WE stood in a solemn circle round the trig pillar on Mam na Guilainn in an ocean of soaking grey, the unrelenting rain running down our faces and saturated clothes. There was nothing to see, nothing to say.
It was the culmination of a trip that had become the final farewell to our friend Trevor, the stony summit silence the irrevocable realisation at the enormity of our loss.
Two months had passed since his death on Buachaille Etive Mor, two months in which we had kept going as though packing away the tragedy would reduce it to just a bad dream. It was simply inconceivable he was gone.
Our long planned weekend meet went ahead as scheduled, only now we were there to hand over a sizable cheque to Glencoe Mountain Rescue team for their efforts in searching for and recovering Trevor's body.
The sun was splitting the sky and after the presentation we set off in good spirits to enjoy a long day on Bidean nam Bian. We toasted Trevor on the hill, and then we dropped down to the pub to do it all again.
But just as the weather changed for the worse through the evening, so did the mood. It was though the dam had burst, the ferocious intake of alcohol an attempt to compensate for so many bottled-up emotions. There was no trouble, but there was a lot of sore heads and an unhealthy dose of reality next morning.
We stumbled up from Kinlochleven on to Mam na Guilainn, heads down as we shuffled along oblivious to the worsening conditions, a dozen of us strung out over the long ridge, walking apart in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.
This was to be my 100thCorbett, but there would be no celebrations. It was just another trudge to an invisible summit, this time without our great pal. When we arrived at the highest point, we instinctively formed a wide circle around the trig pillar, evenly spaced as though determined to keep the others at arm's length.
Heads bowed in silent contemplation, it felt we had entered a void and no one had any ideas of how to crawl back out. A few seconds later, however, came the words: “Congratulations to Alan on his 100th Corbett. Now let's stone him to death.”
It seemed to sum up the moment – and the misery – perfectly. Suddenly, the spell was broken, there was laughter and smiles, normal service resumed. Well, mostly. The descent off the end of the ridge and down to the road was a blur: I was still finding the whole experience difficult to take in.
That was 19 years ago, so a return to this summit was long overdue. This time, however, I picked a winter day of high pressure, flawless blue sky, blinding white sun and clarity to distant horizons.
West was definitely best. The insipid skies of the east were soon left behind as I travelled across a constantly changing landscape and temperatures; from the burgeoning sunshine of Perthshire to the low icy mists touching -5 on the lochs; from the pure white crystallised vegetation trapped in the shadows on one side of the road, to the brilliant fiery coppers on the other.
Despite the minus temperatures, I felt distinctly overdressed in full winter gear and full pack complete with ironmongery as I set off up the previous descent route just east of Callert House with the sun beating down.
Within ten minutes I had stripped down, no jackets, no hat, no gloves. The pack was heavier still but my steps grew lighter. Nevertheless, the initial push uphill was a struggle, and by the halfway mark I felt little progress was being made.
I shouldn't have worried. At this time of year the body and mind are still getting used to the step-up in activity and the extra weight, and by the time I was at the col I was flying.
The summit should have sparked some recognition and I had almost expected to arrive to some great revelation but it was hard to equate with that wet and miserable day all those years ago. The mountains never change, only our presence among them.
I had perfect clarity in every direction. I could see the long ridge coming over from the west that we had followed last time, pick out the jagged teeth of the Aonach Eagach and the lofty faded tops of Bidean nam Bian across the silver sheen of Loch Leven, see the dissolving blue of Loch Linnhe stretching off behind the bold lines of Beinn a' Bheithir. The only significant snow was on Ben Nevis, the white head poking up behind the long crest of the Mamores.
My summit experience was shared by one other walker, who turned out to be Ian Mitchell, co-author of one of the finest hill books ever written, Mountain Days and Bothy Nights. Now 75, Ian is still wandering the hills, but spends less time on the high tops these days. Still, he was in good form and it was a pleasure to hear his reminiscences of mutual friends and mountain acquaintances.
I lazily returned the same way, but nothing clicked back into place from that descent of 19 years ago. And maybe that was all for the better.