THE tale of an overdue hillwalker who left clues in the snow so Cairngorms rescue teams could narrow down their search area and locate him was heartening to hear.
The 40-year-old was well-equipped and had left a detailed route plan with friends but high winds had prevented him reaching Aviemore as planned, and he decided to shelter for the night at Corrour Bothy.
With no mobile signal and aware that an alarm had probably been raised, he logged his name in the bothy book and set off for Braemar next morning leaving arrows drawn in the snow showing his progress. His messages saved a lot of time and needless searching.
Leaving signs for safety is a good tactic, one we used to good effect during a long outing into the Fisherfield mountains, an eastern approach from the Dundonnell road along the shores of Loch a' Bhraoin.
It was a bit of a Munros tidy-up mission and as a trio we had different agendas; Becks only needed Sgurr Ban, Andy wanted to add Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and Beinn Tarsuinn, and I was keen to make this ascent via Sgurr Ban's impressive sheet of quartzite slabs. The extra two mountains would be a bonus.
The day was calm but the mist was stubbornly clinging to the high tops. The loch was unruffled and unmoving, the only flaw in the grey glass the reflection of the plunging slopes of A' Chailleach from the opposite shore. We made good time on the track to reach Lochivroan cottage and the nearby bothy. Beyond this, the going got rougher, an atv track then a path running beside the burn to more indistinct ground where there was a prominent cairn, a handy reference in thicker weather.
We passed the ruin of Feinasheen and followed the now more obvious path as it swung round towards the lonely glen which cradles Loch an Nid. The outflow here can sometimes be a problem but on this benign day we crossed with dry feet and started heading up to the right of Meallan an Laoigh, the hillside alive with grazing deer mostly oblivious to our presence.
Then we hit the slabs, a wonderful, bizarre swathe of pale pavements rising at a gentle angle, with the misty skyline ahead complementing the moonscape colour scheme. The summit area is a giant boulder field but there's no mistaking the cairn, a perfectly rounded pile of pale rocks amid the rubble.
Then came the parting. Becks decided she had done her bit for the day and would head back while Andy and I pressed on to the next two peaks. Despite being an experienced hillwalker, she expressed a slight nervousness at the thought of making the long and potentially complex walk back alone. The psychological effect of saying goodbye and splitting up in the mist shouldn't be underestimated.
We agreed a Hansel and Gretel style-plan: she would leave a marker so that we could see she had passed through safely when we followed the same route later, an empty crisps packet placed under the top rock of the big cairn we had seen earlier in the day. We watched the tiny figure heading away from the cairn as we disappeared over the vague horizon in the opposite direction and then concentrated on our own footwork.
The summits of Mullach Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and Beinn Tarsuinn remained wrapped in grey shrouds, nothing much to see apart from the odd ghostly figure moving among the rocks, nothing to hear apart from our sliding and crunching steps and the faint pick-up of distant voices.
Two and a half hours later, we passed Sgurr Ban's cairn once more and dropped down the other side of Meallan an Laoigh to avoid the worst of the wet and greasy slabs. At one point we spotted what looked like a gap in the dark wall on our right holding a large balanced boulder: on closer inspection, it turned out to be an optical illusion created by a patch of late-lying snow trapped in a crease.
We crossed the outflow and made our way over to the path, and there was an arrow made with little pebbles, a sign that Becks had been this way. A little further on, she had left a rocky heart in the middle of the path.
The crisps packet was on the cairn as arranged, and we picked it off and headed for the finish line with the knowledge that she had made it out without any hitches. A simple idea that provided proof of a day gone well.
And in case you were wondering, we did dismantle her rock signs as we passed.