FAILURE can often be the springboard to greater success and that was certainly the case on my first encounter with Creag Meagaidh.
It was one of the early night forays when winter had not long packed its bags and spring seemed still unsure of purpose. I had travelled north confident in the promise of a fine clear day coming over the horizon, the chance to enjoy a high-level circuit of three Munros.
The cloud blanket had remained stubbornly close to the ground so I delayed my start until 4.30am. Once I did get going, the darkness retreated with every step although it was only giving way to fuzzy levels of grey. The mountains were still invisible and there was a noticeable wind chill, but that merely increased my anticipation of a spectacular reveal when the light finally broke through. Only it never did.
I knew I was heading uphill, but there were no sight clues to my whereabouts, always just the next few feet of angled ground with nothing beyond. Eventually I reached the remains of the cornices still clinging to the scalloped edges of the ridge and pushed through.
I was cold and wet by the time I managed to find the summit pile of Carn Liath adrift in an ocean of grey. I continued blindfold along the undulating ridge in an eerie stillness where the monotony was broken only by the occasional cairned top and then a line of rusty fence posts, to eventually reach the highest point of Stob Coire Poite Ardair.
I had already resigned myself to a soulless and sightless plod on to Creag Meagaidh. But as I made my way across the deep snow in the intervening col, I suddenly felt a freezing wetness in one of my boots. No surprise really, since the sole had come loose and was flopping around like a landed salmon.
It would have been madness to carry on – I decided Creag Meagaidh would have to wait for another day. It was a slow and careful descent down the steep, slippery boulder slope of The Window and a long wet one out from Coire Ardair with the constant slapping sound accompanying every alternate footstep.
Yet that moment of misery turned out to a blessing in disguise. Two years later and at the same time of year, the next night attempt at Creag Meagaidh was carried out in stunning conditions: the rising sun lighting up the snow-streaked corrie walls with their perfect reflection in the ink-pot lochan tucked beneath. The Window was again banked high with snow and the cornices were still in situ but the mood was entirely different.
The views from the summit stretched flawlessly in every direction, and the circle was closed with a descent of the ridge above the south side of Coire Ardair over a series of tops that provided a superb bird's-eye appreciation of the spectacular situation of the constantly shrinking v-shape on the skyline.
That ascent has stuck with me over all these years. I realised then that this was the only way to do Creag Meagaidh. There may be three Munros on this circuit, but Meggy is the undisputed superstar, the Diana Ross or Beyonce of the trio, the one with that extra measure of quality that leaves the others looking on in awe, always to remain in their shadow.
Carn Liath and Stob Poite Coire Ardair are interesting enough mountains in their own right but although they may have the required height to play in the same league, there's no doubt who's the champion. When it comes to the Creag Meagaidh circuit, less is most definitely more.
It's understandable that those in the early stages of their Munro bagging days would be keen to tick off all three on one outing, but the idea of doing them the way I had planned first time time out has never crossed my mind since.
No thought of trudging up the dreary slopes of Carn Liath or that long march along the ridge with mere glimpses of those towering cliffs and that patch of blue sitting tantalisingly in the bowl below. Better to take the superb path up Coire Ardair which teases with every twist and turn before arriving at the splash of blue in that magnificent amphitheatre, soaring faces all around and the prospect of the exciting push up to that distant chink in the rocky armour.
It's one of the great 'Wow' moments in the Scottish mountains, right up there with the unfaltering views from the summit of A' Mhaighdean, the great sudden reveal of Coire Mhic Fhearchair on Beinn Eighe or that from Tom na Gruagaich on Beinn Alligin. It shouldn't be relegated to an afterthought, a handy route of descent to service three ticks. Besides, using The Window as a descent route only removes all the spectacle and drama from what should be a mountaineering classic. It becomes simply another unpleasant, and often tiresome, way to finish.
Whenever I have taken anyone to these mountains, it's been by the Coire Ardair route. It's always a joy to watch the faces and study the reactions of those who have never experienced this magnificent vista before.
The first time was seven years after that initial night of frustration. On another dramatic outing served by heat and light, it proved nigh impossible to pull my walking partners away from the side of the lochan, then equally difficult to vacate the col at the top of The Window where they used bivvy bags to sledge on the slopes and posed for pictures in snow-holes that made them look like adventurers from the Victorian era. The summit seemed almost an insignificance after that.
The forecast for that day of extreme temperatures had been for a rash of thunderstorms moving in, but we had allowed plenty of time. Or so we thought. The leisurely pace had left us in danger of being overtaken by the torrents on the way down. The group decision was to go back down through The Window, while I nipped out to claim a couple of distant Tops before descending by the southern flank. We made it home and dry just before the heavens opened.
Well, the dry part didn't quite apply to myself. In the dash to beat the downpour, I took the stepping stones over the river at too fast a lick and ended up fully immersed, but at least I didn't get rained on as well.
A more recent outing, planned to satisfy those looking for their three ticks and with an eye on the clock, was thankfully switched to the more interesting way round to avoid the worst of the fierce winds blasting across the ridges. It offered protection most of the way up then an easier wind-propelled walk out with a fast run down from Carn Liath at the end.
Since that dark night many years ago, my excursions to those two right-hand hills have been self-contained, usually involving outlying Munro or Corbett Tops, but I have resisted the temptation to also include Creag Meagaidh. Why settle for an inferior route? I'm simply not prepared for the lack of satisfaction created by the loss of The Window ascent or the descent of the south ridge.
The only time I have digressed since that first visit nearly 30 years ago was when the rare opportunity arose to traverse Creag Meagaidh from the east, coming in over Beinn a' Chaorainn from Roughburn in Glen Spean. Despite being mid-April, the mountains were still holding a lot of snow and a further Arctic blast over the previous 24 hours had sent temperatures tumbling below zero along with heavy new falls.
We battled freezing, scouring winds to reach the notorious triple-topped summit ridge of Beinn a' Chaorainn, making sure we kept well out of reach of the heavily corniced edges before dropping to the Bealach a' Bharnish for the long pull up the other side. We were always walking beneath wonderful skies, black, bubbling and threatening one minute, fluffy white cotton balls fleeing across a sea of azure the next. Small flurries of snow and hail blew in on occasion without real conviction to remind us of their territorial rights.
This was a great insight into the quieter, more secretive, side of mighty Meagaidh. The depth of the snow made it tough going as we followed the trail of buried fence posts on to the plateau of this complex mountain where long flatter sections became squeezed into an hour-glass shape, intercut by huge corries with soaring cliffs ringing most entrances and exits.
We decided against a descent through The Window due to the avalanche threat. Instead we stayed high as long as possible, again slipping through the narrowing terrain between the Coire Ardair cliffs and those of the Moy Corrie on to the Sron a’ Choire ridge, as ferociously driven showers added to the Alpine atmosphere.
From our lofty route that nick in the ridge looked to be filled to the brim while all around the black and white streaked ramparts cried danger. With the faces this heavily loaded, there was no doubt we had made the right choice.
Creag Meagaidh had once again proved that when it comes to the spectacular, it is in a league of its own.