TWO Sundays, seven days apart, two magnificent sunrises from the top of a mountain.
Starting out at 2am to avoid the recent weekend hordes, sticking to the eastern glens to catch the most promising skies. Both times it worked to perfection.
First up, Mount Keen. The most easterly Munro and so the first to see the rising sun, clear track and path making for comfortable night walking.
The Invermark parking area bore the signs of a busy couple of days, spaces still occupied and cars squeezed awkwardly off road. The drive in was also hectic, rabbits dashing into and out of the headlights with intense regularity. Now, just darkness apart from the beam of the head torch, just silence apart from the crunch on the rocky surface of the track.
On night walks scale is reversed, the large proving more elusive than the small in the dark; a toad sits motionless in the cool air, but the Queen's Well passes unnoticed. The landscape is shaped by simple silhouettes, but the more intricate connections remain hidden. The track starts to wend its way uphill and the first vestiges of morning light coincide. By the time it has twisted on to the plateau the few hours of true darkness have vanished. The day is wakening and so is the wildlife.
There's the flash of hares skipping and bouncing through rock and heather. One comes to a halt and sits up perfectly, a small, dark figure highlighted on a canvas of pastel yellow, orange and pink, soothing to the eye and the soul. Every so often, there's the ambush of a chorus of grouse, their raucous calls harshly penetrating the stillness as they take last-minute flight from under my feet.
The summit is reached just after 4am. Sunrise is more than half an hour away and the chill begins to creep in. It may be high summer, but up here at this hour it's irrelevant. The changing shades and colours preceding the coming dawn are an admirable distraction.
The intensity of the light grows as the minutes tick away. Then the crowning glory, that fiery yellow brilliance which heralds the new day. The speed of its ascension is breathtaking, rays rolling over the landscape in waves, washing away the last shadows of the night shift.
Granite boulders are glowing red one minute, gold the next; the greens of the surrounding hills are verdant, the purple heather thriving. The return journey is familiar, yet feels like new terrain. The difference between night and day.
A feathery roadblock is the sole obstacle on the drive out, a mass gathering of pheasants scattering omnidirectional at my sudden appearance, some taking flight, others running with their signatory confusion of purpose.
Seven days later, almost to the minute. Deja vu in the greater scheme, the variations minimal. Same conditions, same part of the country, same 2am start. Again, signs of a busy weekend at the Glen Doll car park, but despite the remainers the silence is familiar.
The creature feature en route shows a change; this time it's owls stealing the show, silently passing overhead at regular intervals. A lone hare, all legs and ears, deciding to race against the car, staying for front for a few hundred metres before vanishing into the undergrowth.
Just past the steading at Moulzie, there's a glint. I turn my head and torch left and am greeted by the sight of hundreds of yellow eyes, a field of deer grazing on the grassy flats. In the dark of night they conjour up visions of demons. Into the confines of Juanjorge, accompanied by the soft rush of nearby waters tumbling over a series of slabby steps, to Bachnagairn, lone trees standing out on the skyline. The crossing of the Roy Tait bridge seems to signal a crossing of night into day.
The pyramid of Broad Cairn now in view, the path snaking gently ahead. Loch Muick remains a muted sliver in the distance but the colours above are emerging fast. Mount Keen sits on a band of warm orange while red streaks spill over Lochnagar.
The timing for reaching the summit seems perfect, but there's a worry that too much of this morning's metamorphism will be sacrificed by pushing on so a suitable rock is chosen and the cameras are primed. It's the right choice – I am rewarded with a fireworks display that threatens to upstage last week's.
The final slope is ascended backwards, it's shorter than I had anticipated, and the spectacular light show is still in motion. The blaze is extreme, the cairn a shadowy model for rock art. A pink wash is illuminating the faces to the west, providing an illusion is warmth that is not replicated in the fingers.
Descent sees the waters of the loch take on the intensity of a nuclear burst, an impossible vision which assaults the eyes, while all around the granite seems to throb. A glance back at Broad Cairn reveals a mountain that has suddenly been brought to life.
The return down the gorge provides a refuge from the sun, but its beams are finding through the fortifications, lighting up the floor further ahead. There are a couple of tents beside the restored bridge, but the deer from the darkness have long gone, the light of the new day driving them to higher ground. More tents festoon the areas around the car park but all is still silent.
Two identical nights, seven days apart, and two mountains all to myself. In these crowded days, I couldn't have asked for more.