Published 28th July 2022, 19:03

    BACK on the night shift, a twilight mountain stroll in the shadow of Buachaille Etive Mor to avoid the searing heat of the day.

    With temperatures hitting 30C mid-afternoon, it seemed the only sensible approach was to wait a few hours for a quiet ascent of neighbouring Beinn a' Chrulaiste.

    This way I could enjoy the uphill push in the cool of the evening while watching the sun going down over the peaks of Glen Coe, hang around on the summit for the arrival of the moon, then descend after catching the sunrise. What a pity it didn't pan out that way.

    As Groucho Marx once said: “I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.”

    That may sound a bit over the top. After all, it was dry, it was clear, and the walk pleasant enough. But the overriding mood was disappointment, a feeling akin to sourcing a gold-dust ticket for your favourite band and then turning up to find a tribute act.

    It started well. From 28C at 7pm, the numbers dropped consistently on the stunning journey west. The scattered spread of lochans on Rannoch Moor had a synchronised sparkle; the contours of every rock face, every summit, were pin-sharp; the last of the daytime walkers were trundling homeward. Despite the stillness, even the midges appeared to have taken the night off.

    There had been suggestions in the mountain forecasts of a cloudless inversion, rising air making it warmer on the tops than in the glens. I could already picture myself lying flat out amongst the summit rocks for a few night hours, moonbathing in balmy conditions. The stifling heat of the first upward steps was quickly nullified by the welcome breeze sweeping across the first rise. Now it was just a case of relaxing and enjoying the view. And what a view.

    Beinn a' Chrulaiste may suffer somewhat from being in the company of Glen Coe's elegant giants but it offers the finest and clearest perspective of the Big Herdsman. All the way up the west ridge the eyes are drawn right to this grand mountain across the great divide. You feel unable to look away, hypnotised by the subtle changes to its profile minute by minute. It is a hill that never fails to thrill.

    Buachaille Etive Mor is where it all started for me and it has been a big part of my mountain life since. Every emotion has been experienced and normally at this time of year, we would be heading up on to the summit ridge to remember lost friends. 

    The restrictions of the past two years have meant solo rather than group ascents, but our hopes of resuming normal service this year fell apart in a tangle of crossed wires and ultimately unworkable logistics. So instead of making another lone pilgrimage, I decided to admire the Buachaille from another angle before later visiting the mouth of Coire na Tulaich for the annual whisky tribute.

    (A note of caution to thirsty walkers: if you are teetotal don't drink the water. There's been so much of the hard stuff poured into that stream over the years, I'm sure it must be running at 100 per cent proof.)

    The evening light was changing fast, the promise of a fiery sunset disappearing as the hazy yellows changed to hazy blues, a darker energy taking control. The Glen Coe peaks had lost their vitality under a muted sky, the Mamores forming an ambiguous silhouette across the horizon with the higher, familiar sickle shape of Ben Nevis beyond.

    I had briefly spotted another figure on the hill earlier, but they vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. And in the dip before the final rise, I became aware of collective movement, dozens of wild goats, monochrome shapes blending perfectly into the gloom. By the time I reached the trig point summit, definition had vanished completely in a 360-degree blur. The sunset was lost: one down, two to go. I took out my shelter and sat down to wait for the moon.

    I had anticipated a peaceful night under the stars with peaks lit by moonlight or streaks of wandering light, but I couldn't get a consistent handle on the surroundings, couldn't tell if my vision was being affected by the dust blown by the lively wind, the suffocating darkness or simply my ageing eyesight. I simply could not settle.

    There's a lot been said and written recently about the effects and stresses of the pandemic years, which have led to heightened feelings of anxiousness. Like so many others, I have been finding it more difficult to switch off or relax, and the thought of waiting around for another five irritated hours with no guarantee of success didn't appeal.

    I have always maintained that during the many nights spent alone in the mountains I had never felt lonely. Quite the opposite, in fact. There was a real sense of freedom in thinking I could be the only soul for miles around, but I was relaxed in my own company and taking a step away from the world for a few hours was therapeutic.

    When the first lockdown was lifted, I chose the midnight shift to avoid the crowds and watch the sun rise on a regular basis again. But here on the top of Beinn a' Chrulaiste there was a definite mood shift, a restlessness kicking in. I really did feel alone.

    It was a similar feeling to the one I had experienced during an evening ascent of Schiehallion just a couple of months ago. Then, too, I had set off in promising conditions to catch the sunset but instead was ambushed by towering, menacing cloud. Standing on the rocky summit in the dying light it was easy to feel dwarfed and threatened by nature.

    I managed to hold out on Beinn a' Chrulaiste for another half-hour before convincing myself this was a waste of time. In this mood, five hours would seem like a lifetime. I packed up, switched on the head torch and started the descent.

    If I needed a sign that this was the right course of action it came, of course, from the Buachaille. I could see lights moving down the corrie and wondered if they could see mine as we moved in distant unison. Every so often mine would also pick out yellow eyes glowing in the dark, the goats still moving silently around their domain.

    I made it to the car just after midnight. The moon finally made its entrance about an hour later, a fuzzy, golden half-shell with streaks of wispy cloud chasing across its face like a pack of volitant black wolves harrying prey. 

    Sunrise arrived with a whimper, no fireworks, just a gradual creeping illumination to herald the new day. I made my way past a scattering of tents and up into the corrie to perform the ritual of pouring the whisky into the stream under the watchful eye of my fellow pilgrim Freddo the chocolate frog.

    Across the way, Beinn a' Chrulaiste had come back to life in spectacular fashion, a shapely shadow backlit by a strengthening sun. The cool of the morning was already being usurped: in a couple of hours we would be back in the high 20s.

    If timing is everything, then I hadn't been entirely successful, but no sweat. Sometimes you just have to learn to keep your cool.