Published 7th March 2020, 15:13

    THE photo wasn't of the best quality, the image grainy, slightly out of focus and now leached of colour and tone by the passage of time, but the smudge on the near horizon was still identifiable as a person.

    A tiny figure walking away, diminishing with every step, as the wind swept across the granite boulder and scree chaos on a raucous May day on Buachaille Etive Mor.

    It looks and sounds insignificant, undramatic, a similar scenario that is replicated hundreds of times every day over our mountains. But then I heard the whole story.

    The image belongs to a friend of the family. It sits in one of the many albums that make up his lifetime's collection of hill photographs. And being in his early 90s, it's quite a collection.

    Mountain days create lasting memories. Some are joyous, some tragic, but all are precious in their own right, and they become even more precious as ageing and illness start to take a toll and the mind slides rapidly into cognitive decline.

    Each time I visit, he recognises me as 'that mountain guy' and asks if I would like to see his photos. And every time I sit down and look through them with him. Apart from the fact you can see his eyes light up and a younger self re-emerging when we open up the books, I enjoy this window into the past. The fashions and the equipment may be different but the mountains are eternal.

    Everyday menial tasks may now be proving more of a struggle, but the memories sparked by these images are still clear and precise. Small details and the occasional name may be misplaced or blurred but generally his recall is excellent. That's why his Buachaille tale has proved so frustrating.

    On the day in question, he and two of his regular walking buddies were heading for Stob Dearg, the highest peak on the Buachaille, after climbing on to the ridge via the Coire na Tulaich route.

    As they neared the summit, heads down against the elements, they met a man coming the other way. The usual civilities were exchanged, quickly in this case because of the conditions, and then they went their separate ways. They stopped, backs to the squall for some relief, and watched the figure grow smaller and then drop out of sight. It was during these few minutes the picture was taken. This was the only other person they had met.

    They later learned that someone had come to grief on the hill, and my friend said they suspected that this was the man they had met. Unforgettable, he said. That final image, that small figure disappearing over the ridge-line, had remained with him since. He couldn't get it out of his head.

    The tale intrigued me but extensive searches and enquiries in the hunt for confirmation or further details initially drew a blank. The pencilled date on the back of the photo had become illegible, ghostly figures that meant it almost impossible to make out with any precision. My friend had thought it was 1983 or 84, and being pre-digital, this was the one and only shot they had taken on the Buachaille that day. Nowadays, we would have a whole sheet of images.

    The only figure in the picture is our mystery man so it was even hard to match with any other pictures taken around the same time of year. No surprise also that with our fast-changing weather, looking for similar conditions proved no help.

    Then a breakthrough. Mountain rescue veteran David 'Heavy' Whalley had looked through his records and those of the Glencoe team but found nothing on these dates. But I began to wonder if the decade had been correct, and asked David if he could take a look at May 1993, and this time he found something. There was a fatality on the Buachaille that month. The team had been called out on May 19, 1993, to recover a body after an accident in the Curved Ridge area, but this information only threw up more doubts on my friend's recollection. 

    The man they had met had been heading west from the summit towards the drop into Coire na Tulaich, so if he had climbed Curved Ridge, he would have already completed it safely. Anyone going up this way and not making it to the top could not have been spotted by the three on the main ridge. It seems more likely that having heard days later about a fatality on the hill on the same day he was there, the facts and details have become merged over time in my friend's memories with that chance meeting.

    It's always fascinating to listen to the hill tales of previous generations, and to flick through the monochrome or sepia images that echo or enhance our own experiences. But even with the best of intentions, it's the nature of word of mouth that much is lost or obfuscated with each telling.

    With his two companions also long gone, and each passing day seeing further deterioration and uncertainty, the chances of discovering the whole truth about this are fading fast. That haunting image of a lone figure may remain just another lost soul in the mountains.