A week's family holiday in Lossiemouth wasn't the time for disappearing into the wilderness, but an easterly airstream enticed me to seek out the west coast sunshine, albeit with a 4:45am alarm call to enable a swift return. My destination was Kinlochewe - aiming for two unclimbed Corbetts in the shadow of the great Beinn Eighe - Meall a’Ghiubhais and Ruadh Stac Beag. Fine viewpoints, easily accessible from the nature trails that leave the shores of Loch Maree.
I left the car park,a little after 7am, distinctly unamused at the blanket of cloud cloaking the hills. The murky start was unworthy of the rich, ungrazed, native woodland, through which meandered the finely constructed trail. As plumes of cloud blew across the rampants of the opposing Slioch, I disappeared into the mist at only 500m elevation. Beyond the traces of a path through the rocks, and footprints through the occasional snow patch, it was simply head down & keep climbing, “The Pretender” by the Foo Fighters on loop through my head.
The gradient relented but there was a sting in the tail; a snow field crossing in true, befuddling whiteout conditions. Disconcerting steps into the abyss, where your cautious instinct kicks in, overriding logic, whispering that a cornice edge could be only a few strides away. As the wind strengthened towards gale force, the cairn thankfully emerged from the mist. I donned fleece, buff and gloves, battening down the hatches for a long wait for the mist to be burnt away. But optimism was justified.
Blue sky was almost constant overhead, with tantalizing 5-second reveals of spring-snowed Torridonian peaks, soon whisked from view, the veil drawn before I could press my camera shutter. Sunlight came and went, the ambience fluctuating as if controlled by a dimmer switch. The castellated summit of Slioch rose above a cloud sea, that boiled and flowed westwards towards the sea. But within seconds, gone. Mist, cold and murkiness. After over an hour sheltering in the lee of the wind-battered cairn, I departed frustrated.
A promised lunch time return to Lossiemouth meant a headlong charge down the snow patches, rejoining the path and emerging from the cloud into salt-rubbed-in-the-wound sunshine.
Arriving back in Lossie at lunchtime, I soon reflected that this had been no ordinary ascent. A video I had filmed, staggering across the windswept plateau revealed - to my dismay - a cairned knoll peeking above the mist veil, just beyond where I had called off a half-hearted search of the summit area. Cross-checking with other photos submitted by fellow climbers online, the conclusion was as clear as it was shocking: I’d climbed the wrong peak!
So how would I deal with my first case of mis-identity in almost 500 scottish ascents?
Stage 1: Just shrug it off. Perhaps I’d just count it anyway? I'd climbed through rock, snow and heather to a perfectly adequate summit cairn, albeit 30 feet lower than the hill's highest point...
Stage 2: Of course it doesn't count, you can't ascend a hill without reaching it's highest point. But so what. I'd done my walk, my 4 hour drive - I’d return eventually, but now I should relax, and enjoy the few days of holiday.
3 days later my alarm woke me at 3:45am, and I was on a mission of redemption. Against the clock, as we were packing to leave in a few hours. Minutes counted and without a bite of breakfast, I was heading westwards to the soundtrack of a best of Bruce Springsteen CD, picked up from a charity shop in Forres. Emerging from valley fog near Achnasheen, my concern for the excellent weather forecast promised was relieved as my nemesis – twin-topped nemesis – of Meall a’Ghuibhais stood clear against the twilight sky.
I was soon retracing my steps purposefully along the mountain trail, defying the adage of walking yourself into fitness; panting like a dog, my legs complaining from the strain of the rapid descent of a few days previous. As I branched off at the burn, I finally paused to take in the spectacle: the rising sun piercing the wall of the Fannaich hills, illuminating the pyramid of Meall a’Ghuibhais in a flush of fiery pink.
The cropped heather glinted with frost, and my old Brasher boots struggled for grip on the final snow fields, but within an hour and a half from the car I arrived - belated but elated - at the REAL summit cairn of Meall a’ Ghuibhais. A magnificent perch, positioned on the edge of the steep southern face, the view that had taunted me momentarily a few days before was as breath-taking as I’d hoped.
A sea of west highland peaks sprawled towards the mist-filled valleys of the east. The rising sun cast a pyramid of shadow westwards towards Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg, beyond which the Isle of Lewis was visible across The Minch, 60 miles away. The calm was broken by a cacophony of hooting, a flock of geese heading northwards for summer. Without a shadow of doubt, this had been worth it.
After almost an hour soaking in the grandeur, I departed contented. Overwhelmingly so. To quote my beloved Alan Partridge, "my demons hadn't been exorcised, they'd been rounded up and shot. And now, as I bulldozed them into a mass grave with a fag in my mouth, I could move on with my life"
I couldn't set off without first taking in the faux "summit", to revel in the bemusement of what had transpired a few days previous. I doubt I'd ever make the same mistake again, so why not enjoy it!
I galloped down the sun-softened snow a little too enthusiastically, having to arrest a short, skin-scraping slide. My old worn brashers gripped like slick tyres on the rock steps of the path, which is bizarrely chiselled out of the bedrock in places. Even path builders can be perfectionists. The whirlwind descent still allowed me time to enjoy the exquisite pine woodland and stunning vistas of Loch Maree and Slioch's ramparts beyond, that makes this one of the finest approach paths. By 9am I was behind the wheel heading eastwards, reflecting, as I disappeared back into the cloud sea filling the Moray Firth, on the madness and joy of a unique few days.
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Warning Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly. Summer routes may not be viable or appropriate in winter. See winter information on our skills and safety pages for more information.