Published 15th August 2021, 13:12

    WE were struggling uphill to an invisible peak, every landmark, every reference point, buried under the cloying grey blanket that had stubbornly refused to relent.

    The promise had been of blue sky and sunshine and we were confident the conditions we found ourselves in since starting the ascent from the ruin of Abyssinia were merely a delayed reaction. An hour or so in and we weren't so sure. 

    Even the lower ground behind us was being swallowed up with every upward step. Glen Kinglas was starting to look like a cruel illusion, a mythical land to which we could never return. The parking area at Butterbridge was gone. Our car was there, but it could just as easily have been hijacked and on its way down the A83 for all we knew; there was no way of confirming, no reassuring glimpse of red from these misty heights. 

    The compass was the one ally as we threaded our way through rocky outcrops, encouraged when the ground kept rising, prodded by doubt whenever there was any slight decline. 

    On days when visibility is an alien concept, the timescale seems to shift, progress fails to register. It can feel as if you are trying to walk up a down escalator. The only thing we knew for certain was that the summit of Beinn Chorranach was up there. Somewhere. The thought of continuing on to Beinn Ime now seemed foolish, pointless. The connection could be complex and therefore fraught, the chances of going astray and on to potentially dangerous ground increasing.

    We stopped for a breather, certainly not for the view. It may have appeared we were looking to the heavens for assistance. We weren't (not intentionally at least), but whatever we did, it seemed to work. In that split second the grey curtains parted and a wall of light broke through. It changed our perspective instantly.

    Suddenly we were staring at a massive mountain directly to the south: Beinn Ime, rising out of the swirling mists, soaring endlessly skyward as if Everest had been relocated to Arrochar, the streaky snow remnants on its sheer faces blindingly white. This instant, intense apparition seemed to subvert logic. The difference in height was only around 200 metres, but with little to measure it against at that moment, it may as well have been 2,000.

    That was nearly 35 years ago and it was the first time I had felt like a real mountaineer. We were still relative novices, and every mountain day until then had been in either perfect clarity or perfect non-clarity where the cloud never lifted.

    We picked days we knew would be good. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But that was the first day I encountered the great reveal, and it stuck with me. These are the summer conditions I love more than any in the mountains. We are not talking inversions. Everyone loves inversions and they can never be surpassed. No, this is about days when you walk and walk in cloud for so long – and then it all blows away in an instant.

    Blue-sky days are glorious, but too many of them can make you blasé. They are better as an occasional treat rather than a regular meal. They are proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Imagine a birthday party where every present was handed over unwrapped. Everything is there from the outset, that wonderful element of surprise lost. There's no sense of mystery. 

    It's the same with hill days. Seeing the target summit from every step of the walk can be invigorating, but the novelty soon wears off and the stature of the mountains can even feel diminished.

    At least in the winter months, the snows define every contour and reinstate a sense of proportion to the landscape. In spring and autumn, the ever-changing colours can produce the same effect. But in summer, I feel we often need a bit of uncertainty to bring out the best in our mountain days. Just the right amount, mind you. Climbers and walkers have a reputation for being hard to please. It's either too hot, too cold; too wet, not wet enough; too windy, not windy enough to keep the midges away and so on. Goldilocks was a mere amateur in comparison, although I reckon none of us are as fussy when it comes to porridge.

    Being a bit of cinephile, I always compare these moments of great reveal to those of my childhood days at the old picture houses. You sat in the dark in great anticipation, excitement building through the peripheries, then finally the curtains parted and the main event appeared.

    Taking it these terms, one experience on Ben Alder came into the Cecil B. DeMille category (for younger readers, think Spielberg but with fewer dinosaurs). Our journey along Loch Ericht had been warm and oppressive, a rogue posse of mist rising slowly from the calm waters every so often, the distant peaks taking part in a massive game of hide and seek.

    By the time we passed the closed-up plague house that is Culra Bothy, visibility had become more patchy. We laughed at the campers trying to pack up their gear as they gyrated around, arms flailing at an invisible enemy. It wasn't long before we were taking part in the same dance.

    Soaked feet suggested a change of socks would be wise before tackling the Long Leachas. We sat down – and they were on us in seconds, the worst I had experienced in years. It's quite a feat to be able to replace socks and put boots back on while still walking upwards but sometimes with great adversity comes great dexterity.

    The wispy cloud was intense in places, less so in others. All the neighbours popped in for a bit, but sometimes they kept their curtains shut. The surrounding landscape was reminiscent of a land of volcanoes, plumes of fast-moving grey and white boiling off their summits. When we reached the point of descent from Ben Alder into the Bealach Breabag for the continuation to Beinn Bheoil, we got our real wow moment.

    DeMille may have famously parted the Red Sea in his Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, but it had nothing on this: the grey curtains drew back on either side, rolling away in perfect symmetry to reveal a line of sight all the way down Loch Ericht to the forests of Rannoch. It didn't matter what happened after that: we had been blessed with that one magical moment that lights up every single hill expedition. 

    I had a similar experience on Sgurr na Ciche, that magnificent lump of rock in the Rough Bounds of Knoydart. Every outing on this mountain has been a bit touch-and-go weather-wise: first in December snows when it finally deigned to give me an audience after hours of shyness, the others all in fleeting glimpses. Magnificent glimpses, I might add, but still glimpses. There was a never a point where I felt I could depend on a perfect view.

    Last time out, we had taken our chances in the eye of the storm. The day before had been horrendous, and the day after promised much of the same again, so we squeezed into the middle and went for it. It wasn't raining but there was water running everywhere, and allied to the threat and the condensation levels, we had been wearing waterproofs from the off. It was hot work and the midges were making sure standing still was not an option.

    The views had been decent all the way from Sgurr nan Coireachan. Every sighting from the ramparts of the wall along Garbh Chioch Mhor was promising. The next col came and went and the mountain was still pin sharp despite the swirling greys. But as we made the final steps to the summit, the cloud closed its jaws and swallowed the landscape. It looked like Sgurr na Ciche had gone into hiding once again. We gave it five minutes, then ten. We were beginning to think the cloud was cruelly biding its time, that as soon as we admitted defeat and started heading down, it would roll away, satisfied with its coup d'etat. 

    For some reason, I stood staring into the grey, hoping to part the cloud like a mountaineering version of Uri Geller. It didn't work. Maybe I should have checked my spork to see if the energies had been channelled there. But just as I turned and started walking away, my partner shouted in her best pantomime voice: “It's behind you.” And it was: clouds exiting stage left and right in equal measure, revealing the Knoydart peaks and the waters and shores of Loch Nevis. 

    There are certain mountains where the odds of this happening are raised exponentially due to their ability to seemingly attract clouds for a greater proportion of the time. Beinn a' Ghlo is not the mountain of mist for nothing. Even in the clearest weather, Suilven manages to have cloud wrestling around its summits at some time most days, while An Teallach smoulders like an active volcano despite every peak within miles existing in crystal clarity.

    One former colleague believed he had done something to upset the weather gods in a past life as every visit to Glen Shiel saw the summits shrouded while blue skies ruled elsewhere. His tales of doom were legendary, the grizzled old-timer warning those pesky Scooby-Doo kids away from the haunted mine. “It's the sea mists, you see.” Which sounded somewhat contradictory, but we took his point. Boy, did we enjoy showing him our Glen Shiel photos when we returned.

    There are occasions, of course, when some would prefer the cloud to stay down for the whole day. I'm thinking of the Aonach Eagach, and the great divide between those who prefer to see what's coming up and those who would rather not know.

    Having experienced both, I would plump for the former. It's too easy to let the imagination run riot when all that looms ahead are threatening, amorphous shapes in the mist, huge rock dragons that send a shiver down the spine. The potential pitfalls become an unknown, the imagination seeing every gap as the gateway into an abyss. But when the cloud blows away, the threats become diluted. The character of the ridge changes completely. It is still a serious proposition requiring complete concentration and a cool head, but at least there is an understanding of what is to come.

    I remember two friends feeling a little nervous as we approached the chimney climb having seen nothing since we had risen above the 2,000-foot mark. Then the cloud dropped off the scimitar edge of the ridge to become contained in the cauldron to our left, bubbling and boiling in the fury of its sudden containment, and we were left with the unusual sight of a ridge split neatly in half. 

    All the obstacles ahead were clear, every passage obvious. It was the ideal solution for the everyone in the party: if you didn't want to know the score, you could look away now to the left; if you preferred to see the coming attractions, you kept your eyes right. And if, like me, you love the drama of sudden cloud shifts, it was the best of both worlds.