Published 22nd January 2024, 15:36

    WHITE peaks and radiant copper slopes under a flawless blue, an alluring cocktail for two hills that had location, location, location written all over them.

    Perfect winter days are few and far between so it made sense to shrug off any leftover lethargy from a gloomy December and take off early to make the most of the rare opportunity.

    It was still a struggle leaving a warm bed in the pitch darkness of the small hours to head across country with the temperature gauge dropping steadily mile by mile, from a positively balmy 3C down to -6C in the heavily frozen confines of Glen Orchy.

    The sun fails to penetrate this deep wooded glen during winter: the rough, narrow road was icy, the trees were starched, brittle and white, and the river was emitting a low rumble as it washed over glassy rocks. In contrast to the solid whiteness in the depths, the walls of the enclosing heights were glowing orange as they caught fire with the rising sun. And I seemed to have the place all to myself.

    I was heading for the horseshoe route of Beinn Bhreac-liath and Beinn Udlaidh. These Corbetts sit slap bang in the middle of a wide circle of magnificent Munros, a sweep which takes in the Crianlarich and Bridge of Orchy hills, the Black Mount and the Cruachan and Ben Lui ranges.

    Micro spikes were essential for the short walk along the road and then up the rough track heading towards the unlit slopes of Beinn Bhreac-liath. The initial ascent was slow going, hard work finding a rhythm through the deep vegetation and soft snow and I began to wonder if tackling two hills in these conditions might mean running out of light.

    But once the ground steepened and became more solid, progress improved. Until I hit the first concrete snow ramp, that is. This wide white sheet highlighted the limitations of the micros. The angle was such that I didn't feel secure with these smaller points, and after a few tentative steps, I decided to stop and put on full crampons. 

    I have been particularly pleased with the Kahtoola spikes in the five years I have been using them. They have proved to be a comfort blanket on many occasions, and just a few days earlier I had used them for the full ascent of Creag Uchdag in Glen Lednock, so secure in fact that I had forgotten I even had them on. Then I had set off along the iced road towards the dam at a good speed still shaking my head a little in disbelief at the hordes heading off in the opposite direction for Ben Chonzie dressed as though going on a summer walk, barely an ice axe or crampon in sight.

    The difference in confidence and security was immediate with the crampons. There were more wide snow patches to cross but the stride became easier and my timing was restored. The long, gentle summit plateau of Beinn Bhreac-liath was a joy, a glittering combination of sun and snow and a reassuring crunch with every step. Higher peaks were suddenly poking up all around, the little summit cairn a mere speck on the horizon. 

    It had been 25 years since I was last here, an early morning misty traverse the opposite way round that revealed little. Now everything was on show; the crags and curious wall wrapped around Beinn Udlaidh, the defined edges of the snowline, the whorled stretches of sheet ice between the two. This was like discovering two new mountains.

    Ben Lui was the dominant presence during the crossing, towering over its neighbours and boosting its reputation as the mountain queen of the Southern Highlands, a formidable black face streaked with petrified white tears.

    The crampons proved their worth during the picked descent through the craggy terrain then up the heavily iced path on the other side. And once again, they made for simple, fast progress on the snow fields guarding the higher reaches.

    On the way over to the summit rocks, a diaphanous mist rolled in but its presence was fleeting and merely added to the beauty of the day as it briefly transformed the surrounding mountains into apparitions. Seconds later, the ghosts were gone, normal service resumed.

    The way down involved one short scramble through a broken rock wall and careful walking over a few thick swathes of ice, but once beyond these obstacles I switched back to the micros for the final leg.

    I arrived back in the shadowed glen to find that time appeared to have stood still in the six hours I had been on the hill, everything frozen in place just as I had found it.