I SPENT two days last week staring into the abyss. Well, more than one abyss actually. And there wasn’t really much staring, but there was a lot of dangling.
That’s just the way it is when you are tackling the most fearsome peaks in the country.
A few weeks ago the weather scuppered my attempt on the Black Cuillin of Skye. I thought the chance had gone for this year, but on Sunday the forecast of an unexpected late window had me heading west again.
Settled conditions meant that the hillwalkers’ bete noire, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, was now back on the menu. I could also throw in Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Basteir. All the bad boys in one fell swoop.
The trip had the feelgood factor from the word go. I managed to get a bed at the Croft bunkhouse at Portnalong, near the end of road along Loch Harport. It was quirky and welcoming and it also had a United Nations of guests.
There was Isabelle from Quebec, here covering the Referendum. There was Clive, doing the Munros from his home in Luxembourg. Two guys from New Zealand, others from Austria, Germany, Hungary, France, Holland, Switzerland. Oh yes, and a couple of Scots.
The sun was turning the waters of the loch liquid gold next morning as I headed into Glen Brittle to meet mountain guide Jonah.
The peaks faded from black through every shade of blue, stretched out in layers to the horizon during our steady pull up the shattered rocky ridge. And then you get the first glimpse of the Pinnacle. No matter how many times you see this impossible blade of rock looming up out of the slope, it still has the power to induce feelings of awe.
From a distance it looks like a pleated fin rearing up from the back of a giant stone dinosaur. The long side is a series of narrow steps which is not particularly difficult, but you are always conscious of the big drops on either side. In windy and wet conditions it can be especially nerve-wracking for all but the most fearless of rock tigers.
Some days you can face a bit of wait as a various selection of guides, clients and sundry climbers queue for their turn. But we caught it in a quiet moment and we were up and then down the other side in no time and heading for our second objective, the impressive rock fortress of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.
We stashed our rucksacks in a small cave away from the reach of the ravens - they have long since learned how to open zips - and then twisted our way up through a jumble of huge boulders to the summit eyrie. The descent is into the dramatic confines of Coire Lagan, impossible rock sculptures and towering cliffs all around, and we passed groups of people who had come up to watch the bellowing stags in full rut.
The sight of the sun going down over Macleod’s Tables sent me to bed happy. It was bright again as we set off from Sligachan the next morning, but there was an autumn chill and parts of the sheltered ground had a light covering of ice, while in the shadows of Coire a’ Bhasteir the rocks were coated with frost.
Sgurr nan Gillean was the first objective and Jonah allowed me to take my pick of the chimneys to get on to the gnarly west ridge. A few delicate moves tiptoeing around rocky towers with vertiginous drops and we were sitting at the tiny summit. Going down means a different chimney and an abseil. It starts with a crab walk, back flat against one wall, feet against the other, until it opens out and you can find little ledges to give your feet something to feel secure about.
Am Basteir was next, a series of loose ledges rising at a consistent gradient to the top and then came the highlight of the day. I have long wanted to summit the menacing, adjoining tower known as the Bhasteir Tooth, but the combination of problematic route finding and the small matter of two awkward roped descents meant I had never quite got round to it.
This where the real dangling came in. First was the short roped drop to get past an overhanging ledge and then the biggie, the abseil down to the foot of a dark, dank chimney. In between we had simply walked up a knobbly ramp to the summit of the Tooth.
But then, that descent. It involved a drop into a small cave using in situ slings and then the leap of faith - stepping backwards off a tiny ledge, through a gap, into thin air. This is the ultimate in trust. When you finally take that step you know in a split second if your partner has got it right. And, just for the record, I never doubted Jonah for a minute.
Back at the Croft, we rounded up our friends from around the world and headed out to a night of live music at the pub. Scotland in a nutshell in two days - beauty, thrills, hospitality and sore heads.