THE first shafts of light were breaching the cloud blanket off to the east but the peaks of the Fannaichs were still buried deep beneath the sombre grey.
I was heading for a circuit of five Munros in the western end of the range but ten minutes into the walk I still hadn't decided on my direction of travel.
Choosing the right route can be key to getting the best out of a big mountain day. It always pays to have a plan. In this case, I had two. Nothing complicated – it would simply be a choice of going east to west or west to east.
The five mountains are in two natural groupings. There's the pairing of A' Chailleach and Sgurr Breac to the west, while Meall a' Chrasgaidh, Sgurr na Clach Geala and Sgurr nan Each run on a north-south line over to the east. The crux is the deep col between the two groups at the head of the Allt Breabaig. This is the point where the decision to carry on or call it a day must be made.
Each option had its advantages, so many factors to take into account. Over the previous few days I had chopped and changed my mind so many times, but now I was at the cairn that marks the split in the path. Decision time: I turned right, heading for the western summits. This had been my initial thought when I started planning the walk, and often the first choice turns out to be the correct one. The weather forecast was promising but the early low cloud base and its reluctance to clear suggested it was a wise decision.
There's a path running all the way to the top of A' Chailleach compared to more unpleasant, pathless terrain on the admittedly shorter ascent of Meall a' Chrasgaidh. The longer climb time and additional height gain also meant the odds were slightly better of getting a cloud-free summit. The easy passage along the Druim Reidh was conducted in limited visibility – at one point I could make out the faint spectres of a shifting herd of a deer on the horizon – the more complex boulder section at the end only a minor irritation in the gloom.
As I hit the main ridge, the sun was starting to become more assertive, its pulse strengthening with every upward step until I burst through the cloud sheet into that perfect moment of clarity, brilliant blue skies above a sea of white cotton wool, the highest peaks dark islands in the stream. The next Munro, Sgurr Breac, was one of those and so was Sgurr nan Clach Geala, but its two neighbours were still hidden, further proof that I had chosen well. Had I gone east first, I would have missed all of this.
I dipped back into the cloud on the way east, then out again to Sgurr Breac. On the long, twisting path down the ridge, the big clearance began in earnest and by the time I was at the col the last remnants of cover had vanished. The climb to Sgurr nan Each is substantial, but as it is the smallest peak on the round going west to east meant the pull-up was around 350 metres rather than the 450 I would have faced coming in the opposite direction.
Sgurr nan Clach Geala was a long, steady pull, but then it is from either side, and Meall a' Chrasgaidh felt like a mere swelling to finish. It was a fast run down with the slopes now clear and dry, the distance to the finish line nice and short.
The miles covered and height gained were identical but psychologically the west to east version seemed friendlier: the cleaner route up on more forgiving terrain, the inversion bonus, the lower re-ascent during the hottest part of the day and the shorter walk out.
Sometimes we make a choice on the bigger rounds and it doesn't work out. Sometimes we are driven by wind, rain or snow conditions, or simply to sample a bit of variety. Most books recommend doing the Strathfarrar four from east to west but I have always preferred the opposite, using the good stalker's path to gain the ridge quickly and descending the boggier route at the end. I also favour heading west on the five Etive Munros.
The growth in popularity of the boat service on Loch Mullardoch and the horrendous reputation of the shoreline path means most people now go west to east but I would argue that the finest views are seen going the other way.
I made a late choice in the Fannaichs and it paid off. On another day, that might not have been the case.