The first two days were words to the wise, the weather upon us. High winds, heavy rain and substantial windchill forced us off course barely out of the gate, after labouring up an endless rake to the ridge. Two Munros and off at the bealach, nearly missed in the swirling clag, deer roaring and weather raw.
Our first camp in an inch of groundwater, a second made after hours spent peering into the dark in vain for just enough suitable ground. I didn't have my camera out much those first two days. Our eyes were bigger than our tummies.
In Glen Affric, we met the head stalker, dressed head to foot in tweed - the original camouflage softshell - and contracted to the Forestry Commission on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland. Andy asked to see the 2 kills, stashed in the back of the 4x4. Such beautiful animals, and such a shame that at current levels they're the locusts of the highlands. One still with a mouth full of grass from a quick and clear chest shot. Lots of talk of regeneration and lots of it to see until the weather deteriorated. The walk up Affric past the UK's most remote youth hostel was plain unamusing and by lunch Andy was soaked through and chilling down not so well. I was peripherally concerned - strong an an ox and no stranger to strenuous, but this was his first multiday walk in Scotland and the weather can be a bit... special. Camban bothy saved our bacon, just enough fuel to keep us going, and although it took us 2 hrs to get the damp wood to light, as we dried out our powder and sucked on single malt our little world came right. What a place. By the following morning the weather was clearing, although it took another full day to settle. There was light snow on the tops as we rode the high ridges of North Glen Shiel to the bealach before the Peak of the Spaniards and a sub zero, gale force pitch, water vapour freezing on the bivvi bags, shooting stars then pre dawn bands of purple and pink. Not much sleep was got.
The final two days were reward for persisting, fortunes on the change. A deeper feeling for Caledonia this year, more complex, rounded out with a little familiarity borne by my return visit after last years near miss on the Five Sisters. This time, views of ages, out to the Cuillin, Rum and Eigg, and over to Knoydart and Nevis - such a joy from Sgurr Fhuaran. Off the side steep on the deer road, on a route that will never appear in a guidebook. Then day packs on the Forcan ridge to the Saddle, all anticipation, adrenalin and endorphins. Not withstanding a good deal of unfinished business banked for next time, I'd go along with WH Murray: "the best mountain of the region both in distant shape and close acquaintance", although the Peak of the Black Chest came a close second. That day, Andy gulped it all down and wanted just one more, like you do when it's new and it takes a full day of travel to get to the start. I played the cautious naysayer, like you do when it isn't and doesn't. Consensus achieved, we went up top again for the big finish, before stumbling down in the dark under headlamps for a 1000 metres to the road. Hurty but worth it for that autumn sunset with all the dials turned up past 11. By the time we reached our out, everything was shut, so we parked up at Shiel Bridge and brewed up coffee and cous cous in the passenger footwell for a long drive home. Older. Wiser? Still a great collaboration.