I SPENT most of Saturday packing, unpacking and repacking my gear in preparation for a Sunday walk in the Monadhliath, flip-flopping as often as the weather forecast.
Confidence had deteriorated steadily over the past week, first from mostly dry, then to rain clearing by midday, to unrelenting rain for a few days. Or possibly months.
Had it been a planned solo outing, I would have just rolled over and gone back to sleep to the sound of the rain battering against the window. But this was the opportunity for a traverse that only company can provide. The hills of the Monadhliath are in a league of their own when it comes to sogginess, so it was now simply a question of how wet we would get. Cue the ever-evolving dilemma over layers.
I headed out into the darkness at 5.30am, windscreen wipers going full pelt. An hour later we were on the coach heading north, still dark, still with wipers working overtime. As we approached our stop in Newtonmore, the swishing sound of the wipers was overtaken by the swishing of multiple sets of waterproofs being applied. Experience has shown that this mass donning of wet weather gear often has a miraculous effect. Now it was happening again. The rain suddenly stopped.
The walk into the saturated landscape of Glen Banchor was conducted in stunning stillness. Static cloud, almost to the point of catatonia, lay wreathed around contours of autumn golds and russets. Dripping trees glistened, providing a light shower as we brushed past. Stags were roaring off in the distance.
The rivers were running high and fast so it was good to find that the little bridge over the lively Allt a' Chaorainn was not only intact but significantly upgraded. The first step off the bridge, however, reminded us that 'squelch' would be the word of the day.
The soft nature of this moss and peat terrain means wet feet are unavoidable, the marked tracks and paths, to the surprise of Monadhliath newbies, merely suggested channels through the swamplands. One surprising upside was the proliferation and variety of fungi, and our mushroom authority David was able to keep us salivating with his culinary tips. No wonder we needed a lunch stop earlier than usual.
On the initial rise to A' Chailleach, the cloud layers had kept their taste for the theatrical, their layers reminiscent of cardboard backdrops rigidly set in place by stagehands, the vast sweep of white reducing our presence to mere specks on the horizon. As we climbed further, there was finally some movement. Unfortunately, it was all upward, the mists now laying claim to the high ground. The next four hours would be spent in benign but impenetrable grey.
We left the cairn of the old woman for the short up and down to her northern neighbour, Carn Sgulain, a crossing that surely has the highest bog factor of any Munro. There were bootprints galore over the glaur, but there was always the nagging suspicion that some poor soul who passed this way may not be unearthed for a few thousand years.
From the substantial cairn on Carn Sgulain – don't be fooled by the first one you reach – the real navigation work began, the long, twisting ridge leading round Am Bodach and on to Carn a' Bhothain Mholaich, the turning point for our final target, Carn an Fhreiceadain. A line of old rusted fenceposts was a handy guide, although we had to look hard at times to find their twisted and trampled remains, and a series of kinks meant a brief gathering at each to confirm we were all on the same page, and indeed, the same hill.
There is an abundance of innocuous summits in this vast swathe of high ground, and many bear similar names: you have to know which particular Geal Charn, Creag Dhubh or Carn Sgulain you are looking for. We dropped east over ground so spongy that it equated to the sensation of being on a trampoline, and then bounced up the other side in double-quick time, passing an impressive stone man cairn on the way to the main summit.
Carn an Fhreiceadain is the 'cairn of the watcher', a reference to its commanding viewpoint where sentinels would be stationed by those charged with keeping the peace on a once busy cattle route. Now it is a hill of bulldozed tracks over barren rolling moorland, but once further down the prospects improved, with the dark, imposing shapes of serrated ridges punching their way through the languid banks of cloud.
We dropped through woodland and then past the immaculate but rather out-of-place greens of a golf course to emerge in the streets of Kingussie, water sloshing around in the boots but otherwise dry.
Sometimes the better days are the ones where you set off with a zero level of expectation. This was certainly one of those.