SITTING sunbathing high above the Aonach Eagach, it was easy to forget this was late December.
Just six days before the big guy in the red suit was due to start his annual spree of home invasions, he had delivered an early present that all mountaineers had high on their list – a spell of settled inversion weather.
The pictures from all around the country had been spectacular, so much so that everything else had to be shoved momentarily to the side so I could get in on the act. At this darkest time of year, it's hard to drag the body out of bed at stupid o'clock on the promise that better things may await, so I decided to abandon my eastern homeland and increase the odds by heading westward-ho-ho-ho.
For a few years now, I had been hoping to capture the Aonach Eagach in its winter prime. I knew that most of the recent snow cover had shifted but there was still the chance of snow-streaked faces and sparkling towers with the added bonus of a low sea of cloud swirling round its jagged edges.
The journey across country was through blanket freezing fog, the first signs of dawn piercing the gloom came in the form of static white of tinselled trees and frozen ground around Crianlarich.
The rising of the day continued apace: the tips of the peaks above Lochan na h-Achlaise were glowing red in a pastel layered sky, a stark contrast to the surrounding deep freeze beneath, while the full moon – appropriately known as the Cold Moon – admired its reflection in the icy sheen of the calm water.
The parking hotspots of Glen Coe had a random feel; busy at the Buachaille, near-empty at Bidean, while there was a full house for the Aonach Eagach. I didn't fancy taking on the ridge solo in icy conditions. A gentler and trouble-free ascent from the western end would suffice. The woods along from Glencoe village could have doubled for the ice kingdom of Narnia and it felt strange slapping on sunscreen while simultaneously shivering with the cold.
The initial wander up the Pap of Glencoe path provided an insight into the topsy-turvy temperatures of the day, solid ice in places being overrun with running water coming down the hillside from warmer climes. The sunlit high tops ahead were beckoning, but the big mountains along the glen weren't seeing the benefit, dark slopes in steely shadow. The view west along Loch Linnhe resembled a temperature layer chart, colouring with height, puffs of pink cloud lying midway across the horizon.
The ascent began to take on the feel of trench warfare with heavily eroded sections reaching waist height, and the rise into sunnier territory combined with the heavy winter outfit was a reminder of why I had bothered with sunscreen. The path split at a marker cairn of pure white rocks. Higher up, the cairn elves had been busy, marking a sure way through small boulder fields and grassier sections. The snow cover was sparse and patchy but solid enough in places to reject a boot, making it necessary to dodge round some parts.
The upside down world expanded with height, Ben Nevis and its buddies spread across the northern line with the Mamores providing the support act. Even the ptarmigan seemed a little bewildered, standing out in their full white finery which had been rendered temporarily redundant.
The high-level panorama accompanied me to the large spreadeagled cairn on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, a ringside seat for views down to the ridge and the distant forever. The only flaw was that the lack of an inversion. Despite the long view showing island peaks standing above oceans of cotton wool, the conditions had given the Aonach Eagach a body-swerve.
It would have been easy to linger too long, lulled into a false sense of security by the bright sun and the swing of almost 12 degrees from floor to ceiling. In winter, the dark comes fast. I had one reminder of the possible problems on the way down, a narrow snow chute dropping a long way, impossible to gain a foothold. The wise choice was to retreat and work my way round.
The descent was out of the light and back into the perma-white world of unlit terrain, the foliage still suspended and brittle, a stark contrast to the warm glow lingering high above.
The ever-changing mists enlivened the journey home with some unexpected stocking fillers. First there was the sudden emergence of a brilliant flash from the Lairg Gartain, the gap between the two Buachailles, that made it look as if an internal light had been switched on deep within the grey as it swirled playfully around the two mountains.
Not to be outdone, the dropping sun delivered a spectacular last hurrah over Rannoch Moor, blood-red streaks on every rise and pool of water, hanging puffs of cloud dripping pink, a scene and colouring more reminiscent of Monument Valley.
In a year extravagantly blessed with inversions, this was the ideal way to sign off.