WE had grand plans for our week in the Cairngorms, but in the end we hobbled, rather than marched, to our base at Braemar.
Niggling new injuries requiring precautionary measures and older ones resurfacing, recent recoveries from the dreaded C-virus, and a general mix of problems of the personal, and maybe geriatric, persuasion. A series of unfortunate events, indeed.
Still, it gave us a chance to channel our inner Nan Shepherd, spending a week in the mountains rather than necessarily on top of them, whiling away time in different corners, finding or rediscovering those hidden gems.
That's the thing with the Cairngorms: there never needs to be a wasted minute. While the big mountains are undoubtedly spectacular, they are only part of a bewitching landscape that offers so much on so many levels.
My woes had started two weeks earlier, pains suddenly flaring through the left foot, from big toe to bridge to arch, during a fairly unchallenging walk in Glenshee. All the signs pointed to tendinitis but the physio ruled that out, the logic being it would have been impossible for him to have bent my foot into various positions without me passing out. I left reassured that the injury was likely to be short-term.
Next day, I decided to test that theory by walking it off. Unfortunately, it appeared the boot elves had swapped mine for a smaller size overnight and I endured a three-hour stroll with both feet seemingly trapped in a burning building. In quieter times, I would have put my feet up and given the problem the requisite days to heal. But the long-awaited trip to Braemar was only three days away, and it was the first in a series of big hill excursions scheduled over the next few months.
There had to be a sacrifice of some description: I decided the week would be one of caution, of building up day by day. The big Munro outings we had planned were no longer feasible. As fate would have it, however, virtually every other member of our group had their own issues. We have been meeting every year at this time for more than 20 years, with the exception of the last two, of course. Maybe it was the anticipation of the first get-together for three years that proved too much for those older muscles and tendons.
One of the two chasing a Munros finish did have some success, concentrating his efforts on a long solo day over Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor, and then back round via Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul and The Devil's Point, while others managed the odd summit in dribs and drabs. Most of the time it was about simply getting out.
We pottered around in Glen Quoich and Glen Derry via the Clais Fhearnaig, looked in to the remarkable Burn o' Vat and circuited Loch Kinord, and enjoyed a full round of the cairns above Balmoral. Some of us had a secret assignation, while others visited the fermtoun of Auchtavan. It still felt early in the season: everywhere seemed peaceful, the splendrous noise of birdsong amplified in the hush.
My focus was on walking every day, trying to make sure I would be fitter and better prepared for three big days in Knoydart the following week. The foot problem hasn't completely cleared, but I managed to go out six days in a row, breaking in a new pair of boots and building up to summiting three Corbetts.
The ascent of Morven was enhanced by the opportunity to complete a traverse, thanks to the largesse of a willing driver. Instead of the usual up-and-down dash from the east, I was able to continue over the top and then drop south into Ballater, watching thinly-veiled curtains of rain swirling around in the distance. This was good practice for the following day on the short and alternative ascent to Carn na Drochaide from Gleann an t-Slugain, the high ridge providing a curious dividing line between competing forces of thick grey and driving rain to my left, sunshine and clear peaks to the right.
The final day was initially supposed to be a lazy one, but the morning wetness gave way to sunshine and blue skies sooner than expected. I headed out to White Bridge from Linn of Dee with high black clouds piling up on the distant horizon ahead while the river provided a sparkling contrast, a relaxed flow bathed in prepotent light.
Sgor Mor is a favourite summit in an area of superlative mountains, simply because its long ridge provides such wonderful insights into the heart of its bigger neighbours. The one drawback is the descent, the final quarter of the circuit a stumble down slopes of deep heather, boulders and remnant pines.
As a testing ground for an injury, though, it could hardly be bettered. Now it's best foot forward to Knoydart.