EARLY afternoon, and I'm sitting on an outcrop of black, volcanic rock enjoying the sun as a stream tumbles down alongside me over a series of gentle steps.
It's not exactly how I had pictured a February trip to Mull. This was more autumn than winter; browns and golds rather than white, soft ground rather than frozen.
It was all a bit last-minute, and I had to settle for a later ferry than preferred, but it was an opportunity to fit in three days' consecutive walking. The island was quiet, coffee shops and guest houses still closed, the roads deserted. Even the pub atmosphere was subdued. The hills were quiet too. Three days of wandering and I never came across another soul.
The day was drawing to a close when I arrived and the mountain skyline was being caressed by a light mist which muted the late sun and turned the island landscape a hazy blue. I reckoned I could squeeze in an ascent of Beinn Talaidh, maybe catch the sun dropping below the horizon, and then make it down before the night was swallowed by darkness.
Beinn Talaidh is Mull's lost Corbett. It was once the lowest peak in that category, but a re-survey found it to be 2499ft (761.6m), a tantalising one foot below Corbett height, and it is now listed as the highest Graham. It had already been struck down before I completed the Corbetts, so this would be my first ascent. It was unrelentingly steep, but the result of such a continuous angle with no respite means a fast climb. I was at the summit in just over an hour.
I was too early for a real sunset, but the way the haze was smothering the surrounding peaks probably meant I wouldn't have seen it anyway. The wind was too fierce to hang about, so I was down and back to base before the blackness took over.
I spent the evening in the company of Emil, a Latvian enjoying a tour of Scotland before taking up a new job, and Jim and Rosita, a father and daughter from Arizona, who were getting darts lessons from the locals.
Next day I took the tight, winding road along the side of Loch Spelve and Loch Uisg, the fields alive with herds of deer, meandering Highland cattle and sheep and flocks of geese and various seabirds. The tops of the hills were blanketed in grey and the ground was saturated but it was clammy and warm.
I went through a rusty gate and took the path north towards the three lochs for a mile or so before cutting off east over complex ground on the rise to Creach Beinn. The climb felt never-ending, a constant feeling of getting nowhere, the mist refusing to give any clue of what lay ahead.
The summit came almost as a surprise, and with it came a lifting of the veil to reveal Ben Buie, the second hill of the circuit, across the glen. It looked a long way off. The drop between the two is such that many walkers choose to do both as separate climbs.
The timings given for the combination are certainly suspect. I take my hat off to anyone who can manage the traverse in two hours, especially with so much tricky ground to cross. The descent was cautious, the floor of the glen full of deep, grassy booby traps, and the slog up the 2,000ft opposite in the now baking sun felt interminable.
The reward is worth it, and so is the satisfaction when you get there. The views were wide, the lochs in every direction sparkling. I caught the sunset in my rear mirror all the way back.
Day Three, I was up at 6am and ready to walk by 7.15. It was clear and sunny from the outset, but there was a strong, cold wind, a reversal of the previous day's starting conditions. The mist would return later in the day to cloak everything in grey again.
I took the grassy path up from the old bridge up to the col, the triple guard of honour of Ben More, A' Chioch and Ben Fhada standing dead ahead. A steady plod led to the Graham twins of Cruach Dearg and Corra-bheinn, then two big drops took me over to the final peak of the day, Cruach Choireadail. Five summits, and a lot of ascent.
These hills may not be the highest, but they make you work. It seems harder to gain any real perspective on these heights. They all seem like monsters from afar, sheer-sided faces above deep glens, a lack of footfall or paths between them to mark the easiest lines. There's no long, linking ridges like you find on the Munros. Size really isn't everything.
The day wasn't finished yet. A scree run down and a short hop to the lip of the hanging corrie, and I found my sunspot for a deserved rest. I was happy to soak it up – winter will return soon enough.