THE grass is white with frost. The few tents on the campsite are white with frost. A thin veil glistens on the shoulders of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor in the first light of dawn. The air is still and clear. But my God, it’s cold.
Still half-curled in my sleeping bag, I light the petrol stove and brew a can of tea. Breakfast in bed. I shall lie here eating muesli while steam fills the tent. Through the unzipped flysheet I watch as sunlight gradually paints the mountains above Fort William. Browns and golds; a smudge of purple; shades of grey; dull greens and the white of the sky. It looks so peaceful. But up on those ridges, those high bones of bare rock, the wind will be shrieking in from the cold Atlantic.
I’m feeling good about today. I have high expectations. Nervous energy is going to lift me from the glens and set me down on one of the classic ridges of the Highlands: the Grey Corries, a chain of summits linked by slender ribs of rock almost four miles in length. But that’s the easy bit.
I march up the track from Corriechoille, where there is a collection of cottages at the end of the tarmac road from Spean Bridge. Hmmm. I am a bit peeved when I realise I could have driven up the track a couple of miles to an old tramway that serviced the water tunnels for the Fort William aluminium works. There are several cars and a camper van parked high on the fellside. But there you go.
It’s a cold though sweaty slog up the long northern ridge to the first Munro, Stob Choire Claurigh (1,177 metres high), “a killer”, as one chap puts it as we pass on the mountain. The gradient is steep, the slope relentless (four-and-a-half miles of it), the wind blasting in with a foretaste of winter and buffeting me all the way to the top.
As I approach Stob Choire Claurigh, which is capped with the thinnest veil of snow, mist rolls in so I dig out the compass. It isn’t needed really, because when I pass the summit cairn and descend westwards to traverse the Grey Corries ridge I am again walking in sunshine.
I am greatly impressed by the ridge. It’s a graceful spine of rock with expansive views – and not too arduous, though very narrow in places. It is everything I anticipated: an uplifting traverse of high mountains with dramatic scenery. A fine walk – one for the spirit; one to feed the inner being.
And really, this is what it’s all about, this walking business – reaching for the heavens; soaring with eagles; gliding on the wind. It’s not about ticking off mountains on a list compiled by some half-forgotten Scottish aristocrat who had nothing more productive to do with his time. It’s about climbing until there’s nowhere left to climb then rattling across the roof of Scotland – up here in the high places with the sun and the snow and the rainbows. It’s about the wind freezing the sweat in the small of your back; the quartzite dust sparkling on your boots; the scent of heather and the damp smell of earth; chapped lips, aching muscles, cold fingers. This is what it’s about.
And in this frame of mind, fuelled by the sheer grandeur of the mountains, I plough into the blast of the westerly wind and follow this snaking path that clings to the very crest of the crags. I pass over summits with mysterious names – Stob a’ Choire Leith, Stob Coire Cath na Sine, Caisteil. To the north I gaze into the depths of the Grey Corries themselves, and to the south across a vast area of wilderness that stretches to the saw-edge ridge of Aonach Eagach and the mountains of Glencoe.
On days like these your boots have wings. You become oblivious to the crunch of soles on quartzite rocks and hear only the wind. In the freezing air you are warmed by a force stronger and more enduring than body heat. Something burns inside that lifts you and bears you forward. Something within swells your heart and powers your legs. It carries you where you want to go. And when you get there you crouch in the lea of a rock with the sun on your face, and you gaze out across this huge great empty country that rolls away northwards in ripples of rock to the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and the Arctic circle.
So I get there. That place I want to go.
Stob Coire an Laoigh (1,116 metres) is the end of the ridge and the second Munro, although all the five peaks I’ve traversed today are over the magical 3,000ft mark. I momentarily toy with the notion of continuing to the next Munro, Sgurr Choinnich Mor, on the adjacent ridge. Nah. Why risk spoiling a good day?
From the Grey Corries ridge I descend to the old tramway and follow it east to intercept the Corriechoille track. The afternoon shadows are lengthening and there is a hint of frost in the air as I crunch down to the valley. I glance at my boots as I stop to open a gate. The wings have folded themselves away. But the quartzite on the leather still sparkles like diamond dust.
I had a bit of trouble getting off Stob Coire an Laoigh via Stob Coire Easain and its northern ridge. Lost the path and ended up sloshing across a boggy moor to Coire Choimhlidh and followed the river down. Almost decided to head straight for the forest and blunder through the trees to hit the old tramway. Good job I didn’t because it would have meant crossing THIS BRIDGE.