DECEMBER in Torridon. I had expected long treks through deep snow, glistening icicles and frozen waters and those iconic peaks puffed up in their heavy coats of white.
Instead, I found blue skies and views stretching forever and barely a patch of snow.
I also found a new favourite mountain sitting quietly in the midst of giants. Beinn a’ Chearcaill was a revelation.
My original plan had been to head into Beinn Eighe’s Coire Mhic Fhearchair for some winter shots, then next day tackle the crenulated ridge of mighty Liathach for more of the same. The lack of snow cover, however, changed my mind. I wanted something different.
I rose early and left my base near the shores of Upper Loch Torridon in face-numbing cold. It was still dark yet there was light on both sides of the road through the glen.
The northern slopes were being washed in copper and gold by the rising of the low winter sun, but to the south the landscape was still in a state of deep freeze, every blade of grass turned brittle in the shadows.
Meanwhile, Loch Maree seemed as if it was being swallowed by fire as the morning glow raced along the water, while the rock bastion of Slioch was burning red high above.
I parked near Grudie Bridge where the inevitable hydro scheme was being installed, but the path which leads south was high above any workings and I was soon out of earshot of the rumblings of the heavy plant.
A large cairn about three kilometres in marks a split in the path, and I took the right fork heading up into Coire Briste. It’s a good, steady path but most of my time was spent on the edges trying to stay off the sheet ice.
When I reached a small loch on the ridgeline, it was time to head south again, this time pathless through a series of rock plates, little lochans, patches of thick heather and waterlogged grass and moss now crispy and crunchy thanks to the freezing temperatures.
Higher up the mountain seemed to consist of a series of levelled floors, each holding its own lochan coated in ice, each with its own distinctive view.
And then I reached the final floor, the summit platform, a flat area of sandstone littered with individual boulders. It has the feel of an alien landscape, something that might have been dreamed up by the creators of the X-Files.
The cairn sits at the far end but it’s merely a distraction in this forest of rock. And once you have managed to lift your eyes from your immediate surroundings, there’s one of the finest views in the country.
Beinn a’ Chearcaill means ‘mountain of the circle’ and it certainly provides the perfect circular feast for the eyes. It’s all encompassing.
North by north-east leads you over Loch Maree to Beinn Lair and Slioch with the Fisherfield peaks behind, then coming clockwise there are the Corbetts of Meall a’ Ghuibhais and Ruadh Stac Beag, then Beinn Eighe, Liathach, Beinn Dearg and Beinn Alligin until you close the circle with Beinn an Eoin and a view up to distant Gairloch.
The only disappointment was down to a problem we don’t face too often in Scotland - too much sunshine. The blazing orb was directly over Beinn Eighe and the effect of the much lauded peek into Coire Mhic Fhearchair was lost in brilliant white light.
Liathach was at its intimidating best, a long, black silhouette of towers and spikes, rainbow rays of light finding chinks in the wall and lighting up a thousand pools of water below.
It was hard to believe this was the final month of the year. I sat there for an hour drinking it all in, loath to leave in case I missed something.
The day before had been good, a late run up Beinn na h-Eaglaise in stunning conditions which provided a different set of Torridon and Coulin sightings, but this had raised the expedition to new levels.
The temperature kept dropping on the drive home. Loch Luichart had ice floes on the surface and a hanging layer of icy mist cutting it off from the glazed white hills.
It all added to my belief that even Mulder and Scully would have been impressed with these two days in the north-west.