IT felt good to be back in Knoydart. Good to once again make that evocative ferry crossing, good to be enjoying a drink in The Old Forge, good to be reacquainted with some of Scotland's roughest mountains.
Six years had passed since I last visited the heart of this rugged peninsula. I had been on the fringes three years ago, looking longingly at distant Ladhar Bheinn while working my way around two remote Grahams. And then time stood still.
Now here we were again, picking up after the two-year forced hiatus, cutting through lively waters to Inverie, the boat laden with passengers, dogs, bikes, rucksacks, luggage, packages of every shape and size.
The distant white line of the iconic shorefront buildings gradually expanded as we headed in, the huge rocky prow of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean looming ever larger behind. The pier was busy with those there to collect supplies or guests or those waiting to take their leave on the return journey. Ten minutes later, and all was quiet again. What passes for rush hour in Knoydart was over – at least until the next ferry arrival.
Low cloud and constant drizzle meant we were in no hurry to get started. Instead, we settled in at our base and prepared for the two big hill days to follow. And they would be big days. There are no easy pickings here. The mountains are muscular, the connections long, the terrain rough and complex.
I set off early next morning into a grey landscape. The cloud was high and every peak was visible, but only just, their tops shadowy and slightly mysterious. The track up to the Mam Barrisdale was heavily waterlogged in places, a running stream in others. Highland cattle stood their ground, and on a couple of occasions it seemed sensible to concede. A cuckoo's clarion call was the only sound to breach the silence.
It was hard to get a handle on the temperature. I had dressed for a cold day but was now overheating like an old Ford Cortina. A few layers removed, and I started to feel a chill. As I made my way up Luinne Bheinn, the tops were swallowed by bubbling, swirling mists being driven up from the cauldrons.
Visibility was fleeting, tantalising glimpses only as I continued past the summit cairns and dropped off the end. A few steps down and the whole long, intricate link with Meall Buidhe was suddenly revealed. And it struck me that this was the first time I had seen this ridge in its entirety.
The first time I climbed this pair, it was a circuit from the Barrisdale side, a wet day of zero visibility. Second time, I travelled the other way round in shifting cloud, and the third time I tackled them separately.
There's a lot of up and down, but the crossing is a joy, a rocky assault course that your knees will remember. The descent from Meall Buidhe is, by contrast, a simple and softer affair, mostly along grassy ground. A spectacular amalgamation of bluebells and yellow primrose covering the lower slopes provided a fitting flourish as the sun finally broke through.
The next day picked up where the last one left off, brilliant sunshine and flat calm water, the heat already building as we set off for the undisputed jewel in the Knoydart crown, mighty Ladhar Bheinn. Previous ascents had been from the Kinloch Hourn road end, taking the Barrisdale Path along the lochside and then into Coire Dhorcaill before heading up over Stob a' Choire Odhair. This time we were reversing our usual descent route, coming up from the west, and then circuiting back over the Aonach Sgoilte.
The mountain's charms are less obvious from this approach and the pull-up feels like it's never going to end, but once on the ridge the great reveal makes it all worthwhile. The weather went into an unexpected reverse as well, switching back to overcast with rain blowing through, and a sudden cold wind had us layering up again. But the rain threat quickly blew over, and the cloud stayed high so we never lost the views, even if they were now drained of light.
The route onward was another rocky rollercoaster, twisting over and around the many intervening rough bumps, the highlight being the curious split ridge and its central passage between two imposing craggy faces. In an area famed for high rainfall, I suppose it was inevitable we would finally get a soaking and it duly arrived as we hit the track an hour from the finish line. The weather had come full circle in three days.
We left the next day in the manner we had arrived, grey skies, choppy waters and a constant skirmish of rain. Despite this, we sat outside on deck, watching the white line grow smaller and smaller, with the distant blurry cone of Sgurr na Ciche defiantly piercing the gloom.