Published 21st November 2018, 13:14

    JUST back from three glorious hill days in the North-west Highlands, but each ended with a descent into darkness, a timely reminder of the need to keep a careful eye on the clock with the shorter daylight hours.

    Two weeks ago, we were strolling along forest tracks with the light fading politely, no rush to take its leave. 

    All of a sudden, the change is striking. You have what seems like a two-minute warning before the black curtain comes crashing down, smothering the last flickers of illumination.

    It's a different kind of darkness from the summer and early autumn months, one that's more absolute, more enveloping. It also instantly snuffs out any remaining heat of the day; the drop in temperature is formidable.

    I'm no stranger to night forays into the mountains, but I find walks from mid-November until the end of December the most psychologically challenging. The walk out in freezing darkness is when the comfort zone shifts, the only time I feel alone in the outdoors.

    Perhaps it's the initial shock to the system caused by the speed that light is extinguished, or simply the realisation that we are now on the unstoppable descent towards the shortest day. It's certainly not the time of year to discover that you have forgotten to check your head torch before venturing out.

    I had fully expected my three days away to involve some walking in the dark. I had been reasonably careful in picking routes that fit comfortable time slots, and two of the three went as predicted. It was the first one that proved a problem.

    I was based in Torridon so decided on a short detour to break the long drive, heading through Glenelg to the end of the road at Corran to tackle the Druim Fada ridge. It's a track walk for an hour, a short steep climb, then a walk back along a grand highway of rocky lumps and bumps before dropping down to the track. 

    Book time suggested around four and a half hours for the circuit; I set off at 11.35am, confident I had a little time in hand. I reached the summit on schedule, a fine viewpoint over to Knoydart where rogue rays of sunshine were lasering down over Ladhar Bheinn and on to the waters of Loch Hourn. It was a wrench to tear myself away but the consolation of the walk back were the metallic light shows from both sides of the ridge, silver to the left, copper to the right. 

    It soon became obvious, however, that the time and distance format used for working out the return journey may have added up on paper but it didn't translate to reality. This was complex terrain, a series of stiff re-climbs and constant detours to find the best line. By the time I reached the final peak, I was around 30 minutes behind the supposed time. 

    The glowing patches on the side of Beinn Sgritheall and its acolytes told me I didn't have long before any remaining light vanished. I was about halfway down when the power was shut off completely.

    The ground was muddy and slippery, pitted with deep holes amid awkward tufts. It was difficult to predict what the next step held even with the torch on; controlled stumbling was the order of the evening. Luckily, it was fairly short-lived and I was soon on the track, but the swiftness with which the dark had descended was alarming.

    I set off next day in the cold darkness, but when the dawn started rising it came in fast and I was up and down Sgurr a' Gharaidh in four sunshine hours. A short drive over the Bealach na Ba pass to Applecross and I was ready to go again, this time up the long ridge of Beinn a' Chlachain.

    Again I started losing the light on the descent, but I had timed it well enough to make it down the steep and tricky slopes of heather and dead, brittle bracken without needing any artificial light, the sunset silhouettes of the Skye ranges on the horizon drawing me towards the finish line.

    I left Torridon the next morning in temperatures of 9C and watched the gauge go into a steady nosedive to –4C during the run over to Black Bridge. 

    I knew this would be a long day but most of it was track walking. It was bitter at the start and I was walking in shadow for a long time in Strath Vaich, but the stunning contrast in autumnal light and shade conjured up a feeling of warmth.

    Ten hours later I was back at the car, a mere hour's worth of work for the torch, but vital all the same. It's unthinkable that I could have taken a chance on any of these walks at this time of year without a torch. 

    It's also a good thing that my reliance on the accuracy of book times has long faded. It pays to build in a little extra time for your routes as winter rolls in.