IT happened 22 years ago on the summit ridge of Beinn Challum, a lone Munro near Crianlarich, but to this day I’m still not sure exactly what happened.
We shouldn’t even have been on the mountain that day. There had been heavy snowfalls for a few days and, although the roads were clear, the hills were smothered in deep, white blankets.
As Malcolm and I left the car in the layby and headed on to the open slopes, it started to snow. As we rose, the snow got heavier and heavier. We were now like walking snowmen.
The wind was blasting across from the west, driving the snow horizontally. The only thing keeping us on our feet was the fact we were knee-deep in the white stuff. We could see only a few, blurry metres ahead. It was a similar story behind as the terrain we had just vacated was swallowed up.
We should have turned back, but we were excited by the battle with the elements. This was why we had done winter training and this was a great chance to put it into practice. Anyway, the rising ridge was obvious and we were sticking to our compass line.
Then we saw it - a cairn, an untidy pile of rocks with a cut-off wooden post sticking up in the middle, all jagged and ice-blasted, leaving no doubt which way the wind was blowing.
This was the marker for the South Top of Beinn Challum. Now we could rest for a few minutes and then could confirm the exact line to the main summit along the short connecting ridge even if we couldn’t see it.
We were huddled down behind the rocks. It was impossible to hear each other above the roaring of the wind and most of our conversation was conducted in sign language.
We did all the readings and set off. There was zero visibility as we started along the ridge, the blind leading the blind. And then the compass needle went crazy. We immediately stopped and watched as the needle went round and round, sometimes back, sometimes forward.
We realised too late that it had been tainted by the close proximity to our ice axes. And it also struck us that if we had done this at the cairn we may have taken a dodgy reading in the first place.
We could see nothing. Everywhere was a wall of white. Suddenly it seemed foolish to take a step in any direction. We could be walking straight on to a cornice or over a big drop. We just couldn’t trust the compass even though it seemed to have settled down.
Even the dog, Scoop, was agitated, jumping up on Malcolm, whimpering to be taken out of this wild, freezing place, but we were frozen to the spot, trying to decide what our next move should be.
And then I caught a brief glimpse of a figure passing just a few metres away, a fleeting grey smudge in a sea of white. Malcolm was facing the other way so never saw a thing, and by the time he turned the figure had gone.
I’m not sure to this day if he believed me. I’m not even sure now that I did see someone. At the time I was certain. But our options were limited, and, after some more deliberation, we took the plunge and followed the path of the mysterious figure.
Down we went, sinking up to our knees into the soft snow, but we were on the right track and after about 20 minutes we had gotten out of the worst of the storm.
We regained some visibility but there was no sign of anyone else ahead. The continually falling snow meant any footprints would be quickly filled in anyway. We reached the car, the only one in the layby. There was no sign that anyone else had been there.
I still don’t know if I really did see anyone in that white-out at the summit. But that presence, real or not, had shown us the way to safety.