IT’S a peculiar night. I wake up and the sky is bright, but I’ve been asleep for only a few minutes. I fumble about for my watch. Bloody hell, it isn’t even midnight. I poke my head out of the tent. It’s the blooming moon. It’s hovering over Ben Nevis like a dustbin lid. Bad sign, that. Clear sky, bright moon. It’s going to be a cold one.
This reminds me of the time I camped at Kinlochleven while walking the West Highland Way, and got dressed bright and early only to find the “sunlight” was the glare from floodlights at the aluminium works. It was three in the morning. Mind you, I’d had a skinful the night before with a deaf Glaswegian carpet-fitter.
The tent smells pleasantly of wood smoke, thanks to my son, who borrowed it to go camping down by the Tees one Saturday night. And here I am on a rather manicured and very clean site on the outskirts of Fort William. Just behind the secondary school.
The alarm goes off at 6.30am. Ironically it’s quite dark now – too dark to get up. I finally emerge at 8am and think I see snow on the top of the Ben – of which a grand view can be had from the campsite. There appears to be a dusting on the northern crags – but I dismiss this as tendrils of morning mist.
Despite some early rain, the clouds are booling over and there is plenty of blue. My targets for the day are two fine Munros to the east of Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries – Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin (1,105 metres) and Stob Coire Easain (1,115 metres). This necessitates a half-hour drive to Fersit and a pan of tea boiled in a fir wood. It’s a very peaceful place for a brew. Nothing here but trees, mountains, a scattering of buildings at Fersit, and the West Highland railway snaking silently along the desolate banks of Loch Treig.
It’s a lengthy hike along the ridge to Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin, with some hands-on stuff where the path climbs right up the middle of a crag called Meall Cian Dearg. But what’s this suddenly blasting out of the north-west? I am enveloped in a whirl of powder snow – and my God it’s cold. The wind is blustery and freezing. Am I prepared for Scottish winter weather?
I struggle on, and just below the summit of Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin the wind dies down – but there is a veil of white over the peak. This is what I had seen on the Ben earlier this morning. It wasn’t mist at all.
Snow changes everything. I am in a fresh new world. There is only a dusting – a sort of powdery, granular dusting – but it brings with it an exciting feeling of change; an anticipation; an expectancy. Like hands slowly turning on a clock, the seasons are shifting and the year is growing old. Colder times are coming. There is ice in the wind. I can smell winter.
I take some pictures then head for Stob Coire Easain. According to the guidebook, it should take 30 minutes to reach the mountain from Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin. This, I suggest, is rather on the optimistic side, though I go hell for leather and am at the summit cairn in 29 minutes and 23 seconds. Not that I am timing myself, but one has to take advantage of the available technology when one has a new Timex Ironman Triathlon running watch with numerous timing facilities. Beep, beep. Now how the hell do you turn it off?
On the summit of Stob Coire Easain, a thin mist swirls in from the west, wreathing Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin in an eerie veil and momentarily obscuring it from view. I descend to the low shoulder between the two mountains, the mist blowing in tatters about me, then drop to the north and the shelter of Coire Laire – a long glen that should take me back to Fersit.
The descent along Coire Laire is a bummer – a wet, slippery trudge is the best way to describe it. I make the mistake of cutting back over the ridge north of Meall Cian Dearg to shorten my journey. Bad decision. It’s a pig. I should have followed the river.
Anyway, the moon’s shining bright again tonight. But I won’t be crawling from my bag to see what the glare is. And I certainly won’t be getting dressed at 3am like I did at Kinlochleven – when I stood blinking in the floodlights like some backwoods farmer staring at the mother-ship in Close Encounters. Silly pillock. Good job nobody saw me.