A LONG weekend in the Cairngorms with Storm Ciara bearing down, so the high mountains were never going to be an option.
Wild weather calls for considered decisions. There's a big difference between testing yourself in extreme conditions and recklessly throwing all caution to the wind.
I suppose it was pertinent then, with the anniversary of Nan Shepherd's birth just days away, that I followed in the spirit, and possibly the footsteps, of this most accomplished stravaiger on this wildest of weekends.
Her seminal work, The Living Mountain, has proved an inspiration to countless hill-goers, the poetic beauty of the writing augmenting the philosophy that being among mountains is more relevant than the often obsessive need to summit.
The storm was felt on every one of the three days, although Aviemore and its surroundings seemed to fare better than areas further south. The journey north was also full of contradictions, banks of thick fog, then bright sunshine and blue skies, disguising the chill and ferocity of the wind.
The original thought had been to visit the Affric mountains, but sense quickly overtook ambition, the threatened wind speeds and possible shrouded tops a gamble I was no longer willing to consider. I stuck with the clear certainty of Glen Feshie, a wander south to the Ruigh Aiteachain bothy, which gave the option of a return over the tableland of two Munros.
There's been a lot of recent restoration work in this glen, but the after-effects of Storm Frank from a few years back are still in evidence. There are two water crossings that can prove troublesome; the Allt Fhearnagan is usually fordable even though it sometimes means wet legs, but the second, the Allt Garbhlach, is a much more serious proposition, dangerous after heavy rains.
There have been cases of parties spending a night or two at the bothy and then being unable to cross here, forced to retreat back to the shelter. Some of the most severe damage is evident here. The path from the north suddenly comes to an abrupt halt, a sudden drop caused by the power of the river washing away a section of the embankment. The river bed is now an expanded boulder field littered with fallen trees, and the continuation of the path on the other side now hangs in the air.
Further on, there are more necessary diversions away from the riverbank due to subsidence, and fallen giants lie everywhere, the ground beneath their massive roots having been cut away by the raging waters. The terrain opens out to emerge at a graveyard of once mighty Scots pines, bent, twisted and toppled over the years by the elements. Two giant survivors stand like guardians forming a gateway to the way ahead.
The bothy was warm and welcoming, the maintenance officer in place with the kettle on, offering a tea service to passing walkers. The consensus was that the high route back would be too unpleasant, and I was happy to retrace my route amid signs of the gathering storm.
The overnight hit had been wet, but there was a window of opportunity forecast before the main event so I left early from Glenmore Lodge in a bid to visit the Fords of Avon refuge before things started going seriously downhill.
The wind rush through the trees was thunderous, the fast-changing skies providing bouts of horizontal sleet and bright sunshine. Even that normal oasis of calm, the little green lochan, had white horses galloping across its surface. The path up to the shoulder of Bynack More provided views of two different worlds; to the east the forests of Abernethy were bathed in sunshine, greens, browns and blues sparkling; in contrast, the skies to the west were filled with towering piles of angry clouds roiling over menacing, snow-dusted leviathans.
The ferocity of the wind was increasing with every step. Sometimes it was difficult to move, other times I was forcibly moved, and when I was blown clean off the path, I decided enough was enough. On descent, I met a couple of groups heading up. Unsurprisingly, it didn't take long for them to come to the same conclusion and retreat. Judging by the numbers wandering around Aviemore in walking gear, it seemed a popular decision.
The rain arrived on time, but the worst of the winds seem to have swept further south. I had to be on Deeside early the following morning for an assignment, and my biggest concern was having to cross the high road over The Lecht.
It was all clear until Tomintoul, then as the road started to climb I moved from the darkness into the mist, then into the snow. The lights of the deserted ski centre loomed out of the gloom, then disappeared again, and then I was dropping back into first light and clear roads.
I met the Boots and Beards group at Balmoral, and we headed out into the Ballochbuie Forest. The rain blew off and on, and the wind rushing through the trees was competing with the roar of the raging streams.
The waterfalls were at their best after days of rain, but the most uplifting part of the outing was seeing so many happy faces enjoying the opportunity to be outdoors. No high tops needed, just the cool kiss of nature. I'm sure Nan Shepherd would have approved.