THE familiar landmarks of Torridon lay hidden in the midnight mist, Beinn Eighe reduced to a couple of shark fins in a grey sea, Liathach an amorphous, shadowy presence.
It was different and it was beautiful, but the reduced visibility meant any ascent would have to hold off for a few hours. Clarity – or a guarantee of its impending arrival – is the preference for night walks.
Six hours later, when the light had risen but the grey stubbornly remained, I bit the bullet and headed into the gloom, south on the path following the Allt Frianach past the Ling Hut.
This is the usual approach route for linking the rugged heights of Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine and Sgurr Dubh, but the two Corbetts were not my objective this time. I was heading further in to the Munros of Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor. These grand mountains, along with their spectacular neighbour Fuar Tholl, form the Coire Lair horseshoe, a classic circuit more often climbed from Achnashellach. Fourth time around, I fancied giving them a fresh twist.
The day was slowly coming to life; a couple of walkers stretching as they emerged from the Ling Hut, another three performing similar movements at their camp site further down to the right, all to the accompaniment of a distant cuckoo. Five minutes later and I was swallowed by the mist, nothing to see, silence apart from the muffled sound of running water, progress now dependant on sticking to a compass line.
The first sign that I was nearing my target was a giant, looming spectre on my left, the outlying slopes of Beinn Liath Mhor defining the left-hand wall of Coire Grannda. Sgorr Ruadh was equally evasive, but eventually the fuzzy shapes expanded, closing in from both sides as I followed the path up through increasingly rocky terrain to the col.
The little lochan which nestles here was like glass, not one ripple on its surface. I turned right for the ascent to Sgorr Ruadh; a small cairn marker marks the beginning of the path heading up a grassy ramp before making a sharp turn left to follow the ridge line in increments.
The sun was fighting hard to make the promised breakthrough, but the summit arrived with the grey still very much in control. I sat at the huge cairn for ten minutes. Just as I had decided the 80 per cent cloud-free forecast was likely to be proved fanciful and was packing up to leave, everything changed.
Suddenly, there was blue sky high above. Then the high peaks started pushing through the gently moving cotton-wool ocean. The rocky head of An Ruadh-stac was first to show, then it was the turn of Maol Chean-dearg. The blue splurges of little lochans were nowhere one minute, everywhere the next. The mists were swirling around on the descent but now they were framing the landscape rather than smothering it, providing constantly shifting glimpses of the surrounding mountains.
I heard distant voices. The head of Coire Lair is an echo chamber, and the calm, misty conditions were amplifying the effect. I dropped quite a bit before I met a couple on their way up. They were in stripped-down gear yet still feeling the heat. I suddenly felt over-dressed: what had been necessary when setting off four hours earlier now seemed like overkill, very much surplus to requirements.
The descent route from Beinn Liath Mhor can be tricky in thick conditions: it depends on finding a twisting line down through a broken, rocky face. There are a few small marker cairns but they can be easily missed. Going up is far simpler. The line is obvious, the minor bits of scrambling effortless. Above this, the underfoot conditions change, the final push to the pale-capped top on a loose path of white quartzite.
The rapid transformation in visibility was now complete. The giants of Torridon were laid out in perfect formation, their serried ranks stretching across the horizon to the north. Directly beneath my feet, the assortment of oases which give Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine its name were a diversity of deep blues.
This picture perfection started to have a strange effect. I had been going well, so began to convince myself that rather than just walking out with the satisfaction of a good day under my belt, I could add on the two Corbetts as well. The descent to the lochans quickly put paid to that idea. Finding a way through the rocky terraces was more awkward and time-consuming than expected. By the time I reached the lochans, I had decided to be satisfied with what I had done.
The journey out felt a much different and relaxed one compared to the eerily featureless early morning ascent in the gloom. Now every face, mountain and human, was sparkling.