straps of my gaiters had frozen solid. It was a cold and miserable run home but, after river escapade, I felt I had escaped lightly.
Those incidents now seem like hallucinogenic dreams, especially when considering the sheer power of a river in spate. One slip, one wrong step, and it's all over. The only sensible course of action is to turn back.
Planning is key in wet weather. You have to factor in the potential for river problems. What was an easy crossing at the start of the day could be a raging torrent on the return. It only needs an hour or two of torrential rain. Bridges can be washed away, the landscape can dramatically alter. You may be faced with a long diversion, and as the days grow shorter, that can mean trying to negotiate tricky and dangerous conditions in the dark. Don't take chances: Be prepared to turn back at the first sign of trouble.
That's what we had to do when I was attempting to 'compleat' my second Munro round on Aonach Beag in the Alders.
We were staying at a cottage at the head of Loch Ossian, and the party was all arranged. I hadn't seen Malcolm for years but he had even flown in from the US to take part. The rain had been falling for days but we set off anyway. We lasted less than an hour. The main river was thrashing around but at least we had the bridge.
We weren't so lucky with all the smaller tributaries. The first was a struggle, the second a major diversion. We were heading further away from the hill and it was slow going. In the end it was decided this was madness, and we retreated.
It didn't spoil the party – we still enjoyed the Champers and cake as Malcolm had to fly home. I finished the round two days later and sent him a postcard. It was the next best thing.