IF there was an award for taking the breath away Coire Mhic Fhearchair would be an annual recipient.
The sight of the Triple Buttress towering over that little loch in a semi-circle of rock heaven comes as a revelation, no matter how many times you have seen it. If the mountain gods needed a place to sit this would be their Asgard.
Once you climb over the final lip into that corrie, you are under its spell forever. That’s probably why I ended up there again last week. It certainly wasn’t a pre-planned visit. With the weather in different moods all over the country, it was a day for a magical, mystery tour. Just get in the car and drive north-west until you find the best conditions.
The run up the A9 highlighted the variations, cold and misty at times, rain at others. But as I neared Aviemore, the light was breaking through beautifully off to the west.
Inverness, sitting in the dip of the Moray Firth, was more like Atlantis, a lost city under a sea of mist, but sunshine and clear skies reigned when I popped out the other side.
My first instinct was to head for the wilds of Sutherland. Skye and Knoydart had also been in the equation. But as I neared the Tore roundabout the car seemed to make the decision for me. We went left, back into the mist around Achnasheen and then Kinlochewe. We were going to Torridon, iron filings being pulled by a giant magnet.
Beinn Eighe is not so much a mountain, more a mountain range. It contains two Munros, four Munro Tops and one Corbett on a ridge that runs almost 10km from Kinlochewe.
The unblemished blue sky couldn’t disguise the chill as I geared up in the car park. In summer, it can be filled to overflowing but today there were just two other cars. And if I wanted an omen that this was going to be a good day, then here it was, in the shape of Hugh Munro. No, not that one. This Hugh came from Beauly, and unlike Sir Hugh, he had conquered all the Munros, not just once but four times.
The path from here is a thing of beauty, logic and precision. It cuts between two giant guardians, the menacing dark walls of Liathach on your left and the lighter, sunlit slopes of Sail Mhor to the right, crossing streams by stepping stones, passing pools of frozen water and then swinging right at a cairned junction.
As it turns the views open out. Beinn Dearg takes centre stage while Beinn Alligin peeks shyly up to try to share the limelight, then come the Flowerdale peaks standing in a sea of rust-tinted grasses peppered by pools of water.
The path becomes a stairway of huge boulders, leading up past a stream tumbling over a series of rock steps. Then you reach the lip of the corrie - and that view hits you. It’s always fascinating to watch people reach this point. Almost every one stops dead in his or her tracks, as if the enormity and beauty of what is in front of them has frozen them in a moment they want to remain for ever. As a picnic spot it’s hard to better.
The climb to the main peak now goes to the left of the lochan and reaches the ridge by means of a chimney of broken rock and loose scree, but the eyes are always drawn back to the water. From this end of the corrie it looks like an infinity pool, just hanging in space with the mountains beyond appearing as shark’s fins on the horizon.
The final pull up to Ruadh-stac Mor, the highest peak on the circuit, is almost an anti-climax. The bitter wind made sure I wasn’t hanging around there long, a few snapshots and then frozen fingers stuffed back into gloves and off I went.
The second Munro of Spidean Coire nan Clach isn’t far away and the continuing ridge is wonderful. Be warned - Spidean has a sting in the tail. The big, prominent cairn you reach first is not the summit, it’s a smaller one a few metres further on. I once sat here in an inversion and saw someone at the first cairn who then turned and headed down thinking his job was done.
But I wasn’t heading for Spidean - this was all about the corrie and I wanted to capture the dying embers of the day from its bosom. I made it back to the edge just in time to sit and watch the sky turn yellow, then pink, then various tones of purple before deciding to really go for it with streaks of every colour.
The last light blinked out on the way down but it seemed the perfect ending for a day with one of the usual suspects.