Published 25th July 2023, 14:28

    THE heavy overnight rains had swept through leaving a leaden sky but also a brief window of opportunity before the next deluge.

    These fleeting moments often provide some of the best and most beautiful mountain experiences with the constant tussle between light and shade, the renewed energy of myriad streams, sunshine on glistening and weeping faces.

    It's sensible to watch the skies, but if you simply plan your outings based on weather forecasts chances are you will only venture on the hills on a handful of days. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't. My last few big walks have fallen into the former category, so much so that I was pondering breaking the habit of a lifetime and buying a lottery ticket.

    I had set off for Beinn Enaiglair with limited optimism and full waterproofs but at least the ascent of this Corbett south of Ullapool shouldn't take more than a few hours, even with the ambition of doing it by the longer route.

    The first section of path was overgrown in places and consistently boggy, but once past Home Loch it improved for the continuation that contoured the hill and climbed alongside the waters of the Allt na h-Ighine, rising to a high col with superb views down Loch Glascarnoch. And from there it became one of those stalkers' works of art, invisible from below and following a series of zig-zags that always seem to be taking the longest way round yet arriving at the destination faster and with less effort.

    So far, the waterproofs had been superfluous but I regarded them as a lucky charm, so they stayed on despite the rapidly improving and settled conditions.

    As is the case with so many Corbetts in the midst of serious Munro country, the summit cairn provides a superb viewpoint: here were the Fannaichs, the Fisherfields and the Beinn Dearg group all in the clear enjoying the sunshine.

    I knew it couldn't last. By the time I had returned to the loch, I could hear the thunder and see the blackness that had engulfed the Fannaichs and was heading my way. I made it to the car with minutes to spare before the heavens opened. My choice of hill had been the right one. Friends who had opted for longer walks in the Fannaichs had to endure thunder and lightning, constant soakings and difficult crossings of swollen streams. 

    A week earlier, we had gathered for the annual pilgrimage up Buachaille Etive Mor. We have been doing this walk for 25 years now and only once have we had to cancel for safety reasons due to extreme weather. It felt like this could be the second time. In the days before, the forecast had shifted on an hourly basis. The final verdict was a sunny and clear morning but with winds of 40mph plus on the tops and severe thunderstorms roaring in from early afternoon.

    We started up Coire na Tuliach slightly earlier than planned, a little extra time to ensure we could at least reach the main summit, Stob Dearg, and get downhill before the conditions did likewise. Just as we neared the top of the corrie, one walker on the way down told us he just had a ping on his phone, a warning that there was a severe squall heading in. The good news was that it would be short-lived. But a few minutes later, another walker received word that this was actually the 'big one' arriving much earlier than forecast.

    As we reached the head of the corrie, the sunshine disappeared, the skies darkened fast and started firing bullets. The sudden increase in wind speed was knocking us off our feet. Forward movement was impossible, but no one fancied a retreat down the steep angle of the corrie due to the likelihood of being blown over. 

    We stood where we were for about ten minutes, unable – and also unwilling – to attempt to make any move. But as we were all pondering what that might entail, the sky to the south began to show patches of blue and white and the blackness had shifted north to swallow the Mamores. The wind was still relentless, but we made the decision to stagger on to the summit. Five minutes later and we were walking along in a flat calm. Summer had broken out again.

    The initial plan had been to do the whole ridge but we had been prepared to curtail the day. Now, with the restoration of fine conditions, we decided to carry on in the knowledge that we could bail out down the more central and protected Coire Altruim if required.

    There was no need. We passed over Stob na Doire and Stob Coire Altruim in sweltering temperatures and continued out to Stob na Broige, the second Munro at the end of the ridge. The sunshine had faded but although the sky was darker, the cloud was high and there was no suggestion of imminent rain. If the forecast storms were coming, they were running way behind schedule.

    We made it down the corrie and out to the road, enjoyed drinks sitting outside at the Kingshouse and were almost home before there was any sign of rain. Sometimes you can tip-toe along the edge of thunderstorms and get lucky.