THE night assault on the senses brought the memories flooding back as I tried to catch a few hours sleep in the car before heading out on the hills.
My nocturnal outings are few and far between these days, in stark contrast to the years when I was out on a regular basis, fitting Munro walks in after finishing work around midnight.
This was to be my first this year, an early start to climb the remote peaks of Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor. Previous visits have involved staying in bothies overnight but this time I wanted to get in and out in the same day.
I pulled off the road just before midnight at Craig, near Achnashellach, and into the forest car park, a small square scooped out of the pine trees, immersed in darkness. There were a few other cars and I settled down to try and grab a nap before setting off.
First it was the sounds; the silence which is not quite silent, where every little movement is amplified in the stillness, then the occasional metallic ping as the surrounding pine canopy shed drops of water from the sodden branches on to the car roof. It triggered memories of so many nights spent in similar surroundings when I would be psyching myself up to head off into the darkness.
Then it was the smells, the sodden earth and the pine, almost overpowering as I made the final adjustments to boots and rucksack before setting off down the track, over the railway crossing and into the heart of the mountains. Again the sounds, the crunch of my boots on the track, the odd rustling in the undergrowth of birds and animals startled or curious about this early morning intrusion.
And then the first glimpses of the terrain as my eyes adjusted to the dark. The black outline of Sgurr nan Ceannaichean straight ahead standing out against the deep blue background of the early sky, the Coire Lair triptych, faint shapes above the ground-clinging mist behind me as I started to gain height.
By the time I had crossed the river, dawn was breaking but it was not the spectacular light show I had been anticipating. A brief blast of brightness with red and yellow streaks shone through the deep V of the pass at the end of Glen Uig but it was all too brief.
The early cloud was floating around like little balls of finely teased cotton wool as I made my way south to the Bealach Bhearnais. About a dozen tents were scattered around here, no signs of movement yet.
The two hills I was aiming for are not easily won, and to reach them means first climbing an intervening peak, Beinn Tharsuinn. It’s an easy ascent however, and I was soon heading down by a drystane dyke to the start of a bigger climb.
Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich is an impressive sight from this approach, a conical peak with tiers of dark cliffs seemingly barring the way ahead, but a winding path leads you through the first barrier and then a grass ramp sloping upwards to the right gets you above the second obstacle.
The tiny summit cairn is a superb viewpoint, an eyrie that really does give you an eagle’s eye view of the surrounding hills. Lurg Mhor meanwhile, the next target, was breaking free of its cloud prison and enticing me onwards.
The feeling of being in the middle of nowhere increases even further if you head out to the Munro Top of Meall Mor. The ridge presents a couple of little problems involving awkward moves and the solitude and space when you reach the cairn and gaze down the length of Loch Morar is palpable.
Nearly six hours in, it was time to start heading back. You can drop off the end of Meall Mor to the head of the loch but the height loss is massive. Better to head back to the bealach and then take a direct line on grassy slopes round the nose of Tharsuinn before the long slog north to the Bealach Bhearnais.
If you want to do these hills in a day, this is probably the best bet.
The first time I did them I came in the same way but dropped down to Bearnais bothy and then walked out over Sgurr na Feartaig the next morning. Second time round, I came in from Attadale and stayed overnight at the Bendronaig bothy but I don’t think these hills look at their best from this side.
Seeing the cliffs of Sheasgaich rearing out of the mist is something you shouldn’t miss.