Published 25th April 2023, 12:57

    WE pushed upwards through the mist under a spectral sun, emerging to a brilliant blue sky and towering clouds showcasing a landscape of pure brilliant white.

    It was one of those magical spring days of winter reprise, a last hurrah with all the best elements of the season just past, deep snow without the ferocious icy bite.

    Crampons and ice axes were carried but never left the bags. The going was soft around the summits of the four Munros on the Glen Lyon horseshoe, ankle-deep most of the time, knee-deep when we dipped into the more shaded hollows on the northern aspects.

    The high tops were invisible when we set off from the flat colours on the floor of the glen, and it wasn't long before we too were swallowed up as we breached the snowline, footprints and a column of vague figures stretching uphill into obscurity.

    As we rose, it felt the heat was rising as well. Any chill was now well behind us. The sun may still have been an occasional silver coin still straining for any significance, but this was hot work nonetheless. 

    The translucent light was suggesting an inversion just ahead, though the teasing went on until the very last second: it wasn't until the whole group had summited Carn Gorm that the veil was pulled away to reveal a near flawless blue overhead. 

    Just a few feet below, the clinging grey remained and a few minutes later we were back in its grip as we dropped north, ploughing, sometimes post-holing, through the deep snow. Behind us, the indefinite sun was now glowing an alien green, and the landscape ahead took on a weird sandwich effect, two slices of white with a lush filling.

    There were encouraging glimpses at the low point on the traverse to Meall Garbh, then another cover-up, followed by more blue-sky temptation all the way up to the tangled, stacked triangle of old iron fence posts that mark the high point. So far, we had been making good time, but as is so often the case when you are constantly having to wade through the deep, it started to gradually slip away. A few seconds here, a few seconds there: it all adds up. 

    Another dip, another temporary loss of clarity: a tiny, circular grey lochan standing out in the swathe of white, beyond that a mere hint of the bulky summits of the Ben Lawers range on a distant horizon through the gloom.

    Change was just a few steps away, however, the lower cloud dispersing at a rate of knots during the push up the next incline. Suddenly, the curtains were pulled back to reveal dramatic piled clouds, mountains upon mountains, with a perfectly painted azure ceiling. We could now see where we were going, and where we had been. 

    The expanse from Meall Garbh to the highest peak of the four, Carn Mairg, is the longest of the round and the continuing rise and fall over a series of tops was beginning to take its toll on the group. Weariness and the variation of pace had stretched the line to resemble that of a retreating army, straggling, and struggling, across the open landscape.

    Snow cover on the hills can be deceptive. There were some puzzled glances over to the streaked Schiehallion which seemed to have got off lighter despite being higher, a mere gentle brushing compared to our situation, while Ben Lawers and Co. also seemed to have escaped with a coating of lesser significance. 

    The reality was that it was at its deepest wherever you happened to be, a notion later confirmed by a group who had been attempting to reach the Lawers ridge via the northern slopes but failed due to chest-deep drifts that formed an eventually impenetrable barrier to any upward progress. 

    We took shelter amongst a spread of large boulders to regroup before the final summit push to Carn Mairg, the warmth of the effort of walking replaced quickly by numb fingers and toes, a stark reminder of the true nature of the day. The ascent was on a direct line to the large cairn, the diagonal path that takes a lazier approach buried beneath the deep powder, the descent then a steep drop through boulders and an old wall hidden by the depth of the snow.

    The final summit, Meall na Aighean, looked like it had lain undisturbed for years, its double humps unblemished from this vantage despite the obvious trench created by those who had waded over earlier. Drawing closer, the breaches in its defences became apparent, the channel switching back and forth as it slalomed its way across and up the slope like a well-engineered stalker's path.

    The likely fleeting nature of the snow was evident on the slip-sliding final descent, the white melting away under our feet to reveal the burgeoning spring colours ready to take control. Still, it was nice while it lasted.